The Polly Cooper Shawl
Shawl Testifies to a Pact of the Revolutionary War
The Polly Cooper shawl is one of the greatest relics of the Oneida people. Linked to it is the story of George Washington's sick and starving army wintering at Valley Forge in 1777-78. The suffering was relieved by an Oneida gift of corn organized by Chief Shenendoah.
An Oneida woman, Polly Cooper, stayed to help the soldiers and to teach them how to prepare the nutritional and medicinal food. Refusing to take money in payment, Cooper did accept this shawl in token of Washington's gratitude.
This story is at the heart of Oneida oral tradition passed down through the generations. It expresses the unswerving friendship and timely aid offered by the Oneidas in the most perilous hour of the United States.
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.See also: The American Revolution Center
The shawl is also an icon of neglected and little known history. From non-Native documentary sources it is clear that the Oneidas contributed greatly to the birth of the American nation. Oneidas played a key role in the most important American victory of the war, the repulse of British invasions at Fort Stanwix and Saratoga in 1777. They certainly aided Washington's army at Valley Forge.
To date, non-Native written sources neither confirm nor deny the Polly Cooper story. However, we do know that an Oneida woman called Polly Cooper by English speakers was alive during the Revolution and did serve again as a cook in the American cause during the War of 1812. Later, they fought beside New York soldiers in several battles of the Mohawk Valley. The sacrifices they made in the American cause of liberty were enormous.
They lost the lives of perhaps a third or more of their people. After losing their homes, they lived as refugees for four years enduring hunger, smallpox, and lack of adequate clothing and shelter (see endnote).
We also know that the tradition of Polly Cooper is very old locally and goes back to those with living memory of those times. William Honyost Rockwell (1870 – 1960), an important Oneida leader earlier in this century, heard the story of his ancestor Polly Cooper when he was a small child.
Chief Rockwell knew the tradition of Shenendoah, corn, and Valley Forge but he emphasized parts of the story which held the richest meaning for him. He stressed Cooper's bravery and selflessness in a righteous cause. Above all, he understood it as a parable for the traditional matriarchal wisdom of his people.
Chief Rockwell wrote about his ancestor Polly Cooper several times between the 1930s and 1950s. The following account has been compiled from his two longest passages on the subject. The unpublished Rockwell Papers are owned by the Oneida Indian Nation.
Endnote: The government of the United States acknowledged the contributions of the Oneidas in the Revolution as well as the severity of their sacrifices.
1777: "We have experienced your love, strong as the oak, and our fidelity, unchangeable as truth. You have kept fast hold of the ancient covenant chain, and preserved it free from rust and decay, and bright as silver. Like brave men, for glory you despised danger; you stood forth in the cause of your friends and ventured your lives in our battles. While the sun and moon continue to give light to the world, we shall love and respect you (Journals 9:996)."
1784: "The immovable firmness with which you have preserved our faith to Congress and attached yourselves to the fortunes of America has justly raised your glory among nations. It is a glory that will last as long as any memory of these times shall remain. Congress has not forgot your fidelity and attachment (Campisi 1988:58)."
1794: The Oneidas "adhered faithfully to the United States, and assisted them with their warriors; and in consequence of this adherence and assistance, " the Oneidas "at an unfortunate period of the war, were driven from their homes, and their houses were burnt and their property destroyed (Kappler 2:37)."
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