George Washington and the Finger Lakes

Though George Washington may never have visited the Finger Lakes region, he had great impact here.

George Washington

Like many Indian nations along the colonial frontier, most of the Iroquois, who call themselves Haudenosaunee, ended up supporting the British during the Revolutionary War. Britain had made peace with many Indian nations following their victory in the French and Indian War. In addition, the Iroquois had been long-time, well-established allies of the British during the colonial period. And to many Iroquois, the presence of the British government was perceived as the only restraint on large numbers of illegal white settlers encroaching on Iroquois territory that spanned across what is now New York State.

Joseph Brant, Mohawk

Joseph Brant, Mohawk political and military leader during and after the Revolution

Though the Six Nations Confederacy of the Iroquois was officially neutral, those who chose to oppose the Americans, along with their British and Loyalist allies, carried out very effective attacks on the frontier in the Mohawk Valley and in Pennsylvania. They became such a drain on the Continental Army’s resources that George Washington sent an army under Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton to carry out a scorched earth policy in the Finger Lakes region and areas nearby.

USA-Stamp-1929-Sullivan_Expedition

Thousands of troops burned perhaps more than fifty Haudenosaunee towns and destroyed enormous stores of grain, orchards, and standing crops in the late summer of 1779. Though few had been killed outright, this devastation caused terrible hardship and starvation for the Haudenosaunee people. It is said that the invasion earned George Washington the nickname among the Iroquois as the “Town Destroyer” (though this term for him may have originated earlier).

Burning the Town of Coreorgonel

The Continental Army burns the village of Coreorgonel in what is now Ithaca in September 1779. The town was occupied by Tutelo people, who had fled the British in Virginia in the 1750s and were taken in by the Cayugas of the Six Nations. Coreorgonel is now commemorated in the Town of Ithaca in Tutelo Park. Painting by Glenn Norris; image provided by the History Center of Tompkins County.

During Washington’s presidency in the 1790s, however, his image was rehabilitated among the Haudenosaunee. He was perceived as unusual among American leaders in taking stands to honor Iroquois territorial and national sovereignty. This culminated in the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794, which gave official mutual recognition of national sovereignty between the Six Nations and the United States; a treaty, which, though violated at times, is still honored by both governments.