According to Oneida oral tradition, Polly Cooper was a member of the relief mission organized by Chief Shenendoah, who sent a party of Oneidas with hundreds of bushels of white corn to help feed Gen. George Washington’s starving troops in the cruel winter of 1777-78.
The relief party walked more than 400 miles from Central New York to Valley Forge through the bitter cold. The corn they brought was white corn (about 600 bushels) and quite different from the yellow version that can be prepared simply. White corn, the variety grown by the Oneida people, requires extended preparation before it can be eaten.
But the American soldiers were desperate for food when Polly Cooper and her fellow Oneidas arrived, and they tried to eat the corn uncooked. The Oneidas stopped the soldiers, knowing that if they ate the raw corn it would swell in their stomachs and kill them.
Polly Cooper taught the soldiers how to cook the white corn, taking them through the preparation process and the lengthy cooking time. She stayed on after the other Oneidas departed for their homeland and continued to cook and help the troops.
The Oneida nation had long been successful traders and farmers and were one of the few tribes that allied themselves with the Americans. Many fought at various battles for the cause of independence.
Chief Rockwell wrote about his ancestor Polly Cooper several times between the 1930s and 1950s. The following account has been compiled from his two longest passages on the subject. The unpublished Rockwell Papers are owned by the Oneida Indian Nation.
“George Washington is called the father of this country; an Indian woman of the Oneida Nation should be called the mother of this country. Her name was Polly Cooper. She cooked for George Washington and his staff of officers when they were located in Philadelphia. Polly Cooper would not accept cash payment for her part in the Revolutionary War. Isn't that just like what a mother does for her children?
So the wives of the officers invited Polly Cooper to take a walk downtown with them. As they were looking in the store windows, Polly saw a black shawl on display that she thought was the best article.
When the women returned to their homes, they told their husbands what Polly saw that she liked so well. Money was appropriated by congress for the purpose of the shawl, and it was given to Polly Cooper for her services as a cook for the officers of the continental Army. The shawl is still owned by members of the Oneida Nation, descendants of Polly Cooper.
When I was a boy, I used to hear by people talk about Polly Cooper's bravery, about how she cooked and carried water to the soldiers. Whenever she had a chance between the hours of cooking duty, Polly would roll up her sleeves and take two pails of water, one container in each hand, and go into the battlefield. She would give water to quench the dry throats of the soldiers on either side and she walked on both sides of the firing line without fear of harm. Polly Cooper gave water to the enemy soldiers as well as to the men in the colonial army because she believed the war was not over water or food.
She knew that, when the war was over, people would continue to have all the water and food they needed no matter which side won. Polly knew the war was about freedom in thought, to develop principles for the good of all living and the coming generations.
Polly Cooper's thoughts were that all men, no matter what country they were fighting for, they all had mothers. And the mothers didn't send their sons out to kill other mothers' sons. All the old Indian people I heard talk 50 years, 60 years, and 70 years ago favored the mothers' right to govern people. Mothers carried the child before it was born. They nursed and cared for it in every way so that the infant knew the hands that held it were a dependable love.
Before the Europeans came into the country, the Iroquois women were the heads of domestic affairs. Since they took upon themselves the responsibilities of the home, it was therefore very natural they should have the right to govern home affairs. I support the good judgment of my Iroquois ancestors who yielded to womanhood for love and a peaceful government (William Rockwell)."
The United States has such a rich history...the story of Polly Cooper and the Oneidas is only one small example.
Our brave ancestors, in order to allow the United States to thrive in our freedoms, sacrificed and fought under horrific conditions...you think we need to remember our beginnings? and...fight just as hard to safeguard our freedoms today? I do....