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Brodhead’s Command and Campaign 1779 – 1781

General McIntosh transferred 700 men of which 300 were regulars to Colonel Brodhead in April 1779. Recognizing Brodhead’s limits plus the lack of funds, and unbeknown to Brodhead, Washington and the Continental Congress planed no major operations during 1779 all but precluding any attempt to reduce Detroit. Washington contented himself with the appointment of Brodhead to succeed McIntosh based on these limited expectations.
Brodhead was a reliable old guard officer, and as was common among officers, was of aristocratic upbringing. Washington and most high-ranking officers had the conviction that there should be a proper distance between officers and men. Rank brought privilege. Moreover, being too close to the men was not conducive to command and discipline. Brodhead also had a high opinion of himself and, to a fault, was critical of officers at or above his station. His letters to General Washington and other officers, particularly in the commissary, were often critical and at times offensive. In his defense, his repeated and often stinging requests to the commissary were due to a continual necessity to properly equip, cloth, and provision his deprived and desperately suffering men. Brodhead was an experienced frontiersman and due to his contemporary experience under McIntosh, was more aware of the demanding requirements of the post better than any other potential commander for the Western Department.

To his credit, Brodhead was the most active of the frontier commanders during the War. He immediately implemented ranger operations, with the most skilled and admired under the direction of Samuel Brady heading an elite core of specially selected men for the more advanced operations. The interdiction and disruption of Indian raids became a primary objective of Brodhead’s troops. Rangers also become integral to intelligence gathering deep into Indian Territory. Brodhead’s tactical foresight in using his limited resources, although not sufficient to entirely stop the onslaught of Indian raids, was nonetheless very effective. Ongoing ranger operations became a hallmark of the Virginia and Pennsylvania regiments under Brodhead’s command.

Brodhead had ambitions for his command and, not withstanding an attack on Detroit, wished to at least execute a military campaign against the Native Americans. General Washington approved a highly secret plan for General Sullivan’s large force to attack Seneca tribes marauding the settlers along the Shenandoah River. Brodhead was at first made part of a cooperative plan with General Sullivan. As a consequence, Brodhead wanted to consolidate his forces proposing the closure of Forts Laurens and McIntosh. Washington persuaded him otherwise. In addition, upon reflection, Washington changed his initial instructions for a cooperative endeavor in a letter dated April 21, 1779.

“Since my last letter, and upon a further consideration of the subject, I have relinquished the idea of attempting a cooperation between the troops at Fort Pitt and the bodies moving from other quarters against the six nations [Seneca]. The difficulty of providing supplies in time, a want of satisfactory information of the routes and nature of the country up the Alleghany (and between that and the Indian Settlemts.) and consequently the uncertainty of being able to cooperate to advantage and the hazard which the smaller party [Brodhead’s expedition] might run, for want of a cooperation are principal motives for declining of it. The danger to which the frontier would be exposed, by drawing off the troops from their present position, from the incursions of the more western tribes, is an additional though a less powerful reason. The post at Tuscarowas [Fort Laurens] is therefore to be preserved. If under a full consideration of circumstances it is judged a post of importance and can be maintained without turning too great a risk and the troops in general under your command, disposed in the manner best calculated to cover and protect the country on a defensive plan.

“As it is my wish however, as soon as it may be in our power to chastise the Western savages by an expedition into their country; you will employ yourself in the mean time in making preparation and forming magazines (of provisions) for the purpose. If the expedition against the six nations [Seneca] is successfully fully ended, a part of the troops employed in this, will probably be sent, in conjunction with those under you to carry on another that way.”

With regard to Fort Laurens, Washington had provided instructions that were subsequently followed in an earlier letter dated March 22, 1779 that states the larger strategy:

Colo. Gibson is to be ordered to hold himself ready to join you with his force when matters are ripe for execution. But he is to keep his intended removal from Tuscarawas [Fort Laurens] a profound secret, and when he receives his orders to march, let it be as sudden as possible. Because whenever the evacuation of the post as Tuscarawas takes place, it will plainly discover that our designs are up the River, and not against Detroit by that Route.”

