August 11, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Walking scorched earth 

150 miles along Upstate’s lost history

August and September mark the 225th anniversary of a campaign of destruction and death that came through Upstate New York.

            The year was 1779 and our newly declared independent country was at war with England. Colonists were fighting the British Army and British Loyalists on many fronts. Added to these two foes, in the outlying regions of Pennsylvania and New York --- still unsettled country --- groups of Iroquois Indians were aiding the British, providing them with food and attacking white colonial settlements. Just the previous year, scores of white settlers died at the hands of Iroquois war parties, including two high-profile massacres at CherryValley near Cooperstown, and in the northeastern Pennsylvania settlement of Wyoming.

            Although history shows many Iroquois were neutral or actually helped the colonials, Commander-in-Chief George Washington ordered an army into Upstate New York to drive out all Six Nations of the Iroquois: the Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora. Washington's weapon of choice --- fire. The campaign was called "Scorched Earth."

            It was a 150-mile-long path shaped like a carpenter's square. The army of 4,500, under the commands of Generals Sullivan and Clinton was nearly half the size of the entire Iroquois population. It crossed the Pennsylvania border into New York, near present-day Elmira. It traveled up along Seneca and CayugaLakes, through present-day Geneva, Canandaigua, Bristol, Honeoye, and Conesus. Soldiers leveled with fire every Indian village along the way, and destroyed all crops and orchards.

            Bands of soldiers fanned out from the main army, and repeated this exercise at out-of-the-way Indian villages. They were to leave no Iroquois building or fruit tree standing, regardless of that village's possible neutrality or pro-colonial side.

            The army finally reached the Seneca stronghold at GeneseeCastle, on the GeneseeRiver, at present-day Leicester, near Geneseo. In that deserted village, they found two of their comrades brutally murdered and tied to the now-famous Torture Tree, which still stands there. Here, the army turned around and headed back home.

You might wonder what right the colonials felt they had to simply displace the Indians, even if there had been attacks on white settlements.

            Peter Jemison, 21st-century Seneca faithkeeper, book author, and overseer of the Ganondagan Historical Site in Victor, explains the perspective from which the world was then lived and recorded.

            "You have to realize, in the 15th century, when Europeans began coming here, the Bible was still the source of all knowledge," he says. "The settlers arrived here and found us. We were not in the Bible; our 'tongue' was not in the Bible. Therefore we were not seen as human."

            In fact, Columbus referred to the natives as "crude" and "stupid," and the early Spanish settlers in San Salvador raped and murdered natives. They had contests in open public to see if they could slice a child in two with one swing of a sword, for sheer entertainment.

            "We were named 'Indians,' by explorers who thought they'd landed in India," Jemison says. "We were the Haudenosaunee, the 'true human beings.' We had an 'allodial' right to, or virtual ownership of the land, by simply being there.

 "A worldwide debate over our humanness ended," he adds, "when the Bishop of Spain ruled that we were human."

            Of course, by that time, thousands of Europeans had landed here. With the opportunities open to those colonists requiring land, the Bishop's decree took many years, if ever, to fall on listening ears.

            "We believed we were related to everyone," Jemison says. "When we encountered the Europeans, we called them 'younger brother,' and were concerned with how we were related to these people from other shores. We called ourselves 'true human beings' because what we did came from the Great Spirit. Whatever happened was supposed to happen. There was no bad or good."

            The implication being that the Indians were naïve, trusting, and inclined to be supportive of the early settlers.

My interest in the Scorched Earth Campaign was kindled in 1976, when I wrote the Bicentennial History Book for the Town of West Bloomfield, in OntarioCounty. My research showed that the area was once rampant with Seneca. When I read what we had done to the Indians, I felt a responsibility to bring it to light. So, three years later, in 1979, on the 200th anniversary of Scorched Earth, I walked the trail, writing a story for a regional upstate magazine.

            Now, on the 225th anniversary of the Campaign, I decided to walk it again. To commemorate this military offensive a second time might somehow bring the original Scorched Earth Campaign --- and its impact on the Iroquois --- ahead in time and make it current.

            The 150 miles of muddy lowlands, rivers, and thick forests that Sullivan's massive army slogged and hacked its way through in August and September of 1779 has become mostly paved and bridged --- relatively easy to hoof through in seven days wearing good cross-trainers.

