it's nOT Just White guys in Wigs & "I Cannot Tell a Lie"
our WHITE SUPREMACIST origin story Needs Updating
The American Revolution is traditionally presented as a fight between two groups of white men. We're told the Good Guys loved Liberty and the Bad Guys hated it.
With the rebel victory, we're told the good guys won & Liberty was achieved.
We're also told these victorious white men are the original source from which Liberty spread around the world, and that America - at its founding - was established as a country which was both fundamentally free and fundamentally white.
None of this is true.
It's also not nearly as interesting or relevant as what actually happened: the American Revolution looked very different from what we've been told.
What would it look like if the story of the American Revolution was told not just from the perspective of rich white men? What if it was told mostly from the perspective of African Americans & Native Americans, of women & poor people, all of whom faced the life-or-death choice of whether or not to support a “Liberty” they would almost certainly never experience in their own lifetimes?
Donald Trump’s most basic appeal is to
Make America White Again
but what would happen if we went back to the time of America’s creation & showed that America was never white in the first place, & that America as we know it wouldN't even exist were it not for the heroic struggle & sacrifice of the black & brown Americans who’ve been a fundamental & essential part of American society since before the very beginning.
How might such a project inform our understanding of American citizenship & belonging?
And how might such a project empower our resistance to those who seek to delegitimize so many of our fellow citizens, TO UNDERMINE THE LEGACY OF OUR ANCESTORS & our political process, & TO deny so much of what is best & most true in our shared & painful & sometimes glorious history?
Scroll down for more info & to meet the following rebels, many of whom appear in our story:
- THE HEROES of the First Battle
- A SHORT SCENE from the Script
- THE SECRET DIPLOMAT & WARRIOR who may have Saved the Rebellion
- THE DECISIVE BATTLE that Turned the Tide of the War
- HOW FASCISM WORKS & Why We Should Care
- THE MOST FEARED AND RESPECTED Soldiers
- THE GREATEST SPIES of the War
- NATIVE AMERICANS & the War for Liberty Then & Now
- THE FIRST MARTYR of the Revolution
- THE FATHER of the Age of Reason (who Named this Story)
- THE MUSIC of the (Heavenly) Spheres
These are all part of the Secret History of Liberty.
In the age of Black Lives Matter & Me Too, of Make America Great Again & Hamilton & Black Panther
it's time for us to remember and to celebrate the forgotten Founding Mothers and Founding Fathers whose heroism and sacrifice made possible the birth of liberty in the modern age.
Without giving away many specifics or surprises from the script, this website will highlight some of the forgotten history of the war.
SKIM WHAT FOLLOWS, ENJOY THE IMAGES & READ THE BIG TYPE that catches your eye...
(and skip the fine print unless you're curious to know more.)
On a mobile device, this site will work better in landscape than in portrait mode (meaning hold your gizmo sideways, not vertically).
Please reach out with any comments or questions. Thank you very much for your time, and ENJOY.
[This site has been assembled from a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, but in the interest of readability I've avoided including a long list of footnotes. I am profoundly grateful to the many writers, artists, and researchers who have shared their work.]
Peter Salem & Salem Poor
the Battle of Bunker Hill - June 17, 1775
MAJOR JOHN PITCAIRN led the British troops in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775. He was despised and held personally responsible for "the shot heard 'round the world" and for the lives lost in the skirmishes. Two months later the first pitched battle of the war was fought at Bunker Hill. The British were said to have lost more than a thousand men, but a local paper listed only one of the dead by name: Major Pitcairn.
It's said he was killed by a black soldier named salem.
was born into slavery in Framingham, MA around 1750. He was sold to a man who became a Major in the Continental Army, and who temporarily released him from bondage so he could enlist. His owner later gave him his full liberty in exchange for his continued military service.
The US Library of Congress describes Peter Salem's role in the Battle of Bunker Hill with the following words:
"In their fourth charge up the hillside, the British took the hill from the rebels, who had run out of ammunition... The last rebels left on the hill evaded capture by the British thanks to the heroic efforts of Peter Salem, an African-American soldier who mortally wounded the British commanding officer who led the last charge."
Peter Salem joined the Continental Army in 1775 and is know to have fought at the battles of Lexington and Concord, at Bunker Hill, and at Saratoga. He's credited with mortally wounding British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, the highest-ranking British fatality at Bunker Hill. Some believe he shot Major Pitcairn as well.
was born into slavery in Andover, MA in 1747. In 1769 he purchased his freedom for £27, a year's wages for a laborer. In 1771 he married a free woman named Nancy Parker who was of mixed Native American and African American heritage. He enlisted in the Continental Army in 1775 and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
After the battle, fourteen officers - including Colonel William Prescott, commander of rebel forces at Bunker Hill - submitted a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts on his behalf.
"THE SUBSCRIBERS beg leave to Report to your Honorable House (Which We do in justice to the Character of so Brave a man) that under Our Own observation, we declare that A Negro Man Called Salem Poor of Col. Frye's Regiment, Capt. Ames' Company in the late Battle of Charleston, behaved like an Experienced Officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier. To Set forth Particulars of his Conduct would be Tedious. We Would Only beg leave to say in the Person of this Negro Centers a Brave & gallant Soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress."
Of the 2,400 to 4,000 rebels who fought at Bunker Hill
Salem Poor is the only one to have been honored in this way.
