Meet the Figures: Oneida Nation Theater: Skenandoah
Skenandoah was born in 1706 as a Conestoga but became Oneida soon after through a “requickening” (absorption and reidentification) ritual. After an embarrassing episode in Albany in 1755, he abstained from alcohol for the rest of his life. According to one observer, he “possessed a vigorous mind, and was alike sagacious, active and persevering.” In 1775, he accompanied a Presbyterian missionary friend to the new army camp outside Boston, where they met Washington and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Because of his allegiance to the Revolution, he was imprisoned by the British at Niagara in 1779-1780 and under a sort of house arrest until 1784. His engagement in the treaty negotiations with the British in this period was something for which some Oneida people never forgave him. He died in 1816, aged about 110.
Meet the Figures: Oneida Nation Theater: Wale
Mary Hanonwayele, also known as Wale (possibly the Oneida pronunciation of “Mary”), was a member of the Oneida Bear Clan. Her brother, Thomas Sinavis, was one of the Oneida warriors at Valley Forge and was killed at the Battle of Barren Hill on May 20, 1778. Unfortunately, Revolutionary commissioners overlooked her in distributing condolence gifts. In 1794, she finally received a small sum for this purpose as part of larger treaty negotiations between the United States and native groups. She lived until at least 1800.
Meet the Figures: Oneida Nation Theater: Grasshopper
Cornelius Ojistalak, also known as Grasshopper, was Odatshehdeh, the first sachem (or leader) of the Oneida. As early as 1776, he was gathering intelligence regarding Haudenosaunee/Iroquois allegiances for Revolutionary leaders in New York. In March 1778, Cornelius Ojistalak addressed a council of Six Nations representatives at Johnstown, tacitly endorsing Oneida warriors who had sided with the Revolutionaries while also indicting Six Nations warriors who had forced the nations into conflict. In 1781, the French presented him with an embroidered uniform that he wore on future formal occasions, and he was likely part of the Oneida group that accompanied the armies to Yorktown. After the war, he helped petition the U.S. government on behalf of the Oneida and for personal compensation. He died in 1788.
Meet the Figures: Oneida Nation Theater: Paul Powless
Tegahsweangalolis ("The Sawmill"), also known as Paul Powless, was born in the 1750s as a member of the Bear Clan of the Oneida who lived at Kanonwalohale in upstate New York. On Aug. 2, 1777, he spotted members of Theyendanega’s (also known as Joseph Brant) party as it approached Fort Schuyler. This meeting, as recalled by his son in the 19th century, is recreated in the live-action portion of the film, with dialogue inspired by the incident but drawn from a 1778 speech by Grasshopper. He was known as a fast runner, and after conversing with Brant he escaped to warn the Oneida who were outside of the Fort. He died about 1847.
Finding Freedom: London - Birch Pass
In the terms of the surrender to the Americans, the British were to return all captured property—including human property. The British did not adhere to this stipulation, and instead evacuated thousands of free and formerly enslaved men and women to Canada. Birch Passes, named for British Brigadier General Samuel Birch, were given to those who could prove they sought the protection of the British forces during the war. The passes, such as this example, guaranteed a place on a departing ship. London may have received one. Cato Rammsay, an enslaved man who escaped from Norfolk, Virginia, received this Birch Pass that allowed him to go to Nova Scotia as a free person.
Passport for Cato Ramsay to emigrate to Nova Scotia, 21 April 1783; NSA, Gideon White fonds, MG 1 vol. 948 no. 196
Finding Freedom: London - Robert Pleasants’s Letter to Benedict Arnold
On January 30, 1781, London’s former owner, Robert Pleasants, wrote this letter to British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, the American turncoat. Pleasants described how he valued London and wanted him to be returned. Soldiers from Arnold’s army had encamped near Pleasants’s plantation, called “Curles Neck,” earlier that month and may have persuaded London and his uncle, Carter Jack, to join them. London never returned to the Pleasants’s plantation.
Robert Pleasants Letterbook, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary