What hap­pened was, back when I was do­ing Songs of the Day, I wrote up that great old Amer­i­can tune Oh Shenan­doah, and idly won­dered who Shenan­doah was; the Wikipedia en­try said he was a re­al per­son, an Onei­da of the seventeen-hundreds. Then I thought of that lyric Oh Shenan­doah, I loved your daugh­ter, and won­dered who she was and who might have loved her, and found my­self go­ing down a rab­bit hole. I have now read sev­er­al books on the sub­jec­t, un­cov­ered a hell of a sto­ry, an idea for a billion-dollar play or movie, and met some re­al­ly in­ter­est­ing dead peo­ple. I’ve (so far) failed to solve the mys­tery of who loved his daugh­ter, but haven’t giv­en up.

Skenandoa’s tombstone

What we know · His name, in English, is writ­ten a lot of dif­fer­ent ways: Ske­nan­don, Ske­nan­doa, Schenan­do, and Skannandòo are a few.

He was tal­l, said to be well over six feet, and strong, and lived to an im­mense age, from some­time around 1706 to 1816.

He be­came a Chris­tian and, un­like most of his fel­low Onei­da, a suc­cess­ful farmer, be­cause he didn’t mind work­ing in the field­s; the oth­ers thought that was for wom­en on­ly.

He has liv­ing de­scen­dents in­clud­ing en­ter­tain­er and singer Joanne Shenan­doah.

He fought in the Seven Years’ War with the Bri­tish against the French.

Dur­ing the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, he (and most Onei­das) came down on the Amer­i­can side. The Onei­da are one of the Iro­quois Six Na­tion­s, whose ter­ri­to­ry sprawls from cen­tral New York State up in­to On­tar­i­o. The ma­jor­i­ty of Iro­quois sid­ed with the Bri­tish. More on that be­low.

He met Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton (this is well-attested, and Wash­ing­ton wrote at least one let­ter rec­om­mend­ing him to oth­er­s).

Le­gend al­so has it that in the cru­el win­ter of 1777, he sent a ship­ment of corn to Washington’s forces at Val­ley Forge; al­so that Wash­ing­ton named the Shenan­doah riv­er in his hon­or; but his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence is thin.

Statue: Allies in War, Partners in Peace

The pic­ture above is of a stat­ue in Smithsonian’s Mu­se­um of the Amer­i­can In­di­an en­ti­tled Al­lies in War, Part­ners in Peace; on the sides are Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Ske­nan­doa; at the cen­ter is Pol­ly Coop­er, who is said to have con­veyed the corn to Val­ley Forge. As far as I know there are no his­tor­i­cal­ly ac­cu­rate im­ages of Ske­nan­doa, so the sculp­tor Ed­ward Hlav­ka must have worked from imag­i­na­tion.

Iro­quois War His­to­ry · Be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion, the Six Na­tions were get­ting along rea­son­ably well with the Euro­pean set­tler­s. They hunt­ed and farmed, and had a so­cial struc­ture that in­clud­ed “Sachems” (hered­i­tary male chief­s), “Pine Tree Chiefs” (elect­ed male war lead­er­s; Ske­nan­doa was one), ma­tri­lin­eal in­her­i­tance, and a coun­cil of Clan Mother­s.

They were war­like and prac­ticed slav­ery, tor­ture, and can­ni­bal­is­m.

Like all the abo­rig­i­nal na­tions of North Amer­i­ca, they were suc­ces­sive­ly dis­placed and cheat­ed and up­root­ed and mas­sa­cred and in­fect­ed with Euro­pean dis­eases, one of them al­co­holis­m. It’s a sad sto­ry.

At the out­break of the Revo­lu­tion, the Six Na­tions tried hard to re­main neu­tral, which prob­a­bly would have been good pol­i­cy. But both sides saw them as valu­able al­lies and brought pres­sure, mon­ey, and rum to bear. The Onei­das were at the east­ern edge of Iro­quois ter­ri­to­ry and phys­i­cal­ly clos­est to the rebel­s; the oth­er na­tions were fur­ther north and west, clos­er to Cana­da and the Bri­tish forces.

And then, on the oth­er side there was the Dark Lord of our sto­ry, Skenandoa’s neme­sis (and maybe son-in-law).

The Ad­ver­sary · Joseph Brant (1743-1807). was a Mo­hawk (an­oth­er of the Six Na­tion­s), re­al name Thayen­da­negea. He be­came a Chris­tian and not on­ly met Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, but was tak­en to Lon­don where he was much-feted and met King Ge­orge. He was a loy­al sub­ject of Bri­tain and led many of his fel­low Iro­quois in­to war against the Amer­i­can forces.

