The Secret of the Arrowheads (Summary)

August 29, 2015

When I was kid growing up in Geneva in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, I was fascinated with collecting arrowheads from the previous civilization that lived there until wiped out in 1779 by the Continental Revolutionary Army. Then it was called Kanadesaga, the headquarters for the forty-strong village network of the Seneca Nation, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. I did not know the real history of what happened to the Iroquois, and the Seneca, because nobody had told me.

Washington’s Orders in 1779 to “lay waste” and “total ruinment” of the Iroquois Confederacy

In 1779, the largest battles of the Revolutionary War were conducted in central New York. On February 25, 1779, Commander-in-Chief General George Washington submitted to the Continental Congress plans for a major Indian expedition, which the Congress authorized.1 The first of four major military invasions, one little known, against the Iroquois occurred in April when Colonel Goose Van Schaick with more than 500 soldiers moved against the Onondaga settlements in east central New York State, “laying waste their towns and crops, slaughtering their cattle and horses, and carrying off thirty-three prisoners”.2

Planning for the remaining invasions from three different directions were outlined, all converging on central and western New York in the heart of Iroquois country, especially the Seneca. General John Sullivan, overall in charge, with 2,500 forces, was to ready his forces at Easton, Pennsylvania in late April to move north upon orders. General James Clinton with 1,500 men, was to begin in Schenectady, New York and move south on the Unadilla and Susquehanna Rivers to later join Sullivan’s forces in Tioga, Pennsylvania, just south of the border with central New York not far from Elmira. Colonel Brodhead with 600 men, was to start out at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) and move up the Allegheny River toward western New York.

Previously, Washington did not have the manpower to adequately fortify the frontier, but in 1779 the British began to concentrate their military efforts in the southern colonies, proving an “opportunity” to launch an offensive towards Fort Niagara on the Canadian border in western New York.

From his New Jersey military headquarters, Supreme Commanding General George Washington, who considered the Indians as “beasts of prey”3, issued his final orders on May 31, 1779, to launch the invasions:

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.4

Chronicle of the Massacre

In June, Clinton began his march from Schenectady southwest to Otsego Lake, the head of the Susquehanna River. On August 9, with 1,500 men and 220 flatboats floating on the crest of a frontal wave formed by creating, then breaking, a dam at the river’s mouth, they were carried to Tioga, Pennsylvania where they arrived on August 22. Similarly, Sullivan marched west from Easton to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, then marched up the Susquehanna and Wyoming valley toward Tioga (Athens, Pennsylvania) where he arrived on August 11, to await Clinton. Meanwhile Brodhead was moving north up the Allegheny River valley to Fort Venango then onto Conewango in western New York.5

When Sullivan’s and Clinton’s forces merged with more than 4,000 men on August 22, they began preparations for their scorched earth campaign into the heart of Iroquois country, first into New York’s southern tier, then into the Finger Lakes region. At Newtown along the Chemung River near Elmira, New York, the Sullivan-Clinton forces armed with artillery overwhelmed 500 Indians under the direction of Brant and 250 Tory rangers. The Indians and Tories fled in an attempt to regroup 70 miles further to the northwest at Genesee. As it turned out Sullivan’s forces were so numerous and overpowering this was the only major battle that took place during this month-long expedition. By September 7, the Continental Army forces had moved up the east side of 40-mile long Seneca Lake and had arrived in the village where I was to be born nearly 162 years later in Geneva, then called Kanadesaga.6

Even the Continental Army soldiers were impressed with the exceptionally well-built towns and houses, the beautiful orchards of apple and peach trees, and extensive corn, beans and squash crops, the Iroquois staples. In Indian town after town, the new “American” army destroyed everything – all homes, crops and fruit trees. Even graves were plundered as soldiers looked for possible burial items of value. Soldiers committed gruesome acts like skinning bodies “from the hips down for bootlegs”7 . Virtually all Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca towns had been totally destroyed.8

General Sullivan’s Description of “Laying Waste”

When the expedition was completed at the end of September, Sullivan issued a report to the Continental Congress:

“The loss of the enemy was much greater that was at first apprehended. [A]t Newtown…I suppose them to have been 1500 (p. 298). [S]aw… Indians, killed and scalped (p. 300). The number of towns destroyed by this army amounted to 40 besides scattering houses. The quantity of corn destroyed, at a moderate computation, must amount to 160,000 bushels, with a vast quantity of vegetables of every kind. Every creek and river has been traced, and the whole country explored in search of Indian settlements, and I am well persuaded that, except one town situated near the Allegana (sic), about 50 miles from Chinesee (sic), there is not a single town left in the country of the Five nations. It is with pleasure I inform Congress that this army has not suffered the loss of forty men in action…”(p. 303) (Italics added).

