Refugees of Niagara 1779-1780: The Winter of Hunger

by Timothy T. Shaw
©All rights reserved, 2004 *

The expedition you are appointed to command is directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and preventing their planting more...Should Niagara fall into yourhands in the manner I have mentioned you will do everything in your power for preserving and maintaining it by establishing a chain of posts in such a manner as shall appear to you most safe and effectual and tending as little to reduce our general forces as possible....
- George Washington’s orders to Gen. John Sullivan, 31 May 1779

Each morning, as the Middle East's crises unfold, we read statements in our newspapers that we’re devoted to the plight of the region's refugees. Yet, while digesting these paragraphs, many of us are not aware of a similar desperate drama that unfolded here, during the American Revolution, on the Niagara Frontier of New York State.

Until recently, my view of Fort Niagara was one of a strictly myopic military historian...someone who only sees the military importance of given strategic situations pertaining to a frontier post. Before this time I had never taken into account the problems posed by the mass exodus of people, forced by war, into displacement camps. The story of the Niagara refugees, though from a distant era, is still as poignant today as it was then.

The year was 1779. A great social and political upheaval was taking place on the North American continent in the form of "revolution." Fort Niagara, situated uneasily upon a promontory where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario, soon found itself facing an unexpected and ill-prepared-for crisis. The dilemma which manifested itself was due to the multitude of Native and Loyalist families displaced by war and the advancement of rebel forces. Britain and her Indian allies - in particular, elements of a divided Iroquois Confederacy - had sponsored raiding parties that ventured forth from the shores of Lake Ontario to wreak havoc on Rebel communities.

In an attempt to halt these raids, George Washington - commander of the fledgling revolutionary army - decided that a punitive strike against the Iroquois-Loyalists had to be taken, and Niagara seized. He recorded his intentions "to carry the war into the Heart of the Country of the six nations; to cut off their settlements, destroy their next Year’s crops, and do them every mischief of which time and circumstance will permit." This action is recorded in history books as the "Sullivan-Clinton Campaign;" to traditional Native storytellers, its aftermath is known as "The Winter of Hunger."

The start of the American Revolution found Fort Niagara serving its traditional role as a trade and supply depot, military headquarters, and diplomatic center. In the years since the 1759 conquest it had become a heavily diversified cultural Mecca whose frontier society included soldiers, sailors, traders, workers - and their families - of British, Indian and Canadian ancestry. Fort Niagara was also the command center and critical link facilitating the routes of military communi- cation and supply with other frontier outposts in the upper Great Lakes region (including Detroit and Michilimackinac). Its importance centered on the "portage" path around Niagara Falls, which needed to be protected at all costs.

The fortress, as a center for Indian diplomacy and a depot for much needed supplies and trade goods, quickly became a natural destination for displaced persons to seek. As early as 1777, Native Americans and Euro-Loyalist families began to flock to the protection of Fort Niagara. Among them was Molly Brant - sister of Mohawk War Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) and consort of the late Sir William Johnson - who had taken up residence in a house built for her outside the fort’s walls, following the continued loyalist exodus from the Mohawk Valley (Molly abandoned much of her wealth when she was forced to leave her home in Canajoharie, after the Battle of Oriskany).

In 1779, the armies of American generals John Sullivan and James Clinton carried out Washington’s orders and burned their way through the breadbasket of Iroquoia (in central New York). By Sullivan's offical account, they destroyed some 40 towns, 160,000 bushels of corn and vast quantities of other vegetables and foodstuffs (dried and fresh), in addition to horses and cattle. In many places, attackers spent the entire day destroying crops and food trees. At the main Seneca settlement on the Genesee (Little Beard's Town/Geneseo), alone, troops reportedly burned close to 130 large houses and systematically eradicated all forms of food supply. The destruction in the Seneca villages was so complete that refugees reported there was not enough sustenance left to feed a child for one day.

In the wake of the expedition’s devastation, multitudes of displaced Iroquois families fled to Niagara and began living near the fort, along with allied tribal nations and bands. At first, this amounted to a rather compact community, but as increasing numbers fled the advancing rebel army, this refugee camp extended almost 6 miles (south) to the present day village of Lewiston. The largest gathering of evacuees was most probably in close proximity to the walls of the fortress, and situated outside of the "clear field of fire" land that was an integral part of the defense works.

Native Americans were not the only refugee group to impact the relief situation and the Crown’s resources and funds. European-Loyalist families, many also forced from their homes in the Mohawk Valley, began arriving at the fort in increasing numbers. While this group, as a whole, was treated better by British authorities, they too had lost their homes, farms and way of life. Starvation, disease, lack of shelter and shortages of essential supplies were common specters facing everyone at Niagara, including the garrison. Yet, as terrible as this situation was, it was only the beginning of the misery everyone would face. One of the coldest winters on record followed and took their suffering to a new and even more tragic level.

It is estimated that some 5,000 Indians fled the Sullivan-Clinton onslaught. British military records indicate that number drawing daily rations, at Niagara, during the month of October. (This in addition to the garrison, white refugees and captives.) Even when war parties were sent out, over 3,000 remained in the vicinity. (On Nov. 4th, for example, records indicate that 3,329 Indians drew rations). The Native refugee families arrived at the post with little more than the barest of essentials, having been forced to flee without food, tools, household equipment or winter clothing.

