Just east of Elmira and adjacent to Route 17 (soon to be Interstate 86), a granite monument tops a hill overlooking the scenic Chemung Valley. It commemorates the Revolutionary War Battle of Newtown, when Major General John Sullivan led an expedition against Britain’s Native American allies in western New York.
In terms of its significance to the war, historians rank the 1779 battle high, said Paul W. Hawke, chief of the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program. An advisory board of eminent scholars placed Newtown Battlefield among the top six Revolutionary War battlefield sites, he said, when they were asked to identify the relative significance of thousands of military sites of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Sullivan was directed by General George Washington to punish the people of the Iroquois Confederacy. As allies of Britain, they were raiding settlements and massacring inhabitants on the western and northern frontiers, most notably at Cherry Valley in northern New York and Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, according to Glenn F. Williams, historian of the National Museum of the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Williams is the author of Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois, a comprehensive and engaging book on the Sullivan Expedition.
“The expedition was launched because of the war of terror that the British irregulars and their Iroquois allies were conducting on our backcountry,” Williams said. “It was a punitive expedition to reply to that. It was not intended to stop the raids on the frontier, but by the end of the war the Iroquois were not as militarily significant as they had been before the war. It probably spelled the end of the Six Nations’ military domination of that part of the continent.”
According to Williams, Washington specifically ordered “the total destruction and devastation” of the Six Nations settlements. The commander urged that, “the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.” Williams said he considered titling his book Not Merely Overrun but Destroyed, but recalled that the publisher found the phrase “too intense.”
Sullivan’s campaign took shape at Easton, Pennsylvania, where the general assembled troops and supplies during May and June of 1779. It was a difficult task, noted Williams, and fraught with delays. Finally, on June 18, they began an arduous five-day march through the rugged Pocono Mountain wilderness to Fort Wyoming, near Wilkes-Barre. The troops described one leg of that trek as “the swamp of death.”
At the Wyoming Valley outpost, Sullivan was delayed again while he waited for the arrival of more supplies – foodstuffs that had already spoiled needed to be replaced. “You can imagine Washington’s frustration just by reading the letters he wrote to Sullivan, basically telling him, ‘Get the hell moving!’” said Williams.
On July 31, Sullivan’s force of 3,500 men, along with 1,200 horses and 800 head of cattle, left Fort Wyoming near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to march north to New York’s western frontier. The expedition arrived at Tioga, Pennsylvania (now Athens), on August 22 where it was joined by Brigadier General James Clinton and his 1,600 men from northern New York.
On August 26, the expedition resumed its trek northward. Three days later, the troops arrived at Newtown, an Iroquois settlement not far from present-day Lowman. There, a 200-man force of Loyalist Colonel John Butler’s Rangers and 500 Native Americans commanded by Iroquois war chief Joseph Brant waited in ambush.
They were spotted, according to Williams, when an American rifleman climbed a tree and noticed, in the soldier’s words, “an extensive breastwork, which extended at least half a mile, and most artfully concealed with green boughs and trees.”
Heavy fighting ensued and continued throughout the day, with the Americans pounding the British positions with artillery. By six o’clock in the evening, the enemy had been routed at a cost of four American lives, including one officer, and about 14 British and Native American deaths.
On August 31, after burning some 40 buildings and about 150 acres of corn and other vegetables at Newtown, Sullivan and his troops began a two-week-long march north and west toward Genesee, said Williams. As they advanced, they destroyed Iroquois villages and burned crops. By September 30, the general and his men were back at Fort Tioga in Pennsylvania.
A publication by the Chemung County Historical Society notes that in a report to President of Congress John Jay, Sullivan wrote that he and his men had destroyed 40 Iroquois towns. “The quantity of corn destroyed, at a moderate computation, must amount to 160,000 bushels.
“We have not left a single settlement or field of corn in the country of the Five Nations, nor is there even the appearance of an Indian on this side of Niagara,” continued Sullivan in the report. He said he believed his orders from Washington had been “fully executed.”
Sullivan’s routing of the Iroquois and the destruction of their villages caused them to seek relief from the British at Fort Niagara. With winter approaching, several thousand Iroquois refugees crowded around the fort. To the credit of the British, according to Paul Hawke, that relief was forthcoming. He also noted that the cost of caring for their Native American allies caused considerable consternation among the British. In fact, said Hawke, “The overall cost of waging the war is what really tipped the scales. Looking at it from the British economic point of view, the Battle of Newtown had as much to do with ending the war as Saratoga and Yorktown.”
A significant portion of the Newtown battle occurred in Lowman, on land owned for the last 60 years by the family of Virgiline and the late Ralph Jilson. Virgiline Jilson, who turned 96 in January, farmed about 200 acres with her husband Ralph until their dairy barn burned in 1955. She still lives in her Lowman farmhouse’. Built in 1797, it is one of oldest homes in Chemung County. She proudly showed me a Revolutionary War bayonet her husband found one day “right up there on the hill.”
