Thursday, May 31, 2007

May 31

On this date in 1779 Gen. George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, ordered Major General John Sullivan to destroy the Iroquois tribes who had allied with the British during the American Revolution.

The Iroquois Confederacy -- which had been the major regional power in the eastern Great Lakes for hundreds of years -- had fractured during the war, with the Oneida and Tuscarora supporting the colonists while the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk cast their support for the British. After several massacres on the New York frontier claimed the lives of hundreds of colonial soldiers and civilians in 1778, Washington was determined to strike against the British-Indian alliance responsible for the killings. As Washington explained to Sullivan on 31 May 1779,
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.
The “future security” of the colonists, he explained, required that “Terror” be inflicted upon the Iroquois. Over the next two years, Sullivan’s men destroyed 40 Iroquois towns and sent thousands of Indians fleeing to Ft. Niagara, which was not adequately prepared to receive them. Meanwhile, the Continental Army burnt fruit trees, vegetables, and well over than 150,000 bushels of corn across the colony of New York. As Sullivan himself reported at the end of the campaign, “the immediate objects of this expedition are accomplished, viz: total ruin of the Indian settlements and the destruction of their crops, which were designed for the support of those inhuman barbarians, while they were desolating the American frontiers.”

The Iroquois confederacy never recovered from the Sullivan Expedition, and over the course of the next several decades lost nearly all of the land it had previously controlled. For his role in the campaign, George Washington earned the nickname “Town Destroyer” or “Devourer of Villages.”

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