The Battle of Newtown on August 29, 1779, 240 years ago, near present-day Elmira in Chemung County, New York was significant to the Revolutionary War. It played a crucial, though seldom discussed, key role. It was not a bloody battle, but it was instrumental in breaking up the power of the Six Nation Iroquois Federation, thus allowing westward frontier expansion for colonials.
For centuries the Iroquois Nation included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes. In the early 18th century, the Tuscarora joined their ranks by heading north from what is now North Carolina. As the Revolutionary War commenced, the Iroquois Federation tried to stay neutral. In time, however, most of the Iroquois gave their loyalty to Great Britain while the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes chose to align themselves with the colonists who were seeking independence from the British Crown.
Under Thayendanegea (commonly known as Joseph Brant), the Native Americans (referred to by the Colonists as Indians) joined forces with Loyalists and attacked western frontier settlements just as they did those further east in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys. They carried away prisoners, ruthlessly murdered and scalped adults as well as children, and burned and destroyed the crops and homes of Patriots in both outlying and established settlements. And a cycle of retaliation ensued.
I am not here to open a discussion or pass judgment on the negatives and positives of the why, wherefore, and how regarding what was or was not done 200 to 400 years ago in our nation’s history by either the Native Americans or the white European settlers. May I say, however, that conflict and conquering of other lands and peoples has been taking place since world history began. Their times are not ours.
The Chemung River valley basin and its surrounding hills near present-day Elmira were home to Indians for centuries, but by the 18th century the Iroquois were in consistent residence. Here they had ample room to grow crops along the fertile river bottoms. Easy access to virgin forests filled with wildlife supplied them with meat and valuable pelts as they hunted and trapped. The rivers and streams provided them not only with an ideal means of transportation, but an abundance of fish. A healthy way of life for sure!
Atop a steep hill which overlooks the Chemung River and the Southern Tier Expressway (formerly State Route 17, now Interstate 86) is the Newtown Battlefield Reservation State Park, once part of the Iroquois’ territory. The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Newtown was celebrated August 29, 1879 with the dedication of a monument on top of Sullivan Hill. The area was designated a national historic landmark in 1965, with battle re-enactments held annually in the park. I’ve wanted to observe the re-enactments to learn more about the battle, but have never managed to make my way there. So, come along with me and we’ll learn together what happened all those years ago.
To understand what took place, though, is to know the precipitating chain of events which led to the small but important battle at Newtown. In the early days of the Revolutionary War, both the British and the Colonists attempted to gain the loyalty of the Native Americans as noted above. The ultimate decisions caused division among the great Iroquois Federation when the tribes split their loyalties. The famed Iroquois’ leader, Joseph Brant, worked closely with the British stationed at Fort Niagara. He frequently took to the warpath against the white settlers on the western frontier, as well as back east in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys. But the question begs to be asked, why?
Along with the vital convergence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the greater Albany region was of key importance in the Revolutionary War to both sides. Schoharie County, part of western Albany County prior to 1795, has historically been considered “The Breadbasket of the Revolution.” With its fertile lands, the area produced an abundance of crops which kept Washington’s armies fed. Thus, the area’s assets, the rivers for transportation and the productive land, became a root of contention among the Loyalists and Tories, or supporters of the Crown. Their loyalties festered and erupted into violence and destruction against their neighbors and kin, the supporters of independence.
In the early stages of war, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, preferred that these vulnerable settlements use their own local militia to guard and protect against attack. And repeated attacking was the game plan of marauding bands of Indian-Loyalist troops. Often, “forts” of refuge for Patriots were established to escape these bands of Indians and Tories. Among such forts is the old Dutch Reformed Church, now called the Old Stone Fort, home to the Schoharie County Historical Society in the town of Schoharie, New York which I have visited several times to research my maternal family. Its stone walls still exhibit a hole from the direct hit of a cannonball.
In May 1778, Joseph Brant set out on raids in Cobleskill (near my mother’s home town of Carlisle) and the neighboring frontier settlements. Soon after, on July 3, 1778, Col. John Butler and his Loyalist Rangers joined Chief Sayenqueraghta’s Seneca and Cayuga Indians in an attack of Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. Settlers from Connecticut had established homes and farms along the Susquehanna River in this fertile valley, an area which also produced an abundance of grain for the Continental armies. Here, at Forty Fort (a few miles north of the fort at Wilkes-Barre, but on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River), about 360 local Patriot militiamen were killed with over 200 scalped in the Wyoming Massacre.
That September, Patriot soldiers under Col. Thomas Hartley took their wrath out on the Seneca, Delaware and Mingo Indians by burning and destroying nearly a dozen towns on the Susquehanna, including Tioga (now Athens, PA) and Chemung (NY). At the same time, Butler’s Rangers destroyed Patriot houses and crops on the German Flats up north in the Mohawk Valley. This brought the Patriot militia back out to attack and destroy the Indian settlements at Unadilla and Onaquaga (now Windsor) along the Susquehanna River in New York.