The extraordinary petition on his behalf was not acted upon by the General Court, & Salem Poor received no reward or official recognition during his lifetime.
Nonetheless, Salem Poor reenlisted multiple times and is said to have also fought at Concord, Saratoga, and Monmouth, and to have been with the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Some believe he was the man who shot Major Pitcairn.
Colonel Louis Cook (Akiatonharónkwen)
possibly the most Important & Amazing person You've Never Heard of from the war for liberty, & he features prominently in the script.
George Washington wrote to John Hancock on January 24, 1776 from Cambridge, Mass:
"On Sunday Evening, Thirteen of the Coghnawaga Indians arrived here on a visit; I shall take care that they be so entertained during their stay, that they may return Impressd with sentiments of Friendship for us, & also of our great strength
— One of them is Colonel Louis, who Honoured me with a visit once before."
A decade earlier, Colonel Louis fought with the French against the English in the French & Indian War. His visit to see General Washington in Massachusetts seems to have been part of an effort to rejoin the fight against his old enemy, the English.
Colonel Louis' personal history is profoundly intermingled with most of the cultures in the northeast at that time.
His mother was Abenaki, a native refugee displaced by the settlers to the east. His father was a black slave on a nearby plantation, so - like many people of the era - he was of mixed African & Native American blood. He was born very close to the eventual Saratoga battlefield, & when he was a child, a combined French & Mohawk raiding party attacked the area & took him & his family prisoner.
A French officer wanted to take Colonel Louis as a slave for himself, but his mother called out to the Mohawk that he was one of their own and the Mohawk interceded and returned Colonel Louis to his mother. Louis and his mother moved north with the Mohawk, where his mother soon died, and Louis was cared for by the Mohawk and by French Jesuits in the area. Eventually Louis became closely associated with the Oneida, and with the American rebels.
At the time of our story,
Colonel Louis spoke Abenaki, Dutch, Mohawk, French, Oneida, & English
& he moved fluidly between all of these groups, advocating fiercely on behalf of the rebel cause.
Akiatonharónkwen had voted himself the title of "Colonel" early in his life & he was known to all as "Colonel Louis" throughout the war.
In 1779, the Continental Congress officially designated him a Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army.
Colonel Louis was now the highest ranking Native American officer in the war...
& also the highest ranking African American officer in the war...
Some sources say he was the ONLY African American officer in the war.
And then there's this, from Peter Du Ponceau, a young French officer who arrived when the rebels were in Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-78:
"Another anecdote now strikes my mind, which relates to the first Indian that I saw in the United States, & is also connected with my early recollections of my native country which were very fresh & vivid at that time. It was at Valley Forge, in the spring of 1778, sometime before the evacuation of Philadelphia by the British."
"I was walking one morning before breakfast, in a wood, not far from our quarters, when I heard at a distance a French fashionable opera song, sung by a most powerful voice, which the echoes reverberated..."
"I cannot describe to you how my feelings were affected by hearing those strains so pleasing and so familiar to me,
sung by what seemed to me a supernatural voice, such as I had never heard before, & yet melodious & in perfect good taste. I thought myself for a moment at the Comédie Italienne, & was lost in astonishment, when suddenly I saw before me a tall Indian figure in American regimentals & two large epaulettes on his shoulders, my surprise was extreme"...
He introduced himself:"One calls me here Colonel Louis"...
It's hard to evaluate, but also hard to overstate, the importance of Colonel Louis to the rebels' success.
If General St Leger's western army had gotten through to Saratoga it's entirely possible that Saratoga would have been a decisive British victory & that the French might never have entered the war. Colonel Louis lobbied hard to bring the Oneida & other Native Americans over to the side of the rebels, & Native American forces at Oriskany & Fort Stanwix made very significant contributions to the patriot cause.
It's possible that without the efforts of this one individual the war might have ended very differently than it did.
The Battle of Saratoga
was actually two battles, fought almost three weeks apart in upstate New york, during the darkest & most desperate time in the revolution.
WASHINGTON'S ARMY had just suffered a terrible defeat at Brandywine, & between the first & second battles at Saratoga the British conquered the rebel capital of Philadelphia.
The occupation of the capital was a terrible blow to morale, but also a deadly threat to the troops who'd been stationed there, who were now going to have to spend the winter without proper housing or supplies. (As it turned out, over 2,000 of the 10,000 troops at Valley Forge died that winter from exposure and disease). Things looked very grim for the rebels, and many in the British military thought the war would soon be over.
The Second Battle of Saratoga is the battle that changed everything, & it's at the center of our story...
The rebels' only hope of beating the British lay in having France or another of England's European rivals join the war, but the French didn't want to back a lost cause & would not commit until the rebels won a decisive military victory.
Then, late in 1777, the British launched a campaign to crush the rebellion once & for all.
THREE GREAT ARMIES were to converge near Albany in upstate New York, cutting off the troublesome New England colonies from their southern neighbors and allowing the Brits to divide and conquer.
- One British army was to approach from the West under the leadership of General St. Leger
- One was to descend from the North led by General Burgoyne
- And a third army was to move north from New York City, under the command of General Howe
The plan did not go as expected.
St Leger's army coming from the west was blocked at Fort Stanwix & at the Battle of Oriskany, with significant help from the rebels' Native American allies.
General Burgoyne's northern army lost a thousand men at Bennington, as well as most of their Native American support.
