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Reading 1: Growing Tensions in Central New York
The tensions that existed between the people of central New York during the colonial era are well documented. While Swedish scientist Peter Kalm was on a botanical expedition in 1749-1750, he wrote about the relationship between the English and Dutch colonists who first settled the area:
The hatred which the English bear against the people at Albany is very great, but that of the Albanians (the Dutch colonists) against the English is carried to a ten times higher degree. This hatred has subsisted ever since the English conquered this section, and is not yet extinguished, though they could never have gotten larger advantages under the Dutch government than they have obtained under that of the English. ...They are so to speak permeated with hatred toward the English, whom they ridicule and slander at every opportunity. ¹
In the 1757, Thomas Butler, member of an English family that held large amounts of land in New York, corresponded with Sir William Johnson, another great English landholder and Superintendent of Indian Affairs:
I have often Said and do Yet That if any Troubles Shou'd arise between the Six Nations and us it will in Great Manner Or intirely be owing to bad ignorant people of a difrant Extraction from the English that makes themselves too busey in telling idle Stories. I fear we have too many of those who Speak the Indian Tongue More or less and dont Consider the Consequence of Saying we are Dutch and they are English that they had a fight Together last winter in Schenectady. the Dutch there beat the English. The quarrell was because they wou'd not allow the English To be Masters and take from them all they had. that the English wanted to drive them about like dogs, this Story I imagin proceeded from a small dispute between the battoe Men and Soldars last fall, and the English are Severe on the people at albany taking from them what they pleas breaking open their doors when they will, had forced Capt. Herkemer out of his House.²
Sir William Johnson was aware of other tensions between the English and German settlers, including prominent German immigrant Johan Jost Herkimer (or Hercheimer) with whose family Johnson's family had often quarreled. He worried about the alarming sale by the Germans of large quantities of rum to the Iroquois Confederacy and the wedge it was driving between the British authorities and the Six Nations, when he wrote to James Abercromby in 1758:
I believe Sir I have the Honour of your Concurrance in Opinion that for the present at least, it will be both Politick and prudent not to indulge the Indians with a Trade at the German Flats. In a Message I have just sent to the Six Nations, part of which is on this Subject, I have told them that you do not incline, to trust the Lives and properties of His Majestys Subjects to the Assurances of those, who late Experience shows are either not able or not willing to fulfill them, and that at Albany and Schenectady they are welcome to come and trade.
After the French and Indian War had ended, Great Britain sought to gain stronger control of the colonies and started to impose taxes on the colonists to reduce Britain's enormous national debt incurred while fighting the war. Rival groups, because of ethnic, religious, or economic differences, began to align themselves politically. In general, those who became Rebels were fighting for the right of self-governance and freedom from British control. Those who chose to be Tories, on the other hand, were fighting to maintain their ties with Great Britain and the British King. There were also cases where people simply preferred to keep things the way they were, and fought to maintain the status quo, so they were Tories by default. The explosive mixture of old grudges with the political and philosophical arguments of the revolutionary era turned New York into a powder keg.
Once hostilities broke out in 1775, New Yorkers were forced to choose sides. Upon the death of Sir William Johnson in 1774, his son John inherited a 200,000 acre estate and, in later years, also became Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Sir John Johnson chose to be loyal to Great Britain and gathered ammunition and raised a militia group called the "King's Royal Regiment of New York."
Nicholas Herkimer, son of Johan Jost Herkimer, a wealthy German-American trader and owner of 2,000 acres of land, chose the Rebel cause. In 1776 Nicholas Herkimer was made a Brigadier General in the New York State militia and charged with defending the state against Tories and Indians. Herkimer and General Philip Schuyler, with their Rebel militia, forced Johnson's militia to disarm and disband. Johnson fled for Canada, fearful that he would be arrested for his Tory beliefs. Ironically, Nicholas Herkimer's brother, Han Yost Herkimer, chose the Tory cause and became a Captain in the Indian Department; the Herkimers were one of many families split by New York's civil war.
