Geneseo Genealogy: Torture Tree exposes a more sinister, rich valley

About five miles outside of Geneseo, a large, ordinary tree stands in the middle of a small town park in Cuylerville, N.Y.; an area with a dark past and haunting history. Known by locals as the “Torture Tree,” the old oak marks the site of two Revolutionary War-era murders in what is now Boyd and Parker Park, located on Route 20A in Leicester, N.Y.  – about 10 minutes outside of campus.

According to Livingston County historian Amie Alden, in 1779, Gen. George Washington sent troops into Western New York with hopes of dislodging the Seneca Indians from their protective posts outside of the British Fort Niagara.

“The Genesee Valley was a serving as a kind of bread basket for the Indians that lived there, who were mostly farmers because of the fertile land,” Alden said. “And these Indians had formed an alliance with the British, and were therefore supplying food to the British army.”

“And so, in September of 1779, Gen. Washington sent Gen. Sullivan’s army on an expedition to burn the villages in the area [in order] to get to Fort Niagara,” she said.

Marking the western limit of what would come to be known as the Sullivan Campaign, the “Torture Tree” stands in the midst of what was formerly known as Little Beard’s Town, a powerful Seneca village in the Genesee River Valley.

According to Alden, a few days before Boyd and Parker’s deaths, Sullivan sent out a scouting party of about 16 men to survey the area before the troops advanced. As part of Sullivan’s company, Lt. Thomas Boyd was ordered to lead the party.

The coast was reported clear; however, on their way back to camp the group was ambushed by the Seneca. They massacred the majority of Boyd’s party, leaving only Boyd and one of his men, Sgt. Michael Parker, alive to be captured and taken to Little Beard’s Town.

“No one really knows why they took Parker,” Alden said. “No one knows much about him other than he was one of the men in Boyd’s scouting party.”

Unfortunately, Parker’s life prior to his death remains a mystery. The exact events that transpired in Little Beard’s Town after Boyd and Parker’s capture are unclear. A popular account collected from the diaries and letters of the remaining men of Sullivan’s company depicts the captured soldiers being tied to the tree with their own intestines and brutally tortured until they were finally scalped and beheaded.

While Indian raids and ceremonial torture were common at the time, Alden explained that the manner in which the two men were killed “was unusual, for sure,” and that although it is not confirmed, it is speculated that there may have been involvement and instigation from the loyalist tories who were allied with the British at the time.

“In 1927, [the University of the State of New York] put together funds to organize events across the state to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution,” Alden said. “And as part of the series of commemorations following the path of Sullivan’s campaign,” funds were provided to place a boulder and bronze tablet at the burial mound of Boyd and Parker.

According to Alden, the town of Leicester now owns the park, where the creepy urban-legend history of the “Torture Tree” has continued to flourish for more than two centuries.