And General Howe decided not to join the battle at all, opting instead for the presumably greater glory of capturing the rebel's capital city of Philadelphia, & maybe General Washington as well.
The First Battle of Saratoga
General Burgoyne found himself fighting the rebels' Northern Army all by himself.
The rebels established themselves on rugged terrain along the river north of Albany where they could block Burgoyne's path towards the city. The First Battle of Saratoga - fought September 19, 1777 - was basically a draw.
The Second Battle of Saratoga
General Burgoyne never received new orders so he carried on with the plan to head for Albany, & he stayed put longer than he should have in hopes that reinforcements would arrive...
& while he waited, rebels arrived by the thousands.
When the Second Battle of Saratoga was fought on October 7, 1777 the rebels finally got the decisive victory they needed. Burgoyne's entire army was taken prisoner, & the French soon announced their entry into the war in support of the rebels.
A few words on the painting in the background.
I've been researching this project for more than a year, and I only just recently came across this painting of the Second Battle of Saratoga. It shows rebel General Benedict Arnold at left on his white horse, surrounded by rebels and redcoats and Native American warriors.
The image is unlike anything else I've seen, & it comes closest to how the battle is portrayed in the script.
The inclusion of Native American warriors as heroic participants & allies in the battle, & not as exotic "others" or dangerous "savages" is more unusual than it should be, & I believe it more closely reflects the truth of native participation in the war.
OK, But Why Should I Care?
aka "Wrapped in the Flag & Carrying a Cross"
The failure to overthrow the racist lie of a white supremacist past empowers those who would lead us into a white supremacist & anti- democratic future, here in America & around the world.
Make America Great Again
Is about returning America to a lost Golden Age. Its poisonous subtext is MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN
In his New York Times video op-ed, Professor Jason Stanley describes Fascism as a style of governance grounded in three principles:
- A Mythic Past: Encourage Nostalgia for A Lost Golden Age
- Sow Division: Divide Us and Identify "Outsiders" Who Have Corrupted Our Purity and Led to Our Downfall
- Attack Truth: So All That Remains Is Confusion and Allegiance To Power
By discrediting the idea of a lost golden age of whiteness & celebrating the diversity that has been a fundamental aspect of our national history from the very beginning we destroy the neo-fascist argument at its root.
By demonstrating that people of color are not "outsiders", that they have been here from the very beginning & were important & necessary participants in the War for Liberty, we disempower those who would drag us back to a future of greater inequality & injustice.
By defending Democracy
against those who would sabotage & destroy it, & by reminding ourselves of its awesome generational power, we support & incite resistance to white supremacy, & play our small part in the magnificent, sometimes infuriating, & ongoing migration towards a more perfect union.
The Rebel Army was Integrated
THE DEVERGER DRAWING: In 1781, Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger - an officer with the French army at Yorktown - drew a picture in his diary of the the rebel soldiers he saw there. From left, they were a black soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment of the Continental Army, a New England militiaman, a frontier rifleman, and a French officer.
A Hessian officer explained in 1777 that “the Negro can take the field instead of his master; and, therefore, no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance, & among them there are able-bodied, strong & brave fellows.”
In Rhode Island and elsewhere, some black and Native American slaves were offered freedom in exchange for their enlistment and this helped create an American army that was integrated and multicultural in a way that was not seen again until at least the time of the Korean War.
About seventy Native Americans of the Narragansett tribe are said to have served in the 1st Rhode Island,
& One historian reports that twenty-five percent of a sampling of the black soldiers he studied from the 1st Rhode Island were born in Africa. English would've been their second (or third, or fifth) language, and they would have spoken it with a Hausa, or Yoruba, or other African accent.
The lives of these men must have been heartbreaking and heroic, and almost beyond imagination: they were kidnapped from their homes, survived the horrors of the Middle Passage and enslavement, and then found a path back to freedom by joining the War for Liberty being waged by the country which held them in bondage.
Respected by Friend & Foe
In 1778, a Hessian officer fighting for the British at Newport is reported to have resigned his commission rather than lead his men in a third suicidal assault on the black soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island.
BARON CLOSEN was aide-de-camp to French Commander Rochambeau, & fought alongside the American Rebels at Yorktown & elsewhere. He believed the 1st Rhode Island to be the best unit in the American army: "the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, & the most precise in its maneuvres".
& Baron Closen reported the American army to be about 25% African American.
The Rebel Spies Who Won the War
(& Who Inspired a Character in the Script)
IN OUR STORY, THE CHARACTER OF IGGY IS BASED LARGELY ON THE LIFE OF JAMES ARMISTEAD
& also on the Lives of the Spies Lydia Darragh and Agent 355
Slave, Hero of Yorktown, & Greatest Spy of the War (& That may be him over there on the right in the fancy hat, beside Lafayette)
Yorktown was the Battle that Ended the War
In 1781, American and French forces trapped Britain's southern army on a peninsula in Virginia and forced their surrender, in the last major engagement of the war.
The Slave James Armistead
Made this Victory Possible
JAMES ARMISTEAD persuaded his owner to allow him to join the rebels, and volunteered to serve as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette. Armistead presented himself to the British as an escaped slave seeking protection from his rebel masters. He ingratiated himself in the camp of British general and notorious traitor Benedict Arnold, then gained access to the headquarters of the British commander, Lord Cornwallis.
