Horton's Historical Articles
by Gerald Horton
What Happened to 7,000 People?
Between the years 1777 and 1781, the population of the Mohawk Valley dropped from 10,000 to 3,000 people.1 The terror and suffering experienced by the people of the valley during these years of the Revolutionary War was far greater than that of any other area of the 13 colonies. In addition to being the target of British raids aiming to wipe out one of the main food supply regions for the Rebel army, they were also caught in a veritable - and vicious – civil war that pitted neighbor against neighbor. Mohawk Valley residents were not the only people embroiled in this conflict. The Iroquois were soon sucked into the maelstrom and suffered as much as, if not more than, the Rebels or the Loyalists. The story of all these people is rarely included in history textbooks, and needs to be told.
Prior to the war, people in the Mohawk Valley were isolated from the turmoil and unrest occurring in other colonies. The majority of valley residents were illiterate frontier farmers. They were primarily subsistence farmers, growing only enough produce to support themselves with a just little left over for trading. These farmers were too busy trying to survive to be interested in political events occurring hundreds of miles from their farms. There were also some large commercial farms in the valley; these employed tenants and grew crops for sale in Albany or New York City. The main commercial crop of the area was wheat/flour that was transported down the Mohawk River to the Hudson. The commercial farm owners were more aware of political events, but assumed the disturbances in other places were only “tempests in a teapot.”
When hostilities broke out in 1775, the effects of the war began to intrude on the political isolation in the valley. Tryon County, which then encompassed most of the Mohawk River Valley, formed a Committee of Safety, as did other counties throughout the colonies. The committee was charged with maintaining civil order and raising a militia. In 1776 and 1777, the committee was also charged with determining which men in the valley supported the revolution and which remained loyal to the crown. This “sorting out” was accomplished by a requirement that the men sign an association supporting the Continental Congress:
“Whereas the grand jury of this county, and a number of the magistrates, have signed a declaration, declaring their disapprobation of the opposition made by the Colonies to the oppressive and arbitrary acts of Parliament, the purport of which is evidently to entail slavery on America; and as the said declaration may, in some measure, be looked upon as the sense of the County in general, if the same be passed over in silence; we the said County, inspired with a sincere love for our country, and deeply interested in the common cause, do solemnly declare our fixed attachment and entire approbation of the proceedings of the grand Continental Congress held at Philadelphia last fall, and that we will strictly adhere to, and repose our confidence in the wisdom and integrity of the present Continental Congress; and that we will support the same to the utmost of our power, and that we will religiously and inviolably observe the regulations of that august body. [sic]” 2
Those who signed were considered Patriots. Those who refused were deemed Loyalists, or Tories. This procedure created the opposing sides in a civil war that would destroy the peace and agricultural production of the valley.
In the years 1775 – 1777, Loyalists were pressured and harassed incessantly. They were constantly under surveillance. Should the Committee of Safety believe the man of the house posed a threat to the area (i.e., by providing food, shelter, or information to British scouts) then that man was jailed. The property and possessions of Loyalists were seized and sold at auction. Their wives and children were incarcerated in homes in Schenectady, Albany, or some other designated location. Upon their release from jail, the men generally migrated to Canada to join Loyalist military forces. Their wives and children remained confined until the men could find a way to liberate them. Some Loyalists, if they left before 1777, were able to sell their property. However, the majority had to leave their wives and children behind. Word of harassment and confinement of their families reached the Loyalist men and fueled their feelings of vengeance against the Rebels. These deep feelings of anger would drive them to bring the horrors of war to the doorsteps of their former neighbors.
