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.
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.