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Our Undying Past

How Choctaws aided starving Irish

This monument in Middleton, County Cork, Ireland, honors the Choctaw.

A major antagonist in my book Visions of Teaoga isn’t a person but a stone monument. Its plaque commemorates a Revolutionary War assault into the Iroquois Indian heartland--a march it says “destroyed savagery” and opened the region to “civilization.” Dedicated in 1902 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the monument perfectly captures our country’s then-imbedded mindset that native peoples were mere savages with no redeeming values.

So I loved learning the other day about one tribe’s beautiful and little-known good works on behalf of white people a half-century earlier. What a redeeming story it is.

The Choctaw Indians were one of the first tribes to be uprooted and forced west on the horrific Trails of Tears in the early 1830s. Untold numbers died from hunger and exposure on the long, cold march from their Mississippi homeland to faraway Oklahoma, where they faced new hardships. Sixteen years later, the Choctaws learned of the Irish potato famine and of how the British overlords would not provide any other food than the blighted potato to the thousands of starving Irish. “Only sixteen years had passed since the Choctaws themselves had faced hunger and death on the first Trail of Tears, and a great empathy was felt when they heard such a similar story coming from across the ocean,” Read More 

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Indian-settler shuttle diplomacy

"Penn's Treaty With the Indians," by Edward Hicks.

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia has been adding some fine entries lately, particularly regarding the region’s Native American history. The latest installment takes a fascinating look at one of the most ragtag yet important sets of characters roaming the early borderlands – the intermediaries. These were ad-hoc diplomats and interpreters pressed into duty to facilitate talks between the Indian tribes and the Colonial authorities.

As the article’s author, Calvin College history professor Stephen T. Staggs, writes, “They ranged from a French-Shawnee fur trader to a German pioneer, from an acculturated Delaware to a Polish-Prussian missionary, and from an Oneida living in a Shawnee village to a Delaware captive.”

I was pleased to see the online encyclopedia focus on these go-betweens because they’re a factor in my historical novel about the Eastern woodlands, Visions of Teaoga. An interpreter is a constant presence at the 1790 Seneca-U.S. peace council Read More 

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Legend of The Bloody Rock

The Bloody Rock lies beneath a protective grate on the west bank of the Susquehanna River.

You’ve heard of the Bloody Rock? Sometimes called Queen Esther’s Rock? No?

I’m accustomed to getting blank looks when I ask. It’s such a shame, and one more example of how we’ve forgotten so much of our amazing local history. As the anniversary of that gory event nears, allow me to explain what’s still there—on the roadside in northern Pennsylvania--for you to see.

The incident occurred 237 years ago, immediately after a Revolutionary War fight on the banks of the Susquehanna River near present-day Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Because that area is known as the Wyoming Valley, the fight is officially called the Battle of Wyoming. The Patriot side, however, termed it the Wyoming Valley Massacre because of how their militia was overrun and slaughtered by a joint British-Indian force that afternoon of July 3, 1778.

I recounted the gruesome event during an author talk last week at the Rydal Park senior residence outside Philadelphia. Accounts of the battlefield mayhem had already sobered my 45 listeners, and they really began cringing when I started describing the Bloody Rock. On the evening of the battle, I told them, Read More 

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'Cataclysmic Change'

An elegant summary of Pennsylvania’s fraught history with its original people has just been posted on the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. A good friend who runs a Philadelphia tour-guide business alerted me to the new essay, and now I commend it to your reading as well.

The author, Gettysburg College history professor Timothy J. Shannon, highlights many of the points that come through in Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indian-settler conflicts in the 1700s. His opening passage captures the problem: “Relations between Pennsylvania’s Native American and European peoples underwent cataclysmic change  Read More 
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Why Teaoga? It's in history's vortex

During the recent virtual-blog tour held as part of my Visions of Teaoga book launch, I was asked to reflect on why I wrote this historical novel. A fine question. Here's my answer:

Teaoga is a place that smacked me upside the head. Grabbed me and shouted, “Listen!”

Seriously, I wrote Visions of Teaoga because of the story it has to tell. Multiple stories, in fact – a crazy cavalcade of stories. Ever since I was a boy, I’ve been the type to lie back in the grass and sense the mysterious hum of the land and the people who came before. If you’re at all like that, you know what I mean. Not that I’m all supernatural. I’ll feel a place’s vibe--but I’ll also study up on the facts of its history.

