Burning out New York

I wrote the book proposal for my biography during the pandemic. I began to pursue the subject, Amelia Bloomer, in part because I realized that a local historical society had a significant collection of her papers. I visited them early in 2020, not long before the first lockdown. Slowly, gradually, with my ability to work hamstrung by the pandemic, I used that material and whatever I could glean from online collections and databases to stick together an outline and sample chapter.

Two years later, I have a book contract, and am getting to work! I know not everyone loves microfilm and deep dives into primary sources, but I love them too much. I have to control myself and keep my goals in mind so as not to spend half my research time plunging down rabbit holes.

Perhaps if I use this space as a place to share discoveries that I love but that are not central to the project, it will help me to focus by identifying them as such? It’s a theory.

I wanted a better grasp of the history of this area when Amelia Bloomer’s parents moved into it from New England, like a lot of the first white settlers of the Finger Lakes and Central New York regions. The history of General Sullivan’s march provided some answers.

Haudenosaunee peoples (often called Iroquois) had been battling and allying with the French and British in order to shore up their own positions and hang on to their homelands for well over 200 years, while also contending with a pandemic of settler-borne new-to-them diseases such as smallpox and malaria (yep, colonists introduced malaria too).

During the Revolutionary War, Native nations allied with the British Tories to raid frontier settlements in Pennsylvania and New York. General Washington decided to decimate Haudenosaunee power by destroying the towns and supplies of the Cayuga and Seneca, and clearing their land for new white settlement.

In the spring of 1779, Generals Sullivan, Clinton, and Maxwell led over four thousand forces, infantry and artillery, through the region. They burned crops, including about 160,000 bushels of corn, felled apple, peach and cherry orchards, and destroying at least forty Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga towns, including what he described as the “Indian town of Genesee… 128 houses, mostly large and elegant…beautifully situated, encircled by a clear flat extending a number of miles over which fields of corn were waving, together with every kind of vegetable that could be conceived of.” Though more than five thousand Native refugees fled to Fort Niagara alone, Sullivan did not manage to collect hostages, or prevent future raids.

Before the past few years, I did not realize that the Native people of this area had such large settled towns in the 18th century, including frame houses with glass windows as well as traditional longhouses (some of which were enormous in their own right, long term homes). Popular history told me they were few and nomadic. It also claimed they were long gone–but their descendants are still very much here.

All of which to bear in mind when looking at this map I found of General Sullivan’s campaign in the Library of Congress online collections. I can almost pick out where my house would be.

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