Horton's Historical Articles

by Gerald Horton

Sir Frederick Haldimand: His Influence on the Mohawk Valley

When historians write about the men who played major roles in the Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, one name is seldom mentioned – Sir Frederick Haldimand, Governor-General of the Province of Quebec.  In the valley war many call the Border Wars, names such as Johnson, Butler, Schuyler, Brant, Brown, and Willett frequently appear in the local histories.  It was Haldimand’s strategy, however, that brought devastation to the valley during that conflict.


There is little known of Haldimand – particularly his early life.  A biography, published in 1926, in the Makers of Canada Series is the only record of his life prior to his service in the British Army.  Haldimand was born in 1718 at Yverdun, Switzerland.  As the younger son of a Huguenot family, he went to make his living in the military.  He began his career as a cadet in the army of Charles Emmanuel, King of Sardinia. Haldimand is next heard of in the Prussian Army under Frederick the Great.  The Prussian Army at that time, the 1740’s, was regarded as the best in Europe.  It was in this environment of military professionalism that Haldimand honed his skills as a commander.


In Holland in 1750, Haldimand served with the Swiss Mercenaries, holding the rank of Lt. Colonel.  He joined the British Army at the outbreak of the French and Indian War and commanded the Grenadiers under General James Abercrombie.  Slightly wounded during Abercrombie’s abortive attack on French General Montcalm’s lines at Ticonderoga in 1758, Haldimand held Fort Edward in the Champlain Valley through the winter of 1758 – 59.  He rebuilt Fort Ontario at Oswego, New York in the summer of 1759.  In 1760, Haldimand led the advance party of General Jeffrey Amherst’s army down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and then commanded the troops that took that Canadian city.


Following the French and Indian War, Haldimand wished to remain in the colonies.  He was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the Southern Department (Florida).  In 1774, as a Major General, he replaced General Thomas Gage as American Commander-in-Chief while Gage was on leave of absence in London.  Upon Gage’s return, Haldimand returned to England and then to Switzerland where he remained for several years – an unemployed general.


When General Guy Carleton resigned as Governor of the Province of Quebec, the British Secretary to the Colonies, Lord George Germain, immediately thought of Haldimand and asked that he accept the position.  Haldimand readily agreed.  In a letter dated 16 April 1778, Lord Germain outlined Haldimand’s orders.  In the letter, Germain stated, ”The security and defense of the Province must however be the Primary object of your attention…”.1  As a soldier, Haldimand clearly understood that his prime directive was to defend Canada at all costs.


Haldimand arrived in Canada in July 1778.  He immediately began a personal survey of the Province and developed a plan of defense that he outlined in a report to Lord Germain in October 1778.  The plan consisted of three main elements. First, through communication with the British Commander in New York City, General Clinton, as well as with local Loyalist leaders, he intended to make it impossible for an army to advance on Canada without his knowledge.  Second, he would block the military approaches to the Province, particularly the Champlain Valley.  Third, by denying an advancing army provisions and forage, he would force it to maintain an extensive baggage train and long supply line.2  It was the third element of his plan that resulted in the devastation of the Mohawk Valley.


General Haldimand’s plan was based on his fervent belief that Canada would be invaded again as it had been in 1775 by the Rebels under Montgomery and Arnold.  He stressed this belief in a letter to Germain:


“All the accounts which I have received from the Rebel Colonies agree that the Reduction of Canada is looked upon there as so essentially requisite to them before they can consider themselves secure, that it has been declared to the people from the Congress, as I make no doubt your Lordship has seen that they are not to expect Peace till they shall have accomplished this indispensable work.”3


Haldimand knew he had a formidable task before him in defending a border that ran from the Atlantic Ocean into the Great Lakes.  He had to decide where the likely points of attack were located and position his meager forces so as to repel attack in those areas.  He left the western area (from Ft. Niagara in western New York State to upper Michigan) to the local commanders.  He believed any major attack would come through the Champlain Valley in New York.  As his requests for additional troops had been rebuffed by Lord Germain, he had to place his forces so as to repel such an attack.  Haldimand had a mixed bag of troops under his command.  Remnants of Burgoyne’s army helped fill out five battalions of British Regulars.  There were also five German units and two corps of Loyalists, the Royal Highland Immigrants under Colonel Allen MacLean and the King’s Royal Regiment of New York under Sir John Johnson.  In all, Haldimand could field about 4,000 effective troops.4


