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Literary Scene: Historical markers in Lafayette College professor’s book tracking origin of Sullivan Trail

Most Lehigh Valley residents have traveled on Easton’s Sullivan Trail at one time or another, but very few know the history of its namesake.

“Memory Wars: Settlers and Natives Remember Washington’s Sullivan Expedition of 1779” (430 pages; University of Nebraska Press, hardcover and E-book $65; 2023) by A. Lynn Smith tells that history and how it is remembered and memorialized.

Sullivan Trail references the Sullivan Expedition headed by Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton.

The expedition went from Easton to Native Americans’ Six Nations’ homeland of Seneca and Cayuga countries in New York State. It is called the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition in New York State where Clinton came from.

George Washington was its master planner. The 1779 expedition, with four brigades of Continental troops of approximately 4,469 men, destroyed more than 40 Native American villages in response to the Battle of Wyoming, known as the Wyoming Massacre in Wyoming Valley, July 3, 1778, in what is Luzerne County, in which hundreds of patriots were killed by Iroquois warriors.

Many Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, were killed or displaced in the expedition, some of whom were neutral or even sided with the patriots against the British in the then recent Revolutionary War.

American history has slowly come to recognize the vast mistreatment of Native Americans, and the events of the Sullivan Expedition are now thought by many to have been genocide.

Dr. Andrea Lynn Smith is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Lafayette College. From her office at Lafayette, she says that the book involved 10 years of research. Much of it pertains to historical markers of the event, many of them along highways or in campgrounds.

The Sullivan Expedition is said to be the subject of more than 60 historical markers in Pennsylvania and 200 in New York State.

In “Memory Wars,” Smith contrasts settler accounts with how the Sullivan story is expressed at Haudenosaunee cultural centers.

“It began when a student asked me about a marker on campus,” Smith says. The book refers to a boulder with a marker along a back road to the college.

“I started looking into it. There was no guidebook or tourist information about local markers. I talked with people and communities to see if they noticed.

“The markers can be found from Easton, north along Sullivan Trail. There is one at Center Square in downtown Easton, another on Lafayette’s campus, another in Forks on Sullivan Trail. The next one is in Wind Gap, and they can be found further north, past Wilkes-Barre, ending in Athens, Pennsylvania.

“Some of the units of the expedition started in Easton, where they waited for supplies. Some of the troops got into trouble for swimming in the Delaware and a few were executed for violence,” Smith says.

Older markers have brass plates on boulders or might be structures like stone obelisks. Some of these have been destroyed. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historical markers generally replaced the larger memorials.

The Battle of Wyoming, or Wyoming Massacre, is commemorated every year in Luzerne County. A centennial event in the last century was attended by an estimated 60,000. Talks at such events often referred to “bloodthirsty savages” and “scenes of rapine and murder” committed by the natives.

Smith says that in New York State, “There are active Haudenosaunee nations that are alive and well. They have confronted the State of New York over many issues that happened since the U.S. was created.

“Dominant groups will rewrite the past to justify their new place on the land,” says Smith. The process of settler colonialism, which still continues around the world, represses the memories of native populations.

“There are new developments in how people think about U.S. history,” says Smith.

“Younger people are learning new things about Native American history, even in fourth grade. This may be related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Also, there has been much more visible Native American content in public media, such as with shows like ‘Reservation Dogs’ or ‘Rutherford Falls,’” Smith says.

The book concludes with descriptions of museums, art projects and novelists who are working to give a truer account of the Sullivan Expedition and other segments of American history.

Smith’s books include the award-winning “Colonial Memory and Postcolonial Europe: Maltese Settlers in Algeria and France” (Indiana, 2006) and “Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past” (Nebraska, 2016).

She is working on a book about the public memory of the 1737 Walking Purchase Lenape land treaty in Pennsylvania.

“Literary Scene” is a column about authors, books and publishing. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnonline.com

Dr. Andrea Lynn Smith