Madam Sacho and Sullivan’s Army2021-05-28T15:38:40-04:00

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Madam Sacho and Sullivan’s Army

Soldiers’ accounts of encounters with a Haudenosaunee woman who lost everything during General John Sullivan’s raids against Native communities in New York.

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Summary

FIRST ENCOUNTER
Lieutenant William Barton, September 2, 1779, Catharine
About sunrise a squaw was discovered, to appearance upwards of one hundred years of age, who lay in the woods. She had been left by the Indians the day before, and was so decrepit as not to be able to walk. She was, after examination by order of the General, put on horseback, and told to follow her companions, with a letter, but could not ride. She informed us that they had gone only a little way into the woods, and as they expected us, not to tarry any time here since they might return again: in consequence of which I was ordered out with a party of two hundred, to search the woods adjacent, at 11 o’clock am, as the army was to lay here for the refreshment of the troops, and collecting the horses and baggage. . . .Returned to camp, after marching ten or eleven miles, without making any discovery, more than where they had driven off a number of horses and cattle, several of which were taken this day. . . . We found an old Native woman in an abandoned village. She was so feeble she couldn’t walk. The general tried to put her on a horse so she could take a message to her people, but she couldn’t ride. She said her people were nearby, and that we shouldn’t stay long because they might return. I led an expedition to find them. We looked all day, but did not find them.
This squaw likewise said they had a long debate whether they should stay and deliver themselves up to our army or not, but at length it was determined not, the warriors saying they would scalp them if they did. Here was made up a small hut for the old squaw on the side of the creek, having destroyed all the huts belonging to the place at our departure, leaving her plenty to subsist on. She appeared very thankful when she found we did not kill or misuse her. The woman told us her people debated whether to surrender, and decided not to. The warriors threatened to kill anyone who tried to surrender to the Army. The soldiers had destroyed the whole village, according to the general’s orders, so we built a small hut for her, and left her food to eat. She was very thankful we did not kill or rape her.
SECOND ENCOUNTER
Lieutenant William Barton, September 23, 1779
Proceeded to Catherine town, at which place we arrived at twelve o’clock, finding the old squaw here which was left as we went up, with a paper that had many lines of Indian wrote underneath a protection that was given her by the General, the contents of which I did not hear. We likewise found the corpse of a squaw who appeared to have been shot three or four days, which lay in a mud hole; supposed to have came there since our departure to take care of the old brute. Who killed her, I cannot ascertain, but it is generally believed to be three men of ours who were sent up from Tioga express a few days before. We came back through the same village and found the same old woman again. She had a paper that said the general was protecting her. We found the body of a younger Native woman who had been murdered three or four days ago. People think that she came back to care for the old woman and some Patriot messengers killed her on their way through the town.
At our departure from here the General ordered there should be left a keg of pork and some biscuit, etc. for the old creature to subsist on, although it was so scare an article that no officer under the rank of a field officer had tasted any since leaving Tioga, and a very scant allowance of a half a pound of poor beef and a like quantity of flour. When we left, the general gave the old woman more food, even though we don’t have enough for our own men.

Frederick Cook and George S. Conover, eds, Journals of the military expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779, 1887 (Auburn, N.Y.: Knapp, Peck, & Thomson, 1887). New-York Historical Society Library.

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To read multiple soldiers’ accounts of these encounters, click here.

Background

The Haudenosaunee were a powerful Native military and political confederacy in the region known today as upstate New York. In the 1700s, the confederacy was made up of six tribes: the Oneida, Tuscarora, Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga. Women in these communities had the power to select chiefs, participate in councils, and wage war.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the majority of the Haudenosaunee wanted to remain neutral, but the English and the Americans pressured them to pick a side. Just like communities throughout the thirteen colonies, the Haudenosaunee alliance was split by the war. The Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga sided with the British, led by Mohawk Chief Thayendanega (Joseph Brant) and his sister, Konwatsitsiaienni (Molly Brant). The Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Americans.

In 1779, General George Washington was frustrated by the raids that the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and Cayuga warriors were making on Patriots in New York. He sent General John Sullivan to destroy their lands and capture their people (including women, children, and elders), believing this would put an end to their fighting. Sullivan’s campaign destroyed forty towns and approximately 160,000 bushels of corn, but it did not stop the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and Cayuga from fighting for the British. In fact, it proved to those communities that the Patriots would not treat them honorably if they won.

