Louis Cook: A “Colonel” of Truth?
(Originally published in The People’s Voice, September 23, 2005)
Written by Darren Bonaparte
Last week we explored the biography of Colonel Louis Cook that was written by Eleazer Williams. This week we continue with William’s account:
…He watched with intense interest at the movements of the American Colonies [ ]the expected rupture between England & her American subjects. Once or twice he took a journey to Albany for information. The Late Gen. Schuyler & John Bleccker, he would confer and from whom he derived all the information he desired. Many of the cahnowaga chiefs, on his return became friendly to the American cause from the information they [received] from him. [The] above mentioned gentlemen were known to them & highly respected.
The long expected hostilities between Great Britain and her colonies, finally reached Lewis, with which he seemed to be roused from his lethargy, and his martial spirit was once more on the wing. He was sure that the Americans would suceed, –He knew they were brave people, (by experience) he had met them in a battlefield, when they fought with unequal numbers, like tigars. He was sure, they would swept the English every where and show them what is to be a soldier. “They will fight,” said he, “for their liberties, their country, their wives & children and for their church.” “The King of England” said he, “would make slaves of them, and their country as a nursery to keep up the strength of his army & navy and as a treasury to enrich his Kingdom.” To these, they will never submit—their cause is a good cause, and they will be victorious.”
After the skirmish at Lexington and the battle of bunker hill, and General Washington had assumed the command of the American army at Cambridge, several of the Cahnowaga chiefs would visit the American General & his camp and this visit Gen. Washington mentioned it in one of his letters to Congress…
George Washington’s writings seem to confirm William’s statement. He describes the encounter with an unidentified “Caughnawaga chief” in a letter dated August 4, 1775:
On the first instant, a chief of the Caughnawaga tribe, who lives about six miles from Montreal, came in here, accompanied by a Colonel Bayley, of Coos. His accounts of the temper and disposition of the Indians are very favorable. He says, they have been strongly solicited, by Governor Carlton, to engage against us, but his nation is totally averse: that threats as well as entreaties have been used, without effect; that the Canadians are well disposed to the English colonies, and if any expedition is meditated against Canada, the Indians in that quarter will give all their assistance. I have endeavored to cherish that favorable disposition, and have recommended him to cultivate them in return. What I have said, I have enforced with a present, which I understood would be agreeable to him; and he is represented as being a man of weight and consequence in his own tribe. I flatter myself, his visit will have a good effect. His account of General Carlton’s force and situation of St. Johns, correspond with what we have had from that quarter.
In later years, Louis was fond of displaying a silver pipe with the initials GW etched into it, which may have been the gift given to him by the general at this meeting. The following day he was interviewed by a committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives on the disposition of the northern Indians.
Contrary to the report given by Louis, the British had indeed gained inroads among the Seven Nations and the Iroquois Confederacy, thanks to their Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Guy Johnson, and Daniel Claus. They had managed to gather over 1,600 Indians to a council at Lachine and Montreal in July and some of these were chomping at the bit to engage the Americans. While it is possible that Louis had left Kahnawake before this took place and wasn’t aware of it, it is also possible that he was engaged in an act of deliberate deception. As later passages of this work will show, Louis was perfectly willing to lie to achieve his objectives, whatever they were.
General Washington was visited by Louis Cook again, as he noted in January, 1776:
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.
In this letter, Washington confirms that the “Caughnawaga chief” who visited him before was indeed Louis Cook. Although the majority of the Kahnawake Mohawks had already decided on a course of neutrality, Louis suggested to Washington that this might change if he was given a commission in the American Army.
Washington seemed hesitant to grant that request, as he stated in a letter to Philip Schuyler on January 27, 1776:
I am a little embarrassed to know in what manner to conduct myself with respect to the Caughnawaga Indians now here. They have, notwithstanding the treaty of neutrality which I find they entered into with you the other day, agreeably to what appears to be the sense of congress, 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.
My embarrassment does not proceed so much from the impropriety of encouraging these people to depart from their neutrality, or rather accepting their own voluntary offer, as from the expense which probably may follow.
I am sensible that if they do not desire to be idle, they will be for or against us. I am sensible also, that no artifices will be left unessayed to engage them against us. Their proffered services, therefore, ought not to be rejected; but how far, with the little knowledge I have of their real intentions, and your want of their aid, I ought to go, is the question that puzzles me. I will endeavor, however, to please them, by yielding, in appearance, to their demands; reserving, at the same time, the power to you to regulate the number and movements, of which you shall be more fully informed, when any thing is fixed.
The general was hesitant about employing Louis and his party, partly because of the expense involved, and partly because he didn’t trust them. He did realize, however, that other Indians might be convinced to join the American cause if they accepted the offer of Louis and his men.
At that point Louis and his comrades split up, one group going back to Kahnawake to promote the rebel cause, the other accompanying Louis to Albany and later to Oneida where they enlisted another group of warriors to fight for the Americans. In order to win over the Oneidas, Cook greatly exaggerated the support the colonies had among the Seven Nations of Canada. This we find in a letter from Daniel Claus to General Frederick Haldimand dated November 19, 1778:
…the rebel Caghnawgey & St. Regis Indians that left their Villages this Summer, have taken Refuge among the rebel Oneidas, and are influencing them & the 6 Nations with a parcel of Falsehoods from this Country: vizt. that all the Canadians and Indians were in the Rebels Interest on Accot. of their Alliance with the French, that the River St. Lawrence was blocked up by a french fleet and that Canada must fall this Winter or next Summer. They at the same time encourage the rebel Oneidas not to be uneasy or alarmed at the prest. success & threats of the 6 Natns. in case they did not quit the rebel Interest, that all 7 Nations in Canada would support & stand up for them, should the 6 Natns. attempt anything agst. them. It happened luckily that on Onondaga Chief from St. Regis on his Return from the Susquehanna was at Onondago when the above News was brought there by an Oneida Friend Indian, which the St. Regis Indn. afterwards contradicted in every particular telling them he had later Accots. from Canada, and there were Descendants of the New Englanders among the 7 Natns. in the rebels Interest, the rest were all for the King, and that there were a great many Ships arrived & daily arriving at Quebec with english Merchandize which could not be if the Navigation was stopd. &c.
Even though Louis had been contradicted about the Seven Nations, Oneida warriors fought for the Americans anyway. Louis was eventually given a commission as a lieutenant-colonel, which made him eligible for a land bounty payment after the war. It is interesting to note that he was known as Colonel Louis before he received his commission, as evidenced by Washington’s 1776 letter mentioned above. How he got this moniker is just one of the mysteries that surround this enigmatic man.
Sources: A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties by Franklin B. Hough; The Papers of Franklin B. Hough, New York State Archives; and Indian Affairs Papers: American Revolution by Maryly B. Penrose.
Next in series: Colonel Louis at Oriskany and Valley Forge
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.