            In 1779, there were no white settlements in Central and Western New York. This was still the frontier. If this 18th-century military campaign were compared to our 20th-century space program, Tioga, Pennsylvania --- just south of the New York border --- would be NASA's Cape Kennedy. Newtown, New York --- near Elmira --- would be the moon. Sullivan's troops were staged and launched from Tioga and their victory at Newtown against the Indians and British, three days into the campaign, set the pace for Sullivan's uninterrupted military success for the remainder of the offensive.

Day one

Joanne, my army supply unit for this trek, drops me off in a K-Mart parking lot, just across the Pennsylvania border from Waverly, New York. She will pick me up from time to time and cart me to a motel when I can't find a campsite. She will be available by cell phone, but will not provide me with any news from the outside world, unless we should win the lottery.

            I cross over busy Route 17, into New York, and turn west out of Waverly on a rural road, the ChemungRiver following along to the south.

August 27, 1779

Sullivan's army advances through the Chemung River basin, crossing the New York State line, approaching the Iroquois stronghold at Newtown.

            A party of several hundred Iroquois and Loyalists, along with 15 British regulars, lies in ambush at Newtown under a relentless sun. They've selected a choice site and have the element of surprise in their favor. They expect by nightfall to rout the invaders, 12 miles away yet. This miscalculation is their downfall.

            Each morning Sullivan's massive army rises to cannon fire and reveille, rounds up 1,200 pack horses and 800 head of cattle, rigs numerous supply wagons --- even boats, carried overland for fording streams --- then falls into a hollow square formation and marches ahead to fife and drum.

            The Iroquois wait.

            The approaching army covers three miles the first day; five miles the second day; the final four miles on the third day.

            Two nights fall on the restless Iroquois with no enemy in sight. Having sent off their food and blankets, they go to sleep hungry and uncovered on the cold, damp ground. For three consecutive dawns, they take their positions.

            I continue on Old Route 17 toward Newtown. Unlike Sullivan, I cross over, not through, Wyncoop Creek, now swollen from recent rains. I come upon historical marker after marker --- those familiar blue and yellow state signs, as well as granite monuments with bronze plaques --- denoting the movement of the "Sullivan-Clinton Campaign." The phrase "Scorched Earth" is never mentioned.

            I have heard of people visiting the battlegrounds at Gettysburg and being emotionally moved as they think of what transpired there. I'm getting a Gettysburg feeling when a man bounces up alongside me on a huge balloon-tired excavator and asks me if I ran out of gas. I explain myself.

            "You have to remember what was going on in 1779," says Dave Mazzarese, climbing down so I can hear him over the diesel engine. "It was the Revolution, and the Indians were supplying the British."

            Dave lives here in Chemung. Sensing my surprise at his interest in the subject, he points to a steep hill near us. "According to local legend, this hill was important to the Indians; they could look east and west from on top," he says. "They call that Katydid Hill, because of the flowers that grow on it; this section of the road, here, is Katydid Curve."

            He pauses for a moment then offers, "I know the Indians' land may have been taken from them and treaties may have been broken, but back then they were helping the enemy; you don't want to help the enemy."

            I continue along and pass a marker:

            "Chemung --- 1775 to 1779 --- Iroquois war town. From this hidden stronghold British, Indians, and Tories ravaged the frontier..."

            I'm getting closer to the battle site and the semis bouncing along on nearby Route 17 sound a lot like marching military drummers.

            I come to two signs within sight of each other. One marks the front line of the soldiers, "Line occupied by rifle corps under General Hand at opening of battle August 29, 1779." The other, the "Line of rude breastworks" of the Indian ambuscade.

            The signs are 320 paces apart, separated by several trees and a slight valley with a creek running through it. Next to the creek sits the LowmanMethodistChurch. It's 6:50 p.m. on Sunday and I hear the small congregation singing through the open front door.

            I can see an obelisk monument up ahead on the hilltop at Newtown, the village being protected by those "crude breastworks." It's about a mile-and-a-half away as the crow flies, but it will take me another hour-and-a-half to reach there on foot because of the steep hills and winding roads.