In mid-May, Brodhead ordered Major Vernon at Fort Laurens to release 75 of 100 men to Fort Pitt, due to the severe deprivations they suffered. They were again foraging for roots and eating boiled deerskins. Many were in desperate condition, some men too weak to defend themselves. Although it is not known for sure, it is likely Joseph Hancock was sent back in this company of men since he was fit shortly after for extraordinary duty.

Brodhead continued to prepare for an expedition and stated in a letter to General Washington dated June 25, 1779 that he had obtained over 400 head of cattle and nearly 1000 barrels of flour. In the letter Brodhead reviews successful intelligence gathering and incursions against the Indians by rangers under the command of Captain Brady and Lieutenant Hardin. Brady intercepted a raiding party of Muncie’s, killed many of them and relieved them of their plunder, horses, guns and two prisoners. Captain Brady’ success was used to demonstrate that Colonel Brodhead was militarily capable, could penetrate deep into Indian territory, and would be reliable in carrying out a campaign against the Indians. At the end of the letter Brodhead states his readiness to conduct operations as follows: “(If) I had your permission I conceive I could make a successful expedition against the Seneca’s.”

The Seneca Tribe was the largest of the Iroquois League of Six Nations, the most western of the Confederation, and highly skilled warriors. These were not the same tribes Brodhead confronted at the outer fringes of the western frontier north of the Ohio River. The earliest and more populous frontier settlements were in western New York and Pennsylvania, along and east of the Allegany. These settlers successfully lobbied for the attention of Congress and General Washington with regard to their plight at the hands of the savages. Although Brodhead had his hands full with the tribes north of the Ohio River, he saw an opportunity to engage an enemy that had a larger share of Washington’s and the Continental Congress’s attention. Although a successful expedition up the Allegany would have an effect on the Seneca’s raiding western Pennsylvania and New York, it would have virtually no affect on the Indian Tribes north of the Ohio River, which were marauding the settlers west of Fort Pitt. As previously stated, these two Indian nations were not of the same descent, did not speak the same basic language, and had little contact with each other. These were in fact two separate fronts.

Brodhead received his instructions from General Washington in a letter dated July 13, 1779:

Yours of the 25th of June was delivered me yesterday. I inclose you a duplicate of mine of the 23d. which gave my consent to an expedition against the Mingoes. I am glad to hear you had received a supply of provisions and only waited my concurrence to make an expedition against the Senecas. I hope by this time you are carrying it into execution.

P.S. It may be well for you to endeavour to open Correspondence with General Sullivan that your movements, if possible, may be serviceable to each other.”

Washington had not completely given up on a cooperative campaign. Finding volunteers willing to hazard the risk of carrying the correspondence requested by General Washington was problematic and not a mission Brodhead would have initiated. However, as will be discussed, Washington’s request was fulfilled. In the meantime, on July 17, 1779 Brodhead optimistically issued a letter to the Lieutenants of the Militia in the surrounding counties stating:

“His Excellency, the Commander in Chief, has at length given me a little latitude, and I am determined to strike a blow against one of the most Hostile nations, that in all Probability will effectually secure the tranquility of the Frontiers for years to come. But I have not Troops sufficient at once to carry on the expedition, and to support the different Posts which are necessary to be maintained. Therefore I beg, you will engage as many Volunteers for two or three Weeks as you possibly can. They shall be well treated, and if they please, paid and entitled to an equal share of the plunder that may be taken, which I apprehend will be very considerable. Some of the friendly Indians will assist us on this enterprise.

“I cannot conceive that any of my Publick Spirited Country men will hesitate a moment on this occasion, nor suffer a temporary emolument to be put in the scale of universally Benefit.”

Greater troop strength was needed and by offering the reward of plunder a few men volunteered but most men did not enlist. They were dedicated to the protection of their own families and needed to make sure they were available to harvest their own crops.

