(Presented at 1812: A War of Many Faces, Fort Niagara, Lewiston, NY, June 10-12, 2011
and Oswego County War of 1812 Symposium, Oswego, NY, March 31, 2012)
by Darren Bonaparte
A historian once remarked that the most curious aspects of the War of 1812 is that both sides thought they won it. The opposite was true for the people of Akwesasne, who fought on both sides of the conflict and suffered losses as the result of it.
Most of the great wars of early American and Canadian history were really just the North American theater of whatever war was being waged in Europe. The War of 1812 was a spillover of the Napoleonic Wars as much as it was the “sequel” to the American Revolution. But for those who had to fight it, or see it fought around them, this was a deeply personal and local war.
This was true of First Nations, and especially of Akwesasne, where it gave new life to old divisions.
Akwesasne and other native communities were initially asked to remain neutral. President Thomas Jefferson urged an Akwesasne chief, Atiatonharonkwen, to stay out of the troubles as early as 1808:
Should war take place, do you my children, remain at home and in peace, taking care of your wives and children....The red nations who shall remain in peace with the United States, shall forever find them true friends and fathers. Those who commence against them an unprovoked war, must expect their lasting enmity.1
The carnage of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution was still fresh in our minds, so we were only happy to oblige, but many of our people ended up in the fight, some of them paying the ultimate price for doing so.
The 8-Foot Border
Akwesasne holds the distinction of being the only First Nation on the US/Canada border. It is the easiest reservation to locate on a globe. Just follow the boundaries of Quebec, Ontario and New York State to where they meet in the middle of the St. Lawrence river. Law enforcement officials call it a “jurisdictional nightmare” because of the black market that thrives on a fluid border.
Akwesasne, of course, predates both Canada and the United States. The permanent community was established around 1755. The border was drawn through our village by politicians many miles away who were looking at maps that probably didn’t have a little black dot for Akwesasne. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as this took place in the days when we were considered a vanishing race.
Mohawk chief Philip Cook recounted a local oral tradition about the drawing of the border in the late 1950’s:
The Indians understood that the boundary would come to the edge of their reservation lands and then would project 8 feet into the air until it reached the other side of the Indian lands, then back down to the ground where it would be in the way of the white man. The Indian had a unique way of thinking. It seems that he realized that an Indian would never grow as high as 8 feet tall, and he would never grow high enough to bump into that boundary.2
In other words, the border was not meant to apply to us, any more than it would apply to wildlife. We could come and go at will, and we would continue to share equally in the proceeds of lands sales and rentals, regardless of where we lived in relation to the vaguely-defined border. The War of 1812 changed all of that. It brought the border out of the realm of the hypothetical and down to ground level, where it has tripped us up ever since.
Local settlers were so terrified of the prospect of a new Indian war, that the government forbade the people of Akwesasne from leaving the reservation unless they carried a special pass given to them by a prominent settler who could vouch for their friendly nature. For a people who hunted, fished, trapped, and traded for a living, this was a potential death sentence. Chief Atiatonharonkwen appealed to the American government to provide beef, pork and flour for the community. This was shared with those living on the “Canadian” side of the line, including the missionary at St. Regis. He was later accused by British authorities of accepting bribes from the Americans for accepting these rations.
American and British officials agreed to respect the neutrality of the aboriginal communities like Akwesasne, but they violated that agreement almost immediately. Both recruited warriors, and both established a military presence on our territory.
The Raid on St. Regis
In the first year of the war, the British stationed a small detachment of Canadian voyageurs in the village of St. Regis to guard against any American incursions into Canada, and “to inspire confidence in the Indians of that place and to ensure their good conduct and fidelity.”3 Their encampment was in the vicinity of the Roman Catholic church on St. Regis point. The church, a fortress itself with stone walls four feet thick, was constructed about twenty years before the war, and is still there today, along with the stone rectory that was built in the same era.
Although it was an obvious violation of the neutrality agreement, the people of Akwesasne might not have considered the presence of the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs as a military occupation, per se. The voyageurs were well-known to us as colleagues in the fur trade and fellow employees of the North West Company. They were hardy boatsmen who knew the rivers and lakes as well as we did. They sang paddling songs and told raunchy jokes, they hunted, trapped and fished, they ridiculed their commanding officers at will, and they weren’t afraid of a fight. They wore their own practical clothing in lieu of uniforms, and had no interest in military drills of any kind.
