In mid-May of 1778, startling news swept through the Continental Army at Valley Forge. There were Indians in the camp! But they were not killing or capturing Americans as they had often done in battles elsewhere. These Indians had come to fight on the American side. Soldiers who were off duty rushed to get a look at this unusual sight.
In a solid column, 49 tall muscular members of the Oneida Nation strode past the 2000 huts where the Americans had endured semi-starvation during the previous winter. The Indians were accompanied by a Frenchman, Chevalier Anne-Louis Tousard, a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. He and Lafayette had helped to recruit the warriors on a visit to their northern New York homeland.
Down the road the warriors went to General Washington’s headquarters. There, the commander in chief greeted them with great solemnity. He asked Tousard, who spoke their language, to tell the warriors the United States welcomed and appreciated their help in the struggle for liberty.
Two of General Washington’s staff officers escorted the Oneidas to the artillery park, about a mile away. As they arrived, the commander of the artillery, General Henry Knox, ordered thirteen of the big guns to thunder a salute to the army’s new allies.
The army’s commissaries, the officers in charge of issuing food, gave the newcomers a feast of well-cooked beef and pork and fish. On their 200 mile journey from northern New York, they had lived on a few handfuls of parched corn each day.
On May 17, General Washington gave the Oneidas an important assignment. They were to join 2200 Americans led by the Marquis de Lafayette, who had orders to keep a close watch on the British army that was occupying Philadelphia. There were rumors that the British might retreat to New York. If they tried this, Lafayette had orders to attack their rear guard.
The Oneida warriors were told to join 50 veteran riflemen from the western Virginia frontier and roam the roads and woods to make sure the British did not make a surprise attack on Lafayette’s men. The Americans camped at Barren Hill, about twelve miles from Philadelphia. The Oneida and the white frontiersmen began patrolling the surrounding countryside.
In Philadelphia, a deserter from Lafayette’s army told the British where Lafayette was camped and how many men he had. The British decided to attack him with an overwhelming force of 9,000 men. They wanted to capture him and take him back to London as a prisoner. His King, Louis XVI, had just signed an alliance with the Americans, which gave them tremendous encouragement in their fight for independence. Capturing Lafayette would make the King — and General Washington — look foolish.
As dawn was breaking on May 20, the Oneidas and the American riflemen heard an ominous sound on the road: the tramp of marching feet. Looming up in the grey light were two or three hundred British cavalry and thousands of foot soldiers. The Americans and the Oneidas immediately opened fire, throwing the column into confusion. The British fired back and for a few minutes bullets whizzed among the trees.
The British, realizing they were being attacked by barely a hundred men, ordered a cavalry charge to scatter them. A troop of dragoons thundered toward the Americans and Oneidas, sabres raised, roaring death and destruction. The Oneidas responded with their own special brand of defiance. As one voice, they released a tremendous war whoop.
Neither the British horses nor the men in the saddles had ever heard anything like it. Horses bolted and dragoons leaped to the ground and ran for their lives. It took the British another ten minutes to reorganize and order the infantry to advance with fixed bayonets. The white scouts and the Oneidas fell back, firing steadily.
When they reached Barren Hill, the skirmishers found Lafayette’s army retreating. They had been alerted by the gunfire and realized they were being attacked by an overwhelming force. The Oneidas and the scouts formed a rear guard and fought off British attacks as Lafayette’s army double-timed it to a nearby ford across the Schuylkill River.
At the ford the Oneidas were again attacked by cavalrymen, who knocked Chevalier Tousard off his horse and killed several other Frenchmen who had accompanied the expedition. At the risk of their lives, two Oneida braves seized the dazed Tousard and dragged him across the river. On the opposite bank the Americans blasted bullets at the horsemen, forcing them to retreat.
From Valley Forge came the boom of alarm guns. General Washington and the rest of the American army were marching to help Lafayette and his men. The frustrated British retreated to Philadelphia.
George Washington was deeply impressed by the Oneidas’ courage and fighting abilities. The following year, at his recommendation, one of the Oneida Nation’s leading warriors, Lewis Atayataghronghta, was given a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the American army. Seven other Oneidas and two members of the Tuscarora nation, who had also joined the war, were commissioned as American lieutenants and captains. For the rest of the war, these Indian officers and their followers fought the British and their Indian allies in northern New York.
The Oneidas and Tuscaroras were not the only Indian tribes to fight on the American side. Early in the war, the Stockbridge Indians of Massachusetts formed a company of warriors and volunteered their services to the Americans. Another small tribe, the Mashpees of Cape Cod, also sent volunteers. So did the Catawbas in the western Carolinas. None of these matched the Oneida Nation’s contribution. An estimated 300 Oneida warriors fought for the United States.
The Oneidas paid a harsh price for their devotion to the American cause. In the closing years of the war, they were attacked by the Mohawks and other Indians loyal to the British. They burned the Oneidas’ villages and killed many of their men and women. But the Oneida Nation remained loyal to the Americans. They had pledged their honor to fight for them and they continued to do so until the end of the war.
When peace came in 1783, the grateful Americans awarded Lewis Atayataghronghta and his officers and men grants of land for their courage and devotion during the long struggle for freedom from England.