Border Warfare in New York

views updated

Border Warfare in New York

BORDER WARFARE IN NEW YORK. When the rebels declared independence in 1776, their new nation had to cope with a long British Canadian frontier to the north and several Indian nations to the west. This porous frontier was vulnerable to raids by British regulars, Loyalists, and Indians. After the failure of Burgoyne's offensive from June to October 1777 and the supporting St. Leger's expedition, military operations were reduced to raids and punitive expeditions. Detroit was the British base for attacks against the frontier settlements along the Ohio River and territory to the south, modern Kentucky bearing the brunt. Niagara and, to a lesser extent, Oswego were headquarters for British operations farther north, and from these locations numerous operations were conducted against the New York frontier.

War out of Niagara was directed toward Tryon County, New York, a vast territory whose western boundary was, in effect, the Iroquois frontier. The spine of Tryon County was the Mohawk Valley, and it was against the settlements of this valley that Loyalist exiles directed their efforts. Guy and Sir John Johnson, John and Walter Butler, and the Mohawk Joseph Brant led the most effective and bloody of the Loyalist-Indian raids against the United States.

Burgoyne's surrender and St. Leger's retreat instilled a sense of security among the settlers along the northern frontier. The French alliance, which soon followed, furthered the illusion, as did the presence of Lafayette in Albany to organize a second Patriot invasion of Canada.

The Wyoming Massacre in Pennsylvania on 3-4 July 1778, south of the Mohawk River, was the first thunderbolt from Niagara. At the same time Joseph Brant was mobilizing an army in the vicinity of Unadilla, an Indian town on the Susquehanna about fifty miles from the main settlements of the Mohawk Valley, that would figure prominently in future operations. Despite the excellent intelligence furnished by James Deane, Philip Schuyler's secret agent, the Patriots were taken by surprise. Brant sacked Andrustown on 18 July, raided Minisink on 19-22 July, and returned to destroy German Flats on 13 September 1778. The Patriots retaliated by destroying Unadilla on 6-8 October. These were relatively minor actions in which much property was lost with no casualties being inflicted, but they led to the serious Patriot disaster at Cherry Valley on 11 November.

Sullivan's expedition from May to November 1779 was a savage American attempt to eliminate the Iroquois. After innumerable delays and having sacrificed all surprise, 4,000 Continental troops crashed into the wilderness, routed a Loyalist-Indian force at Newtown (also known as Chemung) on 29 August, burned 40 towns, and destroyed the Indian's crops—an estimated 160,000 bushels of corn—before they could be harvested. The winter of 1779–1780 was of record-breaking severity, and the Iroquois suffered greatly from a lack of shelter and food, as General John Sullivan had hoped. Nonetheless, far from achieving its real purpose, this punitive expedition brought on a furious reprisal in its turn.


General Sullivan and New York's Governor George Clinton expected the Iroquois to sue for peace after the demonstration of U.S. power and the harsh winter. But the opposite proved to be the case. Supported by British regulars and Loyalists, the Iroquois attacked the Oneidas, who had tried to remain neutral; destroyed their settlements; and forced them back into the Mohawk Valley. Most of the Oneidas sought shelter around Schenectady, where they no longer served as a protective screen for New York against attacks from Oswegos and Niagaras. Indians captured the militia garrison at Skenesboro in March and Brant raided Harpersfield, a small town south of the Cherry Valley, on 2 April. He would also have attacked the Upper Fort of Schoharie Valley but for the false information of a prisoner, Captain Alexander Harper, that this place was defended by three hundred Continentals. With nineteen prisoners, Brant's Indians and the Loyalists moved south to finish off Minisink around 4 April. Seven Indians attacked the blockhouse at Sacandaga on 3 April but were all killed. Several whites were killed and captured when seventy-nine Indians attacked Cherry Valley on 24 April. Though the Indians undertaking these raids were desperately hungry and poorly organized, they met little resistance.


With four hundred Loyalists and two hundred Indians, Sir John Johnson entered the Johnstown settlements undetected on the evening of 21 May. He had taken the Lake Champlain route to Crown Point and marched from there to the Sacandaga River. He detached Brant, who burned Caughnawaga, on the Mohawk River, at dawn of the 22nd, and other detachments killed, burned, and took prisoners in the valley. On 23 May, Johnson burned Johnstown and withdrew slowly to Mayfield, about eight miles to the northeast, with forty prisoners. Having given the Patriots every opportunity to attack him there, he withdrew on the 27th and continued slowly toward Crown Point with his booty, prisoners, and a number of "liberated" Loyalist families. Governor Clinton made a feeble attempt to cut him off at Ticonderoga.