Parcels of the Jilson farm which total just over 100 acres are now owned by Jilson’s four children and a grandchild. That land stretches from Jilson’s home, which is adjacent to Route 17, up to the boundary of the Newtown Battlefield Reservation State Park. Local historians consider it a prime target for preservation.
Russell Smith, who lives in Corning, is vice president of the board of trustees of the Chemung County Historical Society. This January, he sent letters to a select group of local landowners, government representatives, leaders of historical groups and businesspersons, inviting them to join the society’s new ad hoc task force on Newtown Battlefield National Park. The letter read: “The Chemung County Historical Society has commissioned me to establish a task force of community leaders, property owners and others who may be interested in or affected by the establishment of a national park for Newtown Battlefield. It is because we perceive you are having an interest in the outcome that we today invite you to join us in our effort to establish a national park in a way that enhances both the cultural and historical aspects of our community without infringing on anyone’s privacy or property.”
Mary Daniels, one of Virgiline Jilson’s daughters, was among the recipients of Smith’s letter. She lives with her husband, Frederick, in a house they built on the Jilson farmland up the hill from her mother’s home. The Daniels own about 40 acres of land around their residence.
“Well I, of course, am not for it,” said Daniels, about the proposed battlefield national park. “I don’t know how they can possibly do it without infringing on our property rights.”
She was surprised to receive the letter, and noted that she is not averse to serving on the committee. “The main reason I would serve is to find out what actually is going on. It would not be to promote the idea,” Daniels said.
“If they would come in and buy (the property) from us at fair market value, I’m not opposed to that,” she said. What she fears, though, is the government seizing the property by eminent domain.
Hawke, the battlefield preservationist, emphasized that the government does not resort to the use of eminent domain. He said, “The federal government, I think, has learned its lesson. We try very hard to protect private property rights.”
If Congress says the land should be a national park, said Hawke, the more likely scenario is that it would be purchased at fair market value if and when it became available, and if and when monies were available to do so. “If somebody doesn’t want to sell, they don’t sell – nobody’s going to force them,” he added.
Smith’s letter was also sent to Margaret Clarke, a Lowman resident with deep roots in the community. Clarke is a seventh-generation descendent of Jacob Lowman, an early settler of the hamlet in the late 18th century. Clarke grew up in the house built by Jacob in 1819 and now lives in a home built by Jacob’s son, George, in 1839. Clarke runs a 600-acre dairy farm with a herd of 200 Jersey cows. Her husband, Edward Clarke, is a general surgeon.
“One of the things most interesting to the national park people is that this area is pretty much open land,” Clarke observed. “The combined Sullivan and Clinton armies passed through, I think, just about where my house is now. Mother always looked for cannons in the woods because they got stuck in the mud down there.
“In my mind,” Clarke opined, “the idea of some sort of designation of this area as an important battle site is a good one. This is a lovely area, and if this keeps it lovely, I’m in favor of it.”
Clarke believes the park proposal could benefit the community economically: “When they started working on the highway [the proposed Interstate 86], they took away our gas station and two restaurants. All they left us was the dirty-book store,” she said. “I’m thinking that perhaps this might be an opportunity to have some contained growth: a decent restaurant, a nice motel and a visitor center with information about the area.
“I see it as being a benefit without being terribly intrusive,” she concluded.
Preserving a National Landmark
The Newtown Battlefield Reservation State Park surrounds the monument and provides a bucolic setting for the commemorative marker. But the fact of the matter is that the park contains very little of the actual Newtown field of battle. Most of the battlefield lies south and east of the state reservation on privately owned land in the hamlet of Lowman. In 1973, the state park and the adjoining land on which the Newtown battle was fought – a total of 2,100 acres spread across parts of three towns – was designated a National Historic Landmark.
While landmark status signifies a site’s historic importance, it does not preserve the area from intrusive or destructive development. Recently, a campaign was begun by Chemung County historians and other interested persons to address preservation of the as-yet, mostly unspoiled Newtown site.
The Chemung Valley History Museum has published an illustrated “Driving Guide to the Revolutionary War in Chemung County”.It features a map listing points of interest along Sullivan’s march from the hamlet of Chemung westward on a route that coincides with present-day County Route 60. It ends at Lowman and the site of the Newtown battle, a distance of less than 6 miles. In addition to providing an informative account of Sullivan’s forces and the battle at Newtown, the booklet urges the public to “help save Newtown Battlefield for future generations.”
The museum is located in Elmira at 415 East Water Street. Telephone: 607-734-4167. Website: ChemungValleyMuseum.org.
by Bill Wingell
Bill Wingell, a photojournalist who enjoys New York history, has a difficult time not stopping to read every historic marker he passes along the highway.He lives in Apalachin.