Cornwallis asked Armistead to spy on the Rebels, giving him the perfect cover to move back & forth between British & Rebel camps.
Armistead discovered the British were moving 10,000 troops to Yorktown, & provided intricate details of the move to a "stunned" General Washington.
"If he had not given the information that he gave at the strategic time he did, they would not have had the intelligence to create the blockade that ended the war."
- Rex Ellis, vice president of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area
Despite his Critical Contribution to Winning the War for Liberty, at War's end in 1783
James Armistead was Returned to Slavery
There was a provision in Virginia - often ignored, there as elsewhere - granting liberty to slaves who had fought as soldiers, but Armistead had served as a spy, not a soldier, and was therefore deemed ineligible. In 1784 the Marquis de Lafayette wrote a testimonial on his behalf, recounting his exemplary service.
Despite his service & Lafayette's support, Armistead was not freed from slavery until 1787, four years after the end of the war.
In gratitude to Lafayette, Armistead adopted the Marquis' surname and went thereafter by the name JAMES LAFAYETTE.
It's reported that when the Marquis de Lafayette returned to tour America in 1824, he spied James Armistead Lafayette along the parade route in Virginia, abruptly stopped the coach, & rushed to embrace his former comrade.
The Philadelphia Quaker who Saved Washington's Army on the Way to Valley Forge
When the British occupied Philadelphia in September, 1777, The British Commander, general William Howe, took the house across the street from the Darraghs to use as his headquarters.
LYDIA BARRINGTON DARRAGH and her husband William were Quakers who immigrated to Philadelphia from Dublin, Ireland in the 1750s. Quakers were generally seen as being neutral in the war, but the Darraghs were secretly supportive of the rebels and their oldest son served in the Continental Army. When the British arrived, Lydia gathered information about their activities and smuggled them to her patriot son through coded notes sewn inside buttons and other trickery.
MAJOR JOHN ANDRE, an aide to General Howe, soon came to ask the Darraghs to move out so the general could expand his headquarters into their home. Lydia protested and won permission to stay in the house, so long as the British were able to use her parlor from time to time.
On December 2, 1777 the Darraghs were instructed to go to bed early & to remain there while the British held a top secret meeting.
Lydia snuck out of the bedroom & listened to the meeting. She learned the British planned to launch a surprise attack against General Washington two days later at whitemarsh, eight miles away. Lydia snuck back to bed & told no one what she'd heard.
The next day she got permission to cross British lines to get flour from a local mill & passed her information to a rebel officer she sought out before returning home. When the British arrived to launch their surprise attack near dawn on December 5, 1777 they found the rebels ready & waiting.
After four days of skirmishing the British gave up and returned to Philadelphia for the winter, knowing there was a spy in their midst.
"We were betrayed, for, on arriving near the encampment of General Washington, we found his cannon mounted, his troops under arms and so prepared at every point to receive us that we were compelled to march back, without injuring our enemy,
Like a Parcel of Fools."
- Major John Andre
After the battle, Major Andre questioned Lydia Darragh but accepted her assurances that she and her family had been asleep in their beds during the meeting.
Key member of the Culper spy ring in new York city, Believed responsible for discovering the treachery of benedict arnold.
The British based their operations in New York City for the duration of the war, so it was logical that a major rebel spy ring would operate there as well. The Culper Ring was made up of old friends and acquaintances of Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington's new intelligence chief. They used invisible ink and an elaborate numerical code system - among other tricks of the trade - to protect their communications.
"I Intend to visit 727 (c0de for New York) before long and think by the assistance of a 355 (code for lady) of my acquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all."
- letter from Abraham Woodhull to Tallmadge
Later in the war, Major John Andre (the same Major Andre as above) was placed in charge of British Intelligence. Major Andre was handsome and charming, could sing and paint, and he was considered the most eligible bachelor in the city, as he had been in Philadelphia. But his success on the social scene seems to have proved dangerous to him.
The Identity of Agent 355 has never been discovered
It's likely she was a young woman from a Tory household with easy access to the social circles of the British aristocracy, or maybe a servant to a Tory family frequented by Major Andre.
Major Andre's greatest intelligence success - possibly the greatest British intelligence success of the entire war - was the cultivation of the treachery of rebel General Benedict Arnold, who was willing to surrender the strategically vital fort at West Point to the British.
As final negotiations for the handover of the fort were being wrapped up, General Arnold insisted on a face-to-face meeting with a British officer. Major Andre was rowed ashore for the meeting from a British ship anchored in the Hudson, but the ship was fired upon during the meeting & withdrew downriver, leaving Major Andre behind & obliging him to walk back to British territory.
Major Andre was captured out of uniform behind American lines as he walked home after the meeting. He was hung as a spy several days later.
It's believed the intelligence that exposed the treachery of General Arnold, & which cost Major Andre his life, was provided by Agent 355.
Native Americans & the War for Liberty: Then & noW
Most Americans know the name of the Native American Tisquantum ("Squanto") & that he helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in the New World in 1620. Many have heard of Pocahontas, who helped the settlers in Virginia a few years earlier...
But after Squanto and Pocahontas, the next native names known by most Americans are probably Sitting Bull & Geronimo, two hundred & thirty years later, & 2,000 miles farther west.
