ONAQUAGA REDISCOVERED • PART I
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – The more than 3,000 paddlers in this weekend’s 59th annual General Clinton Regatta can compete with a clear conscience.
Its namesake Gen. James Clinton, who blew up the dam at Cooperstown in 1779 so the waters could carry his 200-bateaux flotilla swiftly down the Susquehanna to Onaquaga, didn’t destroy the Iroquois village there.
He found one building standing, owned by a British sympathizer, a man name Clagford, and Clinton’s troops did destroy that.
But “Clinton didn’t really do much on the way down,” said Bill Starna, the Oneonta historian who spoke on the period Sunday, May 19, at the Cooperstown Village Library.
The actual destruction of Onaquaga was done the year before – in October 1778 – by a contingent of 250 Colonial troops out of Middle Fort (now Middleburgh), led by a Lt. Col. William Butler. (Not to be confused with two feared Tory guerrilla commanders, John and Walter Butler.)
Even William Butler’s troops, who had come down Oullette Creek and razed the Indian village at Old Unadilla (Sidney), found Onaquaga’s population – learning in advance the Americans were on their way – had abandoned the settlement.
The Colonials also destroyed the longhouses and other signs of human habitation, and went back home.
The context of this raid and the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition of the following year were the nasty Border Wars: the American Revolution set neighbor against neighbor throughout the region, as some sided with Great Britain and the other with the Colonists.
The Six Nations – the Iroquois Confederacy of six tribes – had to choose, too. The Oneidas allied with the Americans, but the Mohawks, led by famed Chief (and warrior) Joseph Brant and most of the other Iroquois stuck with the British.
William Butler’s 1778 raid sparked what followed. In retaliation, Brant and Tory John Butler led what became known as the Cherry Valley Massacre on Nov. 11, 1778, where 30 settlers were killed and 80 taken hostage.
That, in turn, prompted George Washington to order the Clinton-Sullivan Expedition the following year. When it was over, the Iroquois were destroyed, thousands of men, women and children killed, and the remaining 5,000 fled to British Canada. “Clinton gets all the credit,” said archaeologist and local historian Buzz Hesse. “We are in Clinton territory.”
In reality, he said, it should be called the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition, as Sullivan brought four brigades up from Pennsylvania; Clinton only brought one down from Albany. The two forces joined at Tioga, modern-day Athens, Pa., and began the destruction of the native tribes in earnest.
At the Revolution’s end, the pacification of the Iroquois allowed a flood of Yankees to flow out of overcrowded New England into Central New York and onto Ohio.
“It was Washington’s war of annihilation,” said one local historian, who preferred not to be identified.
But Hesse said, “Washington could see the future. He knew it” – the bloody conflict between natives and settlers “had to be resolved.”