Creepy Finger Lakes, Episode 2: The Torture Tree

Happy Halloween, everyone! This second episode of Creepy Finger Lakes focuses on an event that took place in Leicester, New York, which is located west of Conesus Lake, the western-most lake of the Finger Lakes. Today’s story allows me to don my historian of Native America hat, for it focuses on the gruesome 1779 torture and killing of two Continental Army officers by Seneca Indians, who during the American Revolution were distraught over the Army’s campaign of total destruction of Seneca villages and farms.

Tahlia and I actually visited this site last July so that we could include our photographs here.

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Here are Tahlia and Skye, at the stone marker at the Boyd-Parker Historic Site.

Today as well as in the decades following the incident, reports of spectral figures and wandering spirits, prowling about in search of their elusive eternal resting place, haunt the torture site as well as the final burying place of the two officers at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester.

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The story goes something like this:

In the late 1770s as the thirteen American British colonies struggled to extricate themselves from the grip of Mother England, the six nations of New York’s Haudenosaunee Confederacy hedged their bets on how to protect their own interests and to minimize additional land losses. The Haudenosaunee, better known to non-Native Americans as the Iroquois, assessed the threats posed both by the British and the Americans. Based upon their experiences, neither the Americans nor the British seemed a trustworthy ally. The indigenous peoples of the Americas had faced land theft, deception, decimating diseases, near constant warfare, false promises, and outright genocide ever since Europeans arrived on American shores.

But during the Revolution most tribes of the Confederacy eventually came to perceive the British as the lesser of the two evils, and so elected to side with them. On several notable occasions, Seneca-British forces raided frontier settlements, and these attacks ultimately culminated in the Creepy Finger Lakes story here. In Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley during the summer of 1778, some three hundred American settlers were killed, and some allegedly tortured, when Haudenosaunee and Loyalist forces raided. After the Wyoming Valley attack, allegations circulated among the colonists that the Seneca had committed atrocities against the settlers, with some folks going so far as to deem the Seneca savage butchers. These false claims angered Native soldiers.

A few months later, a New York community faced a similar fate. In November 1778, an alliance of Loyalists and Haudenosaunee raiders attacked New York’s Cherry Valley without warning, and killed about thirty more unsuspecting American combatants.

These events led some Americans to call for revenge against the Seneca. As the American military pondered how to respond to the attacks, they focused on the beautiful farms and orchards that the Seneca cultivated in the Finger Lakes. As part of their alliance with the British, the Seneca agreed to share their crops with the soldiers, effectively aiding and abetting the military enemies of the American colonists. So, partly as a decisive effort to retaliate for the American lives lost at Wyoming and Cherry Hill, and partly as a way to disrupt the possibility of British successes in New York, the Continental Army hatched a plan that would strike a devastating blow to the Seneca. Army General George Washington—yes, the very same George Washington who later became the first US president—devised the so-called Sullivan Campaign. Named for Major General John Sullivan, who led the Army’s expedition into the Finger Lakes—the heart of Haudenosaunee territory—the Sullivan Campaign was premised on something that falls within the United Nations’ definition of “genocide.” General Washington instructed Sullivan to “lay waste [to] all the settlements around, so that the country may not only be overrun, but destroyed.” According to the U.N., “genocide” includes “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” including “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Wartime or not, military efforts intended to physically destroy a group of people constitute genocide, and this, it must be remembered, is the back story to understanding the Senecas’ actions against the hapless Lieutenant Thomas Boyd and Sergeant Michael Parker.

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An image supposedly of Lt. Boyd. Fun Fact: A young woman whom Boyd had evidently left pregnant and enraged cursed him as he left with the Sullivan Expedition. As he rode away with his regiment, she allegedly screamed, “I hope you’re cut to pieces by Indians!”

In early September of 1779, after having hacked down thousands of acres of Seneca orchards and corn crops and having set fire to dozens of villages in the region, the Sullivan expedition proceeded west past Canandaigua and continued on toward the large Seneca establishment known as Little Beard’s Town. At the northern tip of Conesus Lake, General Sullivan sent Lieutenant Parker ahead to scout the precise location of the town. Defying Sullivan’s order to take only two or three scouts, Boyd departed at midnight with 28 soldiers, including Sergeant Boyd. Ultimately, Seneca warriors lured Boyd’s party into an ambush. Nearly half of his men escaped with their lives, but Boyd, Parker and Hon Yost, their Oneida Indian guide, were taken prisoner. And things did not go so well from there.

