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