‘Our Own Ground to Rest Upon’: Seneca Indians, the 1779 Sullivan Expedition, and the Reconstruction of Indigenous Homelands through Agriculture after Forced Migrations

Delivered at the annual American Ethnological Society Conference in Washington, D.C. in April 2016

In the late summer of 1779, Continental Army troops under Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton invaded the territory of the Seneca Indians in upstate New York with the express purpose of ‘punishing’ them for their attacks against American frontier settlements in their role as British allies. This invasion was somewhat unique in Revolutionary military history. The ‘scorched earth’ policy pursued by Sullivan’s soldiers in Seneca territory was one that the Continental Army almost never utilized over the course of the American Revolution. In the few other offensive invasions in which the Continental Army took part, Congressional leaders were careful to caution their soldiers not to exploit the natural resources of the region at the expense of the local populace.[1]

The Congressional leaders that helped plan the invasion might have chosen to believe that more traditional military tactics could prevail against the Senecas, but centuries of experience with ‘hostile’ Indians had contributed to a rising racial consciousness that drove many Americans to dehumanize a growing segment of the indigenous population as, in the words of Rhode Island delegate Henry Marchant celebrating the Sullivan Campaign in 1779, “flees” that threatened the survival of the body politic.[2] Such Indians were thus rapidly approaching the status of ‘pests’ that must be ‘eradicated.’ The only ‘appropriate’ response to such ‘pests,’ Marchant and his peers in the Continental Congress believed, was that used with any ‘pests.’ Whether they were febrile, animal, or human, the response was the same: starvation.

The key to such a response, it became clear over the course of the Sullivan Expedition, was the total destruction of Indians’ agricultural way of life. By burning down every Seneca field they encountered, Sullivan’s soldiers participated in the attempted erasure of Indian cultures from the very landscape of the continent their leaders one day hoped to conquer. By burning indigenous fields, colonial invaders worked to effectively wipe the slate ‘clean,’ ‘freeing’ their new environment from the ‘backward’ and ‘savage’ cultures that had until recently exploited it. Such invaders thus prepared newly acquired lands for what they considered the profitable techniques of establishing and nourishing the growth of a more ‘advanced civilization’ through European-style agriculture.

The soldiers of the Sullivan Expedition were, like their leaders in the Continental Congress, steeped from birth in the ‘lessons’ of violent conflicts with Indians along the colonial frontier. They were also, like their leaders, seemingly fully committed to the conviction that European-style agriculture was both ‘superior’ to that of Indians and key to the success of the new republican nation. This is made abundantly clear in the celebratory toasts delivered in the inaugural feast held by Sullivan’s soldiers just prior to their entrance into Seneca territory. Two in particular are noteworthy for their expressions of American visions for the continent. Both explicitly center the republican dream of the new American nation on the success of European-style agriculture on the continent, while implicitly hinting at the eventual denial of a place for Indians in that dream. The first prays that the “husbandman’s cottage be blessed with peace, and his fields with plenty.” Meanwhile, the second calls for the “New World [to] be the last asylum of freedom and the arts.” When read in conjunction with an earlier toast for “civilization or death to all savages,” such toasts gain considerable ideological weight as expressions of an exclusionary agrarian vision for the American republic. According to Sullivan’s men, the establishment of North America as an asylum for ‘freedom and the arts’ where yeomen farmers might cultivate their ‘plentiful fields’ in ‘peace,’ was, evidently, only possible if either ‘civilization or death’ was brought ‘to all savages.’ Moreover, the Sullivan Expedition, such men believed, would be central to the execution of that task.[3]

The actual experience of encountering the real-world products of Indian-style agriculture (and being forced to subsist upon them in lieu of the provisions a financially beleaguered Continental Congress only rarely supplied), however, forced the soldiers of the Sullivan Expedition into an intriguing intellectual dilemma. Perhaps out of an awareness of this dilemma, the large majority of Sullivan’s soldiers at one point or another chose to comment extensively on the abundance of the indigenous fields they encountered, feasted upon, and subsequently destroyed.

Some, like Major Jeremiah Fogg, chose to respond with a certain degree of wry humor to the circumstances of being forced to subsist on the plentiful products of Indian fields that they had long ago deemed incapable of producing as much as their own. “This morning we had a dainty repast on the fruits of the savages,” Fogg wrote in his journal from the expedition, and “our friends at home cannot be happier amid their variety of superfluities, than we were while sitting at a dish of tea, toast, corn, squash, smoked tongue, &c.”[4] By deliberately playing upon the seeming incongruity of such an event, Fogg managed to acknowledge its inherent contradiction while defusing that contradiction’s power. Such jokes allowed men like Fogg to maintain their belief in the presumed ‘savagery’ of Indian foodstuffs and the agriculture that produced it even though they were forced by the necessities of survival to occupy a sort of liminally ideological space.