To read William E. Roscoe’s “History of Schoharie County, New York” and other related books about the killing and destruction throughout the region is to gain a better understanding of the larger picture. Indians were known among settlers, including my ancestors; some were liked, others were feared. The war cast a pall of deadly fear among residents of the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys - one’s loyalties were usually known, whether for the Crown or Independence, and often one’s life depended upon that knowledge. Neighbor was pitted against neighbor, even against one’s own blood relatives. My various direct ancestral families were Patriots with one Loyalist, while some extended relatives were killed or taken captive by the Indian-Loyalist bands. I have also dined with friends (Cheryl being a distant maternal cousin) at the George Mann Tory Tavern north of the town of Schoharie, beautifully restored to its colonial elegance, Mann having been a well-known supporter of the Crown during the War.
In November 1778, Butler’s Rangers, 320 Iroquois under Chief Cornplanter, and 30 Indians under Joseph Brant attacked Cherry Valley, northeast of Oneonta in Otsego County and northwest of Cobleskill in Schoharie County. Encompassing the fort to ensure soldiers could not escape, the Indians began their massacre. They killed and scalped 30 or 32 residents (numbers vary in reports, mostly women and children) and 16 soldiers. An additional 70 to 80 adults and children (again, numbers vary in reports) were taken captive into Indian territory after the homes and crops had been completely destroyed. More retributions followed from both sides with further loss of life, but the Cherry Valley Massacre was a devastating blow. Something had to be done to stop this slaughter of innocents.
Gen. Washington was now convinced of the need for an offensive campaign against the British, Loyalists and Indians who held Forts Niagara and Oswego. Settling on Maj. Gen. John Sullivan as commanding officer, Washington wrote Sullivan on May 31, 1779: “The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of the 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…as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more… 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…” Essentially, a “scorched earth” policy was to be executed.
Thus, in August 1779, Washington sent Major General John Sullivan and his troops up the Susquehanna River from Easton, PA while Brigadier General James Clinton and his army traveled southwest from Canajoharie in New York’s Mohawk Valley down to Otsego Lake and to the Susquehanna River flowing west. Known as the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (or, Expedition), Washington’s goal was to destroy Indian ties to the British by decimating the Indian towns and supplies of corn, vegetables and fruit at their source. It was this produce which not only kept the Indians well fed, but also the British army. Sullivan and Clinton were ordered to then continue northward with their armies to capture the British forts at Oswego and Niagara in order to disrupt their military hold on the region.
On August 22, 1779, Sullivan and Clinton met at Tioga Point along the Susquehanna River (present-day Athens, PA). With combined troops numbering at least 2300 to under 4000 (accounts I’ve read vary as to numbers), they traveled northwest along the Chemung River. On Sunday, August 29, advance scouts found hidden horseshoe-shaped breastworks/earthworks about half a mile long. Roughly 150 feet up the southeast slope of a mile-long hill (now called Sullivan Hill), these earthworks were within shooting range of the road and near the Iroquois village of New Town. From this vantage point, those approaching the hill could be observed or ambushed before reaching the Cayuga Indian towns of Nanticoke and Kanawaholla where Elmira was later established. See Newtown Battlefield military placements.
At that time, the slope was densely covered in virgin forest. At its base and to the east was a marsh, Hoffman Hollow, thickly covered with grass and trees. Baldwin Creek ran through this marsh and emptied into the Chemung River (called the Cayuga Branch by Sullivan in his reports). My online search of Google maps shows what is likely Baldwin Creek to be, surprisingly and confusingly, labeled the Chemung River as it flows under I-86 and empties into the main Chemung River. What was then called Baldwin Creek runs near to and west of Lowman Road within the area still labeled Hoffman Hollow.
Manning the breastworks were 15 British troops, 250 Loyalist Rangers, and about 1000 Indian warriors. The initial intent of Loyalist Major John Butler and the Iroquois chief, Joseph Brant, was to harass the Continental troops. Sayenqueraghta and other Indian chiefs rejected that proposal, favoring instead attempts at luring the Continentals into a full ambush.
