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Walking scorched earth

150 miles along Upstateā€™s lost history


I walked this trail in 1979, on the 200th anniversary of the Scorched Earth Campaign, because I was sympathetic to the plight of the Iroquois. There is a vast array of material --- books, Internet, the blue-and-yellow state historical signs along the highway --- telling the white man's version of what happened in 1779. But the Iroquois seemed to have no voice. I walked Scorched Earth again in 2004 for two reasons: to give a new-century voice to the victims and to see if the people and places along the way --- or maybe me --- had changed in 25 years.

Day four

Far from camping out, as General Sullivan's colonial army did in 1779, this morning I awaken and study the décor of the eight-foot fireplace in my bedroom at the Yale Manor Bed & Breakfast, in Varick, on Seneca Lake, just south of Geneva.

I have pre-breakfast coffee in the sitting room with three couples from Toronto.

The history of this home personifies the changes of a post-Scorched Earth world. It's on Yale Farm Road, built by early settlers of that name. Its ambitious size and muscular style tell of the importance of agriculture as an incentive for owning land in the early years of this country.

The owners, Donna and Hugh Cunningham, are ex-Kodakers --- corporate workers displaced in the 1990s by a shifting world economy.

"Our guests come from everywhere --- Kenya, New Zealand, the Czech Republic," Donna says. "There are mornings when we're the only ones at the table speaking English --- this is great fun!"

Area wineries, Hobart and William Smith Colleges --- unknown to the Iroquois --- are the biggest draw.

September 7 and 8, 1779

The Continentals round the north end of Seneca Lake.

"Here we again formed Colums," one diarist writes, "and marched thro a Corn field... where the men had orders to pluck Corn as they marched, which they did."

The soldiers destroy Kanadesaga (Geneva and Seneca Castle), a compact village of 70 or 80 houses, abandoned except for a small boy "about 3 year old found running about... which One of our Officers pickt up and found it to be a White Child... so much tand and smoaked that we could hardly Distinguish it from an Indian Child... & could give no account of itself, only said his mamy was gone."

The main army lays over a day while a smaller detachment goes out and destroys the Indian village at present-day Waterloo.

When I walked this route 25 years ago I'd found, 100 feet off the road and hidden in two feet of un-mown grass, a living room-sized mound of earth with a plaque:

"Kan-a-de-se-ga, burial mound of Seneca Indians and chief castle of the Seneca Nation, destroyed 9/7/1779."

I'd chatted with a young man working at the gas station next door; he was unaware the mound or plaque existed.

On foot in 2004, the burial mound site is neatly trimmed with a large new granite monument to the Iroquois. The gas station is gone, replaced by a new mini-mart. Lunchtime crowds are lined up in double rows for cold drinks and deli sandwiches.

Day five

September 10, 1779

The army enters Canandaigua but sees little of the Indians, clearly alerted by their clamorous approach. The campfires are still burning.

One diarist asserts, "It was the best town we have seen yet. Many of the houses were closed up with signs on the doors proclaiming, 'he who destroys this house his offspring shall suffer for it.'"

The army quickly destroys the town's 30 houses and 50 acres of crops, in what has now become a routine exercise.

Canandaigua, 15 years later, would be the site of the signing of the definitive and now famous Pickering Treaty between the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and the United States Government. Seneca faithkeeper Peter Jemison co-edited a book about this treaty --- Treaty of Canandaigua 1794 (2000, Clear Light Publishers), important reading for anyone interested in the validity of 21st-century Indian land claims in New York.

Just west of Canandaigua, on County Road 32, I come to a cemetery so old some of its inhabitants were alive and could have been living here at the time of the signing of the Pickering Treaty. Two slate gravestones, side by side, proclaim the passing of Reverend Zadoc Hunn and his daughter Jemima Hunn, who both died June 12, 1801.

September 11, 1779

The army is making better time. Each day there are fewer rations to carry. Slow packhorses are left behind or shot. They enter each village closer on the heels of the fleeing Indians.

At Honeoye, Beatty writes, "Indians just made their escape. Left their Pack & blankets & potatoes Roasting in the fire."

Day six

In Honeoye, I meet Hazel Gilbert. For the second time. When I walked through here in 1979, she'd seen me resting on the church steps across the street from her house --- then in Bristol --- and made me a big lunch. She told me then that, at 17, in 1929, she'd danced at the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Scorched Earth Campaign, which included the unveiling of a Sullivan memorial in the Village of Honeoye. Today, at 92 years of age, she accompanies me the short distance from her apartment to that memorial.

She leans down and begins pulling dead leaves from the flowers surrounding the stone and offers, with nine decades of perspective, "The Indians... they were mistreated... we drove them out."

September 12, 1779

At Conesus Lake, Lieutenant Boyd is told to take four men and scout ahead for Iroquois. In a move that will prove critical, Boyd opts to take 26 men with him, including an Oneida scout named Hanyost.

