August 20. 2017 11:12PM

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Sullivan's campaign against the Iroquois


In 1774 John Sullivan was elected as a New Hampshire representative to the First Continental Congress, and in 1775 he joined the Continental Army so that he could do his part in fighting for American independence from Great Britain. Sullivan became a trusted senior officer serving under Commander-in-Chief George Washington and he performed well in several battles. As he gained experience, he became eager to take on a command that would earn him a higher degree of recognition and status. Would his chance come in 1779?

During the Revolutionary War, the conflicts that existed between Native Americans and European settlers on the American frontier increased in the level of violence. In early 1779 the Second Continental Congress directed Gen. Washington to launch a punitive campaign against the powerful Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the Six Nations) as most of the Iroquois were aligned with the British. Washington placed Sullivan in command of the campaign. His orders to Sullivan read in part, “The Expedition…is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians…The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements…It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

Sullivan’s expeditionary army was comprised of 4,000 Continental soldiers, 1,200 pack horses, and 800 cattle. The force began moving northward from Easton, Pennsylvania, on June 18, 1779, headed for the Iroquois homeland in the Finger Lakes region of western New York. The Iroquois evacuated their villages ahead of the slow-moving army. Sullivan’s men systematically devastated over 40 settlements — looting and burning houses, plundering food stores, killing fruit trees and destroying seed supplies and crops in the field. The army fought only one small battle against a party of Iroquois and Loyalist rangers, who were easily defeated.

On Sept. 15, when the army was about 40 miles from the British military and trading post of Fort Niagara (located at present day Youngstown, N.Y.), Sullivan ordered his force to withdraw because supplies were running low. On Sept. 24, his soldiers killed pack horses that had become ill or injured. Months later, Native Americans recovered a large number of bleached horse skulls, which they lined up along a pathway, and afterward the place became known as the “valley of the horses’ heads” (now Horseheads, N.Y.).

Most of the 5,000 Iroquois displaced during Sullivan’s scorched-earth march sought shelter at Fort Niagara, while others fled to Canada, or into British-controlled territory near present-day Buffalo, N.Y. At least 1,000 homeless Iroquois died from exposure and starvation during the bitter winter that followed.

In early October 1779 Sullivan’s soldiers rejoined the main army in New Jersey. Washington was pleased that the campaign had effectively destroyed the political and military power of the Six Nations. He wrote that Sullivan’s troops had “manifested a patience, perseverance, and valor that do them the highest honor.” In November, Sullivan, suffering from ill health, and also feeling that Congress, with whom he had clashed on several occasions, was not giving him the appreciation he deserved for leading a difficult campaign, retired from the army. Washington, who had always valued Sullivan’s service, was sorry to see him go.

Some members of Congress had long found Sullivan to be a pompous self-promoter, and one who was too ready to make excuses for his own failings. They were pleased to see him return to New Hampshire but would soon have to deal with him again, as Sullivan was elected in 1780 to serve as a representative to Congress from New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, British officials were keeping an eye on Sullivan. After all, they had attempted to approach him in 1777 through his friend Peter Livius, a Loyalist official in Quebec. But Livius’ letter, imploring Sullivan to change sides, had been intercepted in-route. Would Sullivan have turned? The British, knowing that Sullivan was suffering financial difficulties due to his low-paying war service, wanted to try again. The story that unfolded would involve the kidnapping and imprisonment of John Sullivan’s brother Daniel by the British; the involvement of Loyalist Capt., Stephen Holland of Londonderry, New Hampshire, as an intermediary; and Sullivan’s complicated relationship with a French diplomat.


Next week: Will John Sullivan rescue his brother? Will he join the British? And what about his troubles with the French government?


Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at