            A few more paces and I come upon an entrance ramp to Route 17 and what will turn out to be the biggest roadside stone monument of the Scorched Earth Campaign. It commemorates the Newtown Battlefield I just passed. It was erected in 1907 by the Newtown Battle Chapter, Sons of American Revolution. Across the road sits an adult video store.

            I arrive at the former hilltop Indian village, Newtown, now a public campground, and rent a cabin.

August 29, 1779

Sullivan is victorious at Newtown. 12 Indians and three colonials die, and dozens are wounded on both sides. The battle is not large, but psychologically and militarily significant.

            The leader of the ambush party, Colonel John Butler, explains his defeat later in a letter to British headquarters at Niagara: The three days of waiting caused insubordinate warriors to make critical changes in the ambush lines. "Several men," Butler writes, "had the ague [fever] upon them at the very time we were attacked."

            After Sullivan's victory over the Indians at Newtown, Lt. William Barton writes in his diary that he "skinned two of [the Indians] from the hips down for boot legs; one pair for the Major, and the other for myself."

Day two

I awake at 6 a.m. Indeed, Newtown and its neighboring high hills, intertwined by the valley of the ChemungRiver far below, cause night temperatures to drop dramatically. From here in 1779, the Iroquois could see the army coming, all the way across the Pennsylvania border. This morning, the fog is so thick I can't see the shower and bathrooms just across the campsite.

            I turn in my cabin key to Eric Carne, a 20-year-old LeMoyneCollege student from Horseheads who works here summers. Quiet, thoughtful, and laid back, his attitude is fitting for his work here at this solemn, historic site on this remote hilltop.

            "I've read about Sullivan and the Indians," he says, gesturing toward the historical pamphlets on sale. "But I think people come here because it's quiet and secluded, not because of the history."

            And there aren't a lot of those people.

            "I've heard this called 'ChemungCounty's best kept secret.' In fact, two years ago, when I was a freshman at CorningCommunity College, a man came to our school just to recruit people to work here," Carne says.

            A mile and a half back down the steep hill to Route 17, I'm forced to walk a seven-mile stretch of the heavily traveled four-lane highway, during morning rush hour, to Horseheads. As I near Horseheads, a state trooper is parked in the median on radar duty. He watches me approach, climbs out of his car, walks across the pavement, and asks if I'm OK.


Spurred by their victory at Newtown, the colonials pick up speed and continue northwestward, through what are now Elmira, Horseheads, Big Flats, and MontourFalls, destroying cornfields and burning vacated Indian villages.

            The Indians had scouts who watched for the approaching army. They yelled up to three miles back to the next scout, who in turn yelled three miles back. This alarm system, in the case of the massive approaching army, served not only to alert the Iroquois, but, ironically, to spread panic through their villages.

            On Sullivan's return through Horseheads, following the successful execution of Scorched Earth, he will order several pack horses shot and left behind. Sixteen years later, in 1795, when white settlers arrive here, they will find the horses' skulls bleached white by the sun, and name the place thereafter.

            Horseheads in 2004 is an explosion of chain retailers and restaurants, surrounded by parking lots, intersections, highway feeder ramps, and still more of each under construction.

            I cut northward towards Watkins Glen on Route 14, through Millport and MontourFalls, with Catharine Creek repeatedly meandering out to the road to meet me.

            Several markers tell their story:

            "The military route... against the British and Indians of New York."

            "The colonies' war with six Indian Nations."

            "The campaign (that) severed the English-Indian alliance and checked English aggression on our western frontier."

            "British and Indians retreated to this place following the Newtown Battle defeat."

September 1, 1779

At French Catharine (Montour Falls/Watkins Glen) the army finds an old Tuscarora squaw left behind by her fellow Indians. She is too feeble to walk. Lt. Erkuries Beatty writes in his diary that she is believed to be 120 years old. The army has already burned the village so the troops build another house for the woman and leave her with provisions.

            Twenty-two days later, passing through again on its return trip, the army will leave her more supplies, enough to prompt the lieutenant to remark she will "live in splendour."

Day three

I awake in my motel room in Watkins Glen to the 7 a.m. boom of a factory whistle.

            In Tobies' Diner I'm eating breakfast, checking out the Americana decor --- which includes a wall clock featuring the WorldTradeTowers illuminated from behind --- and wondering who I can find to chat with about the Scorched Earth Campaign.

