When a force of Iroquois warriors under Seneca leader Red Jacket fought in the Battle of Chippewa, attacking snipers under Mohawk chief John Norton late on the afternoon of July 5, 1813, they violated a venerated centuries-old tradition of peaceful coexistence among the Six Nations of the Iroquois League. The Chippewa battle, in which dozens of Iroquois killed each other, was the sharpest in a series of skirmishes on the Niagara Frontier, the U.S. border with Canada that lay in the heart of Iroquois country.
Initially, the Iroquois Nations took a neutral stance in the War of 1812, though individual warriors were free to fight for either side as scouts or reserves. After the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 19, 1812, the Six Nations in Canada and the U.S. — Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Tuscarora – negotiated an agreement among themselves to remain neutral in this white man’s war. The most important provision of the agreement was that no Iroquois warrior would meet his brothers in battle.
But fatefully, there were Iroquois living on both sides of the border, and once war was declared, both the U.S. and British military leaders sought the support of the Iroquois Nations. Three important leaders stood out among the Nations: John Norton of the Mohawks, who fought for the British; and Red Jacket and Farmers Brother of the Senecas, both of whom fought for the United States.
Norton was the son of a Cherokee father and a Scottish mother and he was educated in Scotland. At a very young age Norton joined the British army, and in 1785 he was stationed in Quebec, where he became involved with the Six Nations of the Grand River. Inspired by the Mohawk chief Thayendanega (Joseph Brant), Norton learned the Mohawk language and culture. Adopted into the Mohawk community, he acquired the status of chief, with the Mohawk name of Teyoninhokarawen. Though he had been living with and had become part of the Mohawk Nation, Norton had maintained close contact with the British, who considered him a useful ally. Once the war began, he led many of the bands of Iroquois warriors in most of the battles that raged in the Niagara region.
Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket, was born around 1758, the son of Ahweyneyonh, of the Seneca Wolf clan. Red Jacket got his English name because of the red coat that was presented to him during the American Revolution, when he had worked for the British army as a messenger. Although Red Jacket was a great warrior and had proved himself in battle, it was at the council fire where he achieved his position of prominence. In many meetings with the British and later the Americans, Red Jacket fought with words, eloquently stressing the importance of keeping the peace and defending Seneca values. When the War of 1812 broke out, Red Jacket was in his 60s, but nevertheless he led Seneca and other Iroquois warriors allied to the United States at the Battles of Fort George and Chippewa.
Farmers Brother, or Ho-na-ye-was, was another Seneca chief who rose to distinction primarily as a great warrior. In his History of Buffalo, written in 1864, William Ketchum quoted elders who remembered Farmers Brother as “a man of high character and commanding influence.” They said, “He was pre-eminent in all the characteristics that could give him influence over his people.” The elders remembered him as “brave and skillful in war and wise and eloquent in council.” In 1813, when the Iroquois in the United States joined the war, Farmers Brother would have been in his 80s. Nevertheless, he took the field as a leader and fought with all the spirit and vigor of a young warrior.
Given the understanding among the Iroquois that individual warriors were free to take up arms in the War of 1812, some Canadian Iroquois quickly sided with the British, and John Norton led them into battle. Warriors from Grand River, numbering only about 40 or 50, joined other native allies of the British in their first action of the war at the Battle of Detroit on August 16, 1812. Defeated at Detroit, the Americans decided to try another thrust into Canada, this time along the Niagara Frontier.
At Queenston Heights, the U.S. Army had its first serious encounter with the warriors of the Six Nations of Canada in a major battle. Early in October 1812, American Maj. Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer had put together 2,500 New York militiamen and 450 regulars from Fort Niagara. The plan was to drive the British forces from the fort and village of Queenston Heights in order to give the Americans a strong foothold on Canadian soil. American troops, both regulars and militia, crossed the river in the early morning hours of October 13 and quickly overwhelmed the small British garrison that was ordered to defend the heights. The American forces soon gained control of both the heights and the surrounding village. The question then was, could they hold it?
British Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock ordered reinforcements to be hurried from Fort George, located about seven miles farther up the river. Indian warriors led by John Norton and John Brant, son of the great war chief Joseph Brant, quickly outdistanced the other reinforcements. Upon arriving at Queenston Heights, they climbed the escarpment and attacked the American troops. Norton took a path through the forest that led almost directly behind the American position. Expecting an attack from the front, Lt. Col. Winfield Scott, who had taken overall command of the American forces when other senior officers had been either wounded or killed, posted only a thin line of men to guard the rear. When Norton’s warriors burst from the woods, it was not an advanced guard they encountered but the rear guard, which they pushed back into the main body of the American troops.
