British General John Burgoyne’s campaign from Canada in 1777 had a series of rapid successes, but that changed as he began his trip across the expanse of land that connected Lake Champlain and Hudson River.
It is commonly said that the American War for Independence was fought because the American colonists did not want to pay their taxes. This is partly true. After the French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years War in Canada and Europe, the British imposed a series of taxes to pay the debt accumulated from the previous war and the ongoing cost of the continued security of the colonies. The merchant class was the hardest hit by these new taxes, and New England became a hotbed of rebel activity. But, once the British landed a fleet in Boston to impose Marshall Law, the military occupation fired up the colonists and taxation became a secondary motivation for joining the rebel cause.
The presence of the British army in America stirred up negative sentiment against the Crown wherever it went. They promised protection and real money for goods sold to the King’s army, and expected that the Loyalists would flock to their support once they arrived to restore peace. At the same time they led a campaign of fear and intimidation — a War of Terror — which undermined the public’s perception of them. This became apparent during the campaign of British General John Burgoyne in 1777.
When Burgoyne set out for his expedition in 1777, he used his Indian allies as the eyes and ears of his army, but it was their intimidation factor that proved most valuable. During the numerous wars that proceeded the American Revolution, the British and French military leaders established scalp bounties to encourage the Indians to harass their enemies and prevent encroaching settlement. This came to an end after the previous conflict and the colonists had just begun to feel safe plowing their fields without a gun when the Indians were called to arms to fight in another War.
In 1777, Burgoyne had under his command several hundred Indians from various tribes. They were mostly Mohawks and Ottawas, but also Fox, Mississauga, Chippewa, and Ojibwe, as well as other members of the Iroquois Nation. They were excellent warriors, but fiercely independent and unaccustomed to British military discipline and order. This War was also very different than any of the previous conflicts. It was one fought between countrymen, many of whom remained loyal to the King, so instruction was needed to limit the casualty of innocent families.
At the outset of the campaign, Burgoyne, the playwright politician, gathered the Indians for a congress on the Boquet River near Lake Champlain to proclaim his rules for conduct. After a traditional feast, he addressed the Indians, giving them instructions to only attack when opposed in arms, to take only the scalps of the dead and to save the women and children. After his address, he issued an appeal to the loyalist settlers in the region along with a stern warning to the rebels. “I have but to give stretch to the Indian forces under my direction, and they amount to thousands, to overtake the hardened enemies of Great Britain and America” Horace Walpole, a severe critic of King George’s policy in America, smugly commented about the “vaporing Burgoyne,” who was able to “reconcile the scalping knife with the Gospel,” and believed that even “if he was to overrun ten provinces” he “would appear too pompous.” Although the Great Chief and tribes replied “Etow! Etow! Etow!” and affirmed their understanding of Burgoyne’s instructions, they were about to cause him a great deal of grief.
The story of Jane McCrea -the beautiful young bride-to-be on her way to wed her Loyalist fiancee when she is brutally murdered by a band of Indians under Burgoyne’s command– went 18th century viral. Spread primarily by preachers and exaggerated over time, it is commonly believed that the story of the Massacre of Jane McCrea swelled the rebel forces. Whether this is true, it certainly incited fear among the settlers, forcing them to take a sides in a War that had been brought to their doorstep. But did the rebels really have a chance of winning?