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Minisink and The Chemung River

Brant now proceeded to the loyalist rendezvous at Niagara, but his restless spirit would not allow him to remain idle. He was soon intent on forwarding a design of far-reaching import, in the prosecution of which he hoped to receive the assistance of the western tribes. He held intercourse with the Delaware and the Shawnee, and planned a joint campaign with them to take place during the winter months. The Western Indians were to make an attack on the borders of Virginia, while he would lead an expedition into the heart of the colony of New York. This bold enterprise, however, was fated to miscarry. Word came that Governor Hamilton, the British commander of Fort Detroit, had been overpowered by Colonel George Clark, in February, on the Wabash river. Hamilton, who had captured Fort Vincennes there, had for some time been endeavoring to interest the western tribes in the British cause; but, on July 5, 1778, Clark had captured the town of Kaskaskia in the Illinois country, and, after a forced march from that place to the Wabash with his Virginia militia, had appeared at Fort Vincennes and compelled Hamilton to surrender. The blow was a severe one and robbed the western tribes of their courage; they were so discomfited, indeed, that they would not venture into the country of the enemy. Balked in his purpose, Brant was forced to remain inactive at headquarters.

During the spring of 1779 the whole struggle in America was rather bare of events. The raids against Wyoming and Cherry Valley had roused the indignation of the Congress of the United States, and it had turned its attention energetically to the Indian races who were opposed to its rule. They must be crushed at all hazards. On February 25 Congress had voted that means should be taken to bring aid to those settlements which had been suffering from the Indians. A campaign of vengeance into the homeland of the Six Nations was to be the crowning effort of the year. This was the plan. A numerically strong force was to operate under the command of General Sullivan. Sullivan was to move up from Pennsylvania, and along the Susquehanna until he reached the Tioga river. At the same time, General James Clinton was to advance from the north, meeting his brother officer by the way. The two divisions should then follow the bed of the Chemung river, and sweep mercilessly upon the villages of the Seneca and Cayuga.

Clinton was at Canajoharie Castle on June 16. With difficulty he crossed the twenty-mile portage to Lake Otsego, and by the end of the month was able to tell General Sullivan that he was ready for the last stage of the journey. Sullivan, on the other hand, was making no attempt to hasten. He moved forward at a leisurely pace, and Clinton grew very impatient at the delay. Even Brant marveled at Sullivan's inaction. The War Chief knew only too well that when the two rebel forces met the struggle to save the homes of his people would be difficult.

At this juncture the great Mohawk lay with a considerable body of warriors at Grassy Brook. He had learned that Minisink in the Shawangunk Mountains close to the New Jersey line was left unguarded, and decided to fall upon it. Taking sixty redskins and twenty-seven white men appareled as Indians, he advanced so stealthily that his approach was unnoticed. During the night of July 19 he surprised the town, burnt it to the ground, and carried off prisoners and booty.

Orange county, in which Minisink was situated, was at once in a state of tumult. The local militia flocked together, and were eager to follow hard after their daring foe. Some thought it more prudent to stay at home, but the majority wished immediately to take up the chase. The matter was settled when Major Meeker sprang on his horse, waved his sword, and cried with vehemence: 'Let the brave men follow me, the cowards may stay behind.' With this, the ill-advised settlers picked up the trail of the redskins and started in pursuit. A body of scouts who were slightly in the lead emerged, after various exciting adventures, upon the broad hills that skirt the Delaware river. Below them they could see the Indians twining in and out among the trees. The red men were evidently making for a shallow place where they might ford the stream.

To the colonials this seemed a stroke of good fortune. They would dash down the hill and dispute Brant's passage of the river. Acting on the impulse, they swung confidently along, only to find themselves out generalled. No sooner had they sunk from sight in the forest than Brant had artfully changed his march. He slipped through a deep ravine and came out on the enemy's rear. Then he chose his own position for an ambush. The Orange county men, looking high and low for the Indians, at length came to a halt, when to their dismay they found that the enemy were posted in an unlooked-for quarter. There, in concealment behind them, lay Brant's force. The War Chief now issued from among his redskins, and made overtures to the opposing force. He advised them to surrender without offering resistance; if they did so he would see that no harm befell them. Should the battle begin, he added, he might be unable to restrain his followers. The only answer which came was a hurtling bullet that clipped a hole through the covering of his belt. In an instant Brant had faced about and disappeared under cover. Straightway the enemy bore down at break-neck speed upon the tree-sheltered lair of the Indians. In wading through a narrow brook that obstructed their advance, their ranks became disordered, and Brant made effective use of the situation. His voice rose in a war-whoop and his warriors sprang into motion. After delivering one sharp, destructive volley, they seized their tomahawks and surged into the midst of their foe. From an hour before noon until sundown, sheltered by trees and rocks, both sides fought stubbornly. At last the whites gave way, and the battle closed with appalling slaughter. Of the retreating remnant thirty survived, while the bodies of many of their comrades were left upon the field of battle. Of those who sought safety by swimming the Delaware, a number were killed in the water by the Indians, who fired upon them as they struggled towards the opposite bank.