Boyd's scouting party goes ahead of the main army and searches out the last 10 miles of the Campaign. The party shoots a lone Seneca. The Oneida scout takes the Seneca's scalp. The scouting party finds itself lost and camps overnight in an abandoned Indian house.

Meanwhile, back in Conesus, the army sets about destroying the village and building a bridge across the swampy lake inlet so it can advance.

In 2004 the Conesus Inlet has been backfilled and is now Dracola Shores, a housing development. A sign says, "garage sale." In the surrounding marshy area along the road grow acres of cattails and purple loosestrife.

September 13, 1779

Unknown to the army or the scouting party, 400 Iroquois and Loyalists have crept into the area and lie in ambush on the hillside facing the bridge construction. They will charge downhill on the first soldiers to cross the bridge before reinforcements can cross to help.

Not to be.

Lieutenant Boyd's scouting party, returning to the main army, stumbles into the rear of the ambuscade. The startled Indians wheel around to see Hanyost with the fresh Seneca scalp dangling from his waist. The enraged would-be ambushers hack him to pieces with battleaxes, and in the face-to-face fight that follows, 15 of Boyd's men die.

Abandoning the ambush, the Indians flee to Genesee Castle, a Seneca stronghold, with two prisoners, Lieutenant Boyd and Sergeant Parker.

Day seven

I stand on this lonely hillside, on David Gray Hill Road just off Route 256, and stare at the slightly tipped monument listing the names of the men who are buried here, where they fell 225 years ago. This is the first time on this trek I feel sympathy for the colonials.

I work my way west along country roads, through farmlands so extensive they might be measured in square miles, not acres

I pass a huge dairy farming operation where, next to the road, are 100 igloo-like calf houses, five perfect rows of 20. A man works his way along the rows, mixing feed for each calf. We come abreast, he looks up, and we greet each other. He is Mexican.

September 13, 1779

At Genesee Castle, Boyd and Parker are tied to an oak tree, disemboweled, and skinned alive.

The oak tree, first visible from the elevated highway where semis roar past, looks too small to be historical. But as I leave the highway and walk across the small park, the tree looms larger. Using a tape measure I brought for this purpose, I find the tree is 22 feet in circumference at chest height. There are several commemorative plaques here in the Boyd-Parker Memorial Park. One is an arboreal attestation that this tree is old enough to have been here in the 18th century. Based on my own college summers as a landscaper, tree surgeon's helper, and firewood processor, I'll go a step further and say this tree could easily be more than 400 years old, already 200 in 1779.

September 14 and 15, 1779

The army arrives at Genesee Castle and finds the bodies of Boyd and Parker. Soldiers are outraged and with "cheerfulness" they destroy the town, whose buildings, crops, and orchards are so extensive it takes two days.

September 16

The army has accomplished its goal and turns to retrace its route back to Pennsylvania. Coming back through the hillside, soldiers first discover the bodies of the Oneida scout and the 15 soldiers, and realize there had been a foiled ambuscade. Sullivan, himself, reports that the fighting had been so close that "the powder of the enemy's muskets was driven into their flesh."

From the colonials' point of view, Sullivan's Scorched Earth Campaign is a success. Forty Indian villages are destroyed, at a cost of only 40 colonial soldiers' lives. This Campaign opens New York to colonial expansion, makes the Iroquois a burden on the British, and undermines the latter's military strength on the frontier.

In the fall of 1779, thousands of Indians, unable to face the coming winter with their homes and crops destroyed, will set out on foot for Canada, looking for food and shelter at the British fort at Niagara. Many will starve to death.

Colonial soldiers --- spurred by free land grants from the government in return for their military service --- return to Upstate New York following the Revolution to settle. There is an old cemetery near Newtown (Chemung) with a monument listing the names of nine soldiers of the American Revolution buried there.

"All served in the Sullivan expedition of 1779 and later settled in the Chemung Valley."


When the colonials undertook the Campaign in 1779, they thought they were in the right. And they were, of course, the reigning power.

When I walked this trail in 1979, it was in the wake of the US bicentennial, an extended celebration that had left most white Americans feeling pretty good about themselves and their place on this earth. I sensed a magnanimous feeling toward the Iroquois who were, by then, an historic, harmless phenomenon. If they wanted to sell tax-free gas and cigarettes in Cattaraugus County, let them.

But 25 more years have passed. It's 2004 and the true people, or the Haudenosaunee, as the Iroquois call themselves, have become enlightened. They want retribution in land and cash; a small amount based on what they lost and our government's ability to pay. At the rate the reigning powers are moving, our state and federal governments may spend more on paperwork to rebut the Indian claims than the total settlement asked for.

I envision the 14,000 true people living in New York today, and their cousins in Oklahoma, persisting in their legal claims because they now have on their side two of the most powerful tools in the free world, tools they weren't using even 25 years ago: the casino and the courtroom. Further, I find it eerie that native darker-skinned peoples on other shores are rising against us. I wonder: where will Scorched Earth Campaigns have led us in another 25 years?