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 that we ultimately turn into our pancake syrup and some people even bring them indoors to decorate their homes for Christmas. Years ago while I was working at the Pieters Family Life Center, Executive Director Andrew Little was telling me about one particular tree in the Genesee Valley region of the Finger Lakes that is the site of a horrifically brutal scene from the Revolutionary War. After reading up more on the story, of course I had to go see it in person.
In the late 1700’s when folks were slowly taking the land belonging to 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. Their objective: to destroy Native villages and crops which ultimately would remove the threat caused to people settling in the region.
It was Saturday, September 11, 1779 when General Sullivan and others in his crew were engaged in an argument as to whether their main objective existed on the West or the East bank of the Genesee River. The following day he sent Lieutenant Thomas Boyd and a few others to scout the exact location of the Genesee Castle. A ‘castle’ is word that describes a Native American village, and 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, but reports show that he actually took a number somewhere in the 20’s (I have read conflicting reports of 16, 23, 28 and 29 men.) Along their trek in the middle of the night the group encounters a few Senecas walking the trail with firearms. After a brief exchange of bullets, Boyd’s group retreats and is met by an even larger group and most of Boyd’s men are killed.
During the exchange, a much greater number of Indian holdouts who were waiting along the banks of the Genesee River flee when they estimate the exchange of bullets to be a larger skirmish than they anticipated. When they determine that it was actually just a small scouting group their original plan to ambush Sullivan’s army was too complex to recreate, especially since one of Boyd’s group 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. They once had visions of a surprise attack on what they expected to be a quaint, small Seneca Village that they intended to obliterate but when they arrived at Little Beard Town on September 14, 1779 what they encountered was something else entirely.
On the trail where most of Boyd’s men had been killed, a few of those who survived were captured and returned to the village. Lieutenant Thomas Boyd and Sargent Michael Parker were among those brought back to the village and questioned by Chief Little Beard, Joseph Brant (a Mohawk who chose an English name) and John Butler (an ‘American’ who was loyal to England.) After Butler and Brant were finished with their interrogation where apparently neither Boyd nor Parker gave up any details on Sullivan’s plans, they left and turned the two 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.
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.
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 and later in 1927 the area was marked with a granite boulder and plaque.
Since 2009 the tree in Cuylerville is a registered National Historic Landmark, along with the neighboring 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