One apparent exception to the rivalries in colonial New York appeared to be the Iroquois Confederacy. For 500 years the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had mutually supported and protected one another. However, continued European settlement along the New York frontier had generated tensions between the Confederacy and European settlers. In 1768, in an attempt to set a boundary line to solve this chronic problem, the British convened a meeting at Fort Stanwix, which had been abandoned following the French and Indian War and was in disrepair. As many as 3,000 delegates from the Iroquois, Shawnee, and Delaware Nations met with the representatives of the King of Great Britain. Instead of resolving tensions, the boundary line divided the Iroquois Confederacy into factions, some opposed and others allied with the King and Great Britain.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Iroquois Confederacy had to decide whether to support one side or the other as a single confederacy or whether to allow each of the six member nations to decide individually. The Onondaga Nation was the keeper of the Central Council Fire, the symbol of the Iroquois Confederacy's 500 years of unity. Although they urged continued unity and neutrality, the six tribes could not agree on a single course of action. The Central Council Fire was then extinguished due to deaths of sachems and chiefs caused by disease. Iroquois unity was irrevocably broken. British and Rebel diplomats courted the favor of the individual tribes, hoping to get them to support their side or remain neutral. The Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca Nations chose to support Great Britain. Although originally neutral, by July 1777, the Oneida and Tuscarora Nations would support the Rebels. There were many individuals who did not choose to accept the decision of their respective nations, so both Tories and Rebels counted among their forces members of all six nations.
Mohawk Joseph Brant, or Thayendanega, was a relative of Sir John Johnson. His sister, Mary (Molly) Brant, became the common law wife of Sir William Johnson after the death of John's mother. British educated and a member of the Anglican Church, Joseph Brant supported the Tory cause and eventually received a British Officer's commission as a captain. Just 37 days before the Battle of Oriskany, General Herkimer and Rebel militia troops went to investigate claims that Joseph Brant was attempting to raise Tory troops for an impending attack on the Mohawk Valley. On June 29 and 30, 1777 Herkimer met with Brant and unsuccessfully attempted to persuade him to stay neutral during the war. By August 1777, sides had been chosen, the participants were armed, and the stage was set for the first major battle between Tories and Rebels.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Develop a chart to track key people and groups discussed in the reading. Across the top of the chart list the headings: Sir John Johnson, Nicholas Herkimer, Joseph Brant, Indian Tories, Indian Rebels, Germans, Dutch, English. Down the side of the chart make these headings: Allies, Enemies, Events, Goals. Take notes on the chart. Did the goals and friendships (or hatred) of the people and groups influence which side they supported before the Revolutionary War? During the Revolutionary War?
2. What were the tensions that developed between the various people who lived in central New York? Between the European-Americans? Between the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy? Between the European-Americans and the Iroquois Confederacy?
3. Why was it important for European-Americans to maintain good relations with the Iroquois Confederacy?
4. What about New York's physical location made its control essential to both Rebels and Tories? What made central New York strategic for both European-Americans and the Iroquois Confederacy? What about Fort Stanwix made it a strategic frontier post?
5. Why do you think the individuals and groups decided to support the sides they did during the Revolutionary War? What impact do you believe these decisions had on their lives and the lives of those around them? How did these decisions impact the Iroquois Confederacy?
Reading 1 was adapted from James T. Flexner, Mohawk Baronet: A Biography of Sir William Johnson (New York: Harper, 1959); Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1972); Isabel T. Kelsay, Joseph Brant, 1743-1807: Man of Two Worlds (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1984); Philip Ranlet, The New York Loyalists (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986); and W. Max Reid, The Mohawk Valley: Its Legends and its History, 1609-1780 (New York: G. P. Putnam's & Sons, 1901).
¹Peter Kalm, Peter Kalm's Travels in North America (New York: Dover Publishing, 1966), 346.
¹Peter Kalm, Peter Kalm's Travels in North America (New York: Dover Publishing, 1966), 346.