As an experienced military commander, Haldimand could assess the probability of likely invasion routes.  However, he still needed timely intelligence on enemy troop movements if he were to have any hope of stopping a large force.  This made the first element of his defense plan extremely important.  Haldimand had been instructed to stay in close contact with General Clinton in New York City, but communication between the two commanders was difficult at best.  Couriers attempting to get from Lake Champlain to Clinton’s Headquarters in New York were continually intercepted and their dispatches turned over to Rebel leaders.  Clinton seemed to consider Haldimand’s need for information as secondary to the main war effort.  There were hints of frustration in some of Haldimand’s letters at this seemingly recalcitrant behavior on the part of Clinton.  For six months of one year, the Canadian Governor did not hear from Clinton at all – even though Haldimand had sent him nineteen letters.  During that time, Haldimand had to rely on scraps of information from Rebel newspapers that occasionally found their way to Quebec.5


Absent adequate official communication, Haldimand was forced to rely heavily on scouts and spies.  This method of gaining information was useful, but could also prove misleading – especially if manipulated by a master of deception like General George Washington.  In 1779, Washington planned a campaign against the Iroquois in western New York State.  To hold Haldimand’s forces in place and keep them from supporting their Indian allies, Washington sent Major Moses Hazen with a company of men to begin clearing trees for a military road along the Connecticut River Valley.  Hazen spread the rumor that the road was being built to support an invasion of Canada.  In spite of reports that a large Rebel force was gathering in the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania and heading for Iroquois lands, Haldimand held his forces in Canada.  He felt an invasion of Canada was more likely than one in Iroquoia.  He discovered the ruse too late to come to the aid of the Iroquois.


Gathering information on enemy troop movements was essential. Once that information was known to be reliable, measures were required to stop, or at least impede, the invading force.  This was the second element of Haldimand’s plan – fortifications straddling probable invasion routes.  He believed the most likely invasion route was through the Champlain Valley with the upper St. Lawrence a distant second in importance.  He ordered the repair of the fortifications at Fort Saint John and of the fieldworks at Isle aux Noix on the Richelieu River.  Haldimand knew these fortifications would at best prove only an early warning of any major invasion.  He placed his main force at Sorel on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence; this would allow him to move those troops to reinforce the Richelieu forts or to take up a better position to meet the invading army.


On the upper St. Lawrence, Haldimand chose Buck Island or Deer Island as it was named at the time, to place a fort that would command entry into the river from Lake Ontario.  The island had been used from time to time as a staging area for attacks into the Mohawk Valley. British Colonel Barry St. Leger used it prior to his attack on the valley in 1777.  In 1779, Haldimand renamed the island Carleton Island in honor of his predecessor Sir Guy Carleton and ordered a fort be erected on it.  The engineers building the fort named it Fort Haldimand.  Carleton Island lies offshore present-day Cape Vincent, New York and today is privately owned.


Haldimand received help securing the east side of Lake Champlain and the Connecticut Valley from an unlikely source – Ethan Allen.  The ownership of the area, known as the Hampshire Grants or Vermont, had been in contention for a number of years.  Officially, the area belonged to the Province of New York which offered land grants to settlers.  New Hampshire claimed the same area and was also issuing grants. Ethan Allen emerged as a political and military leader out of the so-called Hampshire Grants.  Allen and his political faction petitioned the Continental Congress to make Vermont the fourteenth state, but Congress ignored their claims.  For several years, Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” had been forcing settlers from New York off their land and chasing them back to New York.  Leaders in New York and Massachusetts were angered by these tactics and influenced Congress to refuse action on any further petitions.  Vermont’s “State Assembly” retaliated by prohibiting the supply of any provisions to the Continental Army.  As a further measure, the services of the Vermont militia were also withheld from General Washington.


The British attempted to exploit this rift and Haldimand entered into negotiations with Allen.  Vermont was to be granted status as an independent Province if it returned to the British fold.  Historian Michael Bellesiles quotes Haldimand’s first impressions of Ethan Allen: “I am assured by all, that no dependence can be had in him – his character is well known, and his Followers, or dependents, are a collection of the most abandoned wretches that ever lived, to be bound by no Law or Ties “.6     In spite of his belief that no agreement would be reached, Haldimand negotiated with Allen for almost three years.  By humoring the secessionist faction he immobilized the Vermont Militia.  They would not march off to join Washington and leave their land titles unprotected.  Furthermore, Haldimand knew Allen and his men would look upon any Continentals marching into their area as a covert effort to force a resolution on the Vermonters.7   By 1780, Haldimand was feeling more secure in his plan to block an invading army.