Colonel Brodhead wrote General Washington on July 31, 1779, stating that he was honored with the instructions to commence an expedition up the Allegany to attack Seneca Indian villages. He reviewed the status of Fort Armstrong at Kittanning, which Washington requested he build, and the evacuation of Fort Laurens. He indicated that he would begin his expedition early, August 7 or 8, 1779, due to the impending expirations of 200 army servicemen in September, the need to start before harvest to increase the likelihood of militia volunteers, and also destroy the Indian crops before they were harvested. Brodhead also stated that he expected Wyandotte’s, Chippewa, Tawas, and Potawatomi Indians to join with the expedition, as well as the Delaware. Only the Delaware were on friendly terms with the Americans and were willing to provide scouts. The rest were apparently an exaggeration to impress Washington. It also may have been an attempt to sustain his bid for authorization to reduce Detroit. Although Brodhead had been very positive about provisions in his earlier communications with General Washington, in this letter he was concerned about flour in particular, and as usual, shoes for his men. Brodhead explains that it had been necessary to give some of the shoes to the Indians, presumably to gain their cooperation. The net affect was that regular army privates again would be deprived. With regard to cooperating with the Sullivan Campaign, Brodhead states:

“It would give me great pleasure to co-operate with General Sullivan, but I shall be into the Seneca Towns a long time before he can receive an account of my movement, I shall, however, endeavor to inform him, if a Messenger can be hired to carry a letter”

Likely due to the danger of the mission and the greater likelihood that two men could succeed, two messengers volunteered to carry an “Express” to General Sullivan; Thomas Williams and Joseph Hancock. General Sullivan was based in Newtown, New York just west of today’s Owego. The express letter dated August 6, 1779 to General Sullivan states:

Dear General

“I have obtained leave from his Excellency, the Commander in Chief, to undertake an expedition against the Seneca Towns, on the waters of the Alleghany, & he has directed me to open a correspondence with you, in order that our movements might operate in favor of each other.

“I shall be very happy in such a correspondence (if it can be effected without too great a loss of Messengers,) & an opportunity of favoring your designs against the enemy, but fear this will not reach you in time to form an useful co-operation.

“I have everything in readiness, and am only waiting for the Garrison of Fort Lawrens to come in. If no unforeseen impediment happens I shall set out for Cannawago in three or four days and expect to reach it about the 20th Inst. I do not intend to stop there, but expect to proceed nearer to the route I am informed you are going and will endeavour to write you again.

“Should you have a little leisure you will greatly oblige me with a long letter, I have but little news. The Indians sometimes take a scalp from us, but my light parties which I dress & paint like Indians have retaliated in several instances.

“They have destroyed one whole party of Munceys except two and they went home wounded and quite naked.

“I think they are willing by this time to make peace, but I hope it will not be granted them until they are sufficiently drubbed for their past iniquities.”

“With the most perfect regard

“And esteem, I have the honor to be,

“Dear General,

“your most obed’t Servt,


“Col. Commanding, W.D.”

Joseph and Thomas left Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) on August 9, 1779. It is highly unlikely that they took a direct route. Between Pittsburgh and Newtown were the very Indians that both Sullivan and Brodhead planned to neutralize. Direct routes would have been unknown. On the other hand, both men took part on the march from Valley Forge in 1778, when Brodhead was ordered to interdict Indian raids on the Susquehanna. The 8th Pennsylvania Regiment had maneuvered in the general area that Sullivan and his troops were based. It is likely that Joseph and Thomas reversed the route they had marched to Fort Pitt, covering over 300 miles-much of which was under constant harassment by Indian war parities. In addition, General Sullivan had begun his campaign July 16, 1779, requiring them catch up with the expedition as it headed west along the Susquehanna.