The British three-pronged campaign of 1777 brought the first threat of warfare to the Mohawk Valley. As part of the campaign, British Colonel Barry St. Leger was to enter the valley from the west and then march to the east, with the aim of destroying all the settlements along the river. On August 3, 1777, Col. St. Leger decided to lay siege to Fort Stanwix (present-day Rome, New York) before proceeding down the valley. In response, General Nicholas Herkimer called up the Tryon County militia, and with a force of 800 men, Herkimer marched on St. Leger’s troops. But before reaching the fort, Herkimer’s force was caught in an ambush. When both sides left the field after the ensuing battle (known later as the Battle of Oriskany), a mortally wounded Herkimer left over 100 dead militiamen behind him. Another 350 were wounded or captured. Colonel St. Leger abandoned the siege of the fort and retreated to Lake Ontario when Benedict Arnold, with a force of 1,200 men marched up the valley to relieve the fort. The valley residents were thus spared the direct attack of St. Leger’s army.
The following year, 1778, saw the beginning of the devastating raids on the valley. These raids, made by Loyalists and Indians, were directed at first against outlying areas, forcing any surviving residents to retreat to the larger or fortified settlements. The first major raid on the valley came in September at German Flats (present-day Mohawk and Herkimer, New York). The raiders were led by Captain William Caldwell of Butler’s Rangers, a Loyalist force operating out of Fort Niagara, and Joseph Brant, a Mohawk Chief. Caldwell’s raiders numbered about 350 while Brant’s “Volunteers” were estimated at 160.3 This force did not attack Fort Herkimer or Fort Dayton, located on opposite sides of the Mohawk River. Instead, the British force burned all the surrounding homes, barns, and mills, and drove off any livestock in the area. Patriots behind the walls of the forts could only watch as their homes and possessions went up in flames. They were left with only the clothes on their backs.
During the Revolutionary War, there were five major raids on the New York frontier made by British Loyalist and Indian forces numbering more than 500 men. However, there were numerous raids conducted by parties of 10 to 20 Loyalists, Indians, or a combination of both. Historian William Nester states: “The object was not so much to conquer as to create a ‘no man’s land’ by destroying or driving off the enemy’s (Rebel) settlers.”4 Isabel Kelsay describes the settlers’ anxiety: “It was not just the bigger invasions, bad as they were, it was all the little irruptions too, of three or four skulking warriors and their constant burnings and scalpings and taking into captivity, and the terrible uncertainty that hovered over everything and everybody.”5
Near the end of 1780, the supervisors of Tryon County attempted to assess the extent of the war’s damage in that area. They found that at least 1,200 farms had been left uncultivated and that 354 families had abandoned their homes and left the county. In some settlements, such as Cherry Valley, Springfield, and Harpersfield, there was no one left. 6
Many historians have come to the conclusion that the raids on the frontier were simply savage acts of revenge. However, recent research has revealed a concerted effort by the British to eliminate New York’s grain production. New York, particularly the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys, was considered the major grain producing area at the time of the Revolutionary War. The Continental Army commissaries purchased as much flour and wheat as it could find in the state.7 The British military did not fail to recognize this and systematically mounted large raids on the valley in the fall when the wheat was ripe and in the barns. They did not forget that “an army that can’t find food, can’t fight.” This is not to say that vengeance was not a factor in the raids. In fact, this probably was the motivation for the smaller 10 or 20 man raids, while the larger raids had the more strategic objective of depleting the Continental Army’s food supply.
Whatever the motivation for the raids, the main objective was to terrorize the settlers and drive them off the frontier. As can be seen from the Tryon County supervisors’ report of 1780, the British were successful in achieving that objective. Governor George Clinton admitted to General Washington at the end of 1780 that Schenectady was now the western-most point of civilization in New York State. By the end of the war, British Loyalists and Indians controlled some 50,000 square miles from Schenectady to the Ohio Valley.8
Not all the settlers were driven from the Mohawk Valley. A number of men, women, and children made forts their homes. Twenty-four forts were spread along either side of the Mohawk River from Schenectady to German Flats (present-day Herkimer), with Fort Stanwix (present-day Rome) the lone sentinel on the western boundary. There were also three forts spread throughout the Schoharie Valley. The forts along the Mohawk ranged in type of construction from wood homes surrounded by a simple palisade of logs, to stone houses with walls that were two feet thick, to the more “typical” wood forts that encompassed several acres of land. Depending on the size of the fort, anywhere from 10 to 50 families resided in them at night and worked nearby fields by day.9 Thus, the families who remained in the valley provided themselves with shelter and sustenance until the end of the war.