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This remainder of this story is not for the faint of heart. If gory isn’t your thing, you’ll probably want to stop reading here and skip ahead to the last paragraph or two.

So…Hon Yost was the first to die. Of the three prisoners, he got off the most mercifully. Seneca Chief Little Beard first crashed the blade of a tomahawk into his head, and then  the Seneca warriors, who viewed Hon Yost’s service to the Americans as treason, descended upon the man with their own tomahawks and chopped him to pieces.

Accounts of what happened next to Boyd and Parker vary somewhat, but apparently, both men were first tied to enormous trees, such as this one which still stands on the Boyd-Parker Memorial Site. (In 1999, another similar tree on the site, believed to have been THE torture tree, mysteriously cracked and toppled over. There was no storm or lightening. What caused it to crash down remains unknown.)

Torture Tree

The two men were then terrorized by the Senecas, who hurled their tomahawks so that they stuck in the tree just over their heads, the blades within the thinnest hair’s breadth of striking. The Indians tortured the men in this way for quite some time, before finally administering a single, final blow that sent Parker’s head rolling.

Having thus dispatched with Sergeant Parker, the Senecas then turned to Lieutenant Boyd, who as the leader of the team of scouts, represented the American army that had already destroyed some forty Seneca villages, orchards, and gardens—their community’s sources of sustenance and life over the coming winter. For such a figure, the Seneca reserved the most brutal tortures. They made a small incision in Boyd’s belly, through which they pulled one severed end of his intestines and attached it to the tree. According to one source, Boyd

…was then scourged with prickly ash boughs, and compelled to move around until the pain was so great that he could go no further. Again pinioned, his mouth was enlarged with a knife, his nails dug out, his tongue cut away, his ears severed from his head, his nose hewn off and thrust into his mouth, his eyes dug out and the flesh cut from his shoulder, and then sinking in death after their enormities, he was decapitated and his disfigured head, after being partly skinned, [was] raised by the frenzied savages upon a sharpened pole and a knife stuck into his body…” (Quoted in Michael Carpovage, “Betrayed by a Mason? The Tragic Mission of Lieutenant Thomas Boyd, p. 6)

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Could this have been the last thing Boyd saw? (Looking up from the bottom of the tree above)

After Boyd was dead, the Senecas fled the scene. Members of the Sullivan expedition soon after discovered his body, along with those of Parker and Hon Yost, which they hastily buried. The site became known as the Torture Tree, and it is here where the desecrated spirits of the deceased reportedly lingered, long after their demise.

But this is still not the end of the story for the mutilated soldiers. Several decades later, Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester designated a prominent hill in the cemetery for the remains of local Revolutionary-era soldiers. In 1841, sixty-one years after their horrific deaths, the remains of Boyd and Parker, and of their guide Hon Yost, were reburied in “Revolutionary Hill.” Or were they? In the days after the reburial ceremony, some folks alleged that it wasn’t the remains of Boyd, Parker and Yon Host at all, but was merely animal bones that had been placed into the graves. We will never know.

What we do know is that whatever remains were found in their graves were again relocated during the Civil War, and once again on the day after Halloween in 1903, when the military section of Mt. Hope was moved to a flatter, and hopefully final, cemetery plot. Perhaps their spirits finally rest in peace.

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But after the Sullivan Campaign, peace continued to elude many Seneca people. The Sullivan Campaign destroyed nearly all Cayuga and Seneca villages. The soldiers decimated their lands, orchards, crops and homes, such that during the very harsh winter of 1780, thousands of Senecas and Cayugas starved to death. And as the sign at the Boyd-Parker Memorial reminds us, this destruction, ordered by General George Washington, occurred in order to “remove a peril to American independence.” Imagine the peril the Haudenosaunee, and indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, experienced when Europeans came to stay. That is a horror story.

 

Bibliography:

Eyres, Lawrence E. Along the Sullivan Trail: The Story of Sullivan’s Indian Expedition of 1779 that Opened Northern Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes and Genesee Region of New York for Settlement (1954).

Karpovage, Michael. “Betrayed by a Mason? The Tragic Mission of Lieutenant Thomas Boyd,” available here.

Winfield, Mason et al. Haunted Rochester: A Supernatural History of the Lower Genesee (2008).