None of the information inscribed on the historical marker at the entrance to the Hemlock Lake Park in Livonia is wrong.
Installed by the state in 1929, the marker correctly denotes the course of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign in the late summer and early fall of 1779. But its framing of the military campaign, as a righteous expedition against “hostile” Native Americans that “checked the aggressions” of indigenous peoples and British forces during a pivotal stretch of the Revolutionary War, doesn’t tell the full story.
It doesn’t, for instance, tell parkgoers how George Washington ordered General John Sullivan to “not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment” of Iroquois settlements or how, in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington wrote that he hoped to “extirpate (the Iroquois) from the country.”
The marker makes no mention of the 43 Iroquois settlements Sullivan’s and Clinton’s men razed, nothing of the stockpiles of winter food they burned, the non-combatants they murdered or the women and children they drove out of Western New York to battle starvation, disease and exposure at Ft. Niagara during the winter of 1779 – one of the worst on record.
Katie Rupp is looking to change that.
Before graduating from SUNY ESF in May, Rupp took a class through the college’s Center for Native Peoples and the Environment program. During the class, Rupp learned about the campaign and how important a role the dispossession of Native American peoples played in the creation of the United States.
“I feel like it’s hard to learn those things and then not feel sort of an obligation to do something about it,” said Rupp, who lives in Syracuse.
Rupp’s first instinct was to push for the removal of the Hemlock Lake Park marker altogether, but she was dissuaded from that course by members of the Seneca Nation, who she’d approached for input.
“That’s when it kind of morphed into a counter marker,” she said.
Rupp’s proposed “counter marker” would be installed next to the existing marker near the entrance to Hemlock Lake Park. It would inform parkgoers that the area they’re entering was once part of the Seneca Nation, the largest of the six Native American nations that comprised the Iroquois Confederacy, and provide additional context about the nature and outcomes of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign.
The marker in Hemlock is one of many across the state that denote the course of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign.
Joe Stahlman, director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, said the markers do a generally poor job of communicating a comprehensive summation of the campaign, one that is inclusive of more than one perspective.
“The voices of the American Revolution aren’t just one-sided,” said Stahlman. “We tend to forget that New York State - most of it was Iroquois land and the rest of it was actually a British colony. Where are their voices in this?”
Because of this, Stahlman thinks Rupp’s goal of adding context and perspective is a good idea.
“We really need to have that other voice out there,” he said. “Otherwise, it just continues falling on deaf ears.”
He also likes that Rupp’s proposal doesn’t seek to tear down the existing marker. Such a move would be overkill, he said, and go against the goal of offering as wide a range of perspectives as possible.
“Whose voice is more important? No one’s is, but we’ve got to try to be as inclusive as possible,” said Stahlman, who is of Tuscarora descent. “Sometimes that means keeping that other voice, even though I might not like it. I don’t like those markers, but it doesn’t mean they’re not true.”
There is precedent for what Rupp is trying to do, the most visible of which is, perhaps, the broad and ongoing efforts to relocate or add context to statutes and memorials honoring Confederate Civil War soldiers, mostly in the Southern U.S. But there are also examples closer to home.
In March, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City added written explanations to the glass panel in front of a diorama created in 1939 that depicts a hypothetical, 17th Century meeting between Dutch settlers and members of the Lenape tribe. Critics said the scene was “filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés of Native representation.” The new, written explanations tell museumgoers what’s wrong with the portrayals depicted in the diorama, without actually altering the scene itself.
In Toronto in 2016, the local government replaced signs on some of the city’s best-known streets with ones that bore both the street’s modern day name and its indigenous place name – what the area was called by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans.
And at SUNY Geneseo, President Denise Battles now begins campus events with an acknowledgement that the college exists on what was once the homeland of the Seneca Nation.
“That’s a matter of course in other parts of the world in Australia, Canada, New Zealand where you have indigenous populations,” said Michael Oberg, a distinguished professor of history at the college. “The U.S. is getting around to it a little bit late, but I think that’s a positive thing.”
Washington’s decision to attack Iroquois settlements was not without cause. According to Oberg, Washington gave his orders to Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton after it became clear most of the Iroquois nations were going to align themselves with England during the Revolutionary War.
“Iroquois… soldiers struck out against Anglo-American settlements, really, throughout the frontier regions of New York and Pennsylvania, doing a great deal of damage,” said Oberg, who has authored books on Native American history.
Recognizing the threat the Iroquois posed to the future of his burgeoning nation, Washington ordered the two generals and their roughly 3,000 continental army soldiers to respond harshly.
