7. Willsboro: The Rules of War

Burgoyne meets with some 400 Indians to outline his rules of battle—an act that was ridiculed by many Europeans.

Many tribes representing varying language-groups inhabited the American northeast. Indians had occupied these lands since the end of the last Ice Age, when nomadic tribes followed large game animals into the interior of the continent. Over centuries various Nations developed, each forming their own complex social, economic, and political structure. Yet the Europeans viewed them as primitive pagans or “savages” because their color and customs were different than their own.

Despite their differences, the British needed Indian allies. They recognized that the Indians were a necessity for an army operating in the wilderness. Indian soldiers were legendary warriors, known throughout Europe for their uncanny ability to move silently and quickly through the wilderness without getting lost. Their skills made them unparalleled scouts. Europeans had become familiar with the Indian ways of doing war during the conflicts that preceded the Revolution and tried to emulate their fighting style, but they lacked their intimidation factor.

Generations of warfare and propaganda had taught many Colonists to fear the Indians. Europeans depicted Indians as a stereotype, intending to cause fear among residents and promote colonial reliance on the Crown. The British in particular wished to use these myths to justify their invasion (and in some instances genocide).

At the eve of the American Revolution, Native Indians knew this war was, at its root, a struggle over land. Most Indians were primarily interested in preserving their ancestral home and way of life.  For many tribes, it was obvious that neutrality was impossible and they soon joined forces with British—they considered the Colonists a greater threat to their land. Many joined General Barry St. Leger on his expedition upon the Mohawk River, while hundreds more joined General John Burgoyne on his 1777 campaign on Lake Champlain.

The choice to participate in the Revolution was a personal decision. In some instances, members of the same tribe could be found fighting on opposite sides, making it difficult to identify the makeup of Burgoyne’s Indian allies. Several hundred Indian soldiers were recruited. They were mostly Mohawks but included Ottawa, Fox, Mississauga, Chippewa, and Ojibwa, as well as other members of the Iroquois Nation.

These allies were invaluable to the campaign, serving as the eyes and ears of his army, but they were not beholden to British military discipline or the European etiquette of war. Many officers regarded them with mixed feelings, at best. Burgoyne did have concerns. There were Loyalists living in the area between Quebec and New York City, and Burgoyne would depend on them for additional recruits and the supply of his army. He would need to be sure that his Indian allies used caution to prevent civilian casualties while scouting through enemy territory, so Burgoyne left instructions for General Simon Fraser to clear a camp on the Boquet River and gather the Indians.

On June 21, 1777, at the falls of the Boquet River, Burgoyne arranged to meet some 400 Indians in council to outline his rules for engagement. After a feast, he made a grandiose speech—Burgoyne was, after all, also a playwright. The speech was designed to both rally the Indians and instill fear in the American Rebels.

Burgoyne cautioned against brutality. He forbade bloodshed when not in battle, urged them to save aged men, women, children, and prisoners, but “base lurking assassins, incendiaries, ravagers and plunderers of the country, to whatever army they belong, shall be treated with less reserve.”

After his speech, Burgoyne also prepared a Manifesto, which he distributed throughout the countryside. He asked the Loyalists to not assist the enemy or disrupt his campaign, inviting them to help supply the army. He also left the Rebels with a threat, “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, I consider the same, wherever they lurk.” Burgoyne hoped to capitalize on the Colonists’ fear of the Indians, but he may not have fully appreciated the tribes’ rational distrust of their European allies.

Back in London, Burgoyne’s critics thought him to be naïve to suggest he could control the Indians. London gossip Edmond Burke made a parody of Burgoyne’s speech: “My gentle lions, my humane bears, my sentimental wolves, my gentle-hearted hyenas, go forth: But I exhort you as ye are Christians and members of a civilized society, to take care not to hurt man, woman, or child.”

Travel Tools

Start track 7 after you enter Willsboro. Turn left after crossing the bridge over the Boquet River. Take a slow, short drive past the senior center, the library, and the old grist mill, continuing to the end of the dirt road loop, where the Nature Conservancy has a boat launch. It is somewhere here along the banks of the Boquet River that Burgoyne gave his famous speech to the Indians. On your way back, stop at the bench next to the grist mill. (In the near future, Lakes to Locks Passage will have a interpretive sign here.)

To learn more about Willsboro’s history, stop by the Willsborough Visitors Center (3743 Main Street, Willsboro, Tel: 518-963-4710).

 Local Bites

  • Turtle Island: A sweet spot with great food, craft beers, and plenty of cocktails. 3790 Main St, Willsboro.
  • Ethel’s Dew Drop: Willsboro’s quintessential roadside symbol of summer. Hamburgers, hot dogs, curly fries, and ice creams of all flavors. 3901 Route 22, Willsboro.
  • The Willsboro Diner: Homey, small-town diner with inexpensive food. Great for breakfast. 3745 Main St, Willsboro.

Learn More

First-Hand Accounts

Response to General John Burgoyne’s speech from a chief of the Iroquois who was present: “Chiefs and Warriors The Great King, Our common Father and the Patron of all who seek and deserve his Protection; has considered with satisfaction the general conduct of the Indian tribes from the beginning of the troubles of America.”

 

 

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