So when a road trip a few years ago took me into Teaoga, now the quiet, seemingly idyllic riverfront community of Athens, Pennsylvania, its past reached out and smacked me. You may not have heard of this town, but it stood on the front lines of many of the conflicts and upheavals that swept the Eastern Woodlands in the colonial and Revolutionary era. It was at various times an Indian stronghold, a Christian mission field, a treaty ground, the launching site for several scorched-earth campaigns, the last bastion of a failed breakaway state, and more.

That’s why I wrote about it—because Teaoga was truly a microcosm of our nation’s turbulent beginnings. I wrote about it because I never learned about it as a schoolboy even though I grew up not far from there. And I wrote about it as an example of rich local history.

Unfortunately, our schools tend to teach local history skimpily if at all. They miss opportunities to tune their students in to the importance of nearby rivers and byways, to the origin of their area’s place names, to local heroes and scoundrels and legends and lore, to ways large national trends might have played out right under their feet. There are scattered efforts around the country to address this shortcoming, though they face the challenge of schoolteachers’ own scant knowledge of a region’s past, textbooks limited to macro-history, and the imperative of “teaching to the test.” I have Athens serve as a stand-in for countless ordinary small towns across America, to awaken students to the truth that fascinating history can be found just about everywhere, even in their own hometown, if they just start looking.

Let me tell you what I mean. In interviewing experts and reading more than 75 books, articles and papers, I compiled this amazing but true picture of Teaoga/Athens:

-It was the Southern Door of the Iroquois Longhouse. Guards stationed at the Cayuga “watch town” there would stop unwelcome travelers from heading up into Iroquois country.

-Teaoga stood at the strategic transportation break that linked river systems into Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley. Major Indian trails from those far-flung areas, including the Great Warriors Path and the legendary Forbidden Path, crossed there.

-For generations, Teaoga was a safe haven for Indian refugee groups dispossessed by relentless white encroachment into their homelands. Exemplifying this was Queen Esther’s Town, which was led by the real-life protagonist of Visions of Teaoga.

-For more than a century, Teaoga was a favorite rendezvous for Indian war parties and war or peace councils, and a place where scores of white prisoners were held captive for long periods. Among their overseers was Queen Esther.

-Teaoga was directly on the controversial Fort Stanwix treaty line, and was also the divide between the Six Nations and the Pennsylvania-based Delawares, and between Iroquian cultures and Algonkians. Both situations created decades of intergroup friction.

-Nearby, two pacifist Moravian mission settlements coexisted uneasily with the natives and other whites. Some Indians (including several of Queen Esther’s children) were drawn to convert, but many chiefs agitated to banish the missions.

-During the French and Indian War, Teaoga became the stronghold of Teedyuscung, “the King of the Delawares,” and his 400 warriors. From there they launched many ferocious raids on settlers across the backwoods region.

-Teaoga was a way station for peace emissaries and the site of several treaty talks.

-Teaoga was in the vortex of the American Revolution. In the early years of the war, it was a fortress for British and Tories, as well as a haven for deserters from the Colonial army. It was the southern headquarters of the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant; his warriors trained there, went out on their notorious Cherry Valley raid, and returned with white captives and bounty. The British major Butler used Teaoga as staging ground for his bloody 1778 attack on Wyoming Valley, sending 1,000 British rangers and Indian warriors downriver in an armada of canoes. Their victory (near present-day Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) became known as the Wyoming Valley Massacre – the occasion of the Bloody Rock atrocity in which Queen Esther was implicated.

-After the Wyoming massacre, Colonial forces struck back and captured the Teaoga area. An expeditionary force burned down the Cayuga watch town and Queen Esther’s Town. In 1779, Washington sent fully one-third of his Continental army on a retaliatory campaign against the Indians. The commander. Gen. Sullivan, established Teaoga as his base and built a large fort there. From there, his troops launched what became known as “The War of the Vegetables,” sweeping across Iroquoia and torching forty towns, 160,000 bushels of corn, and vegetables without number.

-After the Revolution, once Indians were officially dispossessed from the area, Athens found itself on the “Great Trail” of cattle drivers moving herds from New Jersey to Niagara. A flood of white settlers and their supplies followed, along with highway robbers who infested the area for a time.

-Pennsylvania’s boundary commissioners made Athens their headquarters in the mid-1780s as the remaining Indian land was quickly divided up and granted to settlers. Some of it went to war veterans in lieu of military pensions.

