Skip to content Sullivan Expedition (1779)

The Sullivan Expedition (Pennsylvania), also known as the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition, was an American campaign led by Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier 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, beginning June 18 when the army marched from Easton, Pennsylvania, to October 3 when it abandoned Fort Sullivan, built at Tioga, to return to New Jersey, and only had one major battle, at Newtown along the Chemung River in western New York, in which about 1,000 Iroquois and Loyalists were decisively defeated by an army of 3,200 Continental soldiers.

Sullivan’s army then carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least forty Iroquois villages throughout the Finger Lakes region of western New York, to put an end to Iroquois and Loyalist attacks against American settlements as had occurred the previous year. The devastation created great hardships for the thousands of Iroquois refugees outside Fort Niagara that winter, and many starved or froze to death. The survivors fled to British regions in Canada and the Niagara Falls and Buffalo areas. Assessing the impact of the campaign on the Iroquois, historian Allan W. Eckert wrote: “Their will was destroyed: the will to carry on, to hold their land or perish in the effort to do so.”

i- Background
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 became 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 Loyalist commander Colonel John Butler, Sayenqueraghta, Mohawk military leader Joseph Brant, and Seneca chief Cornplanter led the British-Indian raids. Commander-in-chief General George Washington never provided any substantial regular army troops for the defence of the frontier and he told the frontier settlements to use local militia for their own defence.

On June 10, 1778, the Board of War of the Continental Congress concluded that a major Indian war was in the offing. Since a defensive war would prove to be inadequate the board called for a major expedition of three thousand men against Fort Detroit and a similar thrust into Seneca country to punish the Iroquois. Congress designated Major General Horatio Gates to lead the campaign and appropriated funds for the campaign. In spite of these plans, the expedition did not occur until the following year.

On July 3, 1778, Colonel Butler led his Rangers with a force of Senecas and Cayugas (led by Sayenqueraghta) in an attack on Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley (a rebel granary and settlement along the Susquehanna River near present Wilkes-Barre), practically annihilating 360 armed Patriot defenders lured out of their defences at Forty Fort.

In September, 1778, revenge for the Wyoming defeat was taken by American Colonel Thomas Hartley who, with 200 soldiers, burned 9-12 Seneca, Delaware and Mingo villages along the Susquehanna River in northeast Pennsylvania, including Tioga and Chemung. At the same time, Butler’s Rangers attacked German Flatts in the Mohawk Valley, destroying all the houses and fields in the area. Further American retaliation was soon taken by Continental army units under William Butler (no relation to John Butler) and John Cantine, burning the substantial Indian villages at Unadilla and Onoquaga on the Mohawk River.

On November 11, 1778, Loyalist 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 Joseph Brant, on an assault at Cherry Valley in New York. While the fort was surrounded, Indians began to massacre civilians in the village, killing and scalping 16 soldiers and 32 civilians, mostly women and children, and taking 80 captive, half of whom were never returned. In vain, Brant, who was blamed for the attack, actually 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. When the British began to concentrate their military efforts on the southern colonies in 1779, Washington used the opportunity to launch the planned offensive towards Fort Niagara. His initial impulse was to assign the expedition to Major General Charles Lee, but he, Major General Philip Schuyler, and Major General Israel Putnam were all disregarded for various reasons. Washington first offered command of the expedition to Horatio Gates, the “Hero of Saratoga,” but Gates turned down the offer, ostensibly for health reasons. Major General John Sullivan, fifth on the seniority list, was then offered command on March 6, 1779, and accepted. 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 centre 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.”

ii- Expedition
Washington instructed Gen. Sullivan and three brigades to march from Easton, Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania and to follow the river upstream to Tioga, now known as Athens, Pennsylvania. He ordered Gen. Clinton to assemble a fourth brigade at Schenectady, New York, move westward up the Mohawk Valley to Canajoharie, and cross overland to Otsego Lake as a staging point. When Sullivan so ordered, Clinton’s New York Brigade was to march down the Susquehanna to meet Sullivan at Tioga, destroying all Indian villages on his route. Sullivan’s army was to have totalled 5,000 men, but his Pennsylvania brigade entered the campaign more than 750 men short, and promised enlistments never materialized. In addition, the third regiment of the brigade, the German Battalion, had shrunk by casualties, sickness, and desertion (the three-year term of enlistment of its soldiers had expired on June 27) to only 100 men, and was parcelled out in 25-man companies as flank protection for the expedition. Armand’s Legion was recalled by Washington to the Main Army before the campaign began. Because of these and other shortages, Sullivan’s army, including two companies of local militia totalling only 70 men, never exceeded 4,000 troops.

