I’m sure the men who’d embarked on the 1779 Sullivan-Clinton Campaign weren’t traveling along New York’s Southern Tier Expressway as they moved through the lands of the Iroquois Confederation. In the “Tory-Indian Town of Painted Post,” I’m sure members of the expedition didn’t decide on a detour down U.S. Rt. 15 south toward the Pennsylvania state line.
Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome guest historian Derek Maxfield as the author of this post. A biography of Mr. Maxfield is at the end.
A trek to Conesus, NY, to pay my respects to Capt. Daniel Shays – who is buried in Union Cemetery – resulted in a revolutionary discovery: Groveland Ambuscade Park and Monument. Set atop the western ridge overlooking Conesus Lake is an obelisk dedicated to the memory of a group of scouts from Gen. Sullivan’s army who were ambushed there in 1779.
Quite off the beaten track, the park has seen better days. In 1901 The Livingston County Historical Society erected a large monument commemorating the ambush of American troops near that spot. A small park, complete with a pavilion and picnic area was added – though these amenities are no longer present. More recently a wooden stairway was added leading up to the monument, which stands on high ground.
Gen. John Sullivan, under orders from Gen. Washington, mounted a punitive raid against the Iroquois in Western New York in 1779. When Sullivan’s army sought to cross the inlet at the southern end of Conesus Lake, they stalled while engineers worked to create a reliable bridge across the mire. Wishing to know the location of the British and Indian army, under Col. Butler and Chief Joseph Brant, Sullivan sent a scouting party over the western ridge. Leading the scouting party of Lt. Thomas Boyd, who was assisted by a Native American scout named Han Yost.
Boyd and his men were lured into a trap and ambushed on September 13th, 1779. Only a handful survived to bring word back to Sullivan. In subsequent days Boyd’s body was found in a Native American village mangled and mutilated. Boyd and Sargent Michael Parker had been captured and interrogated, but gave up little information. This resulted in their torture – fingers and toes removed, they were disemboweled and beheaded. Finally, their entrails were flung over tree branches. This tree, still standing – nearly 300 years old, now is a monument to the brave Continental soldiers who died at the hands of the Seneca. The “Torture Tree” was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009.
Sixteen of Sullivan’s men were killed at Groveland plus Han Yost, the Native American guide. The scene of the ambush would prove to be the western limit of Sullivan’s penetration into the Iroquois homeland.
Seemingly just a footnote in the history of the Revolution, it is nice to see that this courageous band that died so ingloriously is remembered today.
*Derek Maxfield is an associate professor of history at Genesee Community College in Batavia, NY, where he is also coordinator of the college’s Civil War Initiative. For his work with the Initiative, Maxfield was awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities in 2013.
Maxfield holds a Bachelors of Arts degree from SUNY Cortland and a Master of Arts degree from Villanova University. He is also a PhD candidate at the University of Buffalo, where he is ABD (all but dissertation). Among Maxfield’s research interests are 19th century politics and culture, especially Victorian death ways and the Civil War.
Maxfield lives in Churchville, NY, with his wife, Christine, two children—Quincy, 13, and Jesse, 11—a basset hound, three cats and a tortoise.*
Spring has not get touched the tree-covered hills to the east of Elmira, New York, but the Chemung River sparkles in quiet anticipation as it flows between them. The Newtown Battlefield State Park won’t open for another few days or so—it operates seasonally May through October—but I have stopped nonetheless to see what might be here.
“I am very apprehensive our Expedition will not appear in History,” wrote Lt. Obadiah Gore, Jr., of the Continental Army.
And indeed Gore’s worries seem to have played out just that way. I know almost nothing about this Revolutionary War battle, although I have driven by the battlefield for decades. In fact, for two full years not so long ago, as I was doing my Ph.D. at Binghamton University, I drove through the battlefield four times a week on my way from and to Saint Bonaventure University, where I work. I really need to stop sometime, I kept telling myself.
For years, the old State Route 17 passed through the battlefield with little more than a sign telling motorists they were passing through and an arrow pointing up a road that could have been someone’s driveway. The expansion of Route 17 into Interstate 86 now gives motorists the chance to whisk right on by even faster, giving even less notice, despite signs that still say I am passing through.