General awareness of native history & culture is largely confined to the "Wild West" of John Wayne movies, & almost nothing is generally known about the customs & the lives of the native peoples of the northeast, or about their influence on the New American Republic that grew up in the shadow of their ancient traditions.
We must revisit & reclaim this lost past in order to protect our future
The profoundly intertwined issues of INEQUALITY & ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION ARE THE DEFINING CHALLENGES OF OUR AGE,
THEY ARE THE CURRENT BATTLEFIELD IN THE ONGOING WAR FOR LIBERTY & EQUALITY.
Native American help was essential to the rebel victory in the Revolutionary War.
Similarly, in the ongoing War for Liberty, I believe WE MUST RETURN TO NATIVE AMERICAN TRADITIONS OF EQUALITY & ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP, IF WE, AS A SPECIES, ARE TO SURVIVE.
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION REPRESENTS A TRAGIC TURNING POINT in the balance of power between the First Nations, the colonists, and the European powers.
In the northeast, the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy descended into civil war during the American Revolution. Two of the Six Nations backed the rebels, while the other four sided with their traditional allies, the British.
THOSE WHO BACKED THE BRITISH were driven from their lands by a scorched-earth campaign waged by the rebel army.
THOSE WHO BACKED THE REBELS lost almost everything during the war. As a reward for their sacrifice, every treaty & promise made to them was broken or forgotten, & they were soon driven from their land as well.
The "slightly alternative history" in the script is mostly that our story imagines a world in which all six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy make the crucial decision to back the rebel cause, & that they emerge from the war with their power not just intact but significantly increased.
How different might America - & the world - look in the present if a strong Native American power had been able to form an alliance with the most progressive of the rebels after the war, & to serve as a counterweight to the most aggressive & destructive of the colonial interests?
The last 300 years of extractive, predatory, & devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism, inequality, & Environmental destruction is an unsustainable historical aberration... In North America, it was preceded by thousands of years of human civilization that managed to live in relative equality, & in harmony with the natural world.
The script seeks to make visible that which has become invisible: to remind us of an alternative - & profoundly "American" - path back to a world that is more egalitarian & environmentally viable than the lonely & unsustainable world to which we have become accustomed.
symbols of liberty
Colonial culture had a profoundly confused relationship with Native Americans.
In the abstract, Native Americans were sometimes idealized as symbols of liberty & equality & natural dignity, or of a truly new world of possibility, as in the Massachusetts State Seal, below.
& the rebels who threw tea overboard in the Boston Tea Party dressed as Native Americans
although There's some disagreement as to why they did this. Some say it was because they wanted to show they were "American" now & no longer "British", Some that it was because Native Americans were specifically associated with a form of liberty superior to that of the European & colonial traditions of the time...
Some say the tea partiers were trying to blame the Mohawk for the crime, or that it was just a convenient disguise, but it's not clear that this would've been an especially effective way of concealing their identities or that it fooled the British into holding the Mohawk responsible.
Ben Franklin, among many others in colonial society, had extensive interaction with Native Americans, especially with the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, & he was impressed & inspired by what he saw, & by the enduring nature of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy & its governing structures.
But whatever symbolic meaning may have attached itself to the "idea" of Native Americans in colonial society - & however much native traditions may have inspired rebel conceptions of liberty - actual, living Native Americans were often attacked, cheated, & ultimately driven from their land, & they suffered terribly as the European presence expanded.
A Brutal History: First contact, Eastern Tribes, & the Great Dying
When Europeans first arrived in northeastern North America, they encountered thriving native societies whose citizens probably ate better, lived more comfortably, & enjoyed greater freedom & equality than the vast majority of the citizens of Europe.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK reports, in his book Mayflower, that the native diet included an enormous amount of protein and variety compared to a typical European diet of the era, and that on first contact the Puritans were shocked by the height and strength and robust health of the people of Massachusetts. Native houses were much easier to keep warm in winter and cool in summer, and an egalitarian tradition among the native people allowed an individual a far greater degree of autonomy, freedom of choice, and of dissent than was typical in Europe.
But the vast majority of these societies WERE CATASTROPHICALLY DESTABILIZED BY European intrusion.
European diseases & European greed quickly overwhelmed most native societies with which they came in contact.
In 1535, the French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew were the first Europeans to visit the island that is the present site of the city of Montreal. He reported they were welcomed into the village of Hochelaga, with more than a thousand inhabitants, and that
“The village is circular & is completely enclosed by a wooden palisade in three tiers like a pyramid… There are some fifty houses in this village, each about fifty or more paces in length, & twelve or fifteen in width, built completely of wood & covered in & bordered up with large pieces of bark & rind of trees, as broad as a table, which are well & cunningly lashed after their manner. And inside these houses are many rooms & chambers; & in the middle is a large space without a floor, where they light their fire & live together in common.”
When he returned six years later he was unable to find any sign of the village or its people.
The excellent Mohawk historian Darren Bonaparte argues they were probably weakened by disease, then driven off or absorbed by rivals or by friendly local tribes.
The same pattern was repeated over & over throughout the Americas, as native societies - which kept few domesticated animals & had no immunity to the diseases that spread when many humans & animals live in close association - came into contact with smallpox & other diseases which were endemic in Europe.
A new scientific study, released in March, 2019, argues that
native contact with European diseases throughout the Americas
led to the death of 90% of most native populations
and returned so many cultivated acres to wilderness that it actually led to CLIMATE CHANGE & may have exacerbated the Little Ice Age in the years following colonization .
