Ethnic cleansing of upstate New York remembered

Kudos to G. Peter Jemison of New York state's Seneca Nation, for keeping this bit of history from going down the Memory Hole. Maybe this legacy says more about the political tradition the US is now exporting to Iraq than the interminable empty phrases about "freedom." From Indian Country Today, Nov. 30:

Exhibit examines effects of 1779 campaign
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) - Long before his "March to the Sea" made Union Gen. William T. Sherman a reviled figure in the South, a pair of Army predecessors demonstrated how to wage a "scorched-earth" war against an enemy's homeland.

John Sullivan of New Hampshire and James Clinton of New York, generals serving in George Washington's Continental army, led the Revolutionary War campaign that shattered the Iroquois Confederacy and created a tribal diaspora whose effects are still felt across upstate New York in the form of long-standing disputes over tribal land claims, casinos and taxation issues.

"The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign is the real beginning of that effort to take our land from us," said G. Peter Jemison, a member of the Seneca Nation.

Jemison is among the nine contemporary Iroquois artists taking part in a new exhibit titled "The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign of 1779: Tales of the Survivors, 2005," on display at Cooperstown's Fenimore Art Museum through December.

Jemison, who organized the exhibit, said he suggested the artists look at themselves and their fellow Iroquois centuries after the campaign and ask, "How are we doing? Where are we at right now?"

In early 1779, Washington ordered an assault into the heart of Iroquois country to avenge the massacres of soldiers and settlers in Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley and New York's Cherry Valley a year earlier. Washington's plan called for Sullivan and Clinton to lead expeditions targeting the Finger Lakes villages of the Iroquois - specifically the Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga tribes - who had sided with the British.

The future president of the fledgling United States recommended the Iroquois villages "not be merely overrun, but destroyed."

By the time the three-month campaign ended in the fall of 1779, the more than 4,000 Continental troops in the expedition destroyed dozens of Iroquois towns and villages and more than 150,000 bushels of corn. Thousands of Iroquois sought safety at the British fort at Niagara, where many died during the harsh winter that followed.

Among today's Iroquois, Washington is still known as "Town Destroyer."

The exhibit includes a CD-ROM, ceramics, paintings, photo collages and everyday objects arrayed to depict the Revolutionary War campaign's impact on the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora. Collectively, the artwork depicts a resilient people whose history is deeply intertwined with the birth of the United States.

In one piece, burnt ears of corn and bowls filled with beans represent a significant outcome of the campaign: the destruction of the tribes' food source. Nearby, a display of family snapshots and black-and-white portraits give evidence of the Iroquois' strong family bonds through the generations.

"It was a tough theme for an art show," said Diane Shenandoah, an Oneida with two pieces in the exhibit. "As an artist, personally I feel the need to express the beauty of who we are, of what a rich culture we have in peace."

The idea for the Cooperstown exhibit was sparked by Jemison's concerns that the Iroquois side of the story would be overlooked when the 225th anniversary of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign was commemorated last year.

"It really destroyed the power of the Iroquois," said Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "The Iroquois were never really the same again."

The campaign saw only one real battle, at Newtown, near present-day Elmira. Casualties were few on both sides, which helps account for why the expedition gets scant attention in history books, Crane said.

"You don't have the glamorous battle to talk about. There's no Yorktown," Crane said. "It's just basically a campaign without a lot of glory but with a major impact."

Like Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas in late 1864 through early 1865, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign carved a path of destruction across a vast area. Unlike Southerners displaced or dispossessed by Union forces, most of the Iroquois would never return to their land.

"The impacts of the Sullivan Campaign were more devastating," Crane said. "The Southerners will come back and rebuild, but the Indians never can."

In their journals and letters, the American officers and soldiers wrote of finding tidy, recently abandoned Iroquois communities surrounded by bountiful fields and orchards. After the war, some of those same soldiers returned to the region and settled on Iroquois land they received as land grants in lieu of payment for their service.

"The consequences of the campaign were that it really opened further the westward expansion into our territories, and ultimately led to the goal of removing us from the land," Jemison said.

It should be noted that contrary to the implication of this story, the Iroquois Confederacy was officially neutral in the War of Independence. There were some individual chiefs who took up arms on the British side, particularly the Mohawk Joseph Brant. This was a pretty natural alliance—a largely unrecognized key issue in the colonists' revolt was England's sealing off all lands west of the Appalachians to further colonization in a bid to buy peace with the Indians.

The Iroquois Confederacy, although somewhat factionalized, still survives today—a system of government centuries older than the United States. Efforts to reclaim lands that were lost in the Sullivan campaign are ongoing in the courts. The Cayuga, who suffered the most from the Sullivan campaign, are currently preparing a Supreme Court challenge to a June decision by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing their 64,000-acre land claim suit. (Finger Lakes Times, Nov. 24) These efforts have predictably sparked an ugly backlash from white landowners.

See our last posts on contemporary Native American struggles for land recovery and historical memory.