Polly Cooper has long been held up as an example of the courage, generosity and indomitable spirit of the Oneida people.
According to Oneida oral tradition, Polly Cooper was a member of the relief mission organized by Chief Shenendoah, who sent a party of Oneidas with hundreds of bushels of white corn to help feed Gen. George Washington’s starving troops in the cruel winter of 1777-78.
The relief party walked hundreds of miles from Central New York to Valley Forge through the bitter cold. The corn they brought was white corn and quite different from the yellow version that can be prepared simply. White corn, the variety grown by the Oneida people, requires extended preparation before it can be eaten.
But the American soldiers were desperate for food when Polly Cooper and her fellow Oneidas arrived, and they tried to eat the corn uncooked. The Oneidas stopped the soldiers, knowing that if they ate the raw corn it would swell in their stomachs and kill them.
Polly Cooper taught the soldiers how to cook the white corn, taking them through the preparation process and the lengthy cooking time. She stayed on after the other Oneidas departed for their homeland and continued to help the troops.
After the war, the Colonial Army tried to pay Polly Cooper for her valiant service, but she refused any recompense, stating that it was her duty to help her friends in their time of need. However, she did accept a token of appreciation offered by Martha Washington – a shawl and bonnet. The shawl has been handed down and cared for by successive descendants of Polly Cooper.
In 2005, the Oneida County Historical Society formally recognized Polly Cooper’s contribution to the American cause during the Revolutionary War by inducting her into its Hall of Fame. She joined Oneida Chief Shenendoah, who was inducted into the Historical Society’s Hall of Fame in 2002.
The recognition of Shenendoah and Polly Cooper stands as a tribute to the Oneida Nation and its people, and as a reminder of the contributions the Oneidas provided during the country’s fight against tyranny and injustice in their quest for freedom.
See also: The American Revolution Center
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