One of the forward scouts for the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, Lt. Col. Adam Hubley, recorded the discovery of these breastworks that morning. “On our arrival near the ridge on which the action of the 13th commenced with light corps, our van discovered several Indians in front, one of whom gave them fire, and then fled. We continued…[and] the rifle corps entered a low marshy ground which seemed well calculated for forming ambuscades; they advanced with great precaution, when several more Indians were discovered who fired and retreated. Major Parr… judged it rather dangerous to proceed any further without taking every caution to reconnoiter almost every foot of ground, and ordered one of his men to mount a tree and see if he could make any discoveries; … [and] he discovered the movements of several Indians… as they were laying behind an extensive breastwork. “ (online source available upon request)
Learning of the breastworks’ locations through Lt. Col. Hubley’s findings , the Continental commanders knew there was an attempt in the offing to lure them into an ambush. Moving cautiously forward into position, an initial attack on the breastworks came late that morning when Brig. Gen. Edward Hand put his infantry on the far side of Baldwin Creek. From that position, they could easily fire into the enemy’s defense works.
In early afternoon, Gen. Sullivan met with commanders under him to plan their next move. Essentially, Sullivan’s men were to attack the fortified works of the enemy from the south and east with artillery and troops, while the men under Gen. Clinton were to attack the fortifications from the northeast.
The 1st New Jersey Regiment under Col. Matthias Ogden, detached from Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade, slipped south and west along the Chemung River to come around to the right and rear of the Loyalist-Indian forces. The New York Brigade under Brig. Gen. James Clinton and New Hampshire’s Brigade under Brig. Gen. Enoch Poor marched northwest through Hoffman Hollow toward the hill’s eastern slope where they turned to flank the British left. At the same time, Sullivan’s Pennsylvania and New Jersey brigades stayed behind with the remaining light infantry companies. Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s 1st Brigade was to take aim at the center or face of the British breastworks.
Ten guns from the light infantry were placed near the road, ready to open fire on the defense positions and the land in between. Once these guns began firing, Gen. Hand was to fake an attack on the center of the horseshoe breastworks while the brigades from the east were to turn inward, take the summit of the hill, and then turn to attack the left and rear section of the breastworks. All together, with Maxwell’s artillery support, the goal of their three-pronged attack was to surround the defenseworks on the hill in a complete crossfire.
It was a detailed plan which was put together quickly, but one in which the troops readily proved their mettle. The brief battle resulted in a significant defeat for the British Loyalists and Iroquois; however, it could have been much worse for them had it not been for unavoidable delays by the Sullivan-Clinton armies. In maneuvering through the swampy ground of Hoffman Hollow, Poor’s and Clinton’s troops got bogged down. This put the timing of the plan off, and caused enough of a delay that the Loyalist-Iroquois men escaped full encirclement and thus slipped the noose of an utter and complete defeat.
In the meantime, Lt. Col. George Reid’s 2nd New Hampshire Regiment was to position itself to the left of Poor’s troops. Unfortunately, with Reid’s men climbing the steepest part of the slope, they lagged behind the rest of the troops. Joseph Brant took advantage of this opportunity to lead a counterattack with fellow Indians, almost completely encircling Reid. Seeing this, the next regiment in line, the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment under Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn, turned around abruptly to fire into the enemy who were positioned downhill. Clinton and his brigade, climbing up the hill from below and off to the right of Poor, saw these events unfold and sent his 3rd and 5th New York Regiments to Reid’s aid, further thwarting Brant’s attack. [For more details, and above military placements see Wikipedia's Battle of Newtown.]
See also: JOURNALS OF THE MILITARY EXPEDITION OF MAJOR GENERAL JOHN SULLIVAN AGAINST THE SIX NATIONS OF INDIANS IN 1779 WITH RECORDS OF CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS.
For a few hours, the peaceful valley and hills echoed with the blasting of cannons (ranging in size up to six-inch field howitzers), the resounding shots of a few thousand muskets, and the strong acrid smell of gun powder with its residual smoky haze. The sounds of gunfire combined with the hair-raising battle cries of Indian warriors must have reached a deafening pitch at its peak. Naturally, there were losses and injuries on both sides. But, with the realization that they were overpowered, Loyalist Major John Butler, Capt. Walter Butler, and the Iroquois chief Joseph Brant wisely cut their losses and withdrew. With their troops, they retreated towards Newtown and crossed the river with the Continentals in pursuit, but without additional losses on either side.
After the battle, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign continued on their way north through the finger lakes region, burning and destroying at least 40 Indian villages, reportedly destroying 160,000 bushels of corn and a significant quantity of vegetables and fruit which the Indians had set aside for winter. By the end of September, the armies were returning to Morristown, New Jersey for the winter.
“Teaogo [Tioga], Sept, 30, 1779.
