On October 9, 2017, Columbus Day, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, will premiere the film “People of the Standing Stone.” The film, narrated by actor Kevin Costner, tells the story of the Oneida, a Native American nation that played an important role in American history.
The Oneida were a key ally for General George Washington’s army during the American Revolution. The Oneida provided the Americans with guides, spies, and warriors. However, once the war was over, the Oneida’s traditional lands were slowly taken over by both the U.S. government and European settlers.
“In an increasingly diverse country,” says Oneida Indian Nation Representative and Nation Enterprises CEO Ray Halbritter, “It is more critical than ever for people today and future generations to learn about and appreciate America’s multicultural roots and history.”
The Oneida Carry
The Oneida belonged to a Native American alliance called the Six Nations Confederacy. All the nations in the confederacy used an important route on Oneida land—now in modern New York state—called the Oneida Carry. The carry was a portage path. Sometimes rivers or streams have sections that are too difficult or dangerous on which to navigate. It can then be necessary to portage, or carry, boats and their contents on land to a downstream location or another body of water that is easier to travel upon. The Oneida Carry connected the Mohawk River and Wood Creek. As Europeans arrived in the New World, the Oneida Carry was important to the Six Nations. It made it easier to trade furs for goods from the settlers.
The British saw that the carry was important. In 1727, they built a fortified trading post near the modern city of Oswego. Within 30 years, the post became very active. Both Native Americans and European settlers earned money by portaging boats and freight across the Oneida Carry. Then, in 1754, a conflict broke out between England and France, known as the French and Indian War. The next year the British built two small forts at the Oneida Carry. After an enemy attack, the British responded by building even larger and stronger forts. By the summer of 1756, the Oneida Carry was home to three forts, two dams, a brick kiln, forge, and a garden to grow food for soldiers. However, at the end of August, the English learned that their posts had fallen to French troops in nearby Oswego. In response, the British destroyed all of their structures at the Oneida Carry. They abandoned the area.
Once the carry was abandoned, British settlements were vulnerable to attack. In 1757, enemy forces raided and destroyed a British settlement called German Flatts. After the British learned that the French were planning more raids, they realized they needed to reoccupy the Oneida Carry. Construction began of Fort Stanwix in August of 1758. This fort ensured Britain’s dominance over the carry. They occupied it until 1768, after which they abandoned it and allowed the fort to fall into ruin.
The British and Oneida Alliance
The Oneida and other members of the Six Nations stayed neutral during the French and Indian War. When the war ended, however, the Six Nations allied with Britain. Unfortunately, this alliance was soon to be tested by the American Revolution. The majority of the Six Nations supported the British, but most of the Oneida supported the American colonists’ cause. Historians attribute their support to the work of the religious missionary Samuel Kirkland.
Kirkland became the Oneida’s missionary in 1766. Kirkland worked hard to learn about the Oneida culture. He arranged for the Oneida to receive schooling, and provided them with carpentry and farming tools. To the poorer Oneida, Kirkland provided food and clothing.
In 1770, Kirkland became involved with a Boston-based religious group. Boston, Massachusetts, was known as a center of anti-British ideas. Through Kirkland, the Oneida learned about the rebels’ cause. By the time the British cautioned their leaders to ignore rebel ideas in Boston, the Oneida trusted Kirkland and his Boston allies too much to comply. The Oneida did not believe that people who had been so kind to them could be as bad as the British said. The Oneida now supported the colonist’s cause.
A Revolutionary Ally
Once the Revolutionary War broke out, the Oneida were a valuable ally for the colonists. The Oneida helped convince American troops to re-occupy the abandoned Fort Stanwix. After troops were stationed at the fort, the Oneida provided them with warriors, scouts, and spies.
The Oneida fought alongside the rebel army at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. In the Burgoyne Campaign, the Oneida provided 150 men to general Horatio Gates‘ army. During the winter of 1777-78, the Oneida sent 50 men to serve with Washington’s army at Valley Forge. They also staged raids against their former allies in the Six Nations.
By the 1780s, however, the Oneida had suffered for their support. As some of their villages were destroyed in the fighting, the Oneida needed to find new homes. Some chose to ally themselves with the British again. By the end of the war, the Oneida’s homes, economy, and lifestyle lay in ruins.
After the War
After defeating the British, the Americans were slow in helping their former allies. The U.S. government gave money to any Oneida who lost property because they had supported America in the war in 1794. While the money helped somewhat, it could not replace the culture and way of life the Oneida lost. As they rebuilt, the Oneida now had to follow guidelines set by the Americans. Over time, the quality of their life became extremely poor.
Before long, older internal divisions among the Oneida resurfaced. As they grew more divided, they became less powerful. Even though a treaty promised that they could keep their traditional lands because of their help during the Revolution, this promise was not enforced. Soon, New York state began meeting with the Oneida to buy more of their land. Eventually, Oneida land was reduced to a single 32-acre reservation.
After losing so much land, some Oneida hoped for a better life elsewhere. By 1820, many Oneida moved west to what is now the state of Wisconsin. In the 1840s, others moved to land they had purchased in Canada. As some Oneida left their New York homeland, animosities arose between the migrating groups and those that remained behind. These conflicts still affect the Oneida today.
Read more about the premiere of the film “People of the Standing Stone” at Native News Online.
Watch a video about the history and traditions of the Oneida at Wisconsin Public Television.
Images and Sources
Oneida historian photo: National Park Service
Oneida historian photo license: Public domain
Oneida Carry map photo: National Park Service
Oneida Carry map photo license: Public domain
Fort Stanwix Treaty photo: National Archives
Fort Stanwix Treaty photo license: Public domain