There is no denying the terror and sufferings endured by the Patriots. In many respects, the Loyalist families suffered as much if not more. The families of Loyalist men who fled to Canada or were jailed were evicted from their homes and cast adrift to fend for themselves. If their husbands were known to be leaders of Loyalist units, the women were sequestered in designated houses and were watched to ensure they did not supply assistance or information to the Tories. Historian Holly Mayer stated: “They were sent off by order of the Committees, Councils of Safety, etc with little more than their wearing apparel, being robbed of the furniture, cattle, etc and their farms given to strangers [sic]”10 In New York State, the homes, farms, and possessions of these Loyalists were auctioned and the proceeds were used to finance war expenditures.
The Patriots justified their actions by attaching the actions of the husband to the entire family. Thus, if the husband left to fight with a Loyalist unit, the entire family was held liable for his treasonous act, and their possessions were forfeit. Historian Janice Potter-MacKinnon notes:
“There was a theoretical rationale for treating women and children as innocent bystanders. Women were ‘femmes coverts’, mere appendages of their husbands, with no independent or political roles of their own. They, therefore could not …decide to become Loyalists. Some colonial governments recognized this fact by confiscating the male Loyalists’ property while allowing the wives to claim Dower rights. More often, however, Patriot committees and colonial governments assumed, unless there was evidence to the contrary, that the families of Loyalists shared in the guilt of one member. Such treatment had a rationale, too: since women could not act independently of the men in their lives, the political decisions of the men also incriminated the women”11
New York State subscribed to the latter position. This was not simply due to the husband’s act of treason. The committees believed the women posed a threat in their own right. Given the opportunity, the women might harbor and supply Loyalist and Indian raiding parties. They could also provide local intelligence on militia movements to these parties. The Patriots felt justified in punishing anyone who supported the raids that were devastating their communities. With the Loyalist men gone, the punishment fell on the Loyalist women and their families.
Numerous stories of Loyalist families struggling to survive in this new and uncertain world are found in letters and in Loyalist Claims filed after the war. One letter tells of a 16-year-old daughter who “was obliged to hire herself to an Old Dutch woman to spin in order to prevent starving.” There was the case of Elizabeth Bowman, who lived with her husband and six children on the Susquehanna River. The Rebels plundered her home, captured her husband and eldest son, and left her to care for herself and the remaining children. Friendly Indians helped the family through the winter. Bowman moved to the Mohawk River and, with other Loyalist women, survived by growing corn and potatoes. “When the British rescued them, just before the onset of another winter, there were five women, thirty-one children, and only one pair of shoes among them.”12
Many Loyalist women petitioned New York Governor George Clinton for permission to leave and join their husbands in Canada. In most cases, Clinton approved their requests to leave with their children. They were allowed to take “their bedding and wearing apparel, with such provisions for their immediate subsistence thither as shall be deemed necessary by the Justice of the Peace of the district to w’ch they respectively belong …”. There was also the usual proviso attached: “The above Persons not to return”.13
Another condition the governor included in allowing families to leave for Canada was that “Permission shall not be extended to the Children of any of the above Persons being males capable of bearing arms”.14 State officials interpreted this to mean male children 12 years of age or older. These children left behind would be given some kind of work within the Continental Army. The anguish felt by the Loyalists over this provision caused many of them to remain in the valley despite the living conditions. It also caused many Loyalist fathers to press Canadian officials to allow them to lead raiding parties and rescue their families, specifically their sons.
Opposition to the Revolution came at a terrible price: loss of property and possessions, loss of family and friends, and perhaps most important of all – loss of their country. One Loyalist wife wrote to her sister in Scotland lamenting the fact that she would never see her beautiful and beloved valley again.