With five hundred Loyalists and Indians, Joseph Brant sacked Canajoharie on 1-2 August 1780. Brant then moved with amazing swiftness into another theater of operations for the coup on the Ohio River known as Lochry's Defeat, and he subsequently returned to participate in Johnson's second raid into Tryon County in September. This operation aimed, as Governor Sir Frederick Haldimand explained to Lord George Germain, to divert Patriot forces away from any campaign planned by General James Clinton out of New York City as well as to evacuate Loyalist families suffering from Patriot outrages.

Leaving Oswego in September, Johnson moved toward Unadilla and picked up reinforcements under Brant and Cornplanter to bring his strength to between eight hundred and fifteen hundred. He also had artillery: two small mortars and a brass three-pounder. Johnson's approach was undetected, and he ravaged the Schoharie Valley during 15-17 October; destroyed all rebel property in the vicinity of Fort Hunter on 17 October; started up the Mohawk the next day, laying waste to everything on both sides of the river as far as Canajoharie; and camped that night near Palatine. Along the way Johnson recovered the family silver and papers hidden at Johnson Hall. The next morning he crossed the Mohawk at Keder's Rifts.

General Robert Van Rensselaer assembled between four hundred and five hundred militia in the lower Mohawk and started in pursuit, while Governor George Clinton left Albany with a small force to catch up with him. While a detachment of fifty raiders headed for Fort Paris in Stone Arabia, Colonel John Brown sallied forth from that place to attack Johnson's main body on orders from Van Rensselaer, with the promise that the latter would arrive in time to support him. Near the ruined Fort Keyser, on 19 October Brown and about forty of his 130 men were killed and the rest routed after making a gallant attack against a superior force. Johnson ordered the burning of Stone Arabia after liberating any moveable goods. Van Rensselaer was too late to prevent the annihilation of Brown's force, but he was reinforced by 300 or 400 militia and sixty Oneidas under Colonel Lewis DuBois and brought Johnson to bay at Klock's Field on 19 October. The raiders made their escape via Lake Onondaga to Oswego.

Meanwhile, a second raiding party, which consisted of a detachment of the Fifty-third Regiment under an officer named Houghton, struck the upper Connecticut Valley and destroyed some houses at Royalton, Vermont. Another force, under Major Carleton, moved through Fort Anne, Fort Edward, and Fort George; attacked Ballston (a mere twelve miles from Schenectady); and threatened other settlements north of Albany.

In just five days, Johnson had inflicted as much damage as had General Sullivan in a month the previous year. The northern frontier was demoralized. Governor Clinton wrote Washington on 30 October:

The losses we have sustained by these different incursions of the enemy will be most severely felt; they have destroyed, on a moderate computation, 200 dwellings and 150,000 bushels of wheat…. The enemy to the northward continue in the neighborhood of Crown Point, and the inhabitants, in consequence of their apprehensions of danger, are removing from the northern parts of the state.


The worst news Governor Clinton had to report in this same letter was that Sir John Johnson, Brant, and Walter Butler had escaped. In 1781 they returned. Brant, who had been wounded in the heel at Klock's Field, ranged the upper Mohawk Valley almost at will during the early months of the year. The Oneidas were no longer in their settlements to furnish a screen of protection, or at least of warning, and militia resistance had collapsed. War parties revisited German Flats, Cherry Valley was attacked in April, and two parties of the Second New York Continentals were captured while trying to take supplies to Fort Stanwix. The latter post was abandoned in May after being critically damaged by floods and fire. It might be said that a housing shortage existed, but life in the valley went on, and spirits soared when Colonel Marinus Willett arrived late in June to assume command of the scattered frontier posts. With 400 men, Willett had the seemingly impossible mission of protecting some 5,000 settlers in an area of about 2,000 square miles—his posts at Ballston, Catskill, and Fort Herkimer (German Flats) forming a triangle of roughly that area. His "main body," if it can be dignified by that term, comprised 120 men at Canajoharie, where he established his headquarters. The rest of his puny force was parceled out among the far-flung settlements, though Willet had the creative idea of rotating his men between his four main posts to keep them alert and give the settlers an impression of action.