After the fight, as Brant traversed the blood-stained field he bent over the wounded form of Gabriel Wisner, who was a magistrate of Orange county. The fallen man, though suffering excruciating pain, was still able to speak, but the chieftain saw that he was dying. There were wolves in the forest, and these would soon visit the scene of carnage. To bear Wisner from the field would avail nothing. For a moment the War Chief debated what he should do. Then, turning the attention of the wounded man in another direction, he poised his hatchet. In a flash it had smitten the skull of the dying magistrate and his misery was at an end. In this act as in others Brant showed that his contact with civilization had not freed him from the basic instincts of his savage nature. Few white men could have performed such a deed even on the field of battle with so much calmness.

Brant now returned to the border country and, together with Sir John Johnson, drew up a plan of defense. It was resolved that they should fortify a position on the Chemung river, to resist the advance of the Americans into the Indian country. The place selected was not far from the village of Newtown. A breastwork was built, half a mile in length, and this was protected on one side by the river and on the other by two stretches of elevated ground. Upon these ridges battalions were placed. But the defenders were able to muster only a comparatively small force, vastly inferior to the foe in numbers. In all, the garrison consisted of about eight hundred men, two-thirds of whom were Indians.

It was barely four weeks after the battle on the Delaware that Generals Sullivan and Clinton joined forces at Tioga. They had a very powerful army, consisting altogether of some five thousand men, including a strong brigade of experienced riflemen and an artillery corps with a number of heavy guns. They had sent out corps of light infantry in advance and were now moving slowly against the defences occupied by the king's forces.

The War Chief was in charge of the Indians, and despite the strength of the opposing force he had resolved to make a determined stand. As the foe came on, he sent out his men in small parties from the works to annoy them and retard their advance. The Indians attacked the invaders after the manner of bush-fighters, firing and then seeking cover while they reloaded their muskets. The conflict that ensued was desperate beyond description. Every bit of cover--bush, tree, or boulder--held its man. With dogged valor the savages stood their ground, till driven back by the very impetus of the onset. The enemy were massed deep in front and but little impression could be made on their compact ranks. More distressing still, the Americans had brought their heavy artillery into play, and it began to thunder against the defenses. On this day Brant was an inspiring figure to his thin line of warriors. His resolute countenance gave them hope; his resonant voice rang out strong and clear amid the clamor and spurred them to resist. Wherever the fight was fiercest he made his way, issuing his orders with care, speaking words of cheer, and, in the face of death, striving to stem the current of certain defeat.

Meanwhile General Sullivan had caught sight of the troops that infested the rising ground. A detachment was immediately told off under Major Poor with orders to storm the slopes and drive the defenders from their position. The War Chief grasped the situation in an instant. In a last attempt to save the day, he rallied his warriors and, with the aid of a battalion of Rangers, threw himself with renewed energy into the struggle. But though Brant hurried from place to place with the utmost energy, it soon became evident that the day was lost. The Americans climbed the ascent and, in the teeth of a brave opposition, turned the loyalists' flank. The troops of the enemy began to fold about the garrison.

'Oonah! Oonah!' The savages' doleful cry of retreat vibrated upon the air. Moving towards the stream, redskins and white men crossed it together in headlong flight. It was an Indian custom to carry the dead from the field of battle, but on this occasion so precipitate was their retreat that eleven corpses were left to lie where they had fallen in the struggle. Sullivan and his army had undisputed possession of the field. To Brant and to the men of the Six Nations this was a day of grief and disaster. The gates of their country were thrown open; their villages were left undefended; there was nothing to prevent the ravager from treading down and plundering the fair land of their fathers, the pride of a noble race, the gift of the centuries. But in the light of their conduct at the affair in Cherry Valley it must be said that their fate was not undeserved.

As General Sullivan advanced, burning and devastating, he came at length into the valley of the Genesee. This he made 'a scene of drear and sickening desolation. The Indians were hunted like wild beasts, till neither house nor fruit-tree, nor field of corn, nor inhabitant, remained in the whole country.' One hundred and twenty-eight houses were razed in the town of Genesee. Sullivan became known to the Indians as the 'Town Destroyer.' 'And to this day,' said Cornplanter, in a speech delivered many years afterwards, 'when the name is heard, our women look behind them and turn pale and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers.'

The War Chief had, indeed, been beaten on the Chemung river. And yet, in the hour of defeat, he had added luster to his name. In the annals of the forest there are few incidents as glorious as this Spartan-like struggle on the frontiers of the Indian country. Points of similarity can be traced between this battle and another which was waged, in 1813, by the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, at Moravian Town, on the Canadian Thames. Like Brant, Tecumseh was allied with a force of white men, and, like the chief of the Mohawks in the struggle on the Chemung, Tecumseh played the leading role in the battle of the Thames. In each engagement the fight was against an army much stronger in numbers; in each the defeat was not without honor to the Indian leader.


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Chronicles of Canada, The War Chief of the Six Nations, A Chronicle of Joseph Brant, 1915

 

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