The Iroquois (or Six Nations) Confederacy, was a crucial source of fighting men for the raiding parties. Most historians believe the confederacy was formed in 1500 A.D.; however, new research suggests that it may have been formed as early as 1100 or 1200 A.D. Whatever the year of its inception, the confederacy had a long history. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Iroquois remained neutral. The Sachems (or Chiefs) saw no value in getting embroiled in a “family quarrel”. In 1777, the British persuaded a number of warriors, particularly the Seneca, to come and watch as they set off to defeat the Rebels at Fort Stanwix and march down the Mohawk Valley to Albany. Instead, the Indians found themselves in the Battle of Oriskany. They discovered they were fighting not only the militia, but also a number of their own brothers – the Oneidas and Tuscaroras. While four nations joined the British ranks, a majority of Oneidas and Tuscaroras joined the Patriots.
The great confederation was broken. With the Oneidas and Tuscaroras fighting their brothers, the Iroquois Confederacy was extinguished. Only individual Indian nations remained. The Battle of Oriskany was particularly devastating to the Seneca. Five of their Sachems were killed -- by Seneca standards, a terrible loss. Nothing like this had happened in the entire history of the Seneca Nation.
In the following year, 1778, the Loyalists and Indians mounted a number of vengeance raids on the frontier. In July, the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania (present day Wilkes-Barre) was destroyed. In September, the German Flats area was burned, and in November, the settlement of Cherry Valley was devastated. The killing of women and children at Cherry Valley caused an outcry that reached Congress and General Washington. Congress pressured Washington to do something about these border raids and in 1779 he mounted a campaign to “punish” the Iroquois. The Rebels had had some success against the Cherokee in the south and forced that tribe to sue for peace. Washington hoped to achieve the same with the Iroquois.
In July 1779, Major General John Sullivan led an expedition into the Iroquois lands. Sullivan’s force numbered over 5,000 men and succeeded in destroying some 40 Indian villages along with all their crops and orchards. The force had only one small battle with the Indians at Newtown (near present-day Elmira, New York). At the end of the campaign, the expedition could account for only 16 warriors killed and a handful of prisoners.15 Major Jeremiah Fogg who participated in the campaign wrote a very prophetic line in his journal: “The nests have been destroyed, but the birds are still on the wing.”16 The Indian nations that sided with the British never sued for peace. Most modern historians consider the campaign to have been a waste of time and money.
The effect of the campaign was not completely shrugged off by the Iroquois. In November, almost 3,000 Indians were huddled around the gates of Fort Niagara seeking aid from the British.17 The winter of 1779/1780 was the worst possible time for the Indians to have lost their homes and crops. Five to six feet of snow covered the northeast for weeks. Many climatologists believe a “Little Ice Age” occurred in America from 1750 to 1850. One pointed out that the winter of 1779/80 was the extreme winter of the “cool hundred years”. Many contemporary people referred to it as the “The Hard Winter”. As a result, hundreds of Indians died of disease, exposure, or malnutrition.18
In 1780, the Iroquois resumed their raids on the New York frontier. Fueled by a desire for vengeance stemming from the Sullivan Campaign, the number of raids increased dramatically. In July, Joseph Brant destroyed the Oneida and Tuscarora villages around Oneida Castle. Some 150 Oneidas were forced to go to Fort Niagara, however, over 400 fled to Fort Stanwix. The refugees at Stanwix later migrated to Schenectady, where they were forced to live outside the walls. Like their brothers at Fort Niagara, they suffered greatly from exposure and malnutrition when winter arrived. Many moved north hoping to hunt and survive in the wilderness, but were forced to return when game proved scarce.
Thus, the Indians fared no better than other residents of the valley. Loss of homes and crops left the Indians suffering as much as their white neighbors. At the end of the war, they were to lose something of even greater value – their lands.