Akwesasne had a treaty relationship with the British going back to the closing days of the French and Indian War. That was when we abandoned our French allies and not only refrained from attacking the British army but actually joined them in their advance on Montreal. We took hold of the Silver Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship offered by the British and were able to secure ourselves a place in a changing landscape. Many of our men later went on to fight for the British during the American Revolution.
There were also those with loyalties to the United States. The American faction was smaller than the British and neutral, but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in stealth. The voyageurs were instructed to be on the watch for these individuals:
Agents and spies on the part of the American Government have for some time past been clandestinely intriguing with the Indians of St. Regis to seduce them from their allegiance and their artifice has not been without effect. If you can by stratagem, within the Province line, arrest the persons of any of these American agents or others endeavoring to mislead the Indians, you are directed to send them immediately, under a sufficient escort, to Montreal.4
To the Indian, it really wasn’t such a horrible thing to have factions in the community. Most of the time they served as embassies for outside governments, and it was good to have someone who could intervene on the community’s behalf if one side in a war began to get the better of the other. These embassies were tolerated...to a point.
It should be pointed out that the British were not alone in establishing a military outpost in Akwesasne. There was also a mile-square tract of reservation land in French Mills, seven miles east of the village of St. Regis. The Americans built a blockhouse there when war was declared. In the fall of 1812, it became the staging ground for a planned attack on the British encampment.
Around October 1, 1812, American soldiers under the command of Major Guilford Dudley Young left the fort at French Mills and advanced to the eastern shore of the St. Regis river, opposite the village. They were unable to cross there and were forced to retreat. On the night of October 22, Major Young led five companies from French Mills to Gray’s Mills, two miles south of St. Regis, where they were able to cross the river on boats and rafts. Major Young described what happened when he and his men reached their target:
We arrived, within half a mile of the village, at 5 o’clock ; where, being concealed from the enemy by a little rise of ground, we halted to reconnoitre, refresh the men, and make disposition for the attack, which was arranged in the following order :—captain Lyon was detached from the right, with orders to take the road, running along the bank of the St. Regis river, with directions to gain the rear of captain Montaigny’s house, in which, and Donally’s, the enemy were said to be quartered. Captain Dilden was detached to the St. Lawrence, with a view of gaining the route of Donally’s house, and also securing the enemy’s boats, expected to have been stationed there to prevent their retreat. With the remainder of the force, I moved on in front, and arrived within a hundred and fifty yards of Montaigny’s house, when I found by the firing, that captain Lyon was engaged. At the same instant, I discovered a person passing in front, and ordered him to stand ; but not being obeyed, ordered captain Higbie’s first platoon to fire, and the poor fellow soon fell; he proved to be the ensign named in the list of killed. The firing was at an end in an instant, and we soon found in our possession 40 prisoners, with their arms, &c.—4 killed—1 wounded mortally ; took 1 stand of colours, 2 batteaux, 38 guns,—40 men.5
Young praised his officers and men as deserving the “highest encomiums” for their conduct, stating that “we entered the place without even being heard by the Indians’ dogs.”
Historian Robert Sellar presented a Canadian perspective of the incident in 1888:
The night that followed was intensely dark and favorable for a surprise, so that the sentinels were on the alert. No cause for alarm occurred and as it drew towards the hour of dawn, their apprehensions grew less. About 5 o’clock the two officers of the guard, lieutenant Hall and ensign Rottot, were seated with sergeant McGillivray around the camp-fire, that blazed in front of the house where the captain and the men not on duty were fast asleep. The subject of conversation of the trio was the danger of their situation, and the ensign had just said: “Is it possible that the obstinacy of our captain exposes us thus to death without profit or glory!” when a volley was suddenly fired from the bush, and he fell dead and the sergeant, mortally wounded. Lieutenant Hall sprang into the house when a second volley was poured forth, which killed a French Canadian private and wounded several others, who had hardly been fairly aroused from their night’s sleep. Not a shot was fired by the Canadians, who at once surrendered.6
Sellar went on to document the ignoble aftermath of the surrender and the taking of the celebrated “stand of colors.”