On the centennial of the Sullivan scorched earth campaign, Reverend Craft, a Presbyterian minister at Wyalusing, Bradford County, Pennsylvania (between Wyoming and Tioga), delivered the following address that celebrated the devastation by Sullivan’s exploits in Kanadesaga: […p. 364] Early in the morning of the 7th [September 1779], the army again struck tents, and after marching about eight miles, came to the foot of Seneca lake, about five miles from Kanadesaga, where expecting an attack, the army halted and reconnoitered the ground. Finding no enemy they proceeded keeping close to the bank of the lake on account of a bad marsh on their [p. 365] right. In about half a mile they came to the outlet, a rapid running stream from twenty to thirty yards wide and knee deep. Fording this the army re-formed on the high ground on the left bank and marched about half a mile with a narrow marsh between them and the lake; they then came to a large morass or quagmire, now known as the “soap mine” and were compelled to pass a narrow and dangerous defile along the lake shore, which was flooded at intervals. Emerging from this, they encountered another morass now known as Marsh Creek, thence by a narrow path along the beach they came to a cornfield and Butler’s buildings, consisting of four or five houses at the north-west corner of the lake near the present canal bridge in Geneva. The path then lay along the north side of Castle Brook to Kanadesaga, an important Seneca town, of about fifty houses, surrounded by orchards and cornfields, distant nearly two miles in a westerly or north-westerly direction from the foot of Seneca Lake, General Maxwell’s Brigade going to the right and General Hands’ to the left to gain the rear and surround the town.

Kanadesaga was a large and important town, ]366] with orchards of apple, peach and mulberry trees surrounding the town. Fine gardens with onions, peas, beans, squashes, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, cucumbers, water melons, carrots and parsnips, abounded; and large cornfields were to the north and northeast of the town. All were destroyed on the 8th of September.9

Historian Page Smith declared that “Sullivan’s campaign was the most ruthless application of a scorched-earth policy in American history. Its destruction bears comparison with Sherman’s march to the sea or the search-and-destroy missions of American soldiers in the Vietnam war. The Iroquois Confederacy was the most advanced Indian federation in the New World. It had made a territory that embraced the central quarter of New York State into an area of flourishing farms with well-cultivated fields and orchards and sturdy houses. Indeed, I believe it could be argued that the Iroquois had carried cooperative agriculture far beyond anything the white settlers had achieved. In a little more than a month all of this had been wiped out”.10

Declaration of Independence, “merciless Indian Savages”

On July 4, 1776, the US American Declaration of Independence from the British Empire penned by Thomas Jefferson was adopted by the 1st Continental Congress. Jefferson severely excoriated Great Britain’s King George for, among many things, exciting “domestic insurrection amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”.

Who Are the Real “merciless Savages

In 1966, I was drafted out of my fourth semester of law school. In 1969 I “served” as a USAF Combat Security Police Section Leader in Viet Nam where I witnessed barbaric atrocities from bombings of inhabited, undefended villages. After I began speaking out against the criminal and lawlessness of the war my commander ordered me returned to the United States. Upon departure, in my parting words I reminded my commander of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, “merciless Indian Savages”. I informed him that I now know who the merciless savages are – of course, they are us. I was one of them even as I personally had not pulled any triggers or dropped any bombs.

The truth of this brutal history, and that of more than 560 US military interventions since 1798, and hundreds of battles against Indigenous Americans, was concealed in those arrowheads I collected when a young kid. If I had only known that my life would have been radically different. However, the fact will not be taught to us by our elders, our churches, our schools, or our politicians. But the truth is present for all to see when opening wide one’s hearts and eyes.


1. Sullivan/Clinton Campaign, Then and Now,].

2. Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 51; Anthony F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), 141-42).

3. Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), 65.

4. Wikipedia, Sullivan Expedition; John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of George Washington (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, XV, 1936), 189-93; Drinnon, 331.

5. Wallace, Death, 142.

6. Wallace, 142-43).

7. Calloway, 51.

8. Wallace, 143-44.

9.  Major Gen. Sullivan’s Official Report written at Teaogo, NY, September 30, 1779, submitted to the (unicameral) Continental Congress, presided by John Jay; Re-published in Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 With Records of Centennial Celebrations, prepared pursuant to Chapter 361, Laws of the State of New York, of 1885, by Frederick Cook, Secretary of State (Auburn, NY: Knapp, Peck & Thompson Printers, 1887), 298, 300, 303, 364-6; T.C. Amory, The Military Services and Public Life of Major General John Sullivan (Boston, Mass.: Wiggin & Lunt, (1868, reprod. 1968), 130, & c.; A. T. Norton, History of Sullivan’s Campaign Against the Iroquois (Lima, NY: A.T. Norton, 1879).

10. Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins, Vol Two (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), 1172.


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