The Torture Tree – Cuylerville, NY
The torture tree in Cuylerville is known in history books as the site of a brutal few days of torture. It’s believed that two solders from General Sullivan’s army were brought here by Senecas, but never left.
by Chris Clemens
Trees in New York are typically regarded as a thing of beauty. They provide our state fruit, they change all sorts of different colors in the autumn and create postcard perfect landscapes.
They ooze the stuff we ultimately turn into our pancake syrup. Some people even bring them indoors to decorate their homes for Christmas.
During a conversation with a friend years ago, he brought up the Torture Tree not far from Geneseo. It was at this site in the Genesee Valley that a horrifically brutal scene from the Revolutionary War is said to have occurred. A stone monument marks the park that has been built around the tree, so it’s easy to visit.
After reading up more on the story, of course I had to go see it in person.
In the late 1700’s folks were slowly taking land from the Native tribes in New York. Those Native tribes banded together and decided their property and culture wouldn’t be taken without a fight.
The effort was such a viable threat that General George Washington instructed 3,500 men to march in with General John Sullivan at the helm and gain control. The campaign’s objective was explicitly to destroy Native villages and crops. Ultimately the effort was expected to remove native people from the region.
It was Saturday, September 11, 1779 when General Sullivan and others in his crew were engaged in an argument. They couldn’t decide if their main objective existed on the West or the East bank of the Genesee River.
Boyd Goes Scouting
The following day he sent Lieutenant Thomas Boyd to scout the exact location of the Genesee Castle. A ‘castle’ is word that describes a Native American village. The one they were seeking was the principle Seneca Village founded by Little Beard.
Boyd was instructed to take four riflemen and one Indian guide on this scouting trip. Instead, reports show that he actually took a number of men somewhere in the 20’s. (I have read conflicting reports of 16, 23, 28 and 29 men.) During their middle-of-the-night exurcsion the group encountered a few Senecas walking the trail with firearms.
After a brief exchange of bullets, Boyd’s group retreats. They were soon met by an even larger group and most of Boyd’s men are killed.
During the exchange, a large group of Seneca holdouts waiting along the banks of the Genesee River fled their position. It seems they falsely estimated the exchange of bullets to be a larger skirmish than they anticipated.
Once they realized it was actually just a small scouting group, their original plan to ambush Sullivan’s army was too complex to recreate. Things got more complicated because one of Boyd’s men was able to make it back to Sullivan with the report.
Sullivan’s encampment near the Conesus Lake Inlet received word from the sole escapee and they set out toward their destination.
Sullivan originally had visions of a surprise attack on what they expected to be a quaint, small Seneca Village. Their original plan was to attack the village and level it so the Senecas had nothing left in that spot. When they arrived at Little Beard Town on September 14, 1779 what they encountered was something else entirely.
Arriving At The Torture Tree
On the trail where most of Boyd’s men had been killed, a few of those who survived were captured. These captives were brought back to Little Beard’s Town.
Lieutenant Thomas Boyd and Sargent Michael Parker were among those brought back to the village. There they were questioned by Chief Little Beard, Joseph Brant (a Mohawk who chose an English name) and John Butler (an ‘American’ who was loyal to England.)
Butler and Brant finished their interrogation when realizing neither Boyd nor Parker would give up any details on Sullivan’s plans. They left and turned the two captives over to the care of the Senecas.
Boyd and Parker were directed to what is now known as ‘The Torture Tree’ where they underwent a trial of excruciating abuses where their finger and toe nails were removed, their genitals mutilated and their backs whipped. While having been stripped naked, their right ears were cut off as well as their noses and their tongues. Each of their right eyes had been gouged from their sockets and left hanging by strands of flesh.
In a final show of protest to the settlers taking their land, the Senecas cut open the abdomen of each Boyd and Parker and attached one end of their intestines to the tree and forced each of them to walk around the trunk in circles. Upon final collapse, their hearts were ripped from their bodies and each were beheaded.
Sullivan Discovers The Torture Tree
It was at the close of the torture fest when Sullivan’s army finally made it to the village and found Boyd’s head on a stick–the centerpiece of a victory dance in the round. Parker’s head though was never to be seen again. Sullivan and his men destroyed every single trace of the village that they could possibly muster, and even when the Senecas returned later, they told the story that there wasn’t even enough food remaining to have kept a single child alive for a day. The location was the single most Western point in the state that the army marched, the following day they returned on the path that led them to the gruesome scene.
Sullivan and his men gave a proper burial for Lt. Boyd and Sgt. Parker near the tree that took part in their agony, but their upsetting story was far from over.
In 1807, their peace would be interrupted when grave robbers stole articles of their clothing. Luckily, the looters left a few items in tact, because in 1837 the graves were opened again and the site was confirmed as having been the final resting place for the two Revolutionary War veterans.
Boyd And Parker Are Re-Interred
It was in a few years later on August 19, 1841 that a grand ceremony was held with journalists and elected officials to honor the two fallen men and their team.
Using six boats, the graves were exhumed and moved to Rochester where their remains were placed in a wooden sarcophagus in Mt. Hope Cemetery, though warring political parties would argue the very next day with one accusing the other of using fake bones to represent the soldiers. After years of the wooden structure being exposed to the inclement Rochester weather it rotted away and left remains exposed. In 1864 a cemetery caretaker took it upon himself to bury the remains in nearby Potter’s Field.