About the Document

On September 3, 1779, General John Sullivan’s army came upon a very old woman in the Seneca village of Catharinestown. The only name recorded for her is Madam Sacho. General Sullivan interviewed her for information about the movements of the British and their Haudenosaunee allies. When he was finished, he left her with food and a small hut to live in. When Sullivan’s army returned three weeks later, they found the same woman, and the body of a much younger Native woman nearby.

These two encounters were so unusual that sixteen of the twenty-seven surviving journals that recount the events of Sullivan’s campaign mention them. Seven of the journals mention both meetings. But each journal tells a slightly different story. Since we don’t have Madam Sacho’s own account of her life, historians must carefully study every account to piece together what the truth might be.

A few facts are clear. Sullivan’s army destroyed every Haudenosaunee village and farm they encountered. Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga communities suffered greatly and weren’t sure how to respond. The women of these communities were particularly vulnerable, because they were targets of physical and sexual violence. The women of Catharinestown wanted to surrender, but they were afraid to, because they didn’t believe they would be treated well by Sullivan’s army. This fear is understandable, since it is clear from the journals that most of Sullivan’s men considered all Native people savages who didn’t deserve basic human kindness. Some even resented the food and shelter Sullivan gave to Madam Sacho!

But these journal entries also raise big questions. Why was Madam Sacho left alone in her village when the rest of the community departed? Elders are treasured members of Haudenosaunee communities, so it seems strange that she was abandoned. Where did the rest of her village go? She told General Sullivan where they could be found, but his soldiers couldn’t track them. Did Madam Sacho give him bad information to give her people more time to get away? And why was the young woman who returned to care for Madam Sacho murdered? Each of these questions show just how much we have left to learn about the history of the Haudenosaunee during the American Revolution.

Vocabulary

  • Catharinestown: A Seneca village named after a French woman who married a Seneca chief and became a successful horse trader. It was located just south of Seneca Lake, in an area now known as Watkins Glen.
  • Cayuga: One of the original tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They inhabited the land around Lake Cayuga at the time of the American Revolution. The Cayuga today live in western New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Ontario, Canada.
  • Haudenosaunee: A confederation of six Native tribes who have lived in the area known today as upstate New York since before European contact. Haudenosaunee literally means “people who build a house,” and refers to the fact that all six tribes built longhouses that housed extended families. The Haudenosaunee were previously widely known as the Iroquois Confederacy, but today they prefer this name.
  • Mohawk: One of the original tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They inhabited the region of eastern New York at the time of the American Revolution. There are still some Mohawk settlements in New York, but most of the tribe moved to Canada after the American Revolution.
  • Oneida: One of the original tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They inhabited the region east of Lake Oneida at the time of the American Revolution. Today there are Oneida settlements in New York, Wisconsin, and parts of Canada.
  • Onondaga: One of the original tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They inhabited the land around the Finger Lakes at the time of the American Revolution. The Onondaga still have settlements in the same area today, as well as some in Ontario, Canada.
  • Seneca: One of the original tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They inhabited the region of western New York at the time of the American Revolution, although some groups had moved into other territories to escape the pressures of colonial settlement. Most Seneca settlements are still in New York, but there are also some in Oklahoma and Canada.
  • Tuscarora: This tribe originally lived in the areas known today as the Carolinas, but when they were forced to move by European settlers, they came to the area known today as upstate New York and were allowed to join the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in 1722. Today there are Tuscarora settlements in New York and Ontario, Canada.

Pronunciation

  • Cayuga: KAI-you-guh
  • Haudenosaunee: HOE-den-a-uh-SHOW-nee
  • Konwatsitsiaienni: cohn-WAT-see-tzigh-WEH-nee
  • Mohawk: MOW-hawk
  • Oneida: o-NYE-duh
  • Onondaga: ON-nuhn-daa-guh
  • Seneca: SEN-uh-kuh
  • Thayendanega: THEY-end-uh-NE-guh
  • Tuscarora: tusk-uh-ROAR-uh

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it important to learn about the experiences of Native communities during the American Revolution?
  • Why do each of these accounts differ? How can historians find the truth when no two sources agree?
  • The journalists all describe Madam Sacho as weak and defenseless. Are there any clues that she might be more than she seems?
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Suggested Activities

  • Divide the various soldier accounts among the class, and have each group present on what they think the exact events of the encounters with Madam Sacho were. Then work together as a class to come up with one version of events you all agree on.
  • Compare Madam Sacho’s war experiences with those of Anne Hulton, Mrs. A. Hampton, Lucy Knox, Deborah Squash, and Peggy Gwynn, and discuss how race and class played a determining factor in their experiences.
  • Teach these accounts together with the life story of Nanyehi Nancy Ward for a lesson about Native experiences of the American Revolution.

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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