Disease weakened the native populations to the point they were unable to resist the advance of European colonists, or to protect themselves from rival tribes who had not yet been overwhelmed by the plagues.
When disease was not sufficient to drive the native people from their land, the settlers used intimidation, legal pressure, violence, alcohol, treaties of dubious legality, & sometimes massacre to take the land they coveted.
By 1675, when war finally broke out between the Eastern tribes & the European colonists in King Phillip's War, there were probably just too many colonists & too few natives, & the war led to the downfall of the surviving eastern tribes.
The vast majority of those who were not killed were sold into slavery or scattered, taking refuge among more remote tribes or attempting to hide their native identities & disappear into colonial society.
Algonquian speaking tribes ranged up and down the east coast, from what are now Maine and New Brunswick to North Carolina. In the map above, the Algonquian tribes are shown in Orange, the Iroquoian speaking tribes in purple.
By the time of the American Revolution, most of the eastern Algonquian tribes had been swept away, & their land had been occupied by European settlers who now threatened the sovereignty & integrity of the Haudenosaunee confederacy.
The French & Indian War... & the Royal Proclamation of 1763
The French & Indian War (1754-1763) was a conflict between the colonial forces of France & Great Britain that raged along the borders of their north American territories for a decade, & which dragged many of their native allies into the fray.
From the earliest days of European contact, French & English forces had competed for access & alliances with the native societies in the northeast.
This unstable situation allowed the Haudenosaunee, who lived at the intersection of the French & English territories, to play the dangerous game of pitting one colonial power against the other in order to maintain Haudenosaunee autonomy and influence.
But the defeat of the French in 1763 made England the sole colonial power in the northeast & severely reduced the Haudenosaunee's leverage in negotiations.
Following the war, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 forbade colonial settlement beyond the Appalachian mountains & declared the land west of the mountains to be an indian reserve.
THE ENGLISH were trying to placate the native populations beyond the mountains and avoid the expense of maintaining a line of forts and a standing army along the border.
Many among the Haudenosaunee & other native groups viewed the Proclamation Line - & British power - as their best chance of maintaining their territory & autonomy.
But many colonists & colonial aristocrats - including George Washington - had already received or aspired to receive land grants in the now-prohibited territory.
They saw the Proclamation Line as a threat to their own property interests, as yet another unjust limitation on their liberty, & as further justification for rebellion.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy
At the time of the American Revolution, & for at least hundreds of years prior, the haudenosaunee confederacy was the most powerful native group in the northeast, & one of the most powerful in all of the Americas. They were feared as adversaries & desired as allies by the colonial powers, & their traditions & governing structures strongly influenced Ben Franklin & other rebel leaders.
The people of the Six Nations called themselves the Haudenosaunee, "People of the Longhouse".
Believed to have been established around 1150AD, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy brought together the previously warring Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, & Seneca tribes.
The Confederacy has been called the
OLDEST LIVING PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY IN THE WORLD
In the early 1700s the Tuscarora came north and joined the confederacy, which was now often known as the Six Nations.
The Six Nations home territories spread across almost all of what is now known as New York state, and into parts of Ontario, Quebec, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Beyond their home territories, their influence often extended hundreds of miles further.
Early French explorers asked their Abenaki allies what they called their western neighbors & the French version of the response is "Iroquois"... This is a bit like asking a baseball fan in Brooklyn what you call someone from Massachusetts: You'll get an answer, but it's probably not going to be a polite one, or one that would be well received in Boston.
The true meaning & origin of the word "Iroquois" is disputed, but one translation is that it means "real adders" or "rattlesnakes". Regardless of the ascribed meaning, many people in the community do not consider the term to be accurate or entirely appropriate... though it's still widely known & often used.
During the American Revolution, most of the Oneida & many Tuscarora chose to back the rebels, despite enormous pressure from the rest of the Six Nations & from the British.
They made their choice with full awareness that it might lead to disastrous consequences for their families, villages, & tribes... & for the survival of the Confederacy itself.
The Battle of Oriskany
One of the bloodiest battles of the American revolution, a crucial battle of the Saratoga Campaign, & the beginning of civil war among the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy
On August 2, 1777, British General St. Leger laid siege to rebel Fort Stanwix on his way to meet up with General Burgoyne near Albany.
On August 6, 1777, a rebel column of about 730 militia & sixty to one hundred Oneida warriors were ambushed by a loyalist force of about 500 Haudenosaunee & 200 militia as they advanced to relieve the fort.
The battle went on for hours, but hundreds of rebels were probably killed in the opening moments of the ambush. As the battle proceeded, the loyalist warriors would wait until their target had fired their musket, then attack them - often with tomahawk or spear - in the twenty to thirty seconds it took to reload. In this way many were killed, until the rebels were able to reorganize themselves late in the battle to fight in pairs, with one standing guard while the other reloaded.
There are reports the battle of Oriskany provoked a renaissance in the use of bow & arrow among the Oneida, with its much higher rate of fire & lack of vulnerability to attack while reloading.
Almost four hundred rebel militia & Oneida warriors died at Oriskany.
It is reported that less than a dozen British participants were killed, and around sixty-five loyalist Haudenosaunee were killed or wounded.
The battle is nonetheless counted by many as a strategic victory for the rebels, who stopped the advance of St. Leger's army & ultimately forced his retreat back to Canada.