Haldimand, in the third element of his plan, wanted to insure that any invading force would not find provisions or forage in any local area.  The Mohawk Valley was a breadbasket, growing wheat and corn, as well as hay for forage.  The raids on the Iroquois in 1779 meant a period of peace for the valley, and growers were able to build up a small store of provisions.  The year 1780 also proved to be a good growing year.   Haldimand’s knowledge of the existence of these provisions so close to the route of possible invasion led to his implementation of the third element of his defense plan - and to the devastation of the valley.  If he were to force the invaders to extend their supply lines, he had to eliminate the stores so close at hand.  Local historians have debated for years whether the raids on the valley were motivated strictly by vengeance or by a British Plan to eliminate a food source for the Rebel Army.  As with many historical debates, the answer lies somewhere in between.  Smaller raids of farms and settlements were mainly motivated by vengeance.  The raid on Cherry Valley, New York was not carried out on Haldimand’s orders.  It was an operation conducted by Butler’s Rangers out of Fort Niagara.  To say that Haldimand did not issue the order to strike the settlement, does not mean that he disapproved of the raiding tactic and its risk of atrocities.  He considered the raid a legitimate military operation and the benefits were worth any potential unpleasantness.  That Haldimand did not have previous knowledge of the attack was more a matter of geography than ethics.8


Haldimand’s intention in the third element of his plan was to extend the invader’s supply lines and force delays upon the attacking force.  He could then count on his greatest ally – winter – to force the invaders to retreat.9   Haldimand took up the raiding tactic as a means of eliminating stores of supplies along the invasion route.  The initial raid he ordered in October of 1778 was led by Major Christopher Carleton (nephew of Sir Guy Carleton whom Haldimand had replaced as Governor of Quebec).  Carleton’s orders were to raid the southern shores of Lake Champlain and the surrounding area  “to destroy all the supplies, provisions, and animals which the rebels may have assembled on the shores of Lake Champlain, to take prisoner all the inhabitants who have settled  there and have sworn allegiance to the Congress, sending their wives and children into the Colonies with orders not to return to that region”.10   When the raiding party returned, Carleton reported it had destroyed “4 months provisions for 12,000 men (sic)”.11


Carleton’s raid represented the epitome of Haldimand’s plan to deny provisions to an invading force.  Small raids by Indian and Loyalist forces continued from Ft. Niagara.  However, Haldimand wished to produce a more specific effect with his large raiding parties than the unregimented terror and destruction of many small frontier raids.12   He stated in several letters that “an exaggerated importance has been given to small and harassing excursions which merely serve to exasperate the rebels”.13  Haldimand also expressed his displeasure with the Indians as allies: “In all excursions undertaken by the troops in this war there has not been a single instance where the Indians have fulfilled their engagements, but influenced by caprice, a dream, or a desire of protracting the war to obtain presents, have dispersed and deserted the troops”.14  Therefore, when Haldimand turned his attention to the destruction of the Mohawk valley, there was only a small percentage of Indians among those raiding parties.


The first raid Haldimand ordered on the Mohawk Valley was in May 1780.  Led by Sir John Johnson, the raid was initially ordered to help rescue Loyalist families whose men were being forced into the service of the Continental Army.  Johnson convinced Haldimand to make it a destructive raid as well.  The raiding party of just over 500 men moved down Lake Champlain to Crown Point and then marched southwest to Johnstown.  Some 143 Loyalists including thirty black slaves were brought out of the area.  In addition, Johnson’s party burned some 120 barns, mills, and dwellings.15


In October of 1780, Johnson led the largest and most destructive raid of the war on the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys.  Departing from Carleton Island, his force sailed down the eastern shore of Lake Ontario to Oswego.  They skirted the Oneida Indian lands and Ft. Stanwix and marched southeast to the headwaters of Schoharie Creek.  Moving downstream toward the Mohawk River, the force burned dwellings, barns, and mills as it went.  Where the Schoharie empties into the Mohawk River, Johnson split his force sending divisions marching west up both sides of the river.  The Rebel militia attempted to stop them several times, leading to the Battles of Stone Arabia and Klock’s Field.  In both cases, Johnson’s force eluded capture and the party retraced its steps to Oswego.  It then returned via Lake Ontario to Carleton Island and Canada.


