March 20, 2000

Editor Hans DePold, Bolton Town Historian


This newsletter is to provide a means for keeping historians, re-enactors, and other interested people aware of the activity to create a national historic trail, the WRRR. Rochambeau’s French army defined the route when they marched from Newport to Yorktown and back to Boston. The goal is to encourage creation of a National Historic Trail with the registration of the entire route that passes through Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and to raise to a higher level the quality of heritage preservation all along the route.

Productive Meeting of W3R Held in Hartford

A meeting was held March 17 to discuss the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route. The prospects of an NPS feasibility study beginning this year are looking very good. The forms the route could take and the issues deserve a newsletter by itself. The feasibility study would take two years and would collect information from each state. Minutes will be available.

Native American Allies of Washington and Rochambeau

Although frequently ignored in history, many Native Americans bravely served the Continental army of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and played an important role in pacifying the Northern and Western limits of the thirteen colonies, by serving as rangers in the wilderness areas.

Washington and Rochambeau were warriors and both formed alliances with the Indian nations. Washington was one of the first warriors of European descent who adopted fighting tactics of the Indians. The Americans had learned from their Indian allies that it was preferable to shoot from behind trees and stone walls more from love of life than from fear of death. Americans, native and colonialist, had no delusions of grandeur, glory, or inbred immortality to fall back upon. There was no glory in one’s own death. Americans learned from the native warrior that it was far better to allow the enemy achieve his glory in death.

There is little written history of the first Indian perceptions. Most of the writing is fiction. James Fenimore Cooper’s historical novel, The last Of The Mohigans, confuses Indian tribes, chiefs, and territories. To understand the relationship of the Native American to Washington and Rochambeau, we have to drop back to their first encounters with the “White” tribes. But we know their reactions and if we limit ourselves to the facts and written perceptions of empathetic observers, perhaps we can reasonably walk in the American Indian’s moccasins for a distance of three pages without creating too many fictions.

Patrick M’Robert in his letters of 1774 and 1775 described the ancient inhabitants of America.

“These are tall, nimble, well-made people; many of them about six feet high, with long black hair, their complexion a little tawny, or copper-colored; their eyes black and piercing, their features good, especially the women.”

There are beliefs among the Abenaki that there were early Norse or Celtic incursions into North America and perhaps a Native American blood relationship if not a cultural link to those early Scandinavian warriors. There has also been recent archaeological evidence of this type of early encounter with Native Americans. They knew the same Lord of sky, earth, wind, fire, and sea. But the large-scale encounters began 400 years ago.

Three primary European groups began to arrive in the early 1600s to trade and establish enclaves. From a Native American perspective the first colonies looked like tribes with intermarrying family units and warriors. The “White” tribes appeared similar in many ways to the native “bronze” tribes and alliances immediately formed between them. The Mahigan and Pequot allied with the Dutch, and the Mohawk and Mohegan allied with the English. The Abenaki were caught between warring tribes, helped and then fought the English, and eventually allied with the French and American nation. Most of the intrigue centers in the northern colonies where there was competition among the white tribes. At first the white tribes fought each other for exclusive contact with the bronze tribes. The white tribes initially traded many fine weapons and tools for furs and other native artifacts. But then they began to seek ever more land.

The Mohawk, whose name means destroyers, terrorized many other tribes but had made peace with the Mohegans. The Mahican and Mohegan were different tribes whose names in their own languages mean Wolf. The Pequot name also meant destroyers, and the Abenaki name meant ‘people of the dawn’. The Abenaki were noted to be individualistic and difficult even for their Sachems to command. The Mohegans were at the other end of the spectrum, well organized under the mighty sachem Uncas, a brilliant strategist and a wise leader.

The white tribes had lived with diseases from every corner of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The survivors were more resistant but still suffered and carried the diseases. Communal living in Europe ended and clothing and adequate separate shelters became the norm. But the bronze tribes lived closely in cold lodges and wore little more than a blanket in winter. Once sick, their living conditions offered them little hope of surviving. From 1616-1619 an epidemic spread through the bronze tribes called “The Great Dying” and an estimated 70-90% of the Native population died from European diseases ranging from diphtheria, influenza, smallpox (the fever), the plague (putrid fever), to tuberculosis (blood vomiting). There was no microbial theory of disease but Father Biard reported of the Indians,

“They are astonished and often complain that, since the French mingle with them and carry on trade with them, they are dying fast, and the population is thinning out”

The white French tribe traded in Canada, the Dutch tribe traded in New York and Connecticut. The first English tribes traded in Virginia and at Plymouth. The Abenaki sachem Somoset walked into Plymouth in February 1621 and said in perfect English, “Hello Englishmen.” The Native Americans had compassion for the pitiful Plymouth settlers who it seemed were no threat, and could barely survive on their own. The death rate among the Plymouth tribe was initially higher than even the bronze tribes had experienced.