One of the missionaries was caught and told to shrive the wounded and bury the dead; the other escaped by hiding in the cellar. The Americans ransacked the houses, among other spoil, plundering a girl of 13 years of age of the box that held her Sunday-clothes and playthings and her savings in pennies, amounting to $3. Worse than that, they stripped the body of ensign Rottot. Satisfied they had left nothing they could carry, the force, which numbered 200 men under command of major Young, marched to French Mills, carrying the paltry spoil they had found and 25 prisoners. From French Mills the party proceeded to Plattsburgh. Among the plunder was a small Union Jack, which they found in a cupboard in the house of the interpreter, and which he was in the custom of hoisting on saints’ days and other notable occasions. This flag Major Young declared to be the stand of colors that belonged to the detachment, and he was sent to Albany with the trophy. His arrival in the capital of the state was made the occasion of a solemn ceremony. Escorted by all the troops, in the city, and with a band before him playing “Yankee Doodle,” he solemnly stalked along the streets of Albany, crowded by cheering multitudes, holding aloft the flag of the Indian interpreter, until the capitol was reached, when, with spread-eagle speeches, it was received from his hands and hung upon its walls as “the first colors captured from the enemy.” The major was rewarded with a colonelcy.7
The British retaliated a month later by attacking French Mills, capturing many of the same men who participated in the raid on St. Regis. Thirty of the 250 men sent to attack the Americans were warriors from Kanehsatake, or Oka, one of Akwesasne’s sister communities. Indian neutrality, it seems, was the first casualty of the war. Warriors from Akwesasne and Kahnawake were also recruited by the British.
The British Call to Arms
Not long after the raid on St. Regis, Lieutenant Isaac LeClair was assigned to recruit Akwesasne warriors for the defense of Canada. The eminent 19th century historian, Franklin B. Hough documented his successful efforts in 1853:
He raised a company of about 80 Indian warriors, and crossed to Cornwall. These Indians participated in several engagements during the ensuing war. At the taking of Little York, they were posted at Kingston. At the attack upon Sackett’s Harbor, twenty British St. Regis Indians were present under Lieut. St. Germain; and at Ogdensburgh, in Feb., 1813, about thirty of the same, under Capt. Le Clare, crossed to the town. At the battle of Chrysler’s field, they were at Cornwall, and prevented by Col. McLean, of the British army, from engaging in the battle.8
LeClair’s 1829 memorial stated that he took the place of the Captain Montaigny who was captured in the raid on St. Regis. He was ordered to march his warriors to Kingston where they were placed under the command of Colonel Ferguson of the Indian Department. They served there for a time before being ordered back to Montreal, where Leclair was ordered to gather up all of the loyalist Akwesasne warriors and join with the warriors of the other tribes in Lower Canada for action at Niagara. He arrived in Kingston with 50 Akwesasne warriors in the spring of 1813, only to find that the Kahnawake warriors were reluctant to proceed:
...all the Indians were Assembled under the immediate Command of Sir George Prevost, when after having been harranged and explained that their services were required on the Niagara frontiers the Cognawaga warriors commanded by Capt. D Laramiere being the Senior Tribe in Rank refused to go up the Country but were willing to fight in defence of the Lower Province when they were told by Sir George Prevost that they where like old women, and if they would not willingly fight with their white Brothers wenever they were ordered they were not worthy of receiving provisions and presents from their Great Father’s Government and that they and their commanders of their tribes should be broke and discharge the service That the warriors of the St. Regis Indians under your Memorialist’s command were then Consulted, when your Memorialist and the principal Chiefs by their orator & warrior Josee (one of the undersigned) Answered that the St. Regis warriors were willing and ready to march under the command of your Memorialist with their white Brothers whenever the Great Commander should be pleased to order them, and would fight to the last of their blood [ ] in defence of either Provinces, when Sir George gave them his thanks, and ordered them to be immediately acquipt and presents to be bestowed on them. [ ] That when Cognawagas saw them thus received they volunteered their services and Joined together with all the other Tribes and were all ordered to the Niagara frontiers ...9
Leclair’s memorial describes the “severe engagements” he and his warriors encountered:
...the undersigned warrior & Chief Josee was the person who scouting day & night discovered the Boats of the Enemy Commanded by Col Butler Crossing the Niagara River which gave timely notice to be prepared to meet them, when your Memorialist with his warriors fought in the field with their white Brothers and Conquered the enemy and took 662 prisoners & two field pieces, That your Memorialist & warriors were soon afterwards in a field action of the 4 mile Creek where Captn DeLaramee was taken prisoner afterwards in a severe action at Secords Picquett afterwards at the action of the Beaver damn That after upwards of four months hard service in mounting gaurds Scouting & engaged in a number of hard fought Battles, your Memorialist was ordered to march his surviving warriors to Montreal and to give in a regular Report of their services, killed & wounded ie. which consisted of 22 dead and 5 badly wounded not mortal, that 3 of their dead were Chiefs and 3 others whose names are undersigned to this Memorial were appointed in their stead being the next akin and entitled thereto, and were confirmed by Sir John Johnson and invested with Medals as Legal & rightful Chiefs10
There are actually four names below Leclair’s signature. These names appear in a list of 12 Akwesasne warriors who fought the Americans at Niagara in the War of 1812 that I found in the community. They are Sose Rowennaniron, or Joseph Strong Words or Strong Voice; Atonwa Teaiaiage; Thomas He Crosses the Water; Aregsis Saionowahe, or Alexander Large Footprints; and Watias Teasennontie, or Matthew His Name Stands or Respected Man.
We know some of their names, but what kind of men were they? How did they conduct themselves in war? Robert Sellar paints us the picture:
The Indians, of whom such apprehensions were entertained, soon appeared, the first band being one of about a hundred braves, commanded by a French-Canadian, Capt. Versailles. Their appearance was terrifying enough, for beyond a girdle they were naked, their bodies and faces streaked with the war paint, and feathers stuck in their hair. Among them was a Flathead Indian, who had strayed from the Pacific coast, and whose English consisted of “Good George,” “Much war.” They were very civil to the settlers, much more courteous, indeed, than the regular soldiers proved to be, and would touch not even an apple tree without permission. One good woman who regarded a band of them, who came to her house one evening, with terror, had all her apprehensions set at rest when, on looking into the shed where they were to pass the night, she witnessed several on their knees in prayer. They were divided into bands of 40, and were constantly on the move along the frontier from Lake Champlain to St Regis, doing service as scouts and patrols which was simply invaluable, for while they watched the enemy like the hawk, they were as stealthy in their movements and as difficult to catch as the snake. Though the Americans repeatedly endeavored to surprise these Indians bands, and though they were constantly hovering around their lines, it is a curious fact, illustrative of their consummate craft, that not a single Indian was captured during the war....When they became acquainted with them, the settlers rather liked to have a visit from an Indian patrol, as it gave them a sense of security. These children of the forest carried their food in small haversacks, and, except when the weather was cold or wet, rarely went near a house save to buy provisions.
The pro-British warriors of Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Kanehsatake, Tyendinaga, and the Six Nations reserve are credited by modern historians for the decisive role they played in blocking the American invasion of Canada. At the time, these warriors were more concerned about their immediate circumstances than how they would go down in history.
In 1822, eight Akwesasne chiefs petitioned the Governor General of Canada and gave this account of what happened to them as a result of taking up arms on behalf of the King:
That Animosity which manifested itself on the part of the American and nominally neutral Indians towards your Petitioners ... became so great and created so many disturbances that your Petitioners (being much the weaker party) found it necessary in order to secure their own safety and their Families to remove from their Dwellings in the Village of St. Regis and to erect Huts on different Islands in the vicinity of Cornwall, to shelter their families from the inclemency of the weather.
That being constantly employed in His Majesty’s service at the different Posts of Coteau du Lac, Cornwall, Prescott, and Kingston, your Petitioners found it utterly impossible to attend to the comforts of their Families and they were left in wretched Hovels hastily constructed and depending solely on a very precarious and uncertain supply of Provision occasionally drawn from the Garrison of Cornwall for their sustenance during the greater part of the winter of 1812 and the beginning of 1813....
That while on the Niagara frontier your Petitioners were frequently engaged with the enemy many of their warriors were killed and some severely wounded and all as your Petitioners believe served to the entire satisfaction of their Commanding Officers.
