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.
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.
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.
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.