Though heavily outnumbered — Norton had only about 150 warriors at the time of the attack — the Iroquois kept the Americans off balance for many hours. Using the tree line for cover, the Iroquois quickly attacked and then disappeared again. Their constant movement gave the American troops the impression that the enemy had far greater numbers than they actually had. When in the open, Norton’s men stayed low to the ground, leaving the Americans no open shots. To make matters worse for the Americans, Norton’s Iroquois were reinforced by some 80 Cayuga warriors from Fort George.
Norton’s flanking movement prevented the Americans from fully securing their position on the heights. The constant harassment by the Iroquois allowed British Maj. Gen. Robert Sheaffe’s reinforcements from Fort George and Chippewa to retake the heights from the Americans. Once the British regulars were engaged in the battle, it took less than an hour for them to defeat the Americans, who suffered about 500 casualties and had more than 900 men captured.
Shortly after Queenston Heights, the majority of Indian warriors fighting for the British were moved to Fort Erie, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, N.Y. The American forces in the area appeared ready to launch another assault on Canada, and on May 27, 1813, the invasion got underway, this time against Fort George. Crossing the Niagara River, the Americans landed at Two Mile Creek, where they were met by 100 Canadian Iroquois camped nearby. British Brig. Gen. John Vincent later wrote of the engagement, “The party of troops and Indians positioned at this point, after opposing the enemy and annoying him as much as possible, were obliged to fall back.” During the fight at Two Mile Creek a number of Mohawks were killed and wounded.
The American forces had found themselves bottled up in the Fort George area throughout the summer and fall of 1812, unable to gain ground. Desperately in need of light infantry troops, the U.S. Army called on the Iroquois Nations for help to control the area around its entrenched forces. Oneida, Seneca and other Iroquois warriors finally answered the call and gathered along the Niagara in June and July of 1813.
In late June, 1813, American forces locked horns once again with the warriors of the Six Nations of Canada. At the Battle of Beaver Dams, about 17 miles from Fort George, American Lt. Col. Charles G. Boerstler led the 14th and elements of the 4th, 6th and 23rd Infantry regiments, plus 20 light dragoons, into an ambush — not by British regulars nor even militia, but by Iroquois: about 200 warriors from Grand River under the command of Captain William Kerr and Ah’You’wa’eghs (John Brant), and 180 Mohawks from Caughnawaga and St. Regis under the command of J.B. de Lorimier and French Canadian Captain Dominique Ducharme. Though greatly outnumbered by the American force, the Iroquois controlled the fight from the very beginning. The Battle of Beaver Dams lasted only about two hours. In the end Boerstler — wounded in the thigh — was approached under a white flag by the local British commander, Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, who bluffed him into believing that he was within minutes of being surrounded by 1,500 British regulars and 700 Indians. Unwilling to abandon his many wounded troops to the Indians, Boerstler accepted Fitzgibbon’s terms and surrendered 484 troops to a force less than half their number.
In July 1813, the British made a move that would break the agreement made by the Six Nations in the United States to remain neutral. Taking the offensive, the British crossed the Niagara River, threatening Black Rock, which was the headquarters of the U.S. Navy and had the task of defending Lake Erie and the Buffalo area. The Seneca and other Iroquois in the United States responded by joining forces with the Americans in their war against Britain.
In early July, rumors spread of a pending British attack on Black Rock increased, and as it turned out, the rumors were well founded. Shortly after 2 a.m. on the morning of July 11, a British raiding party of about 400 men crossed the river from Canada. Commanded by Lt. Col. Cecil Bisshopp, the force comprised members of the Royal Artillery and the 8th, 41st and 49th regiments. Members of the Lincoln Militia and other volunteers joined Colonel Bisshopp at Chippewa. They quickly captured the lightly defended Black Rock. It seemed that Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn, the commander of Buffalo and Black Rock, had withdrawn most of the regulars days earlier, leaving an immense amount of public stores defended by only 200 militia and 10 artillerymen.
Soon after sunrise Major William King rode the two miles from Black Rock to the home of Erastus Granger, the American Indian agent. At Granger’s home were Farmers Brother and 37 Seneca warriors. Hearing the news of the British action, Farmers Brother led his warriors through the woods toward Black Rock, while in Buffalo Maj. Gen. Peter Porter mustered militia and regulars. He combined his forces with volunteers from the Plains and Cold Springs who had gathered under Captain William Hull. Taking command of the joint force, Porter led them toward Black Rock to join up with Farmers Brother’s warriors. The combined American forces met the British in a conflict that lasted about 15 minutes before Bisshopp ordered a retreat and his troops rushed back to their boats, all but the last of which succeeded in escaping.
After the attack on Black Rock, the Six Nations of the United States officially declared war on the British. Several days earlier, Farmers Brother had said that “the country was invaded, that they had one common interest with the people of the United States, that they had every thing dear at stake, that the time had arrived for them to show their friendship for their brethren of the United States not only in words but in deeds.”