If over 100 years of uncertainty weren’t enough to keep their souls from resting, it was in 1903 that the Daughters of the American Revolution sifted through the field and once again exhumed the bones of Boyd and Parker to provide them a final and proper resting place.
While Mt. Hope Cemetery still has markers for the soldiers, they are merely memorials. The DAR moved the remains back to haunting location where their fates were sealed. Later in 1927 the area was marked with a granite boulder and plaque.
Torture Tree Legacy
Since 2009 the tree in Cuylerville is a registered National Historic Landmark, along with the nearby Groveland Ambuscade featuring a memorial obelisk.
The tree is easily 275 years old and most likely one of the oldest trees in the entire state.
Today, it’s tough to believe that this small, quiet and picturesque park-like setting just a few miles from the SUNY Geneseo campus was the site of one of the most gruesome documented events from the state’s Revolutionary War history.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens
January 25, 2016 @ 9:46 pm
Another excellent post! Although I don’t often comment, I often read what you write! A true treasure to read your work!
January 27, 2016 @ 1:32 pm
January 27, 2016 @ 9:33 pm
The only criticism I have with this is the notion that the Senecas were not going to let settlers take their property without a fight. This was the Revolutionary War the nation as well as the Iroqouis Confederacy were split and the Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga and Mohawk sided with England and the Loyalist cause who were raiding and terrorizing Patriot settlers, Sullivan’s campaign of retribution was in response to the Loyalist and Iroqouis Cherry Hill Massacre and the fear of the colonies being split. Lose the second paragraph of revisionism.
Otherwise very informative.
February 7, 2016 @ 8:24 pm
had nothing to do with anyone taking land (i am part seneca). most of the iroquois sided with england, under brant the mohawk some iroquois with some english loyalists conducted the cherry valley and wyoming valley massacres, killing women children, even babies. it was at this point washington decided the iroquois needed to be punished. the seneca were the largest, most warlike, and most wealthy in resources of the belligerent nations, so invading there lands was the key to the destruction of the tribes that had sided with england. the assault on the seneca had nothing to do with land, nor did little beards revenge on the scouts.this article is poorly researched, or intentional revisionist history in the name of political correctness. the seneca were a proud warrior people…NOT THE STUPID FOOL POOR LITTLE WUSSIES THAT SOME WHITES WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE. the seneca and mohawk choose to take part in a war they did not have to get involved in, and choose the wrong side. what happened to them was no more than what the iroquois did with their vanquished enemies..
September 16, 2021 @ 2:19 pm
This post is spot on. The Seneca were by far the largest and by most accounts the most fierce of the Six Nations Confederacy from all I have read though I am not a New York native and am of European descent . The Clinton and sullivan campaign was motivated as noted as retribution for the raids at cherry valley and wyoming valley, but also to try to sever the British and Tory elements from the material support provided by the Seneca in terms of warriors and food supplies. At least George III provided land in what is now Ontario for those natives who chose to relocate after the peace of the Revolutionary War and the Patriot victory. Those Seneca who chose to move fared better under king George than the Oneida or Tuscarora who allied themselves with the Patriot cause.
October 8, 2016 @ 5:33 pm
How is this known to be true? Were the two beheaded corpses found with their intestines wrapped around the tree…? What is the source of the report on the incident?
October 8, 2016 @ 5:39 pm
There are a number of different reports that have been written about the events surrounding this story. Throughout this post there are hyperlinks inserted to the sources. You’ll find most of the links within the third paragraph.
November 30, 2019 @ 9:12 pm
Out of 1,000 treaties with the US government 999 treaties have been broken to this day they only kept One Promise and that was to take our land
October 26, 2019 @ 7:03 am
Much of what is known about the condition of the corpses is taken from the diaries of soldiers who were on the expedition. Some of these are in the restricted collection of the Genesee Valley collection at Milne Library on the SUNY Geneseo campus.
February 3, 2018 @ 11:32 am
I have lived in the Vally all my life and researched this engaement extensively through the Sullivan transcripts, Marry Jamison’s Biography and a few other sources.There is (some) truth in this article but it is very limited. I have to say that it do’s fascinate me how history gets distorted with time. I have heard and seen even (Historians) passing off false information as fact.
February 3, 2018 @ 12:45 pm
Thanks for reading, Shaun. I consider myself only as someone who is interested in learning more about our region’s history, and in that pursuit, I’ve found the same thing you have found. I’ve never discovered a single resource for this incident that matched another exactly. My hope with posting here was to help people be aware of a site they may pass in their travels and the importance it has for our region.
February 11, 2018 @ 1:23 pm
Chris , my comment wasn’t to insult anyone. I admire your interest being that very few understand the rich history of this part of the plant even before the invasion of the europeans. Good job Chris.
October 25, 2019 @ 5:01 pm
My understanding is that the tree that stands there now is not the original torture tree. I had read that in multiple reports over the years.
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April 7, 2022 @ 6:31 am
So are their actual remains buried back in or near the torture tree now and the Boulder there is their grave stone/marker?