Sullivan Expedition

From Academic Kids

The Sullivan Expedition, also known as the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition, was a campaign led by Major General John Sullivan and General James Clinton against Loyalists ("Tories") and the four nations of the Iroquois who had sided with the British in the American Revolutionary War. The expedition occurred during the summer of 1779 and only had one major battle, at Newtown along the Chemung River in western New York, in which the Tories and Iroquois were decisively defeated. Sullivan's army then carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least forty Iroquois villages throughout what is now upstate New York, in retaliation for Indian and Tory attacks against American settlements earlier in the war. The devastation created great hardships for the Iroquois that winter, but their raids against the American settlements continued with renewed vigor the following year.



When the American Revolutionary War began, British officials as well as the colonial Continental Congress sought the allegiance (or at least the neutrality) of the influential Iroquois Confederacy. The Six Nations divided over what course to pursue. Most Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas chose to ally themselves with the British. But the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, thanks in part to the influence of Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland, joined the American revolutionaries. For the Iroquois, the American Revolution would become a civil war.

The Iroquois homeland lay on the frontier between British Canada and the American colonies. After a British army surrendered at Saratoga in upstate New York in 1777, Loyalists and their Iroquois allies raided American Patriot settlements in the region, as well as the villages of American-allied Iroquois. Working out of Fort Niagara, men such as the Tory commander Colonel John Butler, the Mohawk captain Joseph Brant, and the Seneca chief Cornplanter led the Tory-Indian raids.

On July 3, 1778, Colonel Butler led his Rangers with a force of Senecas (led by Cornplanter) and Cayugas in a surprise attack on Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley (along the Susquehanna River near present Wilkes-Barre), practically annihilating the 360 armed Patriot defenders of Forty Fort. What happened next has since been shrouded in uncertainty, but after the battle, some of the victorious Tories and Indians began to harass prisoners and fleeing settlers, perhaps killing and torturing an unknown number of people. Although captured Patriots who had fought in the battle were apparently all executed, Butler insisted that non-combatants had not been killed, despite widespread rumors to the contrary. Whether or not a widespread massacre actually took place, Americans believed that it did, and they demanded retribution for the "Wyoming Valley Massacre." What was certain is that about 1,000 Patriot homes in the Wyoming Valley were destroyed, and Butler reported the taking of 227 American scalps. Joseph Brant was widely accused of committing atrocities in the Wyoming Valley, but he was not present.

However, Brant was present during another controversial attack later that year. On November 11, 1778, Captain Walter Butler (the son of John Butler) led two companies of Butler's Rangers along with about 320 Iroquois led by Cornplanter, including 30 Mohawks led by Brant, on an assault at Cherry Valley in New York. While the fort was surrounded, Indians began to attack civilians in the village, killing and scalping about 33 people, including women and children. In vain, Brant and Butler tried to stop the rampage. The town was plundered and destroyed.

The Cherry Valley Massacre made it clear to the American revolutionaries that something needed to be done on the New York frontier. Previously, commander-in-chief General George Washington did not have the manpower to further fortify the frontier, but when the British began to concentrate their military efforts on the southern colonies in 1779, Washington used the opportunity to launch an offensive towards Fort Niagara. Washington first offered command of the expedition to Horatio Gates, the "Hero of Saratoga," but Gates turned down the offer. Major General Sullivan, who had Washington's confidence despite a mixed war record, was then given command. Washington's orders to Sullivan made it clear that he wanted the Iroquois threat completely eliminated:

Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters May 31, 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.
But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.

The Route

Washington instructed Sullivan and his men to cross from Easton, Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania and to follow the river upstream to Tioga, New York. He ordered Clinton and his men to travel from Albany, westward up the Mohawk River to Canajoharie, New York, to cross overland to Otsego Lake, and then travel down the Susquehanna to meet Sullivan at Tioga.

Brodhead's expedition

Further west, a concurrent expedition was undertaken by Colonel Daniel Brodhead. Brodhead left Fort Pitt on 14 August 1779 with a contingent of 600 regulars and militia, marching up the Allegheny River into the Seneca and Munsee country of northwestern Pennsylvania. Since most native warriors were away to confront Sullivan's army, Brodhead met little resistance, and destroyed about 10 villages, including Connewango (Warren, Pennsylvania). The plan was to eventually link up with Sullivan at the Seneca village of Genesee for an attack on Fort Niagara, but Brodhead turned back before reaching that goal.

See also


  • Boatner, Mark Mayo. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: McKay, 1966.
  • Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse University Press, 1972.

External links


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