On July 3, 1814, the largest and best American army yet assembled on the Niagara Frontier crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, led by Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown. Included in that force were 500 Iroquois, including Seneca, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Oneida warriors under the command of General Porter and Seneca war chief Red Jacket. The Americans quickly took possession of Fort Erie and then turned in the direction of Chippewa and Fort George.
Two days later, on July 5, opposing armies once again met, this time for probably the bloodiest battle of the campaign on the Niagara Frontier, the Battle of Chippewa. And it was there that Iroquois warriors found themselves facing brother Iroquois in a major battle for the first and last time.
The Americans made contact with the British army, under the command of Maj. Gen. Phineas Riall, early in the afternoon. What followed was an intense battle, with heavy losses on both sides. Riall had about 300 Indians under his command, 200 of them Iroquois warriors led by John Norton. Iroquois snipers were the first to engage the Americans, antagonizing them throughout the morning. At about 3 p.m., Norton led a brigade of warriors, British light infantry and militia into the woods below the village of Chippewa. Once in the woods they divided into three groups and began moving south through the forest for the purpose of engaging the Americans’ left flank.
Red Jacket’s Iroquois entered the woods south of the American position and out of their view. Their mission was to surround and eliminate the snipers on the British side. That move also put the American Iroquois on a collision course with the Canadian Iroquois. Red Jacket’s warriors soon located the snipers, at which point they spread out and approached within firing range.
“The Iroquois rushed forward with a deafening chorus of war cries and pursued the snipers,” Porter later recalled of the battle. “For more than a mile through scenes of indescribable horror, few only of the fugitives surrendering themselves as prisoners, while others believing that no quarter was to be given, suffered themselves to be overtaken and cut down with the tomahawk, or turned upon their pursuers and fought to the last.”
Red Jacket’s warriors chased the remaining snipers who were still able to flee, only to run straight into one of Norton’s lines of Grand River Iroquois and British light infantry. Red Jacket’s warriors, believing that they were outnumbered, then retreated toward the American lines.
While pursuing the retreating American Iroquois, Norton and his men came upon dozens of their slaughtered kinsmen, but they were too late to take revenge as Red Jacket’s men were already scrambling across the fields to the American front. At that point, Norton and his men could only stay low and fire upon Winfield Scott’s 1st Brigade as it advanced to do battle with the British. Scott’s troops managed to gain the upper hand over General Riall’s British forces, and Riall called for a withdrawal, giving the field of battle to the Americans. Norton’s Iroquois and the light infantry were then called upon to cover the retreat of the British regulars. Behind them they left 87 dead tribesmen.
The Battle of Chippewa thus saw the heaviest Indian casualties of the entire war. Besides the 87 dead suffered by the Grand River Iroquois, the American Iroquois suffered 25 dead and many wounded.
One of the Iroquois fighting with the Americans who fell during the battle was the Oneida Chief Cornelius Doxtator. Ephraim Webster, an interpreter who was at the battle, recalled his death: “Doxtator was pursued by five or six mounted Wyandots (Huron). They passed near him, and knowing well the Indian rules of warfare, he stood erect and firm, looking them full in the face; they passed him unharmed. Doxtator was shot just as he leaped a fence near by, upon which the Wyandots wheeled and rode off.” In 1877 Chief Doxtator’s grandson told what happened next: “After Doxtator was shot a Chippewa ran up, tomahawked and scalped him; and with others, captured Doxtator’s two boys, Daniel and George, respectively 17 and 15, who were near their father. But some Oneidas shot the Chippewa as he was clambering a fence, tomahawked and scalped him, and recovered the prisoner boys.”
The sight of Iroquois killing other Iroquois devastated surviving warriors and the Indian communities on both sides of the border. According to An Account of Sa-G-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket, and His People, 1750-1830, by John Niles Hubbard: “That the battle of Chippewa was particularly severe to the Indian forces engaged in it, may be inferred from the fact that the British Indians retreated not only beyond the Chippewa, but stayed [stopped] not until they had gone thirty miles further. The battle ground was strewed with many of their number who had been slain….The sight of slain warriors was far from being a pleasing object for Red Jacket to behold, and having ever been opposed to his people engaging in contests that did not really concern them, he proposed…that they should withdraw from a further participation in the war, in case they could prevail on their Canadian brethren to do the same….The Indians therefore after this retired to their villages, with the exception of a few young braves, with whom the love of war was a more potent influence than the counsels of the aged and more considerate of their nation.”
The fact that most of the Iroquois deaths were inflicted by brother Iroquois changed the Nations’ view of the war and thereafter they remained neutral.