The main army left Easton on June 18, marching 58 miles to an encampment on the Bullock farm in the Wyoming Valley, which he reached on June 23. There he awaited provisions and supplies that had not been sent forward, remaining in the Wyoming Valley until July 31. His force marched slowly, paced by both the mountainous terrain and the flatboats carrying the army’s supplies up the Susequehanna, and arrived at Tioga on August 11. They began construction of a temporary fort at the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers they called Fort Sullivan.

Sullivan sent one of his guides, Lt. John Jenkins, who had been captured while surveying the area in November 1777, with a scouting party to reconnoitre Chemung. He reported that the village was active and unaware of his presence. Sullivan marched the greater part of the army all night over two high defiles and attacked out of a thick fog just after dawn only to find the town deserted. Brig-Gen Edward Hand reported a small force fleeing towards Newtown and received permission to pursue. Despite flankers, he had gone only a mile when his advance guard was ambushed with six dead and nine wounded. The entire brigade assaulted but the ambushers escaped with minimal if any casualties. Sullivan’s men spent the day burning the town and destroyed all of its grain and vegetable crops. During the afternoon the 1st New Hampshire Regiment of Poor’s brigade was fired on, either from ambush or possibly by fire from other troops, inflicting another soldier killed and five wounded. Ambushes also occurred on August 15 and August 17, with combined casualties of 2 killed and 2 wounded. On August 23 the accidental discharge of a rifle in camp resulted in one Captain killed and one man wounded.

After two-week’s portage of supplies, Clinton’s brigade set up camp at the south end of Otsego Lake (now Cooperstown, New York) on June 30, where he waited for orders that did not arrive until August 6. The next day he began his destructive march of 154 miles to Tioga along the upper Susquehanna, taking all of his supplies with him in 250 bateaux. The actions at Chemung made Sullivan suspicious that the Iroquois might be trying to defeat his split forces in detail, and the next day he sent 1084 picked men under Brig-Gen Enoch Poor north to locate Clinton and escort him to Fort Sullivan. The entire army assembled on August 22.

On August 26, the combined army of approximately 3,200 men and 250 pack horse teamsters left Fort Sullivan, garrisoned by 300 troops taken from across the army and left behind under Col. Israel Shreve of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment. Marching slowly north into the Six Nations territory in central western New York, the campaign had only one major battle, the Battle of Newtown, fought on August 29. It was a complete victory for the Continental Army. Later a 25-man detachment of the Continental Army was ambushed, and all but five captured and killed at the Boyd and Parker ambush. On September 1 Captain John Combs died of an illness.

Sullivan’s forces reached their deepest penetration at the Seneca town of Chenussio (also called Little Beard’s town, Beardstown, Chinefee, Genesee, and Geneseo), near the present Cuylerville, New York, on September 15, inflicting total destruction on the Iroquois villages before returning to Fort Sullivan at the end of the month. Three days later the army abandoned the fort to return to Morristown, New Jersey, and go into winter quarters. By Sullivan’s account, forty of the Iroquois villages were destroyed, including Catherine’s Town, Goiogouen, Chonodote, and Kanadaseaga, along with all the crops and orchards of the Iroquois.

Appointed the British governor of Quebec in 1778, Frederick Haldimand, while kept informed of Sullivan’s invasion by Butler and Ft. Niagara, did not supply sufficient troops for his Iroquois allies’ defence. Late in September, he dispatched a force of about 600 Loyalists and Canadian Iroquois, but by then the expedition had successfully ended.