Using mountains as landmarks, Native Americans crisscrossed America on well-worn paths. These would one day become major roads connecting the settlements. The Indians of the Connecticut Valley went to the Massachusetts Bay colony to invite the English to settle in Connecticut, and end the influence of the Dutch and Pequot because they believed Pequot dominance had caused unfair trade. The once wealthy and most powerful Pequot nation then came under the attack of the English tribe at Hartford. The English were very angry with Uncas because he did not raise many warriors to fight the Pequot. So the English enlisted hundreds of Narragansett Indians to attack and massacre the old men, women, and children of the Pequot. They attacked the undefended Pequot base camp, setting it on fire and shooting everyone who tried to escape. Sassacus, the Pequot sachem, never saw such savagery and fled with some of his warriors to Mohawk territory. But the Mohawk sent his head back as a token of their friendship to the General Court at Hartford. The English wanted to send all the surviving Pequot to the Caribbean to work as slave labor where their life expectancy was less than seven years. That was for its time a death sentence comparable to the recent Siberian labor camps of communism. However, Uncas saved the Pequots by persuading the English that they should let the Mohegans enslave the Pequot instead. Within a few years the Pequot were once again independent, but like the Mohegan they became allies of the colonists.

Before the arrival of the white tribes in Connecticut, the Mohegan and Pequot numbered 6000. After the Pequot War 1,500 Pequot and western Niantic were placed under the control of Uncas creating a combined population of about 3,000. A second smallpox epidemic in 1639 lowered this to fewer than 2,500. Despite the incorporation of Mattabesic, Nipmuc, and Narragansett, the Mohegan population continued to drop mainly from disease. But Uncas was wise and his people also slowly slipped away to the interior wilderness, many eventually migrating to Wisconsin.

In 1646 an unknown epidemic of possibly tuberculosis among Maine Abenaki was described as “bloody vomiting.” Smallpox epidemics appeared in 1631, 1633, 1639,1649, 1662, 1670, 1677, 1679, 1687, 1691,1729, 1733, 1755, and 1758. Influenza struck in 1647 and 1675. Diphtheria hit in 1659, and measles in 1687. Together they decimated the bronze tribes. Although the Mohegan were always a loyal and dependable ally of the colonists, it is likely their close association even accelerated their decline by exposure to disease. Similarly, before the white tribes appeared the Abenaki numbered 40,000. Due to the influence of the French missionaries from Quebec, many of the Abenaki converted to Catholicism and many took the names of saints for their tribes (St. Francis, St. Johns, etc.).

Because the Mohegan and Pequot were allies, Connecticut was largely immune from the Abenaki raids that terrorized the rest of New England during King Philip’s War and the 50 years that followed. So long as the Mohegan and Pequot had enough warriors to form a war party, Connecticut had a formidable security force. At the end of the war, the Mohegan and Pequot allowed the defeated Narragansett to settle among them. Still by 1675, the Mohegan, numbered fewer than 1,200. Thirty years later they were only 750.

Loyalty as allies failed to win the Mohegan any special gratitude from the English and diseases decimated them. Debts owed to English traders forced the Mohegan to sell land until by 1721 only 4,000 acres along the Thames River remained. When Ben Uncas, the last Mohegan sachem, died in 1769, the little that remained of their homeland passed with him. Before his death, Ben Uncas assigned the protection of the Mohegan lands to the family of John Mason. Mason was honorable and tried to serve the Mohegan interest. Mason succumbed to pressure in 1774 and surrendered the deed to the remaining Mohegan lands to the government of Connecticut. That was good because it made the people of Connecticut morally obliged to restore the land. The fate of the Mohegan and Pequot could no longer be blamed on the excesses of a few isolated groups.

By the time of the American Revolution only about 200 loyal Mohegan and Pequot lived in Connecticut and only about 1000 loyal Abenaki remained in the colonies. Patrick M’Robert in his letters of 1774 said;

    I believe the Indians are naturally good-natured, and obliging, when they are not ill-used; but when, by bad treatment, they are obliged to take up the hatchet, they are a cruel enemy indeed. They are docile and tractable, and learn any thing fast that they wish to acquire.

