On July 27, 1783, near Schenectady, N.Y. Gen. George Washington encountered two Oneidas upon the road. Washington was touring New York at the conclusion of the fighting in the company of New York Gov. George Clinton and Count Francesco dal Verme, a visitor from Italy, who chronicled the episode, stating:
“Here two Indians, an ambassador and his interpreter, of the two nations who supported the Americans, presented to General Washington a letter in the form of a memorial requesting rum, powder, and ammunition for hunting.”
The Oneidas presented a written statement to Washington petitioning him to come to their aid as promised. The document, “From the Oneida Indians,” was signed by four Oneidas, two of whom were sachems – the Blacksmith and the Beech Tree. According to the document, the Oneidas stated they were unable to return to their home due to lack of clothing, tools and food (a request for rum is not mentioned).
The following is an excerpt from the Oneida missive to Washington:
“We find to our sorrow that your words and our circumstances are very wide apart, Brother, for with all your fair promises we are likely to perish with hunger and cold which, Brother, if you inquire rightly and strictly into the truth of what is here, you will really find it so.
“Brother, is this the fulfillment of all your fair promises that, at the last, we must die with hunger and cold? If we had but plenty of powder and lead, we might possibly make out to live and hard enough to. But the most that we get is half a pound of powder and twenty balls – what is that to the maintenance of a large family? …
“Now, Brother Warrior, as you are the head we now look to you for a relief of powder and lead. As you well know the use of it, we hope you will help…. This time with a quantity each … to help our families with something to eat as well as wear. Indeed, Brother, when you called to us and gave us good encouragement to come and sit down here telling us that nothing on your part should be wanting to make us happy. But to our great surprise we find it otherwise for indeed we have been worse than ill-used. We have been murdered and robbed and half-starved.”
Washington’s response: “A formal address, and memorial from the Oneida Indian when I was on the Mohawk River, setting forth their grievances and distresses and praying relief, induced me to order a pound of powder and 3 lbs. of lead to be issued to each man, from the military magazines in the care of Colo. Willet.”
Considering the timeframe when there were few supplies of any kind and little food, Washington was making a generous gesture. The encounter between Washington and the Oneidas — that precipitated the gesture — is the most completely documented meeting between Oneidas and Washington.
Later, under Washington’s administration, the Veterans Treaty was drawn up, and it is probably the only U.S. treaty ever written that thanked an Indian nation for helping to win a war. The Veteran’s Treaty acknowledges the Oneida contributions to the Revolutionary War.