Other men responded with downright incredulity to the plentitude of the Indian fields they encountered. “They plant with as much exactness as any farmer,” marveled Ensign Daniel Gookin, and “their corn and other things [are] very forward.”[5] The “corn [here] grows such as cannot be equaled in Jersey,” echoed Major John Burrowes, and the “field[s] contain . . . simblens water-melons and pumpkins in such quantities” that it “would be almost incredible to a civilized people.”[6] Some, like Lieutenant Colonel Adam Hubley, even went so far as to call Indians fields “improved,” a term typically reserved for those constructed under European agricultural norms and thus a linguistic choice that reveals much about the complex intellectual quandaries being experienced by the soldiers of Sullivan’s Expedition.[7] Distant as they were from the agricultural products of American ‘civilization’ and bereft of Congressional support, it seems the abundance of the Indian fields such men encountered and the sustenance that abundance provided presented such a danger to their perceptions of European agricultural ‘superiority’ that it threatened to undermine the very foundation of those perceptions.

In response to this threat, some, like Lieutenant John Jenkins, chose to believe that the fields they encountered were merely not of Indian origin. After encountering one such field that – like a growing number of Iroquois fields at the time – was surrounded by fences, for example, Jenkins simply concluded that it “appeared to have been built by white people.”[8] Most others, however, did not rely upon such suppositions. Instead, they chose to couch their conclusions about the abundance of Indian agriculture within the context of their pre-existing and growing notions of the bountiful potential of the continent their nation occupied. When Major John Burrowes described the Indian corn he encountered, for instance, he made sure to preface his remarks with the caveat that the “land exceeds any that I have ever seen.”[9] Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Hubley made sure to mention that Indian fields were “pleasantly situated on a rich and extensive flat” where the “soil [was] remarkably rich.”[10] It would seem, then, that such men chose to attribute the bounty of the Indian fields they encountered not to the skills of Indian cultivators, but to the plenitude of the land itself. This plenitude, they believed, could be even more easily exploited by American farmers than it had been by Indian ones. Therefore, they most likely thought, by destroying such bounty through a ‘cleansing’ fire, they were helping to prepare the way for a fuller exploitation of the North American continent. This preparation, in turn, contributed to efforts to reshape the land itself.

The ecological destruction wrought by the Sullivan Expedition forced the large majority of Senecas to seek refuge among the British troops stationed at Fort Niagara. For these men, women, and children, Sullivan’s invasion had forced the issue of agriculture beyond the realm of ideology and into that of basic survival. At the same time, however, their ability to sustain some sense of ‘traditional’ agricultural practice clearly held the potential to translate into a defense of cultural independence. By continuing to practice agriculture according to Indian norms, the Seneca refugees might hope to establish a connection to their new lands while providing themselves with the sustenance necessary to maintain their way of life without being forced to depend entirely upon European assistance.

This impulse among the refugees to continue their traditional agricultural practices after the Sullivan Expedition is poignantly captured in the memoirs of the Seneca leader Chainbreaker (Governor Blacksnake, or Thaonawyuthe). According to Chainbreaker, he along with other representatives of the refugees chose to call for a general council with the British officers at Fort Niagara in March of 1779. The purpose of the council, he recounted, was “to making arrignment for the spring work that we may plant some corn.” By doing so, the refugees hoped to establish “our own ground to Rest upon and to Remain the whole of the Six Nation.” Eventually, the British commander at the fort offered the refugees their choice of nearby lands and the refugees settled upon a territory near Buffalo Creek (a tributary of the Buffalo River in upstate New York). There, the refugees “get lots of hoes [from the British] for to work with, on land, plant corn, [and] Brak up Sod” without “plought or cattle or work horses” in the “best way we could.” It would seem, then, that the refugees were picking and choosing which aspects of European culture they thought might best facilitate their traditional way of life. Therefore, they acquiesced to the utilization of European-style hoes to till their fields in the absence of Indian-style sharpened rocks, planks, or shells. At the same time, however, they continued to refuse to resort to the use of further European agricultural implements like plows or the cattle and horses that might drive them. By doing so, they believed, they might be able to establish a connection to their ‘own ground to Rest upon,’ ground that would belong to the entire Six Nations as peoples with a common bond in the struggle against European incursions.[11]

The importance of agriculture in the maintenance of Indians’ cultural identity after the Sullivan Expedition is echoed in the second published source on the aftermath of the invasion, the memoir of Mary Jemison, a former colonist who was captured as a young girl in the Seven Years’ War. Jemison, known to the Senecas as Deh-he-wä-mis, recounted memories of toiling upon the land after the Sullivan Expedition that were similar to those recorded by Chainbreaker. While retaining a general sense of the importance of sustaining Indian-style agriculture among the refugees to the survival of their way of life, however, Jemison’s participation in that process differed in a numbered of key ways.

Much of that difference revolves around the events that took place after Jemison was offered the chance to return to her home in Pennsylvania during the years of the Revolutionary War and instead chose to remain among the Senecas. Eager to reward her for her loyalty, Jemison’s Seneca brother offered to represent her before the refugees’ council in an effort to secure a tract of land upon which she might cultivate fields for her own sustenance. Many in the council supported Jemison’s claim, but she still faced considerable opposition.

The Seneca leader Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha) was initially at the center of this movement, and led the opposition against Jemison’s claim to a tract of land for her own cultivation. Red Jacket, Jemison recounted, “opposed me and my claim with all his influence and eloquence.” Eventually, despite Red Jacket’s opposition, the council agreed to grant Jemison the land she desired, but only under certain stipulations. Before she could use the land, they ruled, she had to first consent to sign a deed mandating that she own and cultivate the land “under the same restrictions and regulations that other Indian lands are subject to.” Yet, Jemison recalled, Red Jacket continued to oppose her claim, and even went so far as to “with[o]ld my money two or three years, on the account of my lands having been granted without his consent.” Ultimately, it would only be through the interposition of Congressional agents that Red Jacket chose to honor Jemison’s title to the land that she by that time had long been occupying and cultivating. The agents, Jasper Parrish and Horatio Jones, had (like Jemison) lived among the Senecas for quite some time, and were considered by many as cultural mediators akin to men like the Reverend Samuel Kirkland and Colonel Jonathan Gibson that lived among the Oneidas and Delawares. From this position, Parrish and Jones managed to convince Red Jacket that Jemison’s lands had been granted to her by “white people, and not the Indians.” So, in the end, Red Jacket chose to demur in his opposition to Jemison’s land claim (perhaps out of an at least partial reluctance to further complicate diplomatic relations between his people and the United States).[12]

Jemison’s efforts to gain a small tract of land for her own cultivation reveal much about the state of Seneca perceptions regarding agriculture and land use in the wake of the Sullivan Expedition. For her own part, Jemison seems to have more or less adopted the Senecas’ way of life (with the exception of allowing herself to be convinced by Parrish that she should rent her land out to American settlers).[13] Seneca leaders like Red Jacket, however, seem to have been decidedly unconvinced of Jemison’s cultural conversion. In earlier eras, this might not have been the case. Indians that adopted European captives into their societies more or less tended to eventually embrace their membership in the community wholeheartedly.[14] By the time of the Revolutionary War, however, an increasing number of Indians were coming to believe – like Red Jacket (and, for that matter, many Americans) – that their culture should only be enjoyed by those with a perceived biological and racial tie to its origins. This can at least partially (although by no means totally) be attributed to the cultural and territorial incursions presented by Congressional Indian policies during and after the war. So, in opposing Jemison’s claim to cultivate the land, Red Jacket may in fact have been attempting to enforce his belief in the centrality of agriculture to the defense of his people’s culture. Furthermore, there is at least some indication that others may have agreed on a certain level. The Seneca council’s decision to request that Jemison sign a land deed agreeing to use the land according to Indian regulations, for example, could be interpreted as their attempt to enforce a similar belief by relying on European contractual practices to control the behavior of a European on Indian lands.

The memoirs of Chainbreaker and Mary Jemison help uncover the apparent centrality of agriculture to the Senecas’ defense of their way of life in the wake of the Sullivan Expedition’s destruction. This centrality was even more pronounced in the rise of a revitalization movement among the Senecas under Chainbreaker’s uncle, the prophet Handsome Lake (Sganyodaiyo). Guided by a series of visions received during an illness, Handsome Lake developed a code of conduct for his followers that continues to be read in annual public ceremonies by members of the Seneca nation to this day.[15] As scholars like Marilyn Holly have noted, the “Code of Handsome Lake” had dramatic implications for the future of agricultural practices among the Senecas.[16] In particular, Handsome Lake called for a near total overhaul of the Senecas’ ‘traditional’ gendered division of agricultural labor, urging his male followers to take part in the cultivation of fields typically harvested by their wives so that their ecological way of life might have a doubled chance at survival under the threat of American cultural and territorial incursions.

Because it threatened the centuries-old hunter-warrior lifestyle of Seneca men, Handsome Lake’s “Code” represented a particularly drastic transformation of his society’s gender relations through the changes he called for to agricultural practices. This would seem to indicate that Handsome Lake deemed agriculture of more importance to the preservation of his group’s way of life than something as fundamental to the construction of societies as gender. Still, Handsome Lake did attempt to ameliorate the potential strife of this transition to a certain extent by emphasizing a newly patriarchal system of gender relations in his society patterned after that of Europeans. In that way, then, Handsome Lake seemed to be utilizing the methods of ‘cultural reproduction’ in ways that were similar in their generalities – if different in their details – to those of Indians both in his own society and in others like that of the Oneidas and Delawares. By adopting European gender norms in order to reject European agricultural ones, then, Handsome Lake was endeavoring to preserve as much of his people’s culture as he deemed possible in a manner analogous to that of other Indians in other places and times.

More broadly, Handsome Lake’s emphasis on the use of agriculture as a means of cultural defense among the Senecas may, in part, be connected to a larger process in the Atlantic colonial world by which subaltern peoples in the Americas relied upon the maintenance of their own traditional agricultural practices to sustain a sense of their threatened culture. This is as true of other communities that were marginalized and exploited by colonization and colonizers.[17] Many such communities were, in one way or another, displaced from the ancestral homelands that had for centuries sustained their traditional ways of life. They, in turn, chose to recreate those homelands through a deliberate reliance upon their own culture’s agricultural practices as opposed to those of the Europeans that had perpetrated their original displacement. The North American continent was, then, a patchwork of fluid and constantly moving efforts on the parts of numerous displaced peoples (be they European colonizers, enslaved Africans, or removed Indians) to ‘rationalize’ their new landscapes in order to sustain a sense of culture through its attachment to the land itself. While enslaved Africans and Indians relied on such efforts as a means of resistance, however, Europeans – and their American successors – chose to wield them as the weapons of conquest.

[1] See, for example, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1776, 4:215-219.

[2] For overviews of the development of racial thought in the Americas in general, see Thomas F. Gossett. Race; the History of an Idea in America. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963.; Yehudi O. Webster. The Racialization of America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.; Audrey Smedley. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.; and Ivan Hannaford. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996. For more particular analyses of the racialization of American society with special attention paid to Indians, see Jill Lepore. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Knopf, 1998.; Patrick Griffin. American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007. and Peter Rhoads Silver. Our ‘savage’ Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.; “Henry Marchant to Horatio Gates, August 24, 1779,” vol. XIII. in Paul H. Smith Et. Al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789. 19 vols. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976-2000. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwdg.html&gt;.

[3] “Journal of Lieutenant Thomas Blake.” in Frederick Cook and George S. Conover. 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,. Auburn, NY: Knapp, Peck & Thomson, Printers, 1887, 39.

[4] “Journal of Major Jeremiah Fogg.” in Cook et. al. ed., 94.

[5] “Journal of Ensign Daniel Gookin.” in Cook et. al. ed., 105.

[6] “Journal of Major John Burrowes.” in Cook et. al. ed., 44.

[7] “Journal of Lieutenant Colonel Adam Hubley.” in Cook et. al. ed., 163.

[8] “Journal of Lieutenant John Jenkins.” in Cook et. al. ed., 177.

[9] “Journal of Major John Burrowes.” in Cook et. al. ed., 45.

[10] “Journal of Lieutenant Colonel Adam Hubley.” in Cook et. al. ed., 163.

[11] Blacksnake. Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as Told to Benjamin Williams. Compiled by Benjamin Williams. Edited by Thomas S. Abler. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989, 145.

[12] Jemison, et. al., 133.

[13] Jemison, et. al., 134.

[14] See Pauline Turner Strong. “Transforming Outsiders: Captivity, Adoption, and Slavery Reconsidered.” In A Companion to American Indian History, edited by Philip Joseph. Deloria and Neal Salisbury, 339-56. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

[15] For an examination of Handsome Lake’s role within the broader context of the transformations that took place in Seneca society during and after the Revolutionary War, see Anthony F.C. Wallace and Sheila C. Steen. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York: Knopf, 1970.

[16] See Marilyn Holly. “Handsome Lake’s Teachings: The Shift from Female to Male Agriculture in Iroquois Culture. An Essay in Ethnophilosophy.” Agriculture and Human Values 7, no. 3-4 (1990): 80-94. For the text of the “Code of Handsome Lake,” see Lake, Handsome. The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet. Edited by Arthur Caswell Parker. Albany: University of the State of New York, 1913.

[17] See Judith Ann Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.


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