A Bird of Many Colors

The Life and Times of Colonel Louis Cook

(Originally published in The Eastern Door, October 10, 2013)

by Darren Bonaparte

The month of October 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the mercurial Colonel Louis Cook, or Atiatonharonkwen, in the War of 1812. I gave a presentation about his life at the Iroquois Research Conference recently, and thought I would share this brief account of his life. It builds upon the work of two 19th century scribes, Reverend Eleazer Williams of Kahnawake, and noted New York historian Franklin B. Hough, but is enhanced with additional facts uncovered by many other researchers since then.

For the people of Akwesasne and Kahnawake, Atiatonharonkwen was one of our own, a warrior and chief who bore witness to epic events that defined our history and made us what we are today.

To the outside world, he was Colonel Louis Cook, a participant in four major wars and a passionate advocate of the American cause. He achieved the highest rank of any aboriginal officer in the Continental Army. His name is inscribed on at least one major battlefield memorial, and his likeness is represented in an iconic painting of the American Revolution, The Death of General Montgomery in the attack on Quebec by Trumbull.

It is one of the ironies of our history that one of our most well-known ancestors had no Mohawk blood. His father was an African slave, and his mother was an Abenaki woman who may have been a slave herself. He told a French acquaintance later in life that his Abenaki name had something to do with a variegated bird—a bird of many colors.

He and his family lived in the settlement of Saratoga on the Hudson River, several miles east of modern Saratoga Springs and north of the famous Rev War batttlefield. Today it is known as Schuylerville. In the 18th century, it was dominated by a wooden fort that had fallen into disrepair. Rather than fix it, the Governor of New York withdrew it’s troops, leaving the small settlement undefended at a time when tensions between the British and the French were increasing.

In the fall of 1745, when our little hero was about 8 years old, French troops and their Kahnawake allies raided the settlement in retaliation for a British attack on the French fort at Louisbourg. Those who did not surrender to the troops were burned alive in their homes; the rest were rounded up and divided among the soldiers and warriors as the spoils of war.

It is said that a French officer grabbed the boy because he looked more like an African than a native, and his mother cried out that he was her son. The warriors of Kahnawake intervened and took both the woman and her child with them on their long trek home.

It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the boy was adopted by the Cook family of Kahnawake, who were themselves descended from a New England captive, and given the name Atiatonharonkwen, translated in one source as “He Unhangs Himself.” His was baptised as Louis, or Rowi.

Louis’ mother died in the years after his arrival at Kahnawake, and he was taken in by the priests as a servant. It was at the Mission of the Sault Saint Louis that he was taught to speak the French language and learned the “lessons of wisdom” by observing the many councils that took place in its courtyard.

When hostilities between the French and British resumed in 1755, Kahnawake warriors were called upon to assist their French allies. Atiatonharonkwen was among them. The Seven Years War brought the Mohawks of the St. Lawrence valley up against those of the old homeland. The two groups were reluctant to fight against each other, but there were times when it did happen, such as the battle of Lake George. Dozens of our warriors were killed on both sides in bloody hand-to-hand combat. Louis himself was injured in a skirmish with the notorious Rogers’ Rangers later in the war.

By the summer of 1760, the British dominated the chessboard, taking all of the major French forts and advancing in overwhelming numbers against Montreal from three different directions. Our ancestors had little choice but to accept gestures of peace from the Britain’s Superintendant-General of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. When a British force 11,000 strong descended the St. Lawrence with hundreds of Haudenosaunee allies, delegates from the Kahnawake and the other mission villages entered into treaty with Johnson and General Jeffrey Amherst at the Onondaga village of Oswegatchie (today’s Ogdensburg, New York). Johnson promised that the natives of mission communities would enjoy all of their former privileges if they stood down and did not fire upon the British during their advance. They accepted these terms, and when Johnson entered the city of Montreal, he was accompanied by a bodyguard of Kahnawake warriors.

The Seven Nations of Canada were taken back into the Silver Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Great Britain at a peace council held the week after the capitulation. Kahnawake, the senior village of the alliance of mission villages and the closest to Montreal, was promoted by the British as an important link in their vast network of new native allies. It starts to appear in British communications as the Great Council Fire.

Louis was less than enamored with life in the British Empire, so strong was his attachment to the French. He focused his attention on starting a family and hunting. When Britain’s American colonies began to talk of independence, Louis took interest. He met with Generals George Washington and Philip Schuyler and offered his services as the head warrior of the Seven Nations of Canada. He told them he could bring them 500 warriors if they made him an officer in their army, an offer they were reluctant to accept for financial reasons. It is uncertain if he really was the big war chief that he made himself out to be. He may have only had the loyalty of the dozen or so men he had with him at the time.