That while your Petitioners and their families were thus exposed to many dangers and hardships innumerable in consequence of their attachment to their Sovereign those who remained as Americans or Neutral Indians in the Village of St. Regis were living in peace and comfort and availed themselves of the absence of your Petitioners and Families to take Possession of Such Buildings and Plantations as best suited them. Some of the former were wholly destroyed and of the latter many still remain in possession of those who obtained them.11
The animosities continued well after the end of the war, forcing the loyalists to erect temporary dwellings on the islands that were probably only slightly better than the huts they were forced to live in before. They eventually returned to the village, but continued to suffer harrassment by the neutral and pro-American factions.
The American St. Regis Indians
We really don’t know much about the neutral faction at Akwesasne, but the leaders of the American faction are well-documented.
First there was William Gray, a former American soldier that was captured during the American Revolution and adopted by the Indians. He married an Akwesasne woman and became the interpreter for the chiefs. His influence with them afforded him business opportunities. He established Gray’s Mills, where Major Young crossed with his troops, and he was instrumental in the settlement of the mile-square tract at French Mills. It was Gray that guided American forces in their first attempt to take St. Regis. For his efforts, Isaac Leclair captured him and sent him off to Quebec where he died in prison.
Another prominent member of the American faction was Thomas Williams, or Tehoragwanegen. Thomas was the grandson of the “unredeemed captive” Eunice Williams, taken from Deerfield Massachusetts in the early 1700’s. He fought for the British in the American Revolution and eventually became a chief at Kahnawake. By the time the War of 1812 broke out, he had established himself in Akwesasne.
Thomas Williams had a son named Eleazer who took an active part in the war, but to what extent depends on how much stock you put on his claims and his character. According to Williams, he held a colonel’s commission and was the head of the “Secret Corps of Observation,” consisting of Indian rangers who prowled the border regions gathering intelligence. For years it was assumed that his journal for the War of 1812 was fabricated many years later, not only because he took credit for American success at the battle of Plattsburgh, but because he also claimed to be the Lost Dauphin of France.
Keith A. Herkalo, in his recent book September 11, 1814: The Battles at Plattsburgh, found corroboration of Williams’ journal in American military records of the time.12 Although Herkalo has yet to fully rehabilitate Williams’ reputation—scholars still publish articles about what a fraud he was—Williams made an enormous contribution to history by writing biographies of not only his father, but William Gray and Chief Atiatonharonkwen, which he generously shared with historian Fanklin B. Hough for the history he was writing about New York’s St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. Had he not done so, it is doubtful that we would know anything about these men today.
Hough thanked Williams for his efforts by promising to publish his biography of his father, Thomas. He made good on that with the publication of a limited edition book titled, The Life of Te-ho-ra-gwa-ne-gen, Alias Thomas Williams, A Chief of the Caughnawaga Tribe of Indians, published a year after Eleazer’s 1858 death.13
It is a shame that Hough did not produce a similar volume on the life of Chief Atiatonharonkwen, because this might have prevented him for slipping through the cracks of history. Atiatonharonkwen’s life was extraordinary by any measure, and our children are poorer for not being taught about him in school. He is the only person I know of who experienced four North American wars: King George’s War, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. This fact alone is worthy of commemoration, but it was his experiences and actions during these wars and throughout his life that led Franklin Hough to hail him as, “unquestionably the greatest man that has ever flourished at St. Regis, among the native population.”14
The Early Life of Atiatonharonkwen
The boy who came to be known as Chief Atiatonharonkwen and Colonel Louis Cook was born in 1737 in old Saratoga (modern Schuylerville) a small settlement on the Hudson River, 11 miles east of Saratoga Springs. His mother was an Abenaki Indian and his father was an African slave. Many years later he told an acquaintance that his Abenaki name was Nia-man-rigounant, and that it had something to do with a multi-colored bird.
There was an old fort in Saratoga in a sad state of disrepair, but the Governor of New York could not get the funds to fix it up, so he withdrew the troops that were stationed there. This left the town defenseless against an incursion of the French and their Kahnawake allies that took place in October of 1745.