-In one of the more bizarre episodes in American history, settlers from Connecticut known as “the Wild Yankees” made their last stand at Athens. They had claimed much of northeastern Pennsylvania as their own decades earlier, sparking rounds of deadly fighting known as the Yankee-Pennamite Wars. After the Revolution, they retrenched around Athens, issued a declaration of independence in 1787, and brought in Ethan Allen to advise them on how to form a breakaway state. They envisioned Athens as the capitol of a state straddling Pennsylvania and New York. Ben Franklin denounced them as “armed banditti” and had the leaders arrested for high treason. The movement eventually petered out, though the remaining Connecticut settlers had a siege mentality that affected the Athens area for years to come.

What a cavalcade of Wild West events, and all occurring in our one apparently ordinary Eastern locality. It’s like a triple-feature action film and has tests of character to match any Harry Potter novel. I hope Visions of Teaoga can prompt readers – particularly student readers - to seek a deeper understanding of not only the land beneath their feet but of the people around them today. Read More 
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Remembering The Fourth with a Forked Tongue


Ah, the Fourth of July – the grand occasion to display the American flag outside my front door, and to join the crowds at our neighborhood fireworks party. The grand day to celebrate what’s been called our nation’s birth certificate: The hallowed Declaration of Independence.

But wait. What’s that ugly sentence embedded midway through it? Tucked into Thomas Jefferson’s angry brief against King George, in a long litany of grievances, appears this charge:

"He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions."

Yes, our very founding document encodes the American Indians as “Savages” – capital S as if it were their proper name. Did you ever learn that in history class? You, like me, may have been clueless, but be assured that many Indians still know and resent the enshrined libel all too well. Just as, in their parallel history, they know George Washington not as the father of the country but as “Town Destroyer” because of his scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois. Just as they loathe Andrew Jackson for his brutal removal policies – and refuse to traffic in twenty-dollar bills because they bear his portrait. Just as they remember Jefferson for instigating those removal policies, and for sending Lewis and Clark west to chart the course of expansionism.

I am launching my blog to point out these troubled truths for two reasons: The nation’s birthday is upon us, and – a big personal and -- I have a new book coming out very soon that delves into Colonial-Indian history. Visions of Teaoga (being published by Sunbury Press) is a historical novel that recounts Washington’s 1779 destruction of the Seneca heartland, but also the earlier land grabs and encroachments across the Eastern woodlands. Told by a real-life Shawnee matriarch – a tragic figure known to history as Queen Esther – it tells how smaller “remnant bands” such as the Shawnees, Munsee Delawares, Conoys and Tutelos were hemmed in and deceived not only by the Europeans but by the mighty Iroquois Confederacy as well. The resulting Indian raids on settler homesteads – often land squatters – clearly could be vicious. Accounts of scalpings and other atrocities circulated widely, leading to brutal counterattacks. Settlers never forgot the natives’ violence but overlooked similar crimes committed by whites (one of Queen Esther’s many complaints). By July 1776, this cycle of attacks and reprisals had produced a race hatred on both sides that curdled into mutual desires for what we, today, would term ethnic cleansing.

That is the context in which Jefferson penned his propagandistic invective. He was correct in a sense. Most “Indian Savages” were tilting toward the British as the lesser of two evils. Where the Colonials had proven land-hungry and duplicitous, the Brits had at least tried to set up a demarcation line that set aside a huge territory as Indian land. When war came, many tribes across the East made alliances of convenience and fought alongside the Redcoats. Queen Esther and her people were swept up in the warfare, culminating for her in the tragic Bloody Rock incident.

Years earlier, in the 1750s, Esther's war-chief husband had tried to make nice with the settlers. In reluctantly ceding a slice of territory to New Jersey, he expressed the earlier outlook that land and its bounty could be shared. His eloquent plea, as recorded in Colonial records and repeated in Visions of Teaoga, was this: “We desire that if we should come into your province to see our old friends, and should have occasion for the bark of a tree to cover a cabin, or a little refreshment, that we should not be denied, but be treated as brethren! And that your people may not look on the wild beasts of the forests or the fish of the waters as their sole property, but that we may be admitted to an equal use of them.”

As history also records, this outlook failed. The British abandoned their Indian allies, the demarcation line was extinguished, and a wave of westward expansion began.

Jefferson had prevailed.  Read More 

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