Friday, February 23, 2007

The Polly Cooper Shawl or How One Bit of Research for One Meme Morphed Into a Second Meme

Last weekend I was multi-tasking by looking up important women who took part during the American Revolution. I knew it was going to be a busy week since I was hosting the Education Carnival. The purpose of the research was to update a list of important people for students to complete a biography project and to compile a Thursday Thirteen list for this week as well. Well, as many of you know the carnival ended up being rather large, and I’ve been sick all week. I’ve also taught every day since it is near impossible to actually obtain a substitute when you are sick. I never actually got the list of 13 women up because I decided to allow myself to take a day off from posting. I hope to share it later.

During the search I saw the name Polly Cooper on a list of Revolutionary War women and I was intrigued. I interrupted Dear Hubby’s television viewing by saying, “Hey, did you know you had a relative who did something important during the Revolutionary War?”

“Ummmm…really! How do you know?”

So I clicked on through and the research for my Thursday Thirteen suddenly became a picture for Wordless Wednesday. The whole story just tickled my fancy. It’s not well known, and it is also on the periphery of one of the lowest moments of the American Revolution.

Valley Forge.

Last week my students learned about General Washington’s winter quarters outside of British held Philadelphia. We discussed the three D’s of the pitiful conditions at Valley Forge----desertion, disease, and death. Though General Washington begged Congress for needed supplies they had no money. Sources indicate George Washington called the conditions at times “a little less than famine.” Another source states Washington conceded, “If the army does not get help soon, in all liklihood it will disband.” By February, the weather was a little better and by March, Nathanel Greene was appointed head of the Commissary Department. Some food began to reach the soldiers camped at Valley Forge, and of course, the military began to receive training from Baron Von Steuben.
So what does a shawl have to do with Valley Forge? Was it used by a soldier’s wife to cover the sick, the dying, or the dead? Was it something one of Washington’s officers used to tie about his waist….a present from a lovesick girl back home?

The shawl was a present, but not from a girl back home. The shawl was presented to Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, and it was presented by Martha Washington or a group of Valley Forge officer’s wives depending on the source you view.

The Oneida nation headed by Chief Oskanondohna (Skenandoah) at the time had heard of the plight of the Patriot soldiers at Valley Forge. The tribes 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. At Chief Oskanondohna’s (Skenandoah’s) urging some tribe members began to walk the 400 mile journey to Valley Forge carrying close to 600 bushels of dried corn. The soldiers of course were starving, and if they had eaten the corn without the proper preparation the corn could have swelled in their stomachs and caused them to die. Polly Cooper was one of the Oneida women who journeyed to Valley Forge and stayed in order to cook the corn properly for the soldiers and to help in other ways.

From an account by William Honyost Rockwell (1870-1960), an Oneida leader and descendant of Polly Cooper

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.

So, where is the shawl exactly? An article from CNY Business Journal (1994) explains that a Key Bank branch holds the shawl for its owner, Louella Derrick, in a safety deposit box when it isn’t on display.

The CNY article goes on to mention three mysteries remain about the gift of the shawl. The first mystery surrounds a missing bonnet. Apparently there was also a bonnet bought along with the shawl, however, family members do not know its whereabouts. The second mystery involves the shawl’s fabric. The CNY article makes note that the shawl is 62 inches on a side and is in fine condition. People who have been able to feel it state the fabric is similar to silk or fine horsehair, but it is neither. A team of Syracuse University anthropologists tried and failed to determine what it is. The third mystery involves how much the shawl is worth. The shawl’s owner states, “We know it’s valuable, but we don’t know how valuable.”

The Oneida Nation site states the shawl is one of the oldest relics of the Oneida people. The site goes on to say of the shawl:

It also symbolizes the relationship between the Oneidas and the United States. In times past, any agreement of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) was accompanied by a gift; usually it was wampum but it might be an animal skin or textile also. The gift was tied to the words of the message and the object underlined the truth and importance of the words. so it is with the shawl. As memorial to the American acknowledgment of Oneida help and sacrifice, the Polly cooper Shawl testifies to a pact of the Revolutionary War in the traditional Haudenosaunee way.

So, why don’t more of us know about this story? One website gives this possible explanation:

From The Oneida Indians of Wisconsin:

The contributions of the Oneida in early U.S. history have been largely ignored in history books, possibly because much of the history of the Revolutionary War was compiled in the 1830s at a time when the Indian nations were being "resettled" under the barbaric Indian Removal Act. Giving them credit for help with the Revolutionary War was not politically expedient

Today the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian has the entire fourth floor set aside for the Oneida Indian Nation. One of the main features of the exhibit is the statue “Allies in War, Partners in Peace”, which depicts George Washington, Polly Cooper, and Chief Oskanondohna and commemorates the bonds between the Oneida Nation and the United States. The statue details and the symbolism used within the entire piece and is absolutely amazing. This page at The Oneida Nation gives more detail about the statue and the many icons found within it. For example, the wampum belt that George Washington is holding symbolizes an agreement between the U.S. and the Oneida Nation, and acknowledges that neither will interfere in the internal affairs of the other.