Fort Saratoga and the surrounding settlement were burned to the ground, and the settlers that weren’t killed or burned to death in their houses were taken captive. French soldiers claimed the slaves, and the Kahnawake warriors claimed the Indians they found. Because he looked more African than Indian, one of the soldiers grabbed our little hero. His mother cried out that he was her son. The Kahnawake warriors intervened, and he was allowed to stay with his mother. They were taken to Kahnawake where they were adopted into the tribe. This was probably when he got the name Atiatonharonkwen, a Mohawk name that translates as either “He pulls the people down” or “He unhangs himself from the group.”
The mother of Atiatonharonkwen died in the years after their arrival in Kahnawake, so the priest of the mission persuaded him to live with him and serve as his atttendant. As Eleazer Williams wrote,
Here Lewis acquired the french language of which he spoke with ease. He grew up pretty much as other Indians Boys of the place. He was early discovered as having inquisitive mind. In his youth he was often seen in councils to hear the orators of the day and to learn the object of their deliberations. From these councils, he often said [in] his old age, that “he learned the Lessons of [wisdom].”15
When the French and Indian War erupted in 1754, he was in his teens and old enough to go to war. We can safely assume that he did so in the war paint and attire of his Kahnawake brothers. The presence of a young warrior who looked more African than Indian was nothing unusual among the Indians, who regularly took in escaped slaves or slaves they captured on raids. They joined the many white captives that were taken from New England, who were also known to paint up like their Indian brothers to the point that they were indistinguishable.
Williams tells us that Atiatonharonkwen was one of the warriors who defeated Braddock on the Monongahela, scouted for the French at Lake George, was injured in a skirmish with Roger’s Rangers near Lake Champlain, was present at the taking of Oswego, defended Carillon against Abercrombie, and was in Quebec for the conquest. Basically, he was Magua in The Last of the Mohicans.
When the war ended, he resumed the life of a hunter. He got married and started a family. We don’t hear much about him until the American Revolution. He was unable to reconcile himself to English rule, so he took an interest in the affairs of the thirteen colonies and ventured among them to see for himself what all of the commotion was about.
His initiative earned him an audience with General George Washington and an appearance before the Massachusetts House of Representatives where he shared intelligence about efforts of the British to win over Kahnawake and the other members of the Seven Nations of Canada. This was in 1775. In January of 1776, he visited Washington again with a dozen warriors, which is mentioned in Washington’s writings:
On Sunday evening, thirteen of the Caughnawaga Indians arrived here on a visit. I shall take care that they be so entertained during their stay, that they may return impressed with sentiments of friendship for us, and also of our great strength. One of them is Colonel Louis, who honored me with a visit once before.16
Three days later, Washington wrote to General Philip Schuyler about the visit of Atiatonharonkwen and his Kahnawake delegation:
They have, notwithstanding the treaty of neutrality which I find they entered into with you the other day ... signified to me a desire of taking up arms in behalf of the united colonies. The chief of them who, I understand, is now the first man of the nation, intends, as it is intimated, to apply to me for a commission, with the assurance of raising four or five hundred men, when he returns.17
He may have exaggerated his standing at Kahnawake to impress General Washington. Instead of 500 men, he could probably only count on the 12 men who were with him at the moment, and even that isn’t certain. Somehow his gambit worked. Washington chose to grant his wish for a commission. In 1779, his nickname “Colonel Louis” became official when he was made a lieutenant-colonel in the Continental Army. By then the bulk of his people were fighting on the side of Great Britain, and he was leading Oneida and Tuscarora warriors instead!
Atiatonharonkwen’s record in the American Revolution is just as notable as his record in the French and Indian War, but much better documented. For instance, he was with the American forces that were ambushed by British troops and warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy at Oriskany Creek in August of 1777, and is mentioned in one of the popular accounts of the battle:
A private soldier named Louis, a rough and daring old hunter who, after the Indian fashion, carried his knife and tomahawk with him, became so much excited in the heat of the battle, that one of his comrades occupying a tree next to him, asked him, ‘Louis, what is the matter?’ ‘Matter enough,’ said Louis, ‘there is one of the black serpents lying in the fork of a fallen tree and every time he rises up he kills one of our men. I can stand it no longer; either he or I must die.’ As he said this he raised his rifle and fired. The Indian leaped into the air and fell dead across the fork of a tree which had sheltered him. Louis gave a wild Indian whoop and then ran up to his victim.-tore off his scalp and, returning to his comrades, threw it down before them, saying: ‘That fellow will do no more harm.’18
In March of 1778, General Philip Schuyler gave Atiatonharonkwen an assignment that shows just how much confidence the American military put in this man:
I have engaged Louis, commonly called Colonel Louis a friendly Caghnawaga and [ ] of sense & Enterprize who is going into Canada by the way of Aswegatchie with three or four trusty Oneidas to burn if possible the Enemy’s Vessels on Ontario if not to attempt the Destruction of those at St. John’s and have promised a thousand Dollars in Species as a Reward if the one or the other is accomplished.19
Don’t let all the scalping and whooping and burning ships fool you. Colonel Louis Cook was also a man of refinement, as he demonstrated at Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. A young Frenchman named Peter Stephen Du Ponceau came upon him in the woods one morning, dressed in his officer’s uniform, and singing a French opera song!20
One of his assignments in the war was to keep an eye on the activities of Captain Joseph Brant, a Mohawk in the British service; just as one of Brant’s assignments was to keep an eye on him. They became mortal enemies during the war and were both present at Oriskany. Their hatred carried on after the war, when they both got involved in land sales to the Americans and blamed each other when things exploded in the 1790’s. These controversial dealings are the reason why our kids don’t run around with Colonel Louis Cook and Joseph Brant action figures to this day...well, that and the fact that nobody has ever made any.
General Louis Cook in the War of 1812
When the War of 1812 was declared, Atiatonharonkwen was in his seventies, but he rallied to the American banner once again. Franklin Hough tells us that he visited General Jacob Brown in Ogdensburgh in the summer of 1812 and received a new commission:
...he was furnished with a new and elegant military dress and equipage, corresponding with the rank which his commissions conferred. On his return to his family, his appearance was so changed, that they did not know him, and his children fled from the proffered caresses of their father, as if he had been the spirit of evil.21
He repaired to Plattsburgh and was there when the voyageurs arrived in Akwesasne, as shown by this article that appeared in “The War” in October of 1812:
General Louis of the St. Regis Indians, a firm and undeviating friend of the United States, and his son, have been in this village for several weeks. The St. Regis Indians are disposed to remain neutral in the present contest, but what effect the British influence and British success may have upon them we know not.22
General Joseph Bloomfield’s correspondence from the time seems to support the article’s contention that Colonel Louis had been upgraded to General Louis, at least in name:
Agreeably to the request of Genl Louis, of St. Regis, new at this post, I have given directions for the passage of [Louis and his son] to Whitehall & their conveyance to Albany to wait upon Govr. Tompkins & to present themselves at your Head Quarters in business as Genl. Louis represents of great importance... In a former letter I advised you of $50 advanced in like manner to Eleazer Williams to whom I shall deliver our letters on his return from a visit to his father. These Indians are very expensive allies. Genl. Louis with two sons & a grandson wait here the return of Chief Jacob subsisted at the expense of the US.23
Atiatonharonkwen was called upon by the neutral faction in August of 1813 to see what he could do to effect the release of some influential Kahnawake chiefs and warriors and their commanding officer, Delormiere, who had been captured by the Americans on the Niagara frontier. He agreed to do what he could on their behalf, and set out for Niagara, but one of his enemies wrote a letter to the Americans to warn them that he was coming on a secret mission. He was arrested when he arrived and held for eight days. He was eventually released when some officers from Plattsburgh came along that knew him, but a commission of inquiry was held to sort through the mess. According to Hough,
... he appeared before the commission, and answered, with great modesty, the several questions that were put to him, by the young officers: but the impertinence of some of them aroused his spirit, and he replied : “You see that I am old, and worn out, and you are young, and know little of the service. You seem to doubt what I have been, and what I am now. It is right that you should watch the interests of your country in time of war. My history you can have.” He then gave them the names of several prominent officers of the northern frontier, as references, and with a heavy hand, laid a large black pocket book upon the table, and bid them examine its contents. It contained his commissions as lieutenant colonel; general Washington’s recommendatory letters, and those of generals Schuyler, Gates, Knox, Mooers, and governor Tompkins, and a parchment certificate of membership, in a military masonic lodge of the revolution.24
Atiatonharonkwen was cleared of any suspicion and returned to Akwesasne where he joined General James Wilkinson at French Mills in the autumn of 1813. In January of 1814, he went with General Brown to Sacket’s Harbor, and in June of that year, he and two of his sons and a few others went to Niagara to be a part of the invasion of Canada. According to Eleazer Williams,
When the American army under Gen. Brown crossed into Canada side, he and a detachment of the warriors of the six nations, accompanied the army. He was present at the battles of Chippewa & Lundy’s Lane. After the retreat of the American army to Fort Erie, he soon after recrossed to Buffaloes being now in a feeble state of health, where he was attended to with much kindness and care by the Government Physicians.25
Franklin Hough, who interviewed Atiatonharonkwen’s daughter, wrote that he was injured in a fall from his horse while leading some Tuscarora warriors. He was taken to the American camp near Buffalo, where he was visited by his sons and officers who knew him. He died in October of 1814, his death annouced with the firing of heavy cannon befitting his rank as officer.
