Colonel Louis at Oriskany and Valley Forge
(Originally published in The People’s Voice, September 30, 2005)
Written by Darren Bonaparte
Previously, we saw how Colonel Louis Cook maneuvered his way to an officer’s commission in the Continental Army by overemphasizing his influence over the Seven Nations of Canada. Now we will focus on the record of his actual service to the United States at the head of the “Company of Indian Rangers,” a unit of Oneida, Tuscarora, and Caughnawaga warriors.
Louis was with an American force of 800 that was sent to relieve Fort Schuyler (AKA Fort Stanwix) in August of 1777. They were ambushed by British troops and their Iroquois allies at Oriskany Creek. This was another dark day in our history, as Iroquois battled Iroquois with tremendous losses, similar to the Mohawk-on-Mohawk carnage of the Bloody Morning Scout two decades before. That Louis Cook had a hand in this hand-to-hand combat is found in the following tradition:
Among the Oneidas who rendered efficient aid to the American cause was one Louis who was of St. Regis Indian birth. He was given a colonel’s commission, and was ever afterward called Colonel Louis. The Rev. Dr. George A. Lintner, late of Schoharie, introduced this anecdote in a lecture before a Fort Plain audience some years ago, no doubt thinking the hero was a white man. Here is the dominie’s story as he gave it:
“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.’ Mr. Lintner assured the writer he had this story well authenticated.”
Louis Cook was a fierce warrior, but he apparently had his tender side, as noted by Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, a young French officer assigned to Baron von Steuben:
Another anecdote now strikes my mind, which relates to the first Indian that I saw in the United States, and is also connected with my early recollections of my native country which were very fresh and vivid at that time. It was at Valley Forge, in the spring of 1778, sometime before the evacuation of Philadelphia by the British. I was walking one morning before breakfast, in a wood, not far from our quarters, when I heard at a distance a French fashionable opera song, sung by a most powerful voice, which the echoes reverberated. I feel tempted to give you the whole song, and here it is:
Ce que je dis est la verité même
Tous les trésors de’ l’univers
N’ont de valeur que par l’objêt qu’ on aime
Que par la main dont ils nous sont offerts.
Un bouquet qu ’unit un brin d’herbes
Donné par toi flatterait plus mon coeur
Il serait un don plus superbe
Il ferait tout mon bonheur.
[What I say is the truth
All the treasures of the universe
Only have a value by the object we love
Or by the hand that offers them.
A bouquet made of grass
Given by you would please my heart
It would be a more superb gift
It would be total happiness.]
I cannot describe to you how my feelings were affected by hearing those strains so pleasing and so familiar to me, sung by what seemed to me a supernatural voice, such as I had never heard before, and yet melodious and in perfect good taste. I thought myself for a moment at the Comédie Italienne, and was lost in astonishment, when suddenly I saw before me a tall Indian figure in American regimentals and two large epaulettes on his shoulders, my surprise was extreme. I advanced towards him and told him in French vous chantez parfaitement bien, Monsieur,[you sing perfectly well, Sir,] on this he also appeared astonished, he extended his hand toward me saying Ah! Mon père, tu es Français; je suis bien content de te voir; C’est que nous les aimons les Français, pourquois nous ont-ils abandonné? [Ah! My father, you are French; I am well content to see you; It is that we love the French, why have you abandoned us?] I was struck with this salutation and particularly with his calling me father. C’est vous, said I, qui êtes mon pére, je ne suis qu ’un jeune homme. [It is you that is my father, I am but a young man.] Ah! replied he, tous les Français sont nos pères, C’est ainsi que nous les appellons, les autres ne sont que nos frères. [All the French are our fathers, It is thus we call them, the others are only our brothers.] Then he began to explain to me that the English wanted them also to call them fathers, but that the Indians would not consent; the French alone were their fathers. He next asked me a number of questions about the King, the Queen, the royal family and whether they did not mean to reconquer Canada. I thought he would never have done.
The conversation, however, took another turn, and he began to tell me who he was. Je suis, said he, un sauvage de la nation des Abenakis; je m’appelle Nia-man-rigounant, ce qui veut dire en Français l’oiseau pi velé. [I am…a savage from the nation of Abenaki; I am called Nia-man-rigounant, which means in French the bird pi velé.] This word pi velé is not in the dictionary, but I presume it is Canadian for variagated. He then told me that he had served the United States in the ill-fated invasion of Canada under Montgomery and that when our army retreated he had followed them, and had obtained the rank of Colonel, “On m’appelle ici,” said he, “Colonel Louis; c’est le nom que j’ai recu au baptême, car,” added he, “je suis bon Chrétien et bon Catholique.” [One calls me here Colonel Louis, it is the name which I received with the baptism…for I am [a] good Christian and [a] good Catholic.] While this conversation was going on we reached the Baron’s quarters, who received him cordially and invited him to breakfast. After the repast was over, I again had a long conversation with him, in which he told me that he had been educated by the Jesuits of whom he spoke with great respect. They had taught him reading and writing and many other things which he enumerated. He had some knowledge of vocal music and I am convinced that with a little more teaching, he would have been a valuable acquisition to the French Opera, where I have never heard a voice of such extraordinary power, and at the same time susceptible of modulation. I heard he was in the service of the United States, and had the rank of Colonel. In what manner he was employed, or what became of him afterwards, I never knew. All I can say is that I parted with him with much regret, and never saw him since.
Louis Cook, the “rough and daring old hunter” who sang French opera songs in the forests before breakfast, would have many other encounters and adventures before the war was over, all of them attested to by noted officers. In the next installment, we will see how this activity brought him under the watchful eye of the famous Mohawk Tories, Joseph Brant and his sister Molly.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Translations in brackets were not contained in the referenced text. The author did not have access to the original source. English translation of French text courtesy of Mr. Francois Boyer, “Old Sigma” and Lee Miller.]
Next in series:The Missions of Atiatonharongwen
By Darren Bonaparte, historian and author of The Wampum Chronicles. Reprinted with permission.
Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He is a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He has written four books, several articles, and the libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of The Wampum Chronicles and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.