Go here for a 7 minute movie from The Oneida Nation about Polly Cooper.


klkatz said...

Great Blog. I wish I would have stumbled upon this sooner.

I too am a Georgia, history teacher. I have a blog and a site dedicated to finding lesson plans for american history.

I have added you to my link list. I would appreciate if you could do the same.

I'm looking forward to coming back.



Unknown said...

It's amazing at some of the things simple research will lead to.

Hen Jen said...

wow what an amazing story, and so unknown. Thanks for sharing it.

Unknown said...

This was outstanding!
I shall visit the Oneida Nation exhibit at the NMAI with new eyes and probably add this to my repetoire of stories for my students. It will particularly come in handy during my New York State tour in April.

Anonymous said...

I would like to use some quotations from the Polly Cooper story. May I obtain the author's name of this article?

EHT said...

The websites and articles I quoted are linked directly in the piece. For the remainder of my article you may cite it as you would a regular webpage or article and the author's name would be elementaryhistoryteacher, of course.

If you need to contact me you may reach me directly at

Anonymous said...

Just thought that I would let you know that my fifth grade daughter came across this site will studying the role of Native Americans in the Revolutionary War and was thrilled. My daughter's name? Why, Polly Cooper, of course

EHT said...

Wow, that's great. I hope it helped her a little. That's ironic about her name. Maybe you are related to my husband since our last name is Cooper as well!

jenmyers said...

WOW, have been resarching Polly Cooper with my son for a paper for school and this is one of the best sites we have seen! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

hey i my son just copied your paper an got an A. thanks!

suzgalbraith said...

If you are going to teach history, please teach history. If you are going to teach folklore, identify it as such.

When I first heard this story, I telephoned Valley Forge and asked the historians there about Polly Cooper. They said there is no evidence to support the Oneida tribe's oral history about this person. Among other things, the Oneidas claim ( that Polly Cooper moved freely between British and colonial battle lines dispensing water to soldiers on both sides. There were no battle lines at Valley Forge, so she would have had to walk a very long way.

The Polly Cooper story is a myth. Myths can be instructive, but they should not be taught history unless there is tangible evidence to support it (not just the existence of a self-promoting statue paid for by the Oneida tribe's casino money).

I will be interested to revisit this site and see whether you have posted my comment.

EHT said...

Now why on earth would you think I wouldn’t post your comment? Since I did link to the Oneida Indian Nation website I’m fully aware there are non-Native written sources that cannot confirm the Polly Cooper story, however……they cannot deny it either. As stated in the article the Oneida nation has up at their site, “However, we do know that an Oneida woman called Polly Cooper by English speakers was alive during the Revolution and did serve again as a cook in the American cause during the War of 1812.”

I’m well versed in the difference between historical myth and facts backed by numerous sources. Please check my left sidebar for the topic historical myths… of my favorite myths that has as many for it as against it is the George Washington “So help me God” question.

I see no problem using the Polly Cooper story as a sidebar to the American Revolution using the Oneida Nation website and the website for The National Museum of the American Indian as sources for students to use.

I’m not really sure where you get the idea I wouldn’t divulge to students that within the field of historiography there appears to be holes in the story that cannot be confirmed or denied. I feel this is a valid situation to use with students, so that they understand there are many who don’t always agree with the historical record that is put forth by various groups.

Situations that cannot be confirmed or denied should always be identified as such to students. Seems like that would be the perfect opportunity for them to put on their detective hats and analyze the situation for themselves.

Thanks for visiting and your comment is very welcome!

Joseph Parsons said...

I know I'm late to this party... researching with my kiddo about Polly Cooper for a school paper...

Suzgalbraith said this:
"not just the existence of a self-promoting statue paid for by the Oneida tribe's casino money"

I don't really understand this comment.

1) How can the poster possibly know what the motivations are for a memorial statue? Really? it is an established fact that the sole or primary motivation for the statue is self-promotion?

2) Casino money? Even if that is true, how does the funding for a memorial project today speak to the veracity of an account from the Revolutionary time period? What exactly is this argument supposed to mean? An oral account from a couple hundred years ago is a myth because today some Oneida committee got their funding from a tribe casino?

I guess this is just cynical sarcasm and dismissal, but it doesn't prove a case in my view.


Anonymous said...

I am related to Polly cooper and it is so coll reading about her.