As Americans and Canadians come together to commemorate the War of 1812 and celebrate the subsequent peace, the people of Akwesasne and our brother First Nations urge our friends and allies to remember the struggles and sacrifices of our chiefs and warriors on both sides of the conflict. They have been the unsung heroes of your history far too long.
1President Thomas Jefferson to Colonel Louis Cook and Jacob Francis, May 5, 1808. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. XVI, Edited by A. E. Bergh, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, Washington, 1908, p. 436.
2Untitled Manuscript, Philip Cook, circa 1958, copy on file at Ronathahon:ni Cultural Centre.
3Colonel Baynes to Captain Macdonell, October 16, 1812. The Documentary History of the Campaign upon the Niagara Frontier in the Year 1812, Lieut.-Colonel E. Cruickshank, Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, 1896, p.133.
5Affair at St. Regis, Major Guilford Dudley Young, October 24, 1812. Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States in the War with Great Britain in the years 1812, 13, 14, and 15. Collected and Arranged by John Brannan, Way & Gideon, Washington City, 1823, p. 86.
6The History of the County of Huntingdon and of the Seigniories of Chateaugay and Beauharnois from their first settlement to the year 1838, Robert Sellar, The Canadian Gleaner, Huntingdon, Quebec, 1888, p. 70-71.
8A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Franklin B. Hough, A. M., M. D., Corresponding Member of the New York Historical Society, Albany: Little & Co., 1853, p. 156.
9Memorial of Isaac Leclair, December 18, 1829, MG 19, F 35, Series 2, Lot 741. This document may have been catalogued differently since it was acquired by Library & Archives Canada.
11Petition of St. Regis Indians to the Governor General, November 28, 1822. Library & Archives Canada, RG 10, volume 625, p. 182, 238-182, 555. (Citation may not be accurate. Taken from a transcript on file with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.)
12September 11, 1814: The Battles at Plattsburgh, Keith A. Herkalo, Plattsburgh, New York, 2007.
13The Life of Te-ho-ra-gwa-ne-gen, alias Thomas Williams, A Chief of the Caughnawaga Indian Tribe of Canada, Rev. Eleazer Williams, Albany, N. Y., J. Munsell, 78 State Street. 1859.
14Hough, Ibid., p. 182.
15Lewis Cook, Rev. Eleazer Williams, The Papers of Franklin B. Hough, New York State Archives, Albany, New York, 1852.
16Hough, Ibid., p. 187.
17Hough, Ibid., p. 188.
18The Frontiersmen of New York, by Jeptha R. Simms, Albany, NY, 1883
19Indian Affairs Papers, Maryly B. Penrose, Philadelphia, 1981, p. 120.
20Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, August 31, 1837, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 61, Issue 1, p. 221-223.
21Hough, Ibid., p. 195-196.
22From “The War,” New York, 17th October, 1812, The Documentary History of the Campaign upon the Niagara Frontier in the Year 1812, Lieut.-Colonel E. Cruickshank, Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, 1896, p. 29.
23Bloomfield 65 to Dearborn, Bloomfield-Pyke Letterbook, as cited in Herkalo, September 11, 1814: The Battles at Plattsburgh, p. 36.
24Hough, Ibid., p. 196.