Long before the California Gold Rush, before Louisiana was purchased and Lewis & Clark made their epic journey there and back again, there was an American frontier. We now call it the East.
In the last decades of the 18th century, colonists living in what would become the United States thought of the West as what lay just beyond the Appalachian Mountain range. These mountains were meant to serve as a barrier to colonial expansion. The land to the west was reserved by the British Crown for the Native nations who called it home. How quickly that frontier shifted as colonists ignored the barrier—and shifted back again as indigenous nations resisted being overrun. One place this process unfolded dramatically and with complex consequences for the people who lived there was western New York in the 1770s.
While researching New York history for my novel, Burning Sky, set in 1784, I learned of the division that occurred among the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Those six nations are, east to west as they dwelled across what is now New York State, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. My focus during the Burning Sky research was on the Mohawks, but time and again the Oneidas snagged my attention. For one conspicuous reason—they went against the majority of the pro-British Six Nations and sided with the Americans during the war, serving as scouts, spies, and in some cases officers in the Continental Army. This decision on the Oneidas’ part broke a confederacy that had existed for centuries.
Why did the Oneidas make this choice? Decades before war’s outbreak, the seeds of division that would force the Oneidas to this momentous decision were being planted among the confederacy nations, seeds carried in the minds and hearts of individuals who chose to cross that first western frontier: traders, interpreters, explorers, and missionaries.
From as early as the 17th century, the Iroquois had welcomed French Jesuits among them. This resulted in groups of Native converts leaving their native Mohawk Valley and moving north to live on reserves along the St. Lawrence River, in Quebec. In 1710, sachems (peace chiefs) on a visit to England requested Queen Anne send Anglican missionaries to help guard against more of the people converting to Catholicism and decamping for Canada. Queen Anne complied. Soon the Anglican Church made its converts, especially among the Mohawks. Later in the 18th century, Presbyterian missionaries from New England ventured among the Iroquois. Among these was the staunchly patriotic Samuel Kirkland, who settled in the Oneida town of Kanowalohale and ministered among them for a decade before the Revolutionary War. By that time he’d gained the devotion of many Oneidas, including many chief warriors.
As conflict with the colonies escalated into war, the British pressured the Six Nations to honor what was known as the Covenant Chain of Friendship, but the Oneidas were increasingly drawing support, both material and spiritual, from Kirkland’s patriotic American friends. As time passed and loyalties became entrenched, there was very little middle ground upon which these polarizing nations could meet. Once war reached the Six Nations’ homeland, there could be no standing to the side while the King and his rebellious children (the colonials) fought it out, not when it came to protecting their own towns and hunting grounds. The Oneidas made their choice with heavy hearts, and for the next several years the frontier became a place of harrowing violence for natives and whites alike.
As I came to grasp the tremendous pressure the Oneidas found themselves under during this tumultuous time, the contributions they made to the founding of an American nation, and the devastating price they paid for following their convictions, I couldn’t resist attempting to tell their story. In The Wood’s Edge and its sequel, A Flight of Arrows (spring 2016), readers will meet two families, one white and the other Oneida, who become linked forever by tragedy and grace, as one young woman and one young man find the courage to cross the daunting frontier between them and meet in a middle ground of their own hearts’ making.
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Did it surprise you to learn the Oneidas were allies of the Americans during the Revolutionary War? Leave a comment with your thoughts on this post and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of The Wood’s Edge.
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The Wood’s Edge
At the wood’s edge cultures collide. Can two families survive the impact?
The 1757 New York frontier is home to the Oneida tribe and to British colonists, yet their feet rarely walk the same paths.
On the day Fort William Henry falls, Major Reginald Aubrey is beside himself with grief. His son, born that day, has died in the arms of his sleeping wife. When Reginald comes across an Oneida mother with newborn twins, one white, one brown, he makes a choice that will haunt the lives of all involved. He steals the white baby and leaves his own child behind. Reginald’s wife and foundling daughter, Anna, never suspect the truth about the boy they call William, but Reginald is wracked by regret that only intensifies with time, as his secret spreads its devastating ripples.
When the long buried truth comes to light, can an unlikely friendship forged at the wood’s edge provide a way forward? For a father tormented by fear of judgment, another by lust for vengeance. For a mother still grieving her lost child. For a brother who feels his twin’s absence, another unaware of his twin’s existence. And for Anna, who loves them both—Two Hawks, the mysterious Oneida boy she meets in secret, and William, her brother. As paths long divided collide, how will God direct the feet of those who follow Him?
2 Chapter Sneak Peek: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Woods-Edge2.pdf
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