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Polly Cooper

polly cooper

Bronze statue of Polly Cooper, beside her are Chief Skenandoah and Gen. George Washington

History is full of unsung heroes. It really isn’t all that difficult to find remarkable people whose memory of has somehow faded away. Consider your neighbor across the street, you can’t remember his name but he served as a paratrooper in the 82nd’s three parachute infantry regiments and took part in one of the largest airborne assaults in history, during D-Day on a little beach called Normandy, France. Or the quite lady who sits next to you in church who at one point in her life served on the front lines in Vietnam, patching together wounded and mutilated soldiers. The names of these unsung heroes are kept hidden away from mainstream awareness, neatly tucked away in some old and dusty record, filed away undisturbed. Some of the most tragic among unsung heroes are from our own historiography, our forgotten allies. During the Revolutionary War, despite the considerable hardship placed upon The People of the Standing Stone, the Oneidas helped free us from the British Empire. Yet, unless you’re a historian or really into Revolutionary history, you’ll never hear about the Oneida people who refused to follow the majority of their kin, the Iroquois Confederacy, and thus separating themselves, with much heartache, from the remaining Five Nations. While the entire Oneida and Tuscaroras tribe deserves recognition for fidelity to the revolutionary cause, today we’re going to talk about just one Oneida, Polly Cooper.

Why should you know who Polly Cooper is?

Good question, i’m glad you asked!

"Allies in War, Partners in Peace."

“Allies in War, Partners in Peace.”

Polly Cooper is one of the best examples for who the Oneida people are collectively. She was a generous woman who was also courageous and indomitable. During the cruel winter between 1777-78, a time of few wins and heavy loses against the British and also a precarious time for the Oneidas, as they were doing their utmost to keep the entire Six (technically seven) Nations neutral in the conflict between, as they saw it, two brothers, Polly Cooper arrived at Valley Forge on the morning of April 25, 1777. According to historian  Joseph Glatthaar and James Martin, “the Oneidas had enjoyed an abundant corn crop the previous year, and they knew about the food shortages facing Washington’s army,” as the lone woman on this over 250 mile expedition, Polly Cooper “joined to show Continental soldiers how to prepare the hulled corn soup that served as a mainstay of the Iroquois diet.” The American situation was indeed, to say the least, desperate. Many of the Continental soldiers, starving, were boarding eating the corn raw, which would have swelled the stomachs causing internal damages and in severe cases, death.

While the warriors familiarized themselves with “Washington and his army,” Polly familiarized herself with those in need, the troops. She “went to work preparing hulled corn soup…[and] although the Oneidas lacked the corn and transportation capacity to feed the entire army in Pennsylvania, any little bit helped.” Polly not only fed Washington’s hungry soldiers, but she showed them how to improve “the nutritional quality and taste of their sparse diets” by mixing available fruits and nuts to the pot. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how much Polly Cooper did for the morale of Washington’s army.

Polly Cooper's shawl remains in the care of her descendants. Pictured is Louella Derrick (Onondaga).

Polly Cooper’s shawl remains in the care of her descendants. Pictured is Louella Derrick (Onondaga).

Polly Cooper accepted no payment for her service. And, according to oral tradition, Washington and his staff was so impressed with her generosity that “the commanding general’s wife, Martha, gave Polly a shawl, a gift that the Oneida people still cherish.” However, her name is nearly forgotten in the annals of mainstream history and at best, a footnote even in American Revolutionary research. In the restoration of our collective memories, we should remember the name Polly Cooper and the rest of her Oneida and Tuscaroras brothers and sisters, without whom the revolutionaries would not have persevered in claiming their independence.

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