Joseph Brant
· · ·
Joseph Brant

Two por­traits of Joseph Bran­t.

And he wasn’t just an­oth­er sol­dier, but to use the ver­nac­u­lar, a se­ri­ous­ly bad dude. He was tire­less, al­ways raid­ing here, preach­ing there, burn­ing a vil­lage up­state or farm­lands down­state. I think it’s fair to say that he was one of the biggest and sharpest thorns in the Revolutionaries’ side.

He was quite a hu­man­i­tar­i­an by Iro­quois stan­dard­s, on­ly oc­ca­sion­al­ly slaugh­ter­ing de­fense­less civil­ian­s, and there are sto­ries of him sav­ing wom­en and chil­dren from mas­sacre. Or at least try­ing; some of them end­ed up dead any­how. After the war he re­treat­ed to Cana­da and re­mained an abo­rig­i­nal lead­er in­to old age. In­ter­est­ing­ly, he owned slaves. I seem to re­call him pop­ping up in my Cana­di­an His­to­ry school­books as a kid; there are stat­ues and places named af­ter him.

Brant and Ske­nan­doa · In 1779, Ske­nan­doa and three oth­er Onei­da emis­saries were sent off to bar­gain with the oth­er Iro­quois na­tions to ar­gue the virtues of neu­tral­i­ty and/or al­liance with the Amer­i­can­s. He met Brant on the way to Fort Ni­a­gara and con­tem­po­rary nar­ra­tives make it clear that they al­ready knew each oth­er. At the fort, the An­glophile Iro­quois heard Ske­nan­doa out, re­ject­ed his ideas, and threw the four emis­saries in­to a “black hole”, a pit un­der a build­ing, for 150 days. Ske­nan­doa was in his sev­en­ties at the time; he sur­vived but at least one of the oth­ers did not.

Brant let Ske­nan­doa out of the cel­lar on con­di­tion that he would join the pro-British side, which he did with ob­vi­ous re­luc­tance. He was ex­changed back to the Unit­ed States af­ter the war, where he was re­ceived with con­tempt and scorn, but must have done OK be­cause, as not­ed ear­lier, he lived an­oth­er thir­ty years or so and, on his death, re­ceived a huge fu­ner­al which in­clud­ed both the na­tive and white pop­u­la­tion of his town. I found a nar­ra­tive of him be­ing one of the Onei­da Lead­er­ship which wel­comed an Ital­ian scholar-tourist in 1790.

Skenandoa’s daugh­ter(s) · But let’s get on to the main point: Who loved his daugh­ter? Here’s where it gets in­ter­est­ing, be­cause maybe it was Joseph Bran­t! In Bar­bara Graymont’s The Iro­quois in the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, she says ex­plic­it­ly that Brant mar­ried Skenandoa’s daugh­ter Mar­garet; they had two chil­dren and then, when she died, he mar­ried her sis­ter Su­san­na. His first son Isaac even­tu­al­ly died af­ter a fight with his fa­ther.

But oth­er sources, for ex­am­ple For­got­ten Al­lies; The Onei­da In­di­ans and the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, by Glatthaar and Mart­in, say that Mar­garet and Su­san­na were daugh­ters of an­oth­er well-known Chris­tian Onei­da gen­er­al­ly called “Old Isaac”; the son be­ing named Isaac might sup­port that. Is­abel Kel­say, in Joseph Bran­t, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds agrees, but then lat­er in her book, refers to Ske­nan­doa as Brant’s “former in-law”. Each of Gray­mon­t, Glatthaar/Mart­in, and Kel­say have ex­ten­sive bib­li­ogra­phies with ref­er­ence to lots of orig­i­nal doc­u­ments in the archives of this or that uni­ver­si­ty or gov­ern­men­t. The au­thors are all ap­par­ent­ly ex­treme­ly el­der­ly if alive at al­l.