A Place of Great Sadness
is how Oriskany is remembered in many Haudenosaunee histories. Here Mohawk & Seneca fought against their Oneida allies & broke a peace which had endured for centuries amongst the confederated nations.
This is the dire & dangerous situation faced by the native people of the northeast at the time of our story.
The following individuals all figure prominently in the script.
Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea)
Joseph Brant was the primary leader of the Mohawk tribe, & of the Loyalist Haudenosaunee.
The Mohawk were the most powerful and the eastern-most of the tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Joseph Brant spoke and wrote English extremely well and he had extensive experience and contact with the British hierarchies and colonial administrators.
Joseph Brant was also well traveled. In 1775-1776 he visited London and met with King George III and other British officials. During this trip he raised the issue of ongoing colonial encroachment on Haudenosaunee land, and received assurances from King George that this issue would be rectified upon the successful completion of the war with the colonists. The picture above was painted during his visit by English portraitist George Romney, the most fashionable artist of his day.
Joseph Brant also led the Loyalist Haudenosaunee forces at Oriskany. He appears in the script.
Molly Brant (Konwatsi'tsiaienni)
Molly Brant was Joseph's older sister, & she was the most powerful voice within the Haudenosaunee when discussing relations with the English & other foreign powers.
"One word from her is more taken notice of by the Five Nations than a thousand from a white man without exception."
-Daniel Claus, Loyalist Commisioner of Indian Affairs in Albany, NY
In 1759, in a traditional Mohawk ceremony, Molly Brant married Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies.
The couple had nine children together, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Molly was widely known and respected as the wife of Sir William - helping to run the household and involved in the events held there - and as a leader in her own right.
Molly Brant was also a force to be reckoned with. She was the source of intelligence on the rebel relief column marching to relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix.
The information she supplied to her brother Joseph & their English partners allowed them to lay the ambush that became the Battle of Oriskany, & the beginning of the Haudenosaunee civil war.
Skenandoa was a chief of the Oneida & a staunch ally of the American rebels. Like Colonel Louis Cook, it's possible that without the contribution of this one individual the War for Liberty would have failed.
He was originally a member of the Susquehannock tribe, an Iroquoian tribe to the south of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, but was absorbed into the Oneida in his youth and later elected a chief.
"There is no way now of estimating the value of Skenandoa’s services. It is even possible that if he had chosen differently, the Burgoyne campaign would have been successful & British power forever established over all of North America.
He was with Gen. Nicholas Herkimer on his march to the Battle of Oriskany. When Sir John Johnson, Walter Butler & Brant, the Mohawk, hung like a pestilence around the armies & settlements on the frontier, Skenandoa with 250 warriors ever kept a watchful eye upon their movements & gave warnings that often saved the Americans from ambush & massacre."
- Daughters of the American Revolution, 1912
Skenandoa was 6'5" tall and lived to be 110 years old. At the time of our story he was about 70 years old, the same age as Ben Franklin, and is said to have led many of the Oneida warriors at the battle of Oriskany. He figures prominently in our story.
Two Kettles together (Tyonajanegen) & Han Yerry Tewahangarahken
Oneida heroes of the Battle of Oriskany.
Han Yerry Tewahangarahken was a war chief of the Oneida. Two Kettles Together was his wife who fought beside him at Oriskany, along with their son, Cornelius. Han Yerry is described as being “too old for the service, yet used to go fearlessly into the fights”.
During the battle, Han Yerry was shot through the right wrist, preventing him from being able to load his gun, so Tyonajanegen loaded it then handed it to him as they rode through the battlefield.
A report from a newspaper of the time:
a friendly Indian, with his wife and son, who distinguished themselves remarkably on the occasion. The Indian killed nine of the enemy, when having receiving a ball through his wrist that disabled him from using his gun, he then fought with his tomahawk. His son killed two, and his wife on horseback, fought by his side, with pistols during the whole action, which lasted six hours
- Pennsylvania Journal & Weekly Advertiser, 3 September 1777
After the battle, Two Kettles Together rode to bring news of the engagement to local rebels and Native Americans. She may also have been the very first person to escape the besieged Fort Stanwix on August 2. She slipped past the loyalist forces surrounding the fort, made her way to a nearby Oneida village, found a horse, & rode to spread word of the British arrival.
Both Two Kettles Together and Han Yerry appear in the script.
the Boston Massacre - March 5, 1770
PAUL REVERE'S PRINT OF THE BOSTON MASSACRE is one of the most iconic images & one of the most effective pieces of propaganda from the period.
It's the first image at the top of this site because it so perfectly represents our understanding of the Revolutionary War, & because it so perfectly represents everything that's wrong with our understanding.
CRISPUS ATTUCKS was the leader of the group confronting the British soldiers, and he was the first of the five men to die when the shooting started. In Revere's image, Crispus Attucks may be the bleeding man in the bottom left, being stepped over by a man in a red vest.
Below, we see a later version of the same event, where several of Revere's factual errors has been corrected.
In this version Crispus Attucks is pictured front & center, at the moment of his death, & his racial identity has been returned to him.
CRISPUS ATTUCKS - the first man killed in the first skirmish of the War for Liberty - was the son of a black man & a Native American woman...