This being the case, Indian families did what they could to shelter themselves from the severe winter winds and snow. What little tentage was available from military stocks was woefully insufficient to meet the need. Many constructed crude huts and lean-tos; others could only dig caves into the earth or pile stones to ward off the bitter winds. Entire families were lost to the freezing temperatures and their bodies covered by heavy snow. Death in the Indian refugee camps was so widespread that in the Spring of 1780, garrison work details were forced to locate the deceased in the earthen dugouts, cover the remains with quicklime and seal them in their hovels (in order to stave off cadaver related epidemics). Literally hundreds died from exposure.

Fort Niagara’s garrison fared little better than its Indian counterpart living outside the walls, although the inside population was certainly quartered better by comparison. One description reported that snow on the parade ground was piled into eight foot drifts during January and February 1780.

As winter wore on, an acute shortage of fresh meats and vegetables caused universal suffering. Dr. James McCauseland of the King’s Eighth Regiment was confronted by and reported such maladies as: scurvy, malnutrition, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, dysentery, stomach complaints, bowel pains, bladder infections, dropsy (from eating spoiled meat), gout, croup, headaches, tetanus, hernias, chilblains, colds, fever, ague, rheumatism, skin diseases, and various wounds, bruises and burns. It appears that they just managed to escape a smallpox outbreak (which was a constant concern). His staff often consisted of non-medically trained garrison soldiers who were assigned to the post hospital along with their many other duties. Lack of proper medicine also contributed to many garrison as well as refugee deaths.

The Native diet during this time would challenge the strongest of men. The traditional supply of venison and other wild game was at best minimal, as the severity of the season devastated their numbers as well. Some rations were indeed issued from the King’s stores, although in reduced amounts, as the months dragged on. Many are reported to have lived on the feet and entrails of meat animals, hides that stank of rancid fat and anything maggoty. In addition to these items, stews were also made from the barest of ingredients, including elm bark and acorns. There was, however, a small corps of key Indian leaders who were deemed crucial to the war effort (by the British Indian Department) and received special rations, much in the same cynical way that officers fared better than enlisted men.

The beleaguered post commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mason Bolton, did the best he could with the meager supplies on hand. Only one supply ship had been able to get through to Niagara on November 1779, and that in itself was considered miraculous. The cargo included: cornmeal, salted meat, cloth and blankets. Everything was carefully stored and rationed out. Once the winds of December came calling there was no relief for Indian or white alike.

General Frederick Haldimand, Governor of Canada and commander of British forces there, suggested that Bolton encourage many of the native refugees to relocate to Carlton Island (to ease the demand on supplies) at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, on the St. Lawrence River. Only a handful did so, choosing to wait it out, return to their homelands and take revenge. Haldimand also touted a farming/resettlement program for Loyalist families (across the Niagara River) which he referred to as " The Niagara Plan of Edible Annex to Fortress", but this would have no impact on the immediate problem.

Eventually the air warmed and the snow and ice began to melt. The process of further resettlement and the planting of crops began. By May 1780, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Guy Johnson, reported to Haldimand that 1,124 men, women and children were planting at Kadaragas (Cattaraugus), Chenusio (Geneseo) and along Buffalo Creek, with more to follow. British authorities attempted to provide enough corn seed and hoes for the families of their Native allies, but they could not possibly satisfy the great demand. The need was great and the remaining refugees steeled themselves for whatever the future would bring.

The American Revolutionary years at Fort Niagara wore slowly on, following the winter of 1779-1780, characterized by communal unrest, shortage of supplies, ever present diseases and the continued embarkation of numerous war parties and British sorties. The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign , while having attempted the destruction of the British-Iroquois war effort (Fort Niagara was never attacked by Sullivan), only served to set fire to the hearts of these two allies to carry on. In fact the raids that laid waste to the rebel held Schoharie Valley and Mohawk River region began at the gates of Fortress Niagara.

While death laden projectiles never threatened the walls of Niagara during this time, the effects of that winter of deprivation and starvation lingered. Today, we see the grounds of the fort looking manicured and pristine. But we should harken back to a time when this frontier outpost was an important cog in the gears of conflict, and remember the suffering that the War for American Independence produced along the Niagara Frontier, especially for dispossessed native peoples.

In her later years, Mary Jemison - a former white captive and adoptee of the Senecas - recalled the winter of 1779-1780 thusly:

The snow fell about five feet deep, and remained so for a long time, and the weather was extremely cold; so much so indeed, that almost all the game upon which the Indians depended for subsistence, perished, and reduced them almost to a state of starvation through that and three or four succeeding years. When the snow melted in the spring, deer were found dead upon the ground in vast numbers; and other animals, of every description, perished from the cold also, and were found dead, in multitudes. Many of our people barely escaped with their lives, and some actually died of hunger and freezing.

*Resource note: Much of the military reporting referred to in the text is taken from microfilm of the papers of Gen. Frederick Haldimand (Correspondence and Papers of Governor General Sir Frederick Haldimand, 1758-91. British Museum, London) in the Old Fort Niagara Library, and as cited in various sources including British author Colin G. Calloway’s book The American Revolution in Indian Country - Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995; United States printing, New York City, 1996).

Timothy T. Shaw is a highly respected member of the Old Fort Niagara Corps of Volunteers. He has written for On The Trail magazine and the Camp Chase Gazette.

Posted by sullivan at April 16, 2004 05:35 PM
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