Battle of Oriskany Creek

At Oriskany Creek, American troops coming to break Britain’s siege of Fort Schuyler were ambushed by a force of Native Americans and Tories. Although ultimately forced to retreat, the Americans inflicted heavy casualties on the Iroquois, weakening their resolve and laying the groundwork for a British retreat from Benedict Arnold’s reinforcements.

Summary of Event

The strategy of the British for suppressing the rebellion in their American colonies during 1776 and 1777 was twofold: They sought to defeat Washington, George
Washington, George;Battle of Oriskany Creek George Washington’s rebel army and to invade through New York State to cut the colonies in two. If they succeeded in their strategy, the British would cut off New England, the center of the rebellion, allowing for its conquest and occupation by British troops. The remaining colonies, bereft of leadership, would fall under British control. [p][kw]Battle of Oriskany Creek (Aug. 6, 1777)
[kw]Creek, Battle of Oriskany (Aug. 6, 1777)
[kw]Oriskany Creek, Battle of (Aug. 6, 1777)
Oriskany Creek, Battle of (1777)
American Indian-American conflicts[American Indian American conflicts]
American-American Indian conflicts[American American Indian conflicts]
[g]United States;Aug. 6, 1777: Battle of Oriskany Creek[2310]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 6, 1777: Battle of Oriskany Creek[2310]
Herkimer, Nicholas
Brant, Joseph
St. Leger, Barry
Burgoyne, John
Gates, Horatio

In the summer of 1776, a British army of thirty thousand soldiers under General Howe, William William Howe was to move west from New York City, to be met by a smaller force advancing from Canada under Carleton, Sir Guy Sir Guy Carleton, British general and governor of Canada. Although an American initiative into Canada led by Colonel Arnold, Benedict Benedict Arnold and General Montgomery, Richard Richard Montgomery was stopped at the gates of Quebec, it disrupted this strategy. Carleton, knighted for his success at Quebec, was nonetheless unable to press on into New York.

The British lieutenant general John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, so named for his appearance and manner, had been in the colonies since the beginning of the revolution. Burgoyne had accompanied Carleton in the attempt to invade New York during the summer of 1776. Returning to England the following winter, Burgoyne presented to King George III a paper called “Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada,” arguing the soundness of the strategy for an invasion from Canada. Burgoyne felt that more aggressive leadership (provided by himself) would render another invasion attempt more successful than the earlier one.

Burgoyne’s plan called for the invasion to begin from Montreal, cross Lake Champlain, and follow the Hudson River. A second force would proceed from Oswego down the Mohawk Valley, along a tributary of the Hudson River; a third force, under Howe, would move from New York City up the Hudson River. The three armies would converge at Albany, cutting off the northern colonies and isolating Washington’s army. The British ministry accepted Burgoyne’s plan as its war strategy for the following year, and in March, 1777, Burgoyne was given command of the forces from Canada. Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger was given the temporary rank of brigadier general and command of the force moving down the Mohawk Valley.

On May 6, 1777, Burgoyne arrived in Quebec, where he was met by Carleton. Burgoyne’s army of eighty-three hundred men included thirty-seven hundred regulars and four hundred Iroquois Indians. On June 20, Burgoyne and his forces assembled and set sail from Lake Champlain, heading for Crown Point, eight miles north of Fort Ticonderoga. The second arm of the British strategy, four hundred troops under St. Leger, arrived at Oswego in western New York on July 25. There St. Leger was joined by one thousand Iroquois under the command of Joseph Brant. St. Leger planned to advance along the Mohawk River to the Hudson River, brushing past Fort Schuyler on the way.

Opposing the British was the Northern Department of the Continental army. Army, U.S.[Army, US] Ostensibly under the leadership of General Schuyler, Philip Philip Schuyler, the Americans actually regarded Horatio Gates as their commander. Schuyler was a New York patroon, autocratic, and less than successful in earlier campaigns. Many of his troops were New Englanders. They had not excelled as soldiers to date, and Schuyler despised them for it. Gates, although a plantation-owning Virginian, was much like the New Englanders he hoped to lead. He was a man of plain appearance and, although a veteran of the French and Indian War, not a strict disciplinarian. He admired the New Englanders and was admired in return.

Burgoyne’s first target was Fort Ticonderoga. The fort had been seized two years earlier by Americans under the command of Benedict Arnold and Allen, Ethan Ethan Allen. The fort straddled the northern tip of Lake George and was virtually indefensible if the British occupied a nearby hill. They took that hill on July 5, and the commander at Fort Ticonderoga, New York Fort Ticonderoga, General St. Clair, Arthur Arthur St. Clair, evacuated his army south. Burgoyne spent the next three weeks advancing toward the Hudson River, which he reached on July 30. On August 4, Gates replaced Schuyler as commander of the northern Continental army.