The Seven Nations of Canada were already being pressured by the British to fight on their behalf. Louis thought it unsafe to return home because of this, so he focused his efforts on recruiting and leading Oneida and Tuscarora warriors on behalf of the American rebels. His record during the war is notable: he was present at the ambush at Oriskany Creek, participated in the American victory at Saratoga, was assigned to burn all of the British ships on Lake Ontario, and was even seen at Valley Forge in his full officer’s uniform, singing French opera songs in the forest before breakfast!

After the war, Colonel Louis got involved in many of the treaty negotiations between the victorious Americans and their aboriginal neighbors, particularly the Oneidas. They eventually grew tired of his heavy-handed approach and before long he was back in Akwesasne, staking claim to a tract of land on the Grass River.

In the 1790’s, rumors reached the council in Kahnawake that Mohawk leader Joseph Brant was selling off land that belonged to the Seven Nations. They asked Colonel Louis to lead a delegation to inquire about the matter. After several years of being rebuffed by the American negotiators, they were able to conclude a treaty that commonly known as the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796.

Most of what we call today the “North Country” in New York State had already been auctioned off to Alexander Macomb in a corrupt little affair that left Akwesasne with a reservation roughly six miles square. Louis and his delegates were able to add to that meager amount with a mile square on the Grass River, the meadows leading up to it, and a mile square tract on the Salmon River at what is now Fort Covington.

Federal negotiators demanded that the Seven Nations delegates get full ratification of the treaty by the communities they represented, but this never happened. The rest of the Seven Nations were unaware the negotiations were even taking place; it was kept quiet by the council at Kahnawake because they did not want the British to know they were in secret talks with the Americans. When the chiefs at Akwesasne heard about it, they wrote to the British government asking that a new chief be recognized in Louis’ place. (Some people today deny that Louis Cook was ever one of our chiefs, but the Akwesasne chiefs at the time acknowledged that he was, otherwise they would not have asked to have him replaced. If other chiefs call you a chief, you’re a chief!)

Both Louis Cook and Joseph Brant both blamed each other for the controversy, which was in keeping with their mutual hatred from having been on opposite sides of the American Revolution. The friction that resulted from both of their actions almost brought the Seven Nations of Canada and the Haudenosaunee at Grand River to the brink of war. Brant and his followers attended a council at Kahnawake in 1799 where the entire matter was resolved and blamed on the “story-telling bird,” Colonel Louis, who did not attend.

Colonel Louis and his supporters took advantage of the border drawn between British and American territory through Akwesasne and set up shop as the “American” St. Regis Indians. He and his supporters would then collect the annuity from the treaty of 1796 and keep it for themselves, never sharing with Akwesasronon on the “British” side of the line, nor the other members of the Seven Nations of Canada. These “Trustees,” as they came to be known, were the precursors to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council today.

Great Britain and the United States would eventually go to war against each other again, and just like before, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Seven Nations of Canada were publicly urged to remain neutral, while backdoor efforts to recruit our warriors began in earnest. The majority of the Seven Nations remained neutral or fought under the Union Jack in the War of 1812.

Louis Cook was well into his seventies by this time, but he chose to support the Americans. His commission was upgraded to general and he was again provided with a uniform, the sight of which frightened the children in his family. His commission may have only been honorary, but the correspondence of senior officers and at least one Plattsburgh newspaper of the time confirm that he was called General Louis. (If other generals call you a general, you’re a general!)

The record of our warriors on both side of this conflict is notable. They were praised for their civilized conduct during the war, although the same could not always be said for their non-native allies. Their sacrifices throughout the war put a Mohawk streak of blood in the red stripes of the flags of both combatants. General Louis Cook was one of those who gave their lives, dying from injuries sustained at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane near the Niagara river, but not before being taken to the American camp near Buffalo where he spoke his last words. His death was announced with a salute of cannon fire befitting his rank, but America’s memory of its greatest native ally was soon to fade, like the smoke from one of those cannons.

Few people have made such a mark on history as Atiatonharonkwen. It is no surprise that our people still argue about him and his actions two centuries after his death. Like his nemesis Joseph Brant, Louis Cook is frequently condemned for signing a major treaty that quit-claimed our ancestral territory. But I have yet to see any evidence that things would have ended up any better for us had that treaty never taken place. The treaty was an afterthought and an act of political expedience. The land itself had already been auctioned off like the property of a man who died with no heirs.

Colonel Louis is still making history. Officials of the government he helped create, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to settle Akwesasne’s American land claim. When this settlement is finalized, they will have quit-claimed those additional tracts—the mile square in Massena, the mile square in Fort Covington, and the Grass River meadows—that Colonel Louis and his fellow delegates added to the Akwesasne reservation in 1796. That little bit of history gets left out of the modern discussions when we are urged to “look to the future.” One can only wonder if people 200 years from now will judge us the same way we judge Colonel Louis.