The Oneidas Helped Save Our Revolutionary Army
By Tom Lloyd
(No matter where you stand on the name of the Washington Redskins, there can be no question about the noble role the Oneida Indians played in the Revolutionary War.)
If you thought this past Winter was a tough one, you don’t know Winter.
In the Winter of 1777, the American Revolution was in dire straights. George Washington and his rag-tag force of 11,000 men, weary from the resounding defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, took refuge in Valley Forge, Pa.
Deep snow, freezing temperatures and lack of supplies during that Winter proved every bit as deadly to the Americans as British musket balls. The Continental army lost nearly 20 percent of its soldiers to cold, disease and starvation.
It was during that Winter of 1777 that an Oneida chief named Shenandoah and an Oneida woman named Polly Cooper undertook an historic and heroic trek. They and a band of Oneida warriors trudged the entire 300-plus miles from upstate New York to deliver life-saving sustenance to Washington’s suffering forces in form of about 600 bushels of white corn.
The white corn of the Oneida was unlike the yellow corn most Americans knew in that it could not be eaten raw, so it fell to Cooper and the Oneida braves to not only help deliver it but also to teach the starving soldiers how to prepare it.
Without the aid provided by Cooper and those Oneida tribesmen, Washington’s army might never have lived through that Winter, let alone march south to victory at Yorktown and eventual independence.
The Oneida rescue mission to Valley Forge is commemorated by a 19-foot high bronze statue of General Washington, Shenandoah and Cooper at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, but the more practical rewards for America’s Native American allies were far more fleeting.
The Continental Congress of 1777 was effusive with its spoken praise at the time but lax at living up to those words.
“We have experienced your love,” a congressional delegation told the Oneida, “as strong as oak, and your fidelity, unchangeable as truth. While the sun and the moon continue to give light to the world, we shall love and respect you. As your trusty friends we shall protect you and shall at all times consider your welfare as our own.”
Maj. Gen. Phillip Schuyler, a native New Yorker, member of the Continental Congress and a commander of American Revolutionary War forces chimed in as well. “Sooner should a fond mother forget her only son than we shall forget you,” told his Native American allies.
Sadly for the Oneida, neither the words of Congress nor those of Gen. Schuyler proved to be entirely true.
Congress did set aside six million acres for the Oneida in 1788, five years after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, but today all that remains of that grant is a mere 32 acres.
We have, it seems, shorter memories than Gen. Schuyler anticipated.
The Oneida were one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy — thought to be the oldest living participatory democracy in the world. The Oneida, the Seneca, the Mohawk, the Onondaga and the Cayuga shared a culture with an oral rather than written tradition, so there are varying descriptions of specific events. The preponderance of evidence is that the “Haudenosaunee” people, or “people of the longhouse,” as the Iroquois called themselves, managed to overcome centuries of infighting and bloody raiding parties to unite and bring peace to their land.
According to Haudenosaunee legend, a holy man known as Dekanawida, the ‘Great Iroquois Peacemaker’ and his disciple, Hiawatha, (who would be the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem), led these tribes to create a peaceful and cooperative society that would exist for over 500 years until the Europeans arrived.
As was the case in nearly every instance since Columbus, contact with Europeans, (the French, the British and the American Colonists), brought at least as much harm to the native people of the Americas as it did good.
The metal knives, axes, hoes and kettles that the early French explorers brought as trade goods were superior to the native implements made of stone, bone, shell or wood. Woven cloth, likewise, was quickly adopted to replace the animal skins that had traditionally been used to make clothing.
Nonetheless, with a sinister guile that would have delighted Machiavelli, the Europeans quickly set out to form and then break and then re-form a whole host of treaties and alliances with the indigenous people. Pitting one tribe against another for the sake of beaver pelts and farmland became commonplace. Deadly, too.
The introduction of firearms alone led to an estimated 1,600 to 2,000 Haudenosaunee deaths from gunshot wounds in the decade of the 1690s and the number went up each decade after that.
Even deadlier was the introduction of European diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza.
The French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763 brought still more death to the Haudenosaunee as England and France battled for control of North America.
While the Iroquois Confederacy was officially neutral in this conflict, many members of the Mohawk tribe sided with the British while large numbers of Seneca warriors fought for the French. In both cases it was less a matter of preferring one European nation over another than it was the hope of driving at least one of the foreign invaders out of their traditional homelands.
Nonetheless, just 14 years after the end of that conflict, it was the Oneida nation that came to Valley Forge and helped to save Washington’s army.
Paradoxically, most school children today are taught that it was a European power that most helped Washington to victory.
The French fleet under Adm. Francois Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse did bottle up the Chesapeake Bay to deny Cornwallis an escape route at Yorktown and French soldiers under Lt. Gen. Jean de Rochambeau did join in the siege of that Virginia town which enabled Washington to secure the American victory that essentially ended the war.
Yorktown, however, wasn’t fought until 1781.
If it hadn’t been for Chief Shenandoah, Polly Cooper and a band of Oneidea braves bringing 600 bushels of corn to Valley Forge three years earlier, the battle of Yorktown might never have taken place.
Today, 32 acres of land, a large bronze statue in a museum and an NFL franchise with a name that many perceive to be a racial slur are pretty much all that remains of the gratitude the Oneida and all Native Americans received from this supposedly grateful nation.