The devastation and suffering in the valley were shared by all who lived there. Loyalist, Patriot, Indian – all suffered. Of the estimated10,000 white population in 1777, approximately 1,000 were killed or taken prisoner. Some 2,500 to 3,000 Loyalists left the valley and about 3,000 Patriots abandoned their farms.19
After the war, some people ventured back to the valley. However, it remained virtually desolate until the 1790’s. Large numbers of settlers/farmers moved from Connecticut to the Mohawk Valley in that decade and resettled the area. Local valley people referred to the influx of families as the “Yankee Invasion”. As word spread of the fertile land, the valley gradually repopulated. The terror and bloodshed were only remembered by the families who had lived through the raids.
1 Howard Thomas, Marinus Willett: Soldier - Patriot (Prospect, NY: Prospect Books, 1954), p. 120.
2 Gerald Horton, "Article of Association", (accessed 21 November 2004).
3 Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press), pp178 -179.
4 William R. Nester, The Frontier War for American Independence (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004), p.18.
5 Isabel Kelsay, Joseph Brant: Man of Two Worlds (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984) p.246.
6 Ibid., p.301.
7 Peter Betz, "The Embattled Farmer", American Agriculturalist, September 1975, p.31.
8 Anthony Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1972), p.146.
9 Dorothy Volo, Daily Life During the American Revolution (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), p. 211.
10 Janice Potter - MacKinnon, While the Women Only Wept (Montreal, Quebec, Canada: McGill-Queens University Press, 1993), pp 52 - 53.
12 Ibid., p.75.
13 Public Papers of George Clinton, Military: 10 vols, New York State Hugh Hastings, ed. (Albany, NY: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1899), vol V, p.275.
15 New York State, Secretary's Office. Journals of the military expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779: with records of centennial celebrations; prepared pursuant to chapter 361, laws of the state of New York, of 1885, by Frederick Cook, Secretary of State (Auburn, NY: Knapp, Peck & Thomson, Printers, 1887), p.303.
16 Ibid. p.101.
17 Donald R. McAdams, "The Sullivan Expedition: Success or Failure". New York Historical Society Quarterly. 54.1 (1970), p.77.
18 Robert B. Roberts, New York Forts in the Revolution (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1980), p.41.
19 Colonel Willett gave a very broad estimate of what caused the large drop in population. He stated one third were killed or taken prisoner, one third abandoned their farms and fled to the east, and one third deserted to the enemy (see Thomas's biography of Willett, page 120). There are no records to document even approximate numbers for the people in these categories. Most historians agree with the categories. As a result of my recent research, I submit these numbers: 1,000 were killed or taken prisoner (including those at the Battle of Oriskany); 2,500 left for Canada (Loyalists); and 3,000 abandoned their farms and moved east or south.
New York State. Public Papers of George Clinton – Military: Hugh Hastings, ed. Ten volumes. Albany, NY: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1899.
New York State. Secretary’s Office. Journals of the military expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations Indians in 1779: with records of centennial celebrations; prepared pursuant to chapter 361, laws of the state of New York of 1885, by Frederick Cook, Secretary of State. Auburn, NY: Knapp Peck & Thomson, Printers, 1887.
Betz, Peter. “The embattled frontier farmer” American Agriculturist. September 1975.
McAdams, Donald R. “The Sullivan Expedition: Success or Failure.” New York Historical Society Quarterly.54.1, 1970.
Horton, Gerald. “Article of Association.” http://www.threerivershms.com/hhaarticle.htm (accessed 21 November 2004).
Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972.
Kelsay, Isabel. Joseph Brant: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984.
Nester, William R. The Frontier War for American Independence. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004.
Potter – Mac Kinnon, Janice. While the Women Only Wept. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: McGill – Queens University Press, 1983.
Roberts, Robert B. New York Forts in the Revolution. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1980.
Thomas, Howard. Marinus Willett: Soldier – Patriot. Prospect, NY: Prospect Books, 1954.
Volo, Dorothy. Daily Life during the American Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.
Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1972.
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