This Day in History: The Oneida Indians offer assistance at Valley Forge
On or around this day in 1778, the Oneida Indians offer assistance to George Washington’s troops, then quartered for the winter at Valley Forge. One Oneida woman, in particular, really went above and beyond the call of duty!
The Oneidas were one of the few tribes to openly declare their support for Americans during the Revolution. The tribe was part of the Six Nations Confederacy. Most of those tribes sided with the British, but the Oneidas sided with the Patriots. In large part, their allegiance can be credited to the work of an American missionary, the Reverend Samuel Kirkland. He was good and kind to them, and they respected him. Kirkland’s efforts were important! Indeed, early in the war, Washington wrote to Congress, soliciting assistance for Kirkland’s missionary and peacekeeping efforts.
“[Reverend Kirkland] can need no particular Recommendation from me,” Washington wrote, “But as he now wishes to have the Affairs of his Mission & publick Employ put upon some suitable Footing, I cannot but intimate my Sense of the Importance of his Station, & the great Advantages which have & may result to the United Colonies from his Situation being made respectable. All Accounts agree that much of the favourable Disposition shewn by the Indians may be ascribed to his Labour & Influence.”
Congress was receptive to the idea and approved funds for Kirkland’s efforts to “promote the happiness of the Indians, and attach them to these colonies.”
The Oneidas were also doubtless influenced by other factors. For instance, an earlier boundary negotiation had not gone well for the Oneidas. Perhaps they were wondering if the British would respect their sovereignty. It’s not like the British had a great track record of respecting the American colonists, either.
The Oneidas heard that Washington’s army was having a tough time at Valley Forge. It was cold! They lacked sufficient clothing and food. Diseases wreaked havoc. Washington wrote of this time: “To see Men without Cloathes to cover their nakedness, without Blankets to lay on, without Shoes, by which their Marches might be traced by the Blood from their feet, and almost as often without Provisions as with; Marching through frost and Snow . . . is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be parallel’d.”
The Oneidas decided to help. A group of tribe members, including a woman named Polly Cooper, set off toward Valley Forge. They brought as many as 600 baskets of corn with them. Once they arrived, Polly showed the Continentals how to cook the corn. The process of cooking white corn, making it edible for human consumption, was pretty different from the yellow corn that Americans normally ate. Polly endured the rest of the winter at Valley Forge with the American army, cooking for them and nursing sick soldiers.
According to oral legend, Polly would not accept payment for her services. However, the soldiers were so grateful that they gave her a black shawl. In some versions of the story, the soldiers themselves bought the shawl. In others, Martha Washington herself gave the shawl to Polly. The Oneidas still keep that shawl as a treasured artifact, to this day.
Yes, obviously, the relationship between Americans and Indian tribes has had difficulties. But there were good moments, too. Shouldn’t we remember both the good and the bad, to get a balanced picture of our founding?
Joseph T. Glatthaar & James Kirby Martin, Forgotten Allies: Oneida Indians and the American Revolution (2006)
Journals of the Continental Congress (November 11, 1775)
Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (September 30, 1775)
Letter from George Washington to John Banister (April 21, 1778)
Oneida (George Washington’s Mount Vernon website)
William Sawyer, The Oneida Nation in the American Revolution (National Park Service website)