The year is 1777. It’s December, and you just missed Christmas with your family. You’re a firebrand revolutionary, having joined the Continental Army at the seemingly-wise age of 16. Only a couple months ago, the Colonists defeated the British at the Battle of Saratoga, reigniting the passions of the Continental soldiers. Despite this victory, a much harsher and unforgiving enemy than the British would lie in wait: nature. Weary from marching (only one in four of the army had shoes), your regiment seeks shelter on the plateau of Mount Joy, mostly due to its distance from British control as well as the abundance of wood in nearby forests.
Holing up in Valley Forge, although necessary, would prove to be a fatal decision for more than 2,500 soldiers. The campsite was tactically sound, as its open nature would allow for soldiers to spot any approaching enemies and prepare for battle in haste. However, the plateau was a double-edged sword; it may have protected the Colonists against the British, but exposure to the cold weather and disease would ultimately become the true executioner.
Those who were lucky enough to withstand the biting frost of winter would become subject to starvation, as the Continental Congress would not provide food to the soldiers, despite being repeatedly petitioned to by George Washington.
Not all hope was lost, though. Having recognized the severity of Washington and his army’s condition, an Oneida Pine Tree Chief by the name of Shenandoah sent a large group of his men and women to Valley Forge with 600 bushels of white corn for the starving Colonists. Accustomed to yellow corn, the Colonists required instruction on how to properly prepare the white corn, which an Oneida woman named Polly Cooper provided. Moved by the selfless gesture of the Oneida, Washington named the Shenandoah River after the Pine Tree Chief as a form of thanks and recognition.
When the settlers first landed on what would become the United States, Native tribes offered them gifts and food in an attempt to establish a lasting peace or harmony with them. In fact, Christopher Columbus documented in his journal that the Natives in the Caribbean were “…artless and generous with what they have…”, but then went on to state that “their Highnesses may see that I shall give them as much gold as they need …. and slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped”. Although Columbus never truly landed in North America, many Natives reacted warmly towards settlers and voyagers, wanting to keep their land and avoid imperialism.
In light of the recent events regarding the shrinkage of the Bears Ears monument, I find it necessary to note on the sinister past of the United States, and how it was established. We tore down monuments, evicted people from their homes, and committed what the United Nations would consider genocide on the Natives of the land. Although we cannot control the past, we can control the future, and I find it imperative to recognize the tragedies and pain we have inflicted on those who owned this land and allow their voices to be heard.
When the Oneida provided the Continental Army with corn, a colonial general named Philip Schuyler promised that “sooner should a fond mother forget her only son than we shall forget you”.
I believe that the key to building a better future is making good on this promise, and honoring it as our ancestors should have.