Monuments to genocide

There are monuments in Syracuse City Parks that commemorate an act of genocide carried out by the United States Government against the Onondaga Nation in April of 1779. These monuments memorialize the Van Schaik Expedition—a part of the infamous Sullivan-Clinton campaign—which passed from Fort Stanwix, through the present-day City of Syracuse, on its way to destroy Onondaga settlements to the south. Colonial soldiers killed or captured Onondaga men, women, and children and destroyed their crops and homes.

The Van Schaick Expedition was despicable, it does not deserve our veneration, and City Hall should remove these monuments from its parks.

The Sullivan-Clinton campaign was a series of military expeditions in which professional soldiers from the Continental Army destroyed Haudenosaunee settlements across the state. In George Washington’s words, the purpose of the campaign was to “chastise and intimidate” the Haudenosaunee. In the words of another officer involved with the campaign, the purpose was “to extirpate those hell hounds from off the face of the earth.” Because of its scorched-earth tactics designed to eliminate entire communities, experts consider the Sullivan-Clinton campaign an act of genocide.

Colonel Goose Van Schaick led the campaign’s raid against the Onondaga. Here is a first person account of that raid, written by Lieutenant E. Beatty of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment and quoted from Onondaga’s Centennial by Dwight H. Bruce:

“21st, this morning set of about Day Break, on the same line of march and west about 6 Miles when we halted, Capt. Graham with his Compy. Was sent forward as an advance party, then proceeded on to the Onandaga lake, about 8 Miles in length and 4 in Breadth, waded an arm of it, about 4 foot deep, and 200 yards wide, and came to Onandaga creek, small but deep, had to cross it on a log.

Capt. Graham’s Co., Just as he had crossed the creek, caught an Indian who was shooting Pidgeons, and made him prisoner. And we got some Information from him, then proceeded on till we come within about one Mile of the Town, when we Rec’d. word from Capt. Graham that he had caught on Squaw and killed one, and he taken two or three children and one White man, and one or two made their escape and alarmed the town.

The Col. Immediately sent me forward to order him on as quick as possible, and make as many prisoners as he could, and he would support him with the main body. I overtook him at the first town, and delivered my orders, and he Immediately pushed on about two miles to the Next town, where he made a small halt and took a great many prisoners, soon after Major Cochran with Capt. Gray’s Compy. came up and ordered me to stay with the prisoners and their two Compys. to push on to the next town, about one mile forward, which they did, and made more prisoners and killed some, particularly a Negro who was their Dr. they then plundered the middle town where I was.

Capt. Bleekers Compy. had come up by this time, and left the main body at their first town; we then collected all our prisoners, plundered this town and set fire to it, then marched of to the main body, which lay at the first town; we stayed there about 8 hours and killed some five horses and a Number of Hogs, & plundered their houses, and set fire to them, and Marched of about 4 o’clock, in the same line of march as we came, only the front changed. and a Compy. to guard the prisrs. Who was to march between they two colums;

marched on about 2 Miles from the town down the Onand’ga creek, when about 20 Indians who Lay concealed on the opposite side of the Creek fird upon us, but the Rifle Men soon Dispersed them, killing one of them, we then marched on and crossed the Onandaga Creek in two places, for fear the enemy should attack us, but we met with no interruption, crossed the arm of the lake, and encamped by the side of the lake about 8 Miles from the town. We killed about 15, took 34 Prisoners, Burned about 30 or 40 houses, took 2 stand of Coulors, and we had not one man killed or wounded—”

This account of events comes from one of the perpetrators of genocide. Other accounts contain more graphic details of the soldiers’ violence. By the 1800’s, white settlers in Syracuse telling the story of the raid would specify that the soldiers killed “large numbers” of Onondagas in the creek as they tried to swim to safety, and that the soldiers “hung and quartered” the Black man they found living with the Onondaga. According to the Peace Council, Onondaga oral histories tell that the soldiers also raped Onondaga women.

Van Schaick’s raid destroyed a ten-mile long swath of “longhouses, fields, orchards, [and] food stores,” leaving the Onondaga with little food to survive the particularly brutal winter. A brood of cicadas “provided a much need food source to help the Onondaga survive that first year of rebuilding.” The Onondaga still celebrate the return of the cicadas (most recently in 2018) in memory of this history and as “a way to acknowledge the benevolence of the natural world, offering sustenance as they struggled to survive.”

Clark’s Onondaga reports when the white settlers came to this part of the County for the first time in 1789, they took over the remnants of an “extensive Indian orchard” that was still abandoned 10 years after Van Schaick had burned part of it. The settlers learned this history from the Onondaga still living in the area who provided them with shelter when they first arrived.

New York State erected Syracuse’s first monument to the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign in 1929. That was the 150th anniversary of the campaign, and identical monuments were placed across the state. The monument depicts the Campaign’s multiple expeditions on a map of New York State. The Van Schaick Expedition is clearly marked and is shown passing through present-day Syracuse to “Onondaga Castle.”

This monument sits on a large privately owned piece of land on Valley Drive across from Onondaga Valley Cemetery.

When New York State built its monument, people in Syracuse understood that this was not an event worth commemorating. There had been some preparations for a celebration of the “Raid” on Sunday April 21, 1929, but the Syracuse Herald reported “lack of interest and delay in attempting to bring about the celebration are given as reasons for its postponement.” The Herald also noted that:

“The celebration has never been encouraged by the Onondaga Historical Association. Officers of that organization contend that the attack on the Onondagans was unjust. The Indians who are now part of the Onondaga community have had traditions handed down to them telling of the barbarity of the American troops. Officers of the historical association urge that there is nothing to celebrate and that the anniversary might better be forgotten.”

Unfortunately, the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution did not take this advice, and the very next year they erected two monuments to Van Schaick’s raid on City-owned parkland. One is on West Colvin Street between Onondaga Creek Parkway and Hunt Avenue. It reads:

Col. Van Schaick
crossed Onondaga Creek here

on way to Indian villages
to the south, April 21, 1779

The metal plaque has recently been replaced, so someone (likely unaware of the history) is actually maintaining this monument to genocide.

The second monument is nearby in Onondaga Park along the east side of Onondaga Avenue across from the City’s greenhouses. The plaque on this monument used to read:

Site of
Indian Attack
on Col. Van Schaick’s Expedition
against the Onondagas
April 21, 1779

Thankfully, someone stole the plaque many years ago. All that’s left now is a bare stone.

These two monuments tell an incredibly misleading story. The one on Colvin makes no mention at all of Van Schaick’s violent purpose, and the one that used to be on Onondaga makes it seem as if the ‘expedition’ only fought back after they were initially attacked. So in addition to being a grave insult to the Onondaga Nation, these monuments are also bring us out of right relation with our community’s true history.

It is inexplicable that these monuments still stand in City-owned parkland, and they should be removed. This isn’t applying modern sensibilities to past events—the Onondaga Historical Association thought this was a bad idea when the monuments were put up in 1929. It’s remained a bad idea for 92 years, and leaving them up one day longer is also a bad idea. Take these monuments down.