A New Nation’s Forgotten Indian Allies

By all accounts, the Battle of Oriskany was a bloodbath.

On August 6, 1777, Gen. Nicholas Herkimer of the Continental Army unwittingly led an untrained mi- litia of 800 patriots, mainly farmers, into an ambush. They were headed to Fort Stanwix in what is now Rome, New York to relieve forces pinned down by Joseph Brant, a Mohawk loyal to the British Crown.

Among Herkimer’s troops were members of the Oneida Nation. Their pivotal role in the war for Amer- ican independence has generally been overlooked.

But now it is being spotlighted in recent historical accounts and, especially, at the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. The museum opened on April 19, the 242nd anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

When the war began, neutrality was the watchword for the historic Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca, joined later by the Tuscarora, had originally bonded to ensure communal peace and combine against external enemies.

“Iroquois warriors shied away from fighting one another out of concern for injuring any of their distant kin,” wrote Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin in Forgotten Allies (Hill and Wang, 2006). “To strike a blow against a fellow Iroquois was an almost unthinkable act.”

But when the Revolution began, preserving that neutrality was not easy—especially for the Oneida. Their territory lay directly between the British base of power and the patriots. Oneidas also lived close to colonial settlements and, as the authors write, “patriots spoke of freedom and the liberties of individuals in ways the Oneidas easily grasped.”

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Ojistarle ("Grasshopper").

“Our people have always made decisions based upon how it will a ect the seventh generation to come,” wrote Keller George, Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Nation’s Council. “I know that the decision my ancestors made over 200 years ago, around those ancient res, was made with the consideration for the faces yet unborn.”

Still, it was a hard choice. In Cornplanter: Chief Warrior of the Allegany Senecas (Syracuse University Press, 2007), Thomas Struthers Abler offers a telling quote from a minor council convened in Oswego
in the spring of 1777. “War is war Death is death a fight is a hard business [sic],” the Seneca Chief Warrior Cornplanter told the assembled Iroquois. The Seneca warrior Blacksnake reported that Iroquois were divided on whether to join the war after that gathering.

In the end, the Oneidas decided to abandon their historic neutrality and join the colonists in seeking freedom. The fighting took place, Oneida language preservation coordinator Sheri Beglen said at the museum opening, “right in our back yard . . . how incredibly di cult it must be to make a decision to pick up weapons. Maybe it seemed like something we just had to do.”

Oneida Nation documents attest that the village of Oriska was close to the Oriskany battle site. And “as with other villages that comprised the Oneida Nation of over two centuries ago, the Oneida people lived under the fundamental principles of democracy. It was that belief in freedom that brought the Oneida to the aid of the colonists during the Revolutionary War.”

The battle itself was more or less a draw. But as Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises Ray Halbritter noted at the museum opening, “it cemented the longstanding friendship between the Oneidas and the colonies, and it made the Oneidas the very first allies of the United States.”

Some 60 Oneidas fought with the colonists during the Battle of Oriskany. The toll was awful. In addition to 200 soldiers of the Continental Army who were killed, many were wounded or captured. As many as three dozen Seneca, including six chiefs, walked on.

The number of Oneidas lost is not clear, because many historians either ignored or were unaware of their involvement. It is known, however, that Edward and Thom-
as Spencer—who were half-Oneida and half-European American—perished that day.

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Tegahsweangalolis ("The Sawmill")

The horror of the bloodshed stayed with the survivors. Blacksnake had never seen so many dead bodies in one place, wrote Barbara Graymont in The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse University Press, 1975): “I thought at that time the Blood Shed [was] a Stream running down on the Descending ground during the afternoon, and yet some living crying for help.”

The battle did, however, thwart the advance of a British expedition led by Gen. Barrimore Matthew St. Leger. Oneida historians note that if he had been able to move east and join forces with Gen. John Burgoyne, who was moving from the south, they could have divided the colonies.

The role of the Oneida in the Revolution did not end with Oriskany. In the spring
of 1778, George Washington requested that Oneida and Tuscarora warriors join his army at Valley Forge. The rebels needed scouts who knew the land to counteract British raiders who were roaming the countryside around Philadelphia.

So on April 25 some 47 Indians, most of them Oneidas, headed to Pennsylvania. Among them was their Chief Warrior Han Yerry, who had been wounded at Oriskany, and his brother, HanYost Thahoswagwat. Also present, according to Oneida lore, was the Oneida woman Polly Cooper. Knowing that Washington’s men faced food shortages, they brought corn during their 250-mile journey.

When the group arrived at Valley Forge on May 15, Cooper set about preparing hulled corn soup for the tattered and tired soldiers. “Polly shelled the ears,” Glatthaar and Martin write, “ground the kernels into meal, boiled the corn soup, and mixed these items with available fruits and nuts, all with the intent of showing the soldiers how to improve the nutritional quality of their sparse diets.”

It was during the Battle of Barren Hill in May 1778 that the Oneidas truly impressed Washington. Part of a scouting party two miles away from the Marquis de Lafayette’s main column, they started attacking British soldiers.

Then, as Glatthaar and Martin describe it, they “quickly gathered up the cloaks and other equipment that the British had abandoned and fell back toward the main rebel force in traditional Iroquois fashion, darting from tree to tree for concealment while fighting when necessary.” The 50 Indians and handful of Frenchmen in the scouting party faced some 2,000 of the enemy but managed to join Lafayette’s main column across the Schuylkill River.

Because the patriots were able to escape across the river, their casualties were far fewer than those of the British. Washington reported that only nine rebels were killed, wounded or captured at Barren Hill. Years later, Pennsylvanians placed a plaque at St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in Barren Hill that memorialized the “Six Indian Scouts Who Died in Battle May 1778.” Church records show that four are buried there.

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Bear Clan matron Wá:li

Washington was impressed by the Oneidas’ willingness to leave their homeland to serve in the Continental Army, despite their domestic troubles. So he sent them home.

Among those lost at Barren Hill was sachem Thomas Sinavis, a revolutionary supporter who had served in two military campaigns—unusual for a sachem. His sister, Bear Clan matron Wá:li, would have to wait 17 years to receive acknowledgment of her grief and appreciation of his service. In 1794, a treaty was negotiated to compensate the Oneidas for their losses during the Revolution and for the warriors’ service. Among the funds was a small sum dedicated as a condolence gift to Wá:li.

“All she wanted,” wrote Glatthaar and Martin, “was some small gift from the rebel government as acknowledgement of her brother’s contributions and his ultimate sacrifice for the patriot cause.”