The new developing American nation sought their help. On Saturday, July 1, 1775 the Journals of the Continental Congress record:

On motion, Resolved, That… the colonies ought to avail themselves of an Alliance with such Indian Nations as will enter into the same…

On August 16, 1775 Swashon, an Abenaki Chief addressed the Massachusetts House of Representatives,

“As our Ancestors gave this country to you, we would not have you destroyed by England; but are ready to afford you our assistance.”

On December 1775 the Continental Congress: Resolved,

That the Indians of St. Francis, Penobscot, Stockbridge, and St. John’s, and other tribes, may be called on in case of real necessity, and that the giving them presents is both suitable and proper.

The Chevalier de Pontiband, aide-de-camp of Lafayette wrote about several trips to seal the alliances with the Indian nations.

“At another time a meeting was appointed with the chiefs and warriors belonging to several tribes, which resided at great distances from each other in different directions. They had to pass through vast and thick forests where there were no paths. Though without either watch or compass they found their road, by means known to themselves alone. The meeting was to be on a plain, and it is a fact that on the day appointed we heard their songs and cries, and saw the various bodies of Indians arrive from all sides almost simultaneously.”

George Washington to the President of Congress, November 3, 1779 writes:

Sir: I have taken the liberty to enclose, for the consideration of Congress, the memorial of Col. Hazen in Behalf of Capt. Joseph Louis Gill Chief of the Abeneeke or St. Francois Tribe of Indians. The fidelity and good services of this Chief, and those of his Tribe, are fully set forth in the memorial.

A delegation of 19 Native American leaders arrived in Newport on 29 August 1780. Jean-Babtiste-Antoine De Verger wrote that the Indian chief said to Rochambeau,

“O my Father, whom we have chosen of our own free will to lead us in war, we promise you every assistance.”

Rochambeau’s officer, Jean-Francois-Louis, Comte De Clermont-Crevecoeur also wrote on that occasion,

“These people have many good qualities and are basically much less barbarous than they appear, as witness the war we fought in Canada in which they rendered the greatest service to France.

Letters of General George Washington and the memoirs and diaries of the French officers show the importance placed on the military service and loyalty of the Native Americans, and particularly the Abenaki, during this crucial period in U.S. history. The Native Americans are identified with the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route and are part of the trail’s heritage. It would be an honor should some of the Native American nations decide to support the two Revolutionary War leaders whom they referred to as fathers, with a national trail memorial.

After the Revolution the Chevalier de Pontiband, aide-de-camp of Lafayette, relates two similar stories of the bonds of honor and compassion of President Washington and then in the next paragraph an Indian sachem.

“The liberator of his country (Washington) felt deeply for Louis XVI; the King’s portrait hung in his room, and he often looked at it, but never without tears in his eyes.
Whilst on this subject I may relate that, during my stay in Philadelphia, an Indian chief was once at dinner in a house where there was a picture of King Louis XVI, after Muller of Stuttgart. Many toasts were proposed, and at last the Indian rose, and standing before the picture said to the great astonishment of all the guests, “I drink to the memory of the unfortunate king who was murdered by his subjects.”

What then was so different between the white and the bronze tribes? It seems that the bronze tribes painted their faces to appear fierce savages and mask their humanity. The white tribes, on the other hand, powdered their faces and wigs with the pretense of civilization to mask their savagery. The white tribes’ unnatural cleanliness hid the fact that they carried the diseases that killed the bronze tribes. And all the time the dying off of the Native Americans was blamed on their own customs, behavior, and hygiene.

The low point for humanity occurred each time the battle lines were drawn between the tribes. It was then that the tyranny of greed, oppression, and cruelty reigned, regardless of the color or language of the tribe. Each tribe in turn was a destroyer of its own kind as well as the destroyer of the others.

But during the American Revolution the battle lines were drawn across each heart and mind. The battle was within us rather than between us. It was a high point for humanity because every heart had the same color and spoke the same language of hope, love, and generosity. Each heart shared common truths and the same needs for dignity and respect. And every heart showed the capacity for tolerance and compassion towards strangers. And when the bronze and White tribes united in the American Revolution, a small step was taken towards replacing the tyranny of oppression and greed with liberty and the fullness of human potential. Many small steps have been taken since and there are many more ahead.

The Mohegans have now made an ironic twist to the title of James Fenimore Cooper’s book. They have their own book entitled, “The Lasting of the Mohegans.” The Indian nations have survived and are an important part of American culture. They deserve recognition along the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary route for their help in creating the fledgling American nation at great sacrifice to themselves.