This was not an assignment for the inexperienced or timid. Both men were by now experienced frontiersmen. They would have been well equipped and clothed. Most importantly, they would have decent shoes to enable them to make the journey. It is interesting to speculate on the personal characteristics that would have prompted their interest in this perilous assignment. It surely included personal confidence, a desire for autonomy, an opportunity for adventure and a sense of duty. Their motivation may have been as simple as a way of obtaining new shoes and the uniforms that were always in short supply. They likely were not well informed of impending action, per military custom, and in this specific case, by the close secrecy surrounding the expeditions. They were perhaps vaguely aware of Brodhead’s military plans. Accordingly, it may have been an opportunity to maximize their least regret calculating what was required to reach General Sullivan as opposed to trusting Brodhead’s ambitions to plunge into the unknown. They most certainly wanted to avoid hard labor building more forts in the hinterlands, as they had done with General McIntosh. Patriotism to the cause most certainly was a major factor. This was an opportunity to serve on a special mission that bestowed personal recognition not unlike the revered reputation of Captain Samuel Brady and his closest associates. Whatever the motivation, they were certainly wild at heart and willing to take a risk doing their part for a legendary regiment of extraordinary men.

Brodhead’s expedition left August 11, 1779 and numbered over 600 men. This was the largest force he could put together and was far short of the number McIntosh had the previous year. Unless Washington provided additional troops from the main army, the reduction of Detroit was not possible during the summer of 1779. A few Delaware accompanied the expedition and were assigned to Captain Brady and Lieutenant Hardin, the scouting vanguard of the expedition. Provisions were initially transported by boat up the Allegany River to the big Mahoning River. The men marched along the riverbank with the cattle following behind under heavy guard. They left the river and headed due north on an Indian trail into the forest wilderness. The path was extremely difficult for a large army to march upon and they became vulnerable by being strung out a great distance. Fortunately the advance scouts covered this weakness. The army eventually returned to the Allegany at an old Indian town that was abandoned and there crossed the river. They headed for the mouth of Brokenstraw Creek where Brodhead planned to attack the Senecas at their village of Conewago near present day Warren, Ohio.

A few miles below Brokenstraw Creek, the scouting party observed thirty Seneca Warriors coming down the river in seven canoes. The opposing parties recognized each other at the same instant. The Seneca, underestimating the size of the scouting party, threw off their shirts in customary form for battle, and began to engage the enemy. Both sides took forest cover and began a sharp fusillade. A few minutes had elapsed when the other scouting party came over a hill, flanking the Indians and pouring fire on them. Brodhead heard the exchange of fire, secured the pack train and hurried forward with reinforcements. He was just in time to see the Seneca retreat. Five Indians were killed and several seriously wounded. They left guns, canoes, and their provisions behind. Three of Brodhead’s men were slightly wounded but were able to continue the expedition. This was the only armed conflict during Brodhead’s enterprise.

Brodhead arrived at Conewago to find the huts falling into decay. This was as far as the Delaware Indian scouts were knowledgeable of the territory. Brodhead pushed on for another twenty miles and came again in sight of the Allegany River. He discovered an Indian village eight miles long next to the riverbed. Before them were large and abundant fields of corn, squash, beans, and melons. Brodhead swiftly marched his troops down into the village but the inhabitants, although surprised, made a hasty disappearance. The Indians left behind not only their crops but also abandoned valuable deerskins and their possessions. After taking all the booty they could, the troops were ordered to burn the huts and cornfields, destroying a primary source of food and shelter for the coming winter. Although this caused the Seneca Tribe great immediate hardship and stopped their incursions into white settlements for a short period of time, it also served to inflame the Indian’s vengeance towards the settlers. Colonel Brodhead thought the campaign a great success and reviewed the expedition in a report to General Washington dated September 16, 1779.

“…we found seven other Towns, consisting in the whole of one hundred and thirty Houses, some of which were large enough for the accommodation of three or four Indian families. The Troops remained on the ground three whole days destroying the Towns & Corn Fields. I never saw finer Corn altho’ it was planted much thicker than is common with our Farmers. The quantity of Corn and other vegetables destroyed at the several Towns, from the best accounts I can collect from the officers employed to destroy it, must certainly exceed five hundred acres which is the lowest estimate, and the plunder taken is estimated at 30 m. Dollars, I have directed a sale to be made of it for the benefit of the Troops.”