There’s this very odd book I turned up called Franklin Lis­tens When I Speak writ­ten in 1997 by a Paula Un­der­wood, which claims that Ben Franklin had a re­la­tion­ship with Ske­nan­doa, which is unremarked-on else­where and would thus be sur­pris­ing. Peer­ing through Amazon’s “Look in­side the book” un­cov­ered a pas­sage in which Ms Un­der­wood says that Skenandoa’s life got nine pages of write-up in the as­ton­ish­ing His­tor­i­cal and Sta­tis­ti­cal In­for­ma­tion Re­spect­ing the His­to­ry, Con­di­tion and Prospects of the In­di­an Tribes of the Unit­ed States by Hen­ry R. School­craft, com­mis­sioned by the U.S. Govern­ment and pub­lished in six vol­umes be­tween 1851 and 1857. You can read Vol­ume VI, which is a sum­ma­ry, at the In­ter­net Archive, or buy that sum­ma­ry vol­ume for a thou­sand and change from a used book­seller, and I saw one com­plete six-volume set in the orig­i­nal bind­ing on sale some­where for $20,000. I found a cou­ple of ref­er­ences to Ske­nan­doa in Vol. VI, in­clud­ing one with a foot­note con­firm­ing the nine pages of Ske­nan­doa cov­er­age in Vol. V, which how­ev­er is not avail­able on­line.

Me and Ske­nan­doa · How far in­to this did I get? I made heavy use of my lo­cal pub­lic li­brary. I dis­cov­ered that the In­ter­net Archive acts as a li­brary and will let you “check out” beau­ti­ful scans (with full-text search) of a huge va­ri­ety of old book­s, in­clud­ing most of those men­tioned above. I dropped in a bunch of re­search notes in the Talk Page for Skenandoa’s Wikipedia en­try, which I will go and pol­ish up once I’ve got­ten tired of dig­ging in­to this.

I dis­cov­ered, to my glee, that the rare-books sec­tion of the Van­cou­ver Public Li­brary has a copy of Schoolcraft’s In­di­an Tribes and dropped ev­ery­thing on a Sun­day af­ter­noon to go check it out. When I dis­cov­ered that those col­lec­tions are closed while that floor is un­der con­struc­tion, I was crushed. It’ll be open by year-end, they say. Maybe one of the lo­cal uni­ver­si­ty li­braries has it?

The Show · Clear­ly, Hamil­ton has shown there’s an ap­petite for en­ter­tain­ment in­formed by ear­ly U.S. his­to­ry. And this sto­ry has five times the dra­ma: Ske­nan­doa the huge old In­di­an war­rior, the birth of a na­tion, a tribe split­ting down the mid­dle, the per­fid­i­ous An­glophile Brant who (may­be) mar­ried Skenandoa’s daugh­ter then lat­er locked him up, the corn go­ing through the snow to Val­ley Forge, fa­ther/­son may­hem, bat­tles in the forest­s, slaugh­ter and mer­cy, Ske­nan­doa in the black hole then fi­nal­ly com­ing home. And the na­tive peo­ples be­trayed, fi­nal­ly, by both sides.

This has block­buster writ­ten all over it. Feels like a movie to me, you need a broad­er can­vas than you can fit on a live stage.

Last words · I’ll leave you with Skenandoa’s; maybe not his last, but ut­tered very late in his life, aged over a hun­dred, and blind:

I am an aged hem­lock. I am dead at the top. The winds of an hun­dred win­ters have whis­tled through my branch­es. Why my Je­sus keeps me here so long, I can­not con­ceive. Pray ye to him, that I may have pa­tience to en­dure till my time may come.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Francesco (Sep 12 2018, at 02:11)

Hi Tim,

If you haven't found it already, you might find Manituana [1] interesting (as well as the other Wu Ming's books [2], if only because "Q" seems to be an unwilling inspiration for the whole QAnon thing making rounds in the US).

Also, I'm sure the authors did extensive background studies on those matters, I remember at the time they set up a website with lots of additional materials [3]

Also, do you happen to know the name of the italian that met the Oneida Leadership in 1790?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manituana

[2] https://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/about_our_books.htm

[3] http://www.manituana.com/documenti/0/0/EN


From: John Cowan (Sep 12 2018, at 12:21)

Minor nit: your use of "real name" is a little off. You wouldn't speak of "Benjamin Netanyahu, real name בִּנְיָמִין "בִּיבִּי" נְתַנְיָהוּ‬". (You wouldn't call him "Son-of-Right-Hand God-Has-Given" either.) Joseph Brant was the name Thayendanegea used when speaking English, as Josef Brandt was the name he used when speaking German.

(Palatine Germans who had fled from hard winters and high taxes to Great Britain in 1708-12 were resettled in New York Colony. The Haudenosaunee partially assimilated them to prop up their greatly reduced numbers due to smallpox and other diseases. By Brant's time, the area was trilingual and tricultural.)


From: len (Sep 14 2018, at 15:21)

When I was about to record American Love Song which includes Shenandoah in the medley, I also looked into the history of the song. It seems opinions differ. A bit like looking into the history of John Graves Simcoe and the Queens Rangers in the Revolutionary War, a hero to some, not to others.

Beautiful melody.


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