SIR:—In mine of the 30th ultimo to His Excellency George Washington, and by him transmitted to Congress, I gave an account of the victory obtained by this army over the enemy at Newtown, on the 29th August. I now do myself the honor to inform Congress of the progress of this army... The time taking up in destroying the corn, in the neighborhood of Newtown, employing the army near two days… I sent back all my heavy artillery on the night of the 30th, retaining only four brass three pounders, and a small howitzer; loaded the necessary ammunition on horseback, and marched early on the 31st for Catherine's Town. On our way we destroyed a small settlement of eight houses, and town called Konowhola, of about twenty houses, situated on a peninsula at the conflux of the Teaogo and Cayuga branches. We also destroyed several fields of corn. From this point Colonel Dayton was detached with his regiment and the rifle corps up the Teaogo about six miles, who destroyed several large fields of corn. The army resumed their march, and encamped within thirteen miles and a half of Catherine's Town, where we arrived the next day, although we had a road to open for the artillery, through a swamp nine miles in extent, and almost impervious. We arrived near Catherine's Town in the night, and moved on, in hopes to surprise it, but found it forsaken. On the next morning an old woman belonging to the Cayuga nation was found in the woods. She informed me that on the night after the battle of Newtown, the enemy, having fled the whole night, arrived there in great confusion early the next day; that she heard the warriors tell their women they were conquered and must fly; that they had a great many killed and vast numbers wounded…”
The Iroquois, who had supported the British by attacking settlements, killing and taking captives, and feeding the British military, were now forced further west to Niagara and northwest into Canada. Under protection of the British forts, but without their winter food supply, many died from starvation, disease and the winter’s cold. Yet, even John Butler, in correspondence that previous May, had referred to the fact that the Indians were not doing well, lacking in production of their own food supplies.
Although successful at Newtown, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign has often been referred to as a “well-executed failure.” Congress congratulated them for what they had accomplished, but they were essentially not looked upon in a favorable light for their failure to take the British forts on Lake Ontario. True, their armies destroyed the Indians settlements and crops throughout the finger lakes region, but Major General Sullivan stopped short of completing General Washington’s orders. They had been ordered, and expected, to continue north to Lake Ontario and capture the British forts at Oswego and Niagara.
However, knowing their field artillery was limited to lighter guns, Sullivan and Clinton returned instead to headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey by the end of September. In fairness to Sullivan, he realized he was not equipped with big enough artillery to take on the well-defended British forts; he and his troops would likely have been annihilated. Also, in worsening health, Sullivan resigned command in November 1779 and returned to his home in New Hampshire.
With Sullivan not completing the balance of his campaign orders, Joseph Brant and his Indians returned to rejoin forces with the Loyalists in 1780. Once again, they viciously attacked western settlements and the established communities back in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valley regions.
These raids and massacres touched my ancestral families in that part of New York. At Beaverdam (now Berne) near the Switzkill River on September 1, 1781, a British soldier led Loyalists and Indians in an attack on the Johannes Dietz family. Johannes’ son, Capt. William Dietz, commanded the local Patriot militia, and was, therefore, a target of the Loyalists who engaged the Indians to make Dietz an example and put fear into the hearts of all other Patriot settlers. After capture, William Dietz was forced to watch his elderly parents, wife, four young children and Scottish maid be killed and scalped. Two young brothers who happened to be visiting from another family were also taken captive. At Fort Niagara, Dietz died of a broken heart not long after arrival as witnessed by another captive from Schoharie County. Capt. Dietz’s father, Johannes, was an older brother of my ancestor, John Hendrich/John Henry Dietz (referenced in my Independence Day article at my blog, Homespun Ancestors. (Book source: “Old Hellebergh,” by Arthur B. Gregg, The Altamont Enterprise Publishers, Altamont, N.Y., 1936, p. 24; signed by Gregg, in my library from my father’s collection) [See painting of Dietz Massacre by Jacob Dietz, son of Johannes, Courtesy of the Greater Oneonta Historical Society.]
The final and most devastating attack was in the lower Mohawk Valley in October 1781 where everything over a distance of 20 miles was utterly destroyed.
When the war was over and the colonists had won, Joseph Brant and other Iroquois settled land given to them by the British Crown on the Grand River in Quebec (now Ontario). The area of Brant’s river crossing became known as Brant’s ford, later simplified to Brantford. Other Indians moved on to the Ohio River Valley region, or joined the Cherokee in the southern states.
Ultimately, the Newtown Battle, or Battle of Chemung, opened the narrow southern gate to settlers who had been forbidden from traveling through this part of Indian territory on their way to settling the western frontier. For American soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary War, the Chemung Valley drew many men back who had taken part in the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.
Certain to have admired the beautiful countryside in both Pennsylvania and New York while detailed there on campaigns, it was only natural former soldiers would seek its fertile land as their bounty award for service to their new government. New England and eastern New York were considered heavily populated, with many regions too rocky for good farming. Western New York was the perfect place to homestead with wide-open fertile land available to establish a new life. With the soldiers settling this area, we can assume their descendants walk among us today, perhaps even unaware of their family’s history.