In his report, Sir John stated that the raiding force had destroyed 600,000 bushels of grain and burned hundreds of houses, barns, and mills.  The devastation was immense.  The majority of Johnson’s force was comprised of Loyalists. Historian Gavin Watt attempted to illustrate the emotions of these men as they went about their grim task:


“Many of the men had marched past very familiar scenes, farms where their families, relatives and friends had worked and lived in harmony, in some cases for decades. Not a few had put the torch to buildings that they had known from their youth or had helped to build. In some cases, they must have felt a surge of luxuriant revenge when a detested rebel’s holdings were sent up in flames; but, in many instances there would only be a grim sense of satisfaction when their own, a brother’s or a friend’s property, which had been sequestered by the rebel state, was put to the torch”.16


Following his raid, Johnson reported that the Mohawk Valley had been laid waste for fifty miles west of the Schoharie Creek confluence.17  There were one hundred grist mills west of Schenectady in 1776.  In 1781, only one remained.18   In April 1781, Colonel Marinus Willett wrote a letter to General George Washington describing the destruction of the Mohawk Valley.  Willett told Washington that the population had decreased from 10,000 people in 1777 to just over 3,000 at the end of 1780.19  General Haldimand had completed his plan of defense.


General Washington, with the main force of the Continental Army was encamped near West Point, New York, in November  1780.  He wrote to New York Governor Clinton that “we shall be obliged to bring flour from the southward (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland) to support our troops”.20  The Mohawk Valley was no longer the “bread basket” of the colonies.

Many historians ascribe the destruction of the Mohawk Valley to the actions of Butler, Johnson, Joseph Brant, and others. While they may have been the ones directly involved, it was Sir Frederick Haldimand who commanded and controlled the destruction.  In the small raiding parties of ten to twenty men and in the expeditions with forces numbering over thousand men, Haldimand saw the final element of his overall plan coming to fruition.  As a professional soldier, he was concerned with reaching his objective. In reaching that objective, Haldimand brought untold suffering upon the people of the Mohawk Valley.




1        John Oliver Dendy “Frederick Haldimand and the Defense of Canada 1778 – 1784” Unpublished Ph.d. Dissertation (1972), Duke University. p. 19.


2        Ibid, p. 36.


3        Jean N. McIlwraith Sir Frederick Haldimand The Makers of Canada Series, Vol III. Grant, W. L., ed. (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1926), p. 132.


4        Dendy, p. 54.


5   McIlwraith, pp.128-129.


6   Michael A. Bellesiles Revolutionary Outlaws – Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1993) p. 195.


7        Dendy, pp. 209-210.


8    Ibid, p. 44.


9    Ibid, p. 36.


10  Ida H. and Paul A. Washington Carleton’s Raid (Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing, 1977) p. vii.


11  Ibid.


12  Dendy, p. 201.


13  McIlwraith, p. 170.


14  Ibid.


15  Gavin K. Watt The Burning of the Valleys (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Dundurn Press, 1997) pp. 78-79.


16  Ibid, p. 201.


17  Edward A. Hagan War in Schohary (self published, 1980) p. 43.


18  Watt, p. 315.


19  Edward Thomas Marinus Willett: Soldier – Patriot (Prospect, NY: Prospect Books, 1954) p. 120.


20  Hagan, p. 43.




Bellesiles, Michael A. Revolutionary Outlaws – Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1993.


Dendy, John Oliver “Frederick Haldimand and the Defense of Canada 1778-1784” Unpublished Ph.d. Dissertation, Duke University, 1972.


Hagan, Edward A. War in Schohary Self-published, 1980.


McIlwraith, Jean N. Sir Frederick Haldimand, The Makers of Canada Series Vol III, Grant, W. L. ed. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1926.


Thomas, Howard Marinus Willett: Soldier – Patriot Prospect, NY: Prospect Books, 1954.


Washington, Ida H. and Paul A. Carleton’s Raid Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing, 1977.


Watt, Gavin K. The Burning of the Valleys Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Dundurn Press, 1997.

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