iii- Brodhead’s expedition
Further west, a concurrent expedition was undertaken by Colonel Daniel Brodhead. Brodhead left Fort Pitt on August 14, 1779, with a contingent of 600 men, regulars of his 8th Pennsylvania Regiment and militia, marching up the Allegheny River into the Seneca and Munsee country of northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York. Since most native warriors were away to confront Sullivan’s army, Brodhead met little resistance and destroyed about 10 villages, including Conewango. Although initial plans called for Brodhead to eventually link up with Sullivan at Chenussio for an attack against Fort Niagara, Brodhead turned back after destroying villages near modern day Salamanca, New York, never linking up with the main force. Washington’s letters indicate that the cross-country trek east to the Finger Lakes region was considered too dangerous, limiting this smaller expedition to a raid north.

iv- Teantontalago
The final operation of the campaign occurred September 27. Sullivan sent a portion of Clinton’s brigade directly back to winter quarters by way of Fort Stanwix, under Colonel Peter Gansevoort of the 3rd New York Regiment. Two days after leaving Stanwix, near their origination point of Schenectady, the detachment stopped at Teantontalago, the “Lower Mohawk Castle” (also known as Thienderego, Tionondorage and Tiononderoga) and carried out orders to arrest every male Mohawk. Gansevoort wrote “It is remarked that the Indians live much better than most of the Mohawk River farmers, their houses [being] very well furnished with all [the] necessary household utensils, great plenty of grain, several horses, cows, and wagons”. The male population was incarcerated at Albany until 1780 and then released.

The action dispossessed the Mohawks of their homes. Local white settlers, homeless after Iroquois raids, asked Gansevoort to turn the homes over to them. Both actions were criticized by Philip Schuyler, then a New York representative to the Continental Congress, because all the Mohawks of Lower Mohawk castle had rejected fighting with the British, and many supported the Patriot cause. Ironically, Schuyler had been Washington’s personal preference for command of the expedition, but his relief of command of the Continental Army’s Northern Department had led to private service with the army until he could resign his commission, which he did in April 1779.

v- Aftermath
Sullivan, whose illness had slowed the expedition at times, resigned his commission in 1780 when his health continued to worsen. Historians disagree as to whether an Iroquois nickname for Washington, “Town Destroyer”, originates from this expedition.

The devastation created great hardships for the more than 5,000 Iroquois refugees that winter, and many starved or froze to death. But that this was not entirely because of the expedition can be seen as John Butler wrote: “The Indians in this part of the Country are so ill off for Provisions that many have nothing to subsist upon but the roots and greens they gather in the woods” in May, 1778 – i.e., before the expedition. Fearing attack, many Tuscarora and Oneida defected to the British cause.

In February, 1780, former general Schuyler, now in the Congress, sent a party of pro-rebellion Indians to Fort Niagara to appeal for peace with the British-allied Iroquois. Suspecting a trick by Schuyler, those Iroquois rejected the proposal. The four messengers were imprisoned where one of them died.

Although the Sullivan Expedition devastated the Iroquois crops and towns and left them at the mercy of the British for the harsh winter of 1779-80, Major Jeremiah Fogg of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment noted in his journal: “The nests are destroyed, but the birds are still on the wing.”[11] Washington was disappointed by the lack of a decisive battle and the failure to capture Fort Niagara. Iroquois warriors and Loyalists continued to periodically raid the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys during 1780 and 1781, causing widespread devastation of property and crops, and killing more than 200 settlers. The destruction of Minden on August 2, 1780, was the most destructive raid in the course of the four-year civil war. The last significant raid devastated a 20-mile swath of the lower Mohawk Valley in October 1781, but was defeated at the Battle of Johnstown on October 25, 1781. Walter Butler was killed in battle on October 30 at West Canada Creek during the Tory retreat.

Even so, the homelands and infrastructure of Iroquois life had been devastated by the campaign. In the long term, it became clear that the expedition forever broke the Iroquois Confederacy’s power to maintain former crops and utilize some town locations. The Iroquois would never again obtain their standard of living they had before the attack. The expedition appeared to be little more than famine and dispersion but broke the will of the Iroquois as a nation to defend their territory by war.

Following the war, much of the Iroquois land would be secured in the peace Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784), later to be absorbed by controversial treaties with the State of New York. Some of its native population would move to Canada, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, but most resumed life at Buffalo Creek (today’s Buffalo). In the wake of the Treaty of Paris (1783), European-Americans began settling the newly vacant areas in relative safety, eventually isolating the remaining pockets of demoralized Iroquois into villages and towns cut off under controversial land treaties with New York State.