Meanwhile, St. Leger was about to march toward the Hudson River, 150 miles east. Only Fort Schuyler stood in the way. Built during the French and Indian War, the fort had only recently been reoccupied. Its commander, Colonel Gansevoort, Peter Peter Gansevoort, had strengthened its defenses during the previous three months. When his allies, local Oneida Indians, warned him of St. Leger’s approach, Gansevoort evacuated the women and children, leaving about 750 men to oppose St. Leger. The British commander began an encirclement of the fort, preparing to lay siege. Meanwhile, General Nicholas Herkimer and eight hundred volunteers of the Tryon County militia began marching to relieve the fort and break the siege. On August 5, Herkimer approached Oriskany Creek, eight miles from Fort Schuyler.

That night, Herkimer sent messengers to the fort requesting that guns be fired as a diversion to cover his men. St. Leger, however, was well aware of the American arrivals. Herkimer’s column included four hundred oxcarts full of supplies, strung out for more than a mile. In addition, Brant, Molly Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister, had learned of Herkimer’s approach and warned St. Leger.

St. Leger laid a trap along a ravine on the road to the fort. At ten o’clock, Herkimer reached the ravine, where a waiting Tory detachment and Native Americans commanded by Brant opened a cascade of fire. Herkimer charged the source of the gunfire and was badly wounded in the leg. He propped himself by a tree, lit his pipe, and directed his men in the ensuing battle.

Refusing to panic, the American officers assembled their men into a defensive perimeter from which they held off the British and their Native American allies for an hour, until rain interrupted the battle, wetting the troops’ gunpowder and preventing their guns from firing. When fighting resumed, Herkimer directed his men to fight in pairs, so an Iroquois soldier could not tomahawk a man while he was reloading. Brant’s troops were reinforced by some of the British soldiers, who had remained to hold the Siege of Fort Schuyler. Hoping to fool the Americans, they disguised themselves as fellow militiamen. However, an actual militiaman recognized one of the imposters as his neighbor, a Tory who was known to have sided with the British, and the ruse failed.

The battle continued for six hours, evolving into bitter hand-to-hand combat. Losses among the attacking force approached 25 percent, and finally they withdrew. More than two hundred Americans were killed or wounded. Herkimer was carried to his home and died ten days later. He never reached the fort or broke the siege.


Despite Herkimer’s failure to relieve the fort directly, casualties among St. Leger’s Native American allies were so heavy that they lost interest in the campaign. Furthermore, General Schuyler was determined that the Americans would retain control of the Mohawk Valley; he directed reinforcements under General Arnold to come to Gansevoort’s aid. When St. Leger learned these American reinforcements were approaching, he lifted the siege, ending his role in Burgoyne’s campaign. Burgoyne himself would receive no reinforcements. Trapped by General Gates in Saratoga a month later, he surrendered his army.

Following the Battle of Oriskany and the defeat of Burgoyne, fighting became increasingly bitter, as each side revenged itself on its opponent’s allies. In July, 1778, Colonel Butler, John John Butler, leading four hundred Tories and five hundred Senecas, burned and murdered his way through Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. In response, Washington ordered General Sullivan, John John Sullivan to destroy the country of the Iroquois Confederacy, comprising much of western New York and northern Pennsylvania. During the spring and summer of 1779, Sullivan’s four thousand men marched through the Mohawk Valley. They destroyed more than forty Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk towns. Similarly, Iroquois warriors under Joseph Brant worked devastation on tribes allied with the Americans, burning Oneida and Tuscarora villages. This period not only marked an escalation in the bitterness and the extent of fighting but also heralded the disintegration of the once neutral Iroquois Confederacy Iroquois Confederacy. The union of the Six Nations did not survive the revolution.

Further Reading

  • Hibbert, Christopher. Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Examines the revolution from the British perspective.
  • Middelkauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. An excellent general narrative on the history of the American Revolution.
  • Scheer, George, and Hugh Rankin. Rebels and Redcoats. New York: World, 1957. A scholarly account of the American Revolution, with emphasis on first-person narratives.
  • Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Depicts the revolution as a people’s rebellion; analyzes actions and feelings.
  • Watt, Gavin K. Rebellion in the Mohawk Valley: The St. Leger Expedition of 1777. Toronto, Ont.: Dundurn Press, 2002. Military history of the failed St. Leger expedition, including an account of the Battle of Oriskany Creek.
  • Wood, W. J. Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775-1781. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995. A detailed history of the major campaigns and skirmishes of the war.

French and Indian War

First Continental Congress

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Second Continental Congress

Indian Delegation Meets with Congress

Declaration of Independence

Battles of Saratoga

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

Treaty of Paris

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American Indian-American conflicts[American Indian American conflicts]
American-American Indian conflicts[American American Indian conflicts]