As the Revolution broke over America, the Indians were not at first directly involved in the colonists’ struggle against the mother country. When a group of Boston citizens dressed as Indians boarded British ships and threw their cargoes of tea into Boston Harbor, Guy Johnson explained the resulting crisis to the Iroquois, gathered in conference in January 1775. He called it a dispute “solely occasioned by some people, who notwithstanding a law of the King and his wise Men, would not let some Tea land, but destroyed it, on which he was angry, and sent some Troops with the General [Thomas Gage], who you have long known, to see the Laws executed and bring the people to their sences, and as he is proceeding with great wisdom, to shew them their great mistake, I expect it will soon be over.”
In this period, the Indians were not asked to take sides, and, indeed, they were reluctant to do so. The Oneidas informed Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, “We are unwilling to join on either side of such a contest, for we love you both – old England and new. Should the great King of England apply to us for our aid – we shall deny him – and should the Colonists apply – we shall refuse.” But while the powerful Iroquois were staying aloof, some of the minor tribes were being drawn into the vortex. During the winter of 1774-75, George Washington recruited soldiers from among the Stockbridge, Passamaquoddy, St. John’s, and Penobscot Indians. The Continental Congress, meeting in July 1775, organized an Indian department modeled on the British superintendencies, though creating three (northern, middle, and southern) rather than two, as in the British system. The Congress also drafted a speech that could be delivered by the commissioners to any nations in their district. The Congress asserted that the disturbances were “a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it. We don’t wish you to take up the hatchet against the king’s troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join on either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep.”
Yet both sides began to make unofficial efforts to elicit the support of the Indians. In May 1775, Ethan Allen of Vermont urged the Iroquois to join him against the king’s troops: “I know how to shute and ambush just like Indian and want your Warriors to come and see me and help me fight Regulars You know they Stand all along close Together Rank and file and my men fight so as Indians Do and I want your Warriors to Join with me and my Warriors like Brothers and Ambush the Regulars, if you will I will Give you Money Blankets Tomehawks Knives and Paint and the Like as much as you say because they first killed our men when it was Peace time.”
By July, the British too were inviting the Iroquois to “feast on a Bostonian and drink his Blood.” As a preliminary substitute for the real thing, the British provided a roast ox and some wine. By the autumn of 1775, General Gage had instructed Guy Johnson and John Stuart (his superintendent in the southern department) to bring the Indians into the war when opportunity offered.
With British and Americans both pressing the Iroquois to join their sides, the Indians found themselves in an increasingly difficult position. In the summer of 1776, the Tory colonel John Butler, soon to be hated by the Revolutionists as the leader of the infamous Butler’s Rangers, exhorted the Iroquois to join the king’s forces against the colonists. Reiterating the argument that the French had used during the earlier conflict, Butler warned that the colonists’ “intention is to take all your Lands from you and destroy your people, for they are all mad, foolish, crazy and full of deceit – they told you last Fall at Pittsburgh that they took the Tom Hawk out of your Hands and buried it deep and transplanted the Tree of Peace over it. I, therefore, now pluck up that Tree, dig up the Tom Hawk, and replace it in your hands with the Edge toward them that you may treat them as Enemies.”
But the Iroquois rejected the British advice. Chief Cawconcaucawheteda, or Flying Crow, told them: “You say their Powder is rotten – We have found it good. You say they are all mad, foolish, wicked, and deceitful – I say you are so and they are wise for you want us to destroy ourselves in your War and they advise us to live in Peace. Their advice we intend to follow.”
As it turned out, the Iroquois were drawn into the war, but not as a unit by one side. Instead, the famous unity of the league, which had given the Iroquois such commanding strength in previous years, was broken. Four of the Six Nations – the Mohawks, Cayugas, Senecas, and Onondagas – finally entered the war on the British side, while the Oneidas and Tuscaroras joined forces with the Americans. In July 1776, Colonel Guy Johnson returned from England with Thayendanegea, the Mohawk chief known to the whites as Joseph Brant, who had accompanied him on a visit to the mother country. Brant had been lionized by London society; his portrait had been painted by George Romney, and he came home dedicated to the British cause. Arriving in New York, which was then under siege by Washington, Brant fought gallantly at the Battle of Long Island and then slipped through the American lines, returning to his homeland, where he urged his tribesmen to join the king’s cause against the rebellious colonists. The decision of four of the six formerly confederated nations in favor of the British took place at a great congress in July 1777, at which Colonel Butler supplied the Indians with rum, provisions, and arms.
The commitment and division of the Six Nations was sealed in blood shortly thereafter when, on August 6, 1777, the American general Nicholas Herkimer, with Oneida and Tuscarora support, went to the relief of beleaguered Fort Stanwix, at the head of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. At Oriskany, he faced British troops supported by Indians from the other Iroquois nations. Though the British checked Herkimer’s advance, their native allies suffered heavy casualties, and seventeen of the thirty-three Indians killed were Senecas. Among the casualties were several chiefs. Measured in terms of Indian values, where avoidance of casualties on one’s own side rather than inflicting of casualties on the other, or taking territory, was the highest accomplishment, the battle was a disaster. But even more agonizing was the fact that brother was fighting brother. The great peace of the Iroquois Confederacy had finally been dissolved.
Shortly after Oriskany, the Oneidas and Tuscaroras again proved helpful to the patriot cause by joining General Horatio Gates’s army in time to blunt British General John Burgoyne’s thrust down the Hudson Valley from Canada. During this campaign, the Indian followers of Burgoyne murdered Jane McCrea, a comely American girl. The incident, immediately seized upon by American propagandists, helped rouse the colonists to the sentiment made famous by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: that the king had “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontier the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
During 1778 and 1779, combined British-Indian sorties led by Butler and Brant evoked memories of French and Indian raids during the previous century. Striking silently out of the forest when least expected, the attackers devastated outlying communities such as that at Cherry Valley, New York. The familiar scenes of burning houses, scalped victims, and terrified prisoners were repeated again and again.
General Washington, stung by the effectiveness of the Tory-Indian raids, determined to teach the Iroquois a lesson. In a brilliant strategic and tactical move, he sent General John Sullivan into the supposedly inaccessible western reaches of the Iroquois country to destroy villages and cornfields. Rather than fighting his way through one Iroquois nation after another by the usual route of approach from the east along the Mohawk River, Sullivan went up the Susquehanna River from the south, directly into the territory of the Seneca nation, the most numerous and powerful of the Six Nations and guardian of the western gate of the confederacy. After trying the strength of the invading army, the Senecas prudently abandoned their villages and allowed Sullivan’s army to wreak a havoc that deprived many of the natives of food and shelter for the succeeding winter.
The indirect effects of the campaign were devastating. Years later, the Seneca chief Cornplanter said to Washington, “When your army entered the country of the Six Nations we called you Town Destroyer; and to this day when that name is heard our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers.”