Skirmish at Barren Hill

A Summary of Events Leading to the May 20, 1778 Clash of Forces

In March 1778, the 20-year-old Marquis de Lafayette was the newly appointed commander of the American Army’s Northern Department. Washington’s forces were stationed at Valley Forge, Pa., while the British army was wintering at nearby Philadelphia. Washington asked Lafayette to recruit Native allies in anticipation of a spring movement of the armies.

The Oneidas had long-standing ties of friendship with the French, and Lafayette’s presence seemed to make the possibility of French aid on the American side more likely. They adopted Lafayette and gave him the name of a warrior who had died 12 years earlier, Kayewla, during a meeting at Johnstown, N.Y. in early March 1778. As was the custom on such occasions, Lafayette accompanied his request for Oneida warriors with wampum belts, which testified to the truth and importance of his message, and some money for the Oneida people to buy the foreign goods they had come to depend upon.

In his own accounts of this meeting, Lafayette indicated his belief that the Oneidas had accepted his gifts as a bribe. But the Oneida tradition in dealing with the Europeans called for token exchanges of gifts to acknowledge past actions of friendship and anticipate future cooperation. These exchanges also were important because the Oneidas did not receive regular pay for their military service.

On May 13, 1778, 47 Oneidas arrived at Valley Forge, accompanied by Lafayette’s men. Washington, expecting the British troops to evacuate Philadelphia, put Lafayette in command of 2,200 men to find out what the British were planning. He ordered Lafayette to avoid unnecessary risks and stay on the move. The Oneidas were assigned to a special detachment of scouts to advance Lafayette’s troops, and the entire column left Valley Forge on May 19.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Lafayette stopped that night at Barren Hill, about 12 miles from Philadelphia, and set up camp. He then sent out the Oneida and American scouts to reconnoiter.

The British, who outnumbered the American contingent by four-to-one, were fully aware of Lafayette’s encampment and marched out of Philadelphia on the night of May 19 to encircle the American forces.

The Oneidas and their American counterparts met the front of one of the British columns sometime on the morning of May 20 and immediately engaged the mounted infantry in a brief but bloody skirmish. Louis de Tousard, a Frenchman who had accompanied the Oneidas from New York to Valley Forge, described the skirmish and the Oneidas’ “ability in firing,” adding that he owed “my liberty, perhaps more, to two Indians, and two French men who stood constantly by me.”

The Oneidas and the Americans heard gunfire from some distance in their rear and realized that the British were threatening to surround them. They retreated from the scene of the skirmish, still firing and under heavy attack. The Oneidas were the last of Lafayette’s troops to cross the Schuylkill River, and it was only this skirmish that alerted Lafayette to the danger of being outflanked by the British.

As it happened, Lafayette was warned in time and was able to make a quick retreat with minimal losses, and Washington publicly praised his tactic as “timely and handsome.” If not for the Oneida and American scouts bravely engaging the British, nearly a fifth of the American army might have been lost.

See also: The American Revolution Center

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