Willett did not have to wait much more than a week before the first challenge came. About 350 Indians led by John Doxtader surprised Currytown on 9 July, but the remarkable Willett annihilated this force the next day at Sharon Springs Swamp. Donald McDonald was defeated and killed by the heroic stand of a single family at Shell's Bush on 6 August. The British suffered further losses when the Indian and Loyalist force under Captain William Caldwell was defeated at Wawarsing on 22 August, and Lieutenant Solomon Woodworth was killed near Fort Plain on 7 September, when his party was ambushed.


In the fall of 1781, the U.S. Northern Department had alarming and confusing reports that one enemy column was approaching along Lake Champlain and another along Lake Oneida from Oswego. Although General William Heath had only 2,500 men to guard the Highlands against the threat from Sir Henry Clinton's force of 17,000 in New York City while Washington and Rochambeau marched south, he sent the New Hampshire Continentals and some artillery north on 13 October. The threat from Lake Champlain proved illusory on 24 October, when the smoke of burning buildings started rising in the Mohawk Valley. Major John Ross had left Oswego on the 16th with 700 men, 130 of whom were Indians. He struck the valley near Warrenbush (later Florida) and burned a seven-mile stretch to come within twelve miles of Schenectady on the 25th. Although he had not met any real resistance, Ross then started withdrawing. Failure of the Indians to turn out in the numbers expected, muddy roads, and certainty that the militia was gathering all around him persuaded Ross to return to Oswego. What Ross did not know was that Willett was in rapid pursuit with his small force. After joining up with militia units at Fort Hunter, Ross had 400 men. He caught up with the raiders and attacked at Johnstown on 25 October.

Darkness called a halt to this action, which had begun late in the day. Ross claimed to have gotten the better of it, and Willett's failure to start pursuit until the 28th tends to support that contention. But the British leader lost most of his head start when his guides were slow in finding a trail north to the St. Lawrence, a route Ross had to choose because of the possibility that Willett might cut off a retreat to the boats left on Lake Oneida. After waiting for provisions, the rebels started pursuit on the evening of the 28th, marched twenty miles in a snowstorm on the 29th, and caught up at 8 o'clock the next morning. Ross kept up a running fight as his tired and famished Loyalists, British regulars, and Indians headed for West Canada Creek, where they hoped to make a stand. Walter Butler's rear guard had just crossed this sizable stream when Willett's vanguard arrived at 2 p.m. The action at Jerseyfield on 30 October was little more than a firefight across the ford, but when the enemy forces resumed their retreat, they left behind the dead body of Walter Butler, one of the most effective Loyalist soldiers on the northern frontier. After a pursuit of another twenty miles Willett called a halt, as his forces were exhausted and running low of provisions.

This was the last Loyalist attack on Tryon County. Indian raids continued in 1782, and a few prominent Patriots were abducted by Loyalists. The border warfare, however, had basically ended.

SEE ALSO Andrustown, New York; Brant, Joseph; Brown, John; Burgoyne's Offensive; Butler, John; Butler, Walter; Canajoharie Settlements, New York; Chemung, New York; Cherry Valley Massacre, New York; Clinton, George; Clinton, James; Colonial Wars; Cornplanter; Currytown, New York; Fort Hunter, New York; Fort Keyser, New York; Fort Stanwix, New York; Germain, George Sackville; German Flats, New York; Grasshopper; Haldimand, Sir Frederick; Harpersfield, New York; Heath, William; Jerseyfield, New York; Johnson, Guy; Johnson, Sir John; Johnstown, New York; Klock's Field, New York; Lochry's Defeat, Ohio River; Minisink, New York (19-22 July, 1779); Schoharie Valley, New York; Schuyler, Philip John; Sharon Springs Swamp, New York; Shell's Bush, New York; St. Leger's Expedition; Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois; Tryon County, New York; Unadilla, New York; Wawarsing, New York; Western Operations; Wyoming Valley Massacre, Pennsylvania.


Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Ranlet, Philip. The New York Loyalists. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Swiggett, Howard. War Out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1933.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles