General Sullivan’s Campaign in Western New York


General John Sullivan was a Lieutenant General in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In 1779, he was tasked with removing the Iroquois Federation as a strategic threat and a force in New York State. The six nations of Iroquois were divided in their allegiances during the Revolutionary War. Four tribes, the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondoaga, and Cayuga, sided with the British since they had long standing ties with England. Two tribes, the Tuscaroro and Oneida, sided with the Americans. The campaign Sullivan fought against the Iroquois was one of the first examples of total war waged against an entire people instead of an opposing army. The purpose of his campaign was to drive the Iroquois population out of their homes in the Finger Lakes and create a refugee crisis for the British troops stationed in Fort Niagara, Ontario. This would serve the dual purpose of eliminating the Iroquois as a fighting force and limit the British garrison’s ability to wage war in the colonies during the 1779/1780 campaign season. Sullivan was provided with an army of almost 4,000 soldiers, artillery, and a large supply caravan. The army that Sullivan fielded was primarily composed of Continental regulars as opposed to militia.

The difference in the composition of Sullivan’s force was both practical and psychological. Continentals were the professional force in the Revolution, while militia were conscripts or short term volunteers. The British generally disdained forces composed of militia, thinking of them as rabble that would flee at the first contact with a professional force. Continental soldiers, on the other hand, were considered far superior opponents. Daniel Morgan used this perception to great effect at the Battle of Cowpens in 1781. He placed the militia at the front of his army with instructions to only fire a single volley before retreating from the redcoats. As the militia retreated over a low hill, the British followed eagerly, expecting a rout. Instead, Morgan had positioned a force of regulars on the down slope of the hill. As the militia passed through their ranks with the British close behind, the Continentals opened fire. The British were hit with a full fusillade, and the battle became a rout in favor of the Continental army. Sullivan’s army was something that the Iroquois and British had to take seriously.

The combined British and Iroquois force attempted to neutralize Sullivan’s army at the beginning of his campaign. The largest battle of the campaign occurred near the modern city of Elmira, NY just three weeks after Sullivan began marching into New York State. At the time, the town was called Newtown. One of Sullivan’s most trusted scouts, Lieutenant Boyd (Boid) found the British and Iroquois force, and turned the planned ambush against the ambushers. Sullivan reported to Congress that his army was able to firmly rout the opposing force and drive them in disarray back into the frontier. From this point forward, organized resistance crumbled, and Sullivan was able to march through the lands of the Six Nations almost unopposed. While moving his army from southern New York into the Finger Lakes region, Sullivan reported that his army marched at the astonishing rate of almost 16 miles per day. This rate is a logistical miracle considering the terrain that he was traversing. Western New York was considered an unexplored frontier to both the British and Patriots. Most of the pathways had been established by the Iroquois and were not truly suitable for the movements of a modern force with artillery and provisions. Sullivan reported that he had to continuously widen the paths in order to move the heavier elements of his column. The effect of Sullivan’s rapid advance was to throw the entire region into a panicked retreat. Most of the villages that the army entered were hastily abandoned a day or two before the troops’ arrival. There are contemporary accounts of food left on cooking fires and even a few people left behind in haste.

The Finger Lakes region of New York was formed during the last Ice Age. As the ice sheets moved south, they carved long thin valleys running North to South through the country. These valleys filled with water as the ice sheets retreated, forming distinctive fresh water lakes. In between most of the lakes there are steep hills that also run North to South. In general, the Iroquois founded settlements near the marshy areas at the ends of the finger lakes. This land allowed them to grow Corn, beans, and squash in well irrigated fields, while still giving them access to fruit trees that they grew nearby. The long, thin lakes also acted as highways, allowing the Iroquois to move easily by water or land.

The geology of the region made the campaign that Sullivan was attempting all the more difficult. His intention was to move from East to West, driving the population before him. Instead, he was forced to move up the Chemung Valley until he reached the northern ends of the finger lakes, then he turned West. He moved along the northern ends of the finger lakes, stopping in several towns along the way to establish camps and fortifications. He sent out details from his main force that ranged in size from 100 to 500 men. These forces traveled down the North/South paths along the shores of each lake and destroyed crops. It is fortunate for Sullivan that he was able to subdue the opposing force so early in his campaign. A guerrilla war fought in this environment could have been much more devastating to his army. As it was, he reported that he only lost 42 soldiers before September 30, 1779. This date marks the end of his campaign in western New York.

Lt. Boyd

Lieutenant Boyd was Sullivan’s most trusted scout. He was the driving force behind Sullivan’s victory at Newtown and was often chosen to scout in front of the army. As Sullivan approached the largest settlement in western New York, modern Geneseo (Chinesee), he sent Boyd and a small detachment ahead to scout the town. Boyd and his group were ambushed near Geneseo. Although they fought bravely, most of the group was killed. Boyd and one of his men were captured and brought to the town. When Sullivan came to Geneseo, the town was abandoned, but he found his Lieutenant dead next to a tree in the center of the settlement. From Sullivan’s letter to congress, September 30, 1779: It appeared that they had whipped them in the most cruel manner, pulled out Mr. Boid’s nails, cut off his nose, plucked out one of his eyes, cut out his tongue, stabbed him with spears in sundry places, and inflicted other tortures which decency will not permit me to mention; lastly cut off his head, and left his body on the ground with that of his unfortunate companion. Source General Sullivan turned back at this point. His original intention was to push his force all the way to Fort Niagara and engage the British force stationed there. I do not believe that he turned back solely because of the death of Boyd, but I do think that it was a factor in his decision to return to the East. All of the major Iroquois settlements in western New York had been razed, and the population was retreating in disarray. Sullivan had effectively reduced the fighting capacity of the Iroquois, and burdened the British with many refugees from the villages he had burned. He was still very concerned with the threat of ambushes and attacks, though. He detailed several times that he took great precautions to avoid being trapped by a force in the frontier. Now that Boyd was dead, he was missing his best scout. He reported several times that his supply of flour and beef was diminished through accidents. He lost supplies while fording streams and when some cattle left the supply caravan. Together, the loss of his favorite scout and his uncertain supply condition forced him to deem his mission completed and turn back to the East.

Buried Treasure

Persistent of the sparsely settled hills is the belief in buried treasure, hidden it is alleged, by General Sullivan’s officers, while crossing the narrow ridge northwest of the lake as a precautionary measure against being captured by the Indians. Sporadic fits of digging extended over a period of a century and a half have yielded nothing, however, in the way of silver and gold.Source Page
Looking at the different parts of the passage, I’ve confirmed several things from other sources.- Sullivan was constantly aware of ambushes. His British and Iroquois counterparts had attacked him before. An ambush discovered by Boyd led to the Battle of Newtown, his greatest success. An ambush had also led to his greatest loss, the barbaric death of Boyd. After he turned back, I think he would have wanted to travel as light as possible. Sullivan was very concerned about how quickly his army could move. Every time he stopped for more than a day, he left behind wounded soldiers and canon. He knew that he would be meeting up with 40 wounded and several canon, including 1 Howitzer, when he reached the town of Honeoye. As he moved Eastward across the North end of Canadice Lake, he would have wanted to lighten himself as much as possible before entering Honeoye. To that end, it’s reasonable to assume that he would hide any valuables plundered from the Iroquois settlements instead of carrying them. There is no indication that Sullvan ever returned to western New York after the campaign, so any treasure buried during his march should still be there. This area is now the major water supply for the city of Rochester. The city bought the lakes and surrounding areas in 1873. Since that time, the area has remained in a state of arrested decay, with no major development or activity to disturb caches that may be buried there.

The real treasure may not have been buried by Sullivan after all. As Sullivan pushed the wave of natives and British before him, they may have buried the important things that they couldn’t lose, but couldn’t carry. These things may be near the old native villages. The speed with which the Continentals over ran the area is remarkable. There are contemporary reports that the natives knew Sullivan’s position and progress. They posted scouts on high points between the lakes. A controlled panic might be descriptive of the mood in the Hemlock/Canadice villages during September, 1779. They knew that they had to leave to the West. After having 1 or 2 days to prepare for flight, several native caches may exist in the hills overlooking village sites.



A hand drawn map made by one of Sullivan’s troops detailing the path that the army took through the Honeoye and Canadice area.  The dates on the map are in conflict with Sullivan’s report to Congress.  I think the soldier marked dates for both the western and eastern travels on this map.

August 29: Battle of Newtown
September 5: Took village of Kendaia along the west shore of Seneca Lake. At this point in the campaign, Sullivan is moving at about 11 miles per day
September 10: Sullivan reaches Canandaigua
September 11: Sullivan reaches Honeoye
September 13: Boyd’s scouting force is nearly wiped out by an ambush, Boyd is missing
September 14: Army enters Geneseo: Genesee was a huge town and required nearly two days to raze. Crops were gathered into the huts before they were set on fire. Stores that could not be burned were hurriedly dumped into the river. Sullivan turned back at this point
September 17: Sullivan reaches Honeoye.

In the area of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes, they were moving East-West 9/11-9/14, spent 9/15 and 9/16 at Cuylerville (Geneseo), then moved West-East on 9/17. There are reports from members of the army that the West-East trip took 2 days instead of 1. Sullivan would then have arrived at Honeoye on 9/18.

The campaign in western New York can be seen in some ways as a prototype for Sherman’s March to the sea 80 years later. At the time, warfare was considered to be a conflict between standing armies not a war waged against an entire population. In modern warfare, it’s common for an army to target civilians and cities, but that strategy was almost unheard of at the time of the Revolutionary War. In many ways, Sullivan’s campaign in western New York was a new strategic tactic. It was devised through necessity and the need to secure the western frontier against attack. British and Iroquois forces had been raiding settlements in New York State for several years before Sullivan arrived. His campaign reduced the fighting capacity of both the Iroquois and British at the expense of the civilian populations in his path. The Iroquois nation never recovered its full strength after this campaign. As European settlers moved into the frontier and displaced the native populations, the decline that had begun during the Revolutionary War continued until the reservation system was adopted in the 19th century. Today, the Iroquois Nation is composed mostly of small, separated enclaves surrounding the Eastern Great Lakes.

The battle of Newtown (Wikipedia)

Sullivan’s letter to Congress, September 30, 1779

Sullivan’s Campaign (Wikipedia)

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