Brodhead also relates in this letter the bravery and condition of his men as follows:

“Too much praise cannot be given to both officers and soldiers of every Corps during the whole expedition, their perseverance and zeal during the whole march thro’ a Country too inaccessible to be described can scarcely be equaled in history. Notwithstanding many of them returned barefooted and naked they disdained to complain, and to my great mortification I have neither Shoes, Shirts, Blankets, Hats, Stockings nor leggings to relieve their necessities.”

With regard to Joseph Hancock and Thomas Williams Brodhead had this to say in the body of this letter:

“The two soldiers I sent Express to Genl. Sullivan are not yet returned, and I apprehend they have fallen into the Enemy’s hands.”

Later in the P.S. of the letter he states:

“The soldiers I sent express to Genl. Sullivan are this moment returned and I enclose a copy of his letter.”

Although not known by name to General Washington, Joseph Hancock and Thomas Williams’ deed was. As stated in the pay record:

Hancock, Joseph

8 Pennsylvania Reg’t.

(Revolutionary War)


Rec’d Fort Pitt Augt 9th 1779 of Colo Brodhead fifty Dollars for the Expences of Thoms Williams & myself gone Express to Gen’l Sullivan.


Joseph Hancock


In a letter to Brodhead dated October 18, 1779, George Washington complimented Brodhead’s success and referenced a General Order sent to all of his commanders and the Continental Congress, which is of the same date. It reads as follows:

“The commander in Chief is happy in the opportunity of congratulating the Army on our further successes

“By advices just received, Colonel Brodhead with the Continental troops under his command and a body of Militia and Volunteers has penetrated about one hundred and eighty miles into the Indian Country lying on the Allegany River, burnt 10 of the Muncy and Seneca towns in that quarter containing 165 houses, destroyed all their fields of corn, computed to comprehend 50 acres besides large quantities of vegetables, obliging the savages to flee before him with the greatest precipitation and to leave behind them many skins and other Articles of value. The only opposition the savages ventured to give our troops on this occasion was near Cuscushing. About 40 of their Warriors on their way to commit barbarities on our frontier settlers were met here by Lieutt. Hardin of the 8th Pennsylvania regiment at the head of one of our advanced parties composed of 23 men, of which 8 were of our friends of the Delaware Nation, who immediately attacked the savages and put them to the route with the loss of five killed on the spot, and of all their action, they had divested themselves, and also of several arms. Two of our men and one of our Delaware friends were very slightly wounded in the action which was the only damage we sustained in the whole enterprise.

“The Activity, Perseverance and Firmness which marked the conduct of Colonel Brodhead and that of all the officers and men of every description in the expedition do them great honor, and their services fully intitle them to the thanks and to this testimonial of the General’s acknowledgments.”

Brodhead was instructed by General Washington to distribute this acknowledgement of duty through normal procedures to the troops.

Joseph returned to his regiment, and would be stationed at Fort Pitt for the winter. Brodhead continued to have ambitions, with designs on reducing Detroit. In a letter to General Washington on October 9, 1779, Brodhead states that he has enough provisions to supply 1000 men for 3 months. Although his provisions were very likely overstated, he was implying he had sufficient resources for a much larger force than the regular army and was tempting Washington to authorize a move against Detroit. He also cites certain Indian raids that had again taken their toll on the settlements, in this instance, in Kentucky. Brodhead states: “It would have afforded me great pleasure to have destroyed those Indian settlements, which was quite practicable, but I considered your instructions, which direct me to act on the defensive only, until further orders.” Brodhead then importunes Washington by stating: “Should you decline ordering an expedition against Detroit, I can have almost any number of Volunteers to go against the Indian Towns, especially Virginia.”

In General Washington’s letter of October 18, 1779, he wisely responds to Brodhead’s over-ambitious request for military conquest.