            At a table behind me I hear, "We originally came here for religious freedom..."

            Three men are talking over coffee. Forty-six-year-old Dave Gertzen describes himself as a "Calvinist," a follower of the laws and principles of the Bible, very much the mindset of the 18th-century white settlers. Dave lives halfway up the east side of Seneca Lake --- along the path I am taking --- where he's a part-time housepainter, eBay entrepreneur, and caretaker, or sexton, as he calls it, for a small community church.

            Moving out front to where Dave's motor scooter is parked at the curb, I feel as if he may have been waiting for me to come along.

            "Nobody set out in 1779 to annihilate the 'savages,' they wanted to make the Indians a burden on the British. The Indians were killing and scalping settlers --- selling the scalps to the British," he says. "Man is basically evil with the proclivity for good; nowadays people say the opposite, 'man is basically good with the proclivity for evil.' There is no inhumanity that man won't commit on another."

            "Those fellas in the militia --- those who came out here in 1779 --- need a voice," he continues. "They believed Washington was doing the best with what he had and didn't mean for anyone to get shot who shouldn't. But history's been re-written since the 1860s, and he who controls the media controls the past and the future. Now it's turned around to where the Indians helped the first settlers, that the settlers held the first Thanksgiving to thank them. No, they held it to thank God."

            I head north out of Watkins Glen and pass the busy entrance to Cargill Salt, where tractor trailers from Connecticut and Ohio are pulling out and a rig from Wegmans is pulling in. A huge sign in the front yard reads: "1,198 days since our last lost-time accident --- Imagine/Believe/Achieve."

            Thirty minutes later, on a steep hill climbing out of Watkins Glen, I'm suddenly cognizant of the whine of a motor scooter coming up behind me on the opposite side of the highway. Freelance Calvinist, Dave Gertzen, is now on his way home. He drives along slowly and calls across two lanes to me.

            "The Holy Spirit wants us to respond in God's way..."

            Swiiiiiish! A car flies past.

            "...Biblical principles..."

            Rumble, rumble! Two town dump trucks loaded with fresh tar work their way up the hill in low gear.

            "God gave man a cultural mandate in Genesis: 'Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and have dominion...'"

            Swish, swish, swish! A line of cars flies past. One is a minivan sporting a yellow ribbon decal on its rear window.

            "...'Dominion,' that's a word that'll sell newspapers!"

            I reach Peach Orchard Road in Hector. A nearby marker proclaims: "Ga-di-odji-ya-da, site of Iroquois village, Sullivan camped here September 3, 1779." There are peach orchards everywhere.

            "Ga-di-odji-ya-da means 'peach orchard,'" says William Wickham, 75, selling peaches under a generous-sized tent. He is the great-great-etc grandson of the original William Wickham whose name is mentioned on a nearby marker as the first settler in Hector, in 1791.

            I met William, selling peaches in this very spot, when I walked this trail 25 years ago, but he does not recall our meeting.

            "The Indians were attacking the colonies," he says. "In those days you didn't always sit down and talk about it.... It was retribution."

September 5, 1779

            To the soldiers, Appletown (present day Willard/Sampson Army Depot area) shows signs of being recently vacated.

            Lt. Beatty writes, "The houses was chiefly all pulled down [by the soldiers] for firewood. The Appletrees which is a good number and very old was either cut down or killd, likewise the peachtrees."

            Beatty also describes what seems to be the burial site of a chief: It stood "four foot high... painted very curious with great many Colours [and] in each end of the Casement was a small hole where the friends of the Deceased or any body might see the corpse when they pleased."

            The Iroquois word for Appletown is "Kendaia." On Route 96 there's a stone marker and a couple of picnic tables denoting this site. Across the highway is an air-control tower for the now-closed Seneca Army Depot.

            By cell phone I confirm with the Yale Manor Bed & Breakfast that I am within an hour of arriving. The owners and guests at Yale Manor, as well as the people I continue to meet along the way, tell the continuing story of the never-ending history of Upstate New York.

Next week: Sullivan's army marches through Geneva, Canandaigua, Bristol, Honeoye, Canadice, and Hemlock. Sixteen colonials die in an Indian ambush at ConesusLake; two more are brutally murdered at the Torture Tree in Leicester. Rich Gardner follows the trail.

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