“The strategy was to burn the villages, drive the Iroquois out, force them to become dependent on the British at Ft. Niagara, become a drain on the British treasury and hopefully shorten the war,” explained Oberg.
The campaign also had the added benefit of “opening up massive amounts of land to Anglo-American settlement in New York and securing the frontier so that the breadbasket of the rebellious colonies could continue to supply the war effort, the continental army in particular,” said Oberg.
Continental soldiers burned settlements, food stores and orchards. In some cases, Iroquois engaged the continental soldiers, but mostly they ran.
“There were people who could not flee who were left behind and were killed by continental soldiers,” said Oberg. “There are stories of soldiers taking skin and using that skin for boot linings and things like that – there are some pretty grisly and horrific stories coming out of that.”
About 5,000 Iroquois were ultimately driven out of the present day Finger Lakes region and Western New York to Ft. Niagara, where hundreds died from starvation, disease and exposure during an “extraordinarily brutal” winter.
Oberg said “about 50 percent” of the Iroquois population was lost between 1775 and 1800.
“That’s half the people you know in that period are gone and everyone in your town is, essentially, kin,” said Oberg, explaining the consequences of the campaign from an indigenous perspective. “The consequences are pretty profound.”
Asked how such a military operation would be viewed today, Oberg evoked the conflicts in the Balkans in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
“The type of warfare was the same – essentially just the destruction of property and the destruction of a way of life, being the target; a war against, essentially, communities, non-combatants,” he said. “It would be the type of battle that, perhaps, under earlier presidents, the U.S. would have denounced as particularly barbaric.”
An American genocide?
Under Rupp’s proposal, the counter marker would conclude with a rhetorical question: “Why are we still commemorating this genocide?”
“It was mass murder of a specific group of people,” said Rupp when asked why she thought use of the word “genocide” was appropriate. “I think that warrants the use of the word ‘genocide.’”
Oberg was more hesitant, saying the appropriateness of using the word genocide to describe the Sullivan-Clinton campaign depends on what you mean by genocide.
“If you view genocide as what the Nazi regime was doing during the 1930s and 1940s, then this is something different,” he said.
But if you use the United Nations definition of the word, adopted in the aftermath of the Holocaust, then genocide as a word to describe the campaign could be seen as appropriate, said Oberg.
“Was there an attempt by the U.S., acting through the continental army, to eradicate the Senecas as a people, to erase them from the land, to completely dispossess them? There’s no question,” said Oberg. “Sullivan’s men drank toasts – we know this - to the extermination of the savages. So whatever you want to call it, this was a campaign designed to eliminate Haudenosaunee people in what is today New York State.”
Like Oberg, Stahlman was wary of the word.
“I’d say it’s genocidal,” he said. “I don’t say it’s a genocide because one, we’re still here and two, what they did was basically just piss off a bunch of Indians.”
Rupp’s inclusion of the word didn’t feel right to Livingston County Historian Amie Alden, who reviewed the proposed language at Rupp’s request.
“I told her I objected to her… titling the counter marker as the Sullivan-Clinton Genocide,” said Alden, speaking last week. “Right away when I read that I was like ‘Ugh, I can’t endorse that.’”
While opposed to use of the word genocide, Alden agreed that the marker, and others like it, are in need of updating to include a broader, more objective perspective on the campaign.
“I think we’re way overdue to do something in that regard,” she said. “I think it’s a bold move and I think it’s time.”
A first step
Rupp hopes adding a counter marker to Hemlock Lake Park is just the first of her broader goal of prompting a broad, nuanced discussion of how the Sullivan-Clinton campaign specifically, and the subjugation of indigenous peoples generally, is taught and understood in the U.S.
“I think of this as… kind of stepping stone, hopefully to a bigger thing,” she said. “I’m seeing if I can kind of get this one thing changed – hopefully that’ll cause a larger movement toward education on the topic.”
Oberg said such a goal is worthwhile and that encouraging the perception of history, not as an inert body of facts, but as a fluctuating dialogue, a back and forth of interpretations whose validity rises and falls on the basis of the evidence presented, can only be a good thing, especially when it comes to indigenous peoples.
“Any discussion of history is good and to pose provocative questions, I think, is great,” he said. “…the more debate, the better.”
Hemlock Lake Park is owned by the town of Livonia, which purchased the property from the city of Rochester in 2010. Changes to the existing marker would need to be approved by the town board, confirmed Town Supervisor Eric Gott.
Rupp has yet to reach out to the town regarding her proposal.