“With respect to an Expedition against Detroit; I cannot (at this time) direct it to be made, as the state of the force at present with You, is not sufficient to authorize the clearest hopes of success and indeed to insure it, (an because it is not in my power circumstanced as things are at this critical moment to say how far it may be practicable to afford sufficient aid) from hence. In any other view than that of a certaity of success I would not undertake the reduction of the post, as a miscarriage would be attended with many disagreeable consequences. However, as it is of great importance to reduce it, and I shall willingly attempt it, whenever circumstances will justify it, you will turn your (closest) attention to the subject, and make such preparations (and obtain such necessary information) as may be in your power without exciting (much) alarm as may facilitate the work whenever it is undertaken, (either this Winter when the lake is frozen which appears to me to be the only season) when an effectual blow can be struck or next Campaign.”

Brodhead continued to lobby for a campaign against Detroit during the fall and early winter of 1779. General Washington responds again to Brodhead’s repeated pleas for authorization in a letter dated January 4, 1780, which reads as follows

“Persuaded that a winter expedition against Detroit would have great advantages over a summer one, and be much more certain of success, I regret that the situation of affairs does not permit us to undertake it. We cannot at present furnish either the men or the supplies necessary for it. From the estimate you make of the enemy’s force there, your garrison with all the aid you could derive from the Militia would not be equal to the attempt; especially as it must soon suffer so large a diminution, by the departure of men whose terms of service are expiring, and (even were it not too late in the season to march men such a distance in time) the same circumstance and the detachment we are making to South Carolina put it out of our power to supply the defect of your number from this quarter. We must therefore of necessity defer the prosecution of the enterprise to a more favorable opportunity, but I would not wish you to discontinue your inquiries and preparations as far as convenient; for it is an object of too great importance to be lost sight of.”

General Washington again states essentially the same in a letter to Brodhead on March 14, 1780. Had Washington failed to accurately estimate Brodhead’s capability to execute a successful campaign against Detroit and ordered an attack, the results would have been catastrophic. Not only was Washington correct in assessing Brodhead’s ability to mount a successful campaign, but an unexpected, mission-crippling event occurred. The most severe winter in the memory of the oldest friendly Native Americans resulted in as much as four feet of snow. Wild animals could not move or forage for food, and died in place. The snow began to fall during the Christmas Holidays and did not stop for months. It was continuously and exceedingly cold through March. Had Brodhead been authorized to commence a campaign and made a significant advance on Detroit, the snow would have prevented his return to quarters. Unless Detroit was completely reduced, the weather surely would have trapped him. The men, if they had anything, would have only tents and they always lacked sufficient clothing, shoes and blankets. They would have been unable to hunt. They would likely not have transported ample provisions to last the winter. Few if any would have been likely to survive these circumstances and thus would have coldly ended the military history of Joseph Hancock. Thanks to Washington, this was not the case. Due to the severity of the winter there were no Indian raids, interdiction operations were not necessary if even possible, and all hunkered down for the long winter. If Brodhead’s claim to Washington of the extent of his provisions were even half true, it is likely the winter was much better than the previous winter.

Brodhead’s increasingly tempestuous relationship with the local community, and the diminishing enthusiasm of the Commander in Chief for Brodhead’s command (which was never high in the first place) resulted in his stormy relief in 1781 by order from General Washington. Fortunately, Joseph Hancock was discharged April 3, 1780, and would not be around for the bloody conclusion of Brodhead’s command.

Although there is some indication that Joseph served longer than three and one half years, there is sufficient evidence, including his own pension application, to support this date of discharge. Further circumstantial evidence, his first marriage in 1781, supports his discharge date in that his marriage would only be possible if he were relieved of duty. Leaves of absence were seldom granted for officers much less the rank and file. In April 1780, Joseph was free to return to private life. The British surrender at Yorktown was still more than a year away. Exactly what he did for the next decade is unclear except for his marriage to Catherine Baltimore. He must have learned the skills of farming back home, so to speak. He reemerges in 1791, purchasing his first farm near Maysville, Kentucky. Perhaps the reason he stayed on the other side of the Ohio River is that the same settlements he previously defended were still under Indian attack, the most aggressive raids being lead by Tecumseh. He would again live to fight another day.