Last weekend I was multi-tasking by looking up important women who took part during the American Revolution. I knew it was going to be a busy week since I was hosting the Education Carnival. The purpose of the research was to update a list of important people for students to complete a biography project and to compile a Thursday Thirteen list for this week as well. Well, as many of you know the carnival ended up being rather large, and I’ve been sick all week. I’ve also taught every day since it is near impossible to actually obtain a substitute when you are sick. I never actually got the list of 13 women up because I decided to allow myself to take a day off from posting. I hope to share it later.
During the search I saw the name Polly Cooper on a list of Revolutionary War women and I was intrigued. I interrupted Dear Hubby’s television viewing by saying, “Hey, did you know you had a relative who did something important during the Revolutionary War?”
“Ummmm…really! How do you know?”
So I clicked on through and the research for my Thursday Thirteen suddenly became a picture for Wordless Wednesday. The whole story just tickled my fancy. It’s not well known, and it is also on the periphery of one of the lowest moments of the American Revolution.
Last week my students learned about General Washington’s winter quarters outside of British held Philadelphia. We discussed the three D’s of the pitiful conditions at Valley Forge—-desertion, disease, and death. Though General Washington begged Congress for needed supplies they had no money. Sources indicate George Washington called the conditions at times “a little less than famine.” Another source states Washington conceded, “If the army does not get help soon, in all liklihood it will disband.” By February, the weather was a little better and by March, Nathanel Greene was appointed head of the Commissary Department. Some food began to reach the soldiers camped at Valley Forge, and of course, the military began to receive training from Baron Von Steuben.
So what does a shawl have to do with Valley Forge? Was it used by a soldier’s wife to cover the sick, the dying, or the dead? Was it something one of Washington’s officers used to tie about his waist….a present from a lovesick girl back home?
The shawl was a present, but not from a girl back home. The shawl was presented to Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, and it was presented by Martha Washington or a group of Valley Forge officer’s wives depending on the source you view.
The Oneida nation headed by Chief Oskanondohna (Skenandoah) at the time had heard of the plight of the Patriot soldiers at Valley Forge. The tribes had long been successful traders and farmers and were one of the few tribes that allied themselves with the Americans. Many fought at various battles for the cause of independence. At Chief Oskanondohna’s (Skenandoah’s) urging some tribe members began to walk the 400 mile journey to Valley Forge carrying close to 600 bushels of dried corn. The soldiers of course were starving, and if they had eaten the corn without the proper preparation the corn could have swelled in their stomachs and caused them to die. Polly Cooper was one of the Oneida women who journeyed to Valley Forge and stayed in order to cook the corn properly for the soldiers and to help in other ways.
From an account by William Honyost Rockwell (1870-1960), an Oneida leader and descendant of Polly Cooper
So the wives of the officers invited Polly Cooper to take a walk downtown with them. As they were looking in the store windows, Polly saw a black shawl on display that she thought was the best article. When the women returned to their homes, they told their husbands what Polly saw that she liked so well. Money was appropriated by congress for the purpose of the shawl, and it was given to Polly Cooper for her services as a cook for the officers of the continental Army. The shawl is still owned by members of the Oneida Nation, descendants of Polly Cooper.
So, where is the shawl exactly? An article from CNY Business Journal (1994) explains that a Key Bank branch holds the shawl for its owner, Louella Derrick, in a safety deposit box when it isn’t on display.
The CNY article goes on to mention three mysteries remain about the gift of the shawl. The first mystery surrounds a missing bonnet. Apparently there was also a bonnet bought along with the shawl, however, family members do not know its whereabouts. The second mystery involves the shawl’s fabric. The CNY article makes note that the shawl is 62 inches on a side and is in fine condition. People who have been able to feel it state the fabric is similar to silk or fine horsehair, but it is neither. A team of Syracuse University anthropologists tried and failed to determine what it is. The third mystery involves how much the shawl is worth. The shawl’s owner states, “We know it’s valuable, but we don’t know how valuable.”
The Oneida Nation site states the shawl is one of the oldest relics of the Oneida people. The site goes on to say of the shawl:
It also symbolizes the relationship between the Oneidas and the United States. In times past, any agreement of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) was accompanied by a gift; usually it was wampum but it might be an animal skin or textile also. The gift was tied to the words of the message and the object underlined the truth and importance of the words. so it is with the shawl. As memorial to the American acknowledgment of Oneida help and sacrifice, the Polly cooper Shawl testifies to a pact of the Revolutionary War in the traditional Haudenosaunee way.
So, why don’t more of us know about this story? One website gives this possible explanation:
From The Oneida Indians of Wisconsin:
The contributions of the Oneida in early U.S. history have been largely ignored in history books, possibly because much of the history of the Revolutionary War was compiled in the 1830s at a time when the Indian nations were being “resettled” under the barbaric Indian Removal Act. Giving them credit for help with the Revolutionary War was not politically expedient
Today the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian has the entire fourth floor set aside for the Oneida Indian Nation. One of the main features of the exhibit is the statue “Allies in War, Partners in Peace”, which depicts George Washington, Polly Cooper, and Chief Oskanondohna and commemorates the bonds between the Oneida Nation and the United States. The statue details and the symbolism used within the entire piece and is absolutely amazing. This page at The Oneida Nation gives more detail about the statue and the many icons found within it. For example, the wampum belt that George Washington is holding symbolizes an agreement between the U.S. and the Oneida Nation, and acknowledges that neither will interfere in the internal affairs of the other.