The Failure to Ally with the Seneca in the Revolutionary War

The Seneca, the Keepers of the Western Door, were among the greatest warriors of the Iroquois Nation. The Iroquois had only 2 hereditary war Chieftainships, and both these titles belonged to the Seneca. The Iroquois recognized the Seneca would be the first Nation to face danger of an attack from the frontier

In the early days of the Revolutionary War, The Iroquois Nation did not immediately unify behind the British forces. The Mohawk, the other “older brother” in the Iroquois Nation, formed war parties under John Bryant and John Butler, and began to raid the northern Colonies. The Oneida (one of the “younger brothers” of the Iroquois Nation, the other being the Cayugas), on the other hand, immediately allied with the Colonial forces, supplying scouts for General Washington. The Seneca pledged neutrality, which was also the official policy of the Iroquois.

In the summer of 1777, Col. John Butler called a council, which was attended by the Seneca. He found the Seneca were almost unanimously against joining the hostilities. Col. Butler reported after many days of Feasting, rum and presents, the Iroquois agreed to join with the British Forces. The Oneida, however, continued to fight with the Colonial Forces, and the Seneca remained divided.

A popular Orator and War chief, Great Tree, along with several of his warriors, visited General Washington in Philadelphia in the summer of 1778. Great Tree was willing to attach his warriors as scouts to the Colonial Forces, along with the Oneida, who were still honoring their agreement to fight for the colonies. For the summer of 1778, Great Tree and his warriors did in fact move with General Washington’s army. Late in the Summer, Washington sent Great Tree back among his people to attempt to sway their feelings of neutrality and aid the Colonial Cause.

When Great Tree returned to the Seneca Homelands, he found his people, hearing rumors of an impending attack by the Colonial Forces against the Iroquois Homelands, had united and come under arms against the Colonies. The rumors were, at the time, false, spread by Walter Butler, John Butler’s son; however, Great Tree, a loved leader and great orator, seeing the resolve of his people, tried only to maintain neutrality.

Meanwhile, Bryant and Butler, with the rangers and Indian (mainly Mohawk) allies, continued to raid in the northern frontiers. While they did not kill women and children, often allowing them to leave besieged forts, with men under arms they gave no quarter, often slaying the wounded with tomahawks after the battle was over. June 10th the Board of War of the Continental Congress called for a major expedition of 3000 men against Detroit and into Iroquois Country to punish the offending Indians.

In the year 1779, George Washington ordered Col Brodhead and General Sullivan to lead expeditions against the Iroquois Nations to “not merely over-run, but destroy,” the British-Indian alliance. General sullivan in particular proved effective at this order, and massacured whole villages of Seneca.

Also in 1779, General Schuyler contacted Iroquois, with another offer, asking the 4 nations that had allied with the British (Of which the Seneca were one, despite Great Trees visit the year before) to return to their homes and nuetrality. The Seneca War Cheif Sayenqueraghta noted, there was nothing left. Their homeland had been desolated even more effectively then they had destroyed the American frontier.

After two massacres of Seneca and Iroquois Forces by Sullivan, the Seneca’s ability to alter the course of the war was vastly diminished; however they remained hostile to Colonial Forces until the end of the war.

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