& HE WAS AN ESCAPED SLAVE
His father is believed to have been kidnapped from Africa and carried in chains to Massachusetts. His mother was a Natick or Nantucket Indian. Crispus escaped from slavery at the age of 27 and spent much of the next twenty years at sea on whaling ships.
Crispus Attucks was described as being dark skinned and six foot, two inches tall.
JOHN ADAMS went on to become the second President of the United States, and he was father of the sixth President. He successfully defended the British soldiers held responsible for the massacre, and he did it with a defense that sounds depressingly modern and familiar:
Adams described Crispus Attucks as someone
"whose very looks was enough to terrify any person."
Adams went on to describe the victims of the shooting as being inherently scary & suspect & implicitly deserving whatever they got because of the color of their skin or general lack of respectability. Adams argued that Attucks led
"a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes & molattoes, Irish teagues & outlandish jack tarrs,"
Meaning that Revere's image is wrong again, & that Crispus Attucks was only one of many African American & Native American participants in this first skirmish of the war.
INSULT TRANSLATION: "rabble" means a disorderly crowd or mob, but also refers to "the lowest class of people"; the urban dictionary says "saucy boys" means disobedient or good for nothing, and was used in this way by Shakespeare; "negroes" meant someone of African ancestry; "molattoes" meant someone of African ancestry mixed with another heritage, in this period often Native American; "Irish Teagues" is an anti-Irish insult; and "Jack Tarrs" refers to sailors.
And not to get too literal about the language, but
"Motley" is defined as "consisting of many different types that do not appear to go together", with a historical association especially with COLOR and the traditional multicolored costume of a jester...
So it's not too much of a reach to say that Adams was "slandering" these first victims of the American conflict with Britain by calling them lower class, disobedient, & guilty of "improper" mixing of the races.
From Adams' aristocratic perspective, he would have meant this as an insult,
but this is entirely the point...
our mixed race, non-aristocratic history is exactly what we are trying to reclaim.
De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelsetium - 1543
COPERNICUS BEGAN THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION & THE AGE OF REASON WITH THE PUBLICATION OF HIS MASTERWORK, KNOW IN ENGLISH AS:
"ON THE REVOLUTIONS OF THE HEAVENLY SPHERES"
In his book he argued that the Earth orbits around the sun, & not the other way around as was commonly believed at the time.
Copernicus had been polishing this theories for decades, but was only persuaded to publish the book a few months before his death.
His hesitation was in large part out of fear he'd be attacked by the Church for challenging their position that the Earth was at the center of creation. As it turned out, the book didn't provoke as much controversy as Copernicus feared, maybe because he died so soon after publication and because the book was dense and not widely read.
Most people comfortably carried on believing the Earth was the center of the universe for a few more generations.
But as the idea slowly advanced, the backlash came.
In 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy, in part because of his refusal to renounce the heliocentric view of Copernicus.
In 1616, the Inquisition banned the publication of Copernicus's book & others like it, & ordered Galileo Galilei to abandon any further advocacy in favor of the "foolish and absurd" view that the sun lay at the center of the universe.
In 1633, Galileo misjudged the tolerance of the Church for another book on the subject, & he was sentenced by the Inquisition to house arrest. He died - still under house arrest - in 1642, ninety-nine years after the death of Copernicus.
In the script, set almost two hundred & forty years after publication of De Revolutionibus,
Copernicus & Galileo are used as examples of the painstaking process by which "dangerous" new ideas gradually make their way into the mainstream: through constant exercise of the defining virtue of the modern age, the search for truth.
All of which goes directly to Professor Jason Stanley's third principle of fascism (from "Why Should I Care", above): Attack Truth.
Two hundred & forty years after our radical Declaration that certain truths are self-evident
the "dangerous" new ideas of our era are still LIBERTY & EQUALITY.
It's helpful to remember the generational process by which these truths have advanced as far as they have already, and to be reminded of our own role in moving them forward as much as we can in our time.
The script takes its name from Copernicus's book because a functioning democracy is only possible when truth is actively pursued & defended.
Truth is not a luxury.
MUSic of the (Heavenly) Spheres
Music will play a powerful role in the film, and the soundtrack should include elements from the diverse and powerful traditions of the era that overlap with our story. Celtic, Native American, European classical, and African musical traditions, as well as Franklin's Glass Armonica can all stand on their own artistically, and can also merge together and weave around one another as appropriate.
Music can serve to highlight the differences between the profoundly hierarchical and rule-bound society of King George's Court, and the generally less-inhibited societies it sought to control. The glass armonica can sound a lot like a rock and roll synthesizer, and it eventually provoked a similar backlash. Likewise, Celtic, African, and Native American music were considered "uncivilized" and dangerous by "polite" society (as they were when they re-emerged centuries later as "rock 'n roll"), and the power of these musical traditions can help us to feel and to viscerally understand the fundamental differences between these unconquered traditions and their would-be overlords.
Speaking personally, how amazing to be able to work with these fabulous raw materials - to be able to celebrate and combine and juxtapose these powerful traditions that form the basis for so much of what we consider to be "modern" music - in the context of telling our story? Musically, this story is amazingly rich.
FRANKLIN'S GLASS ARMONICA
"Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction."
~ Ben Franklin
Ben Franklin invented bifocals, the lightning rod, and the Franklin stove, among other many things, but his personal favorite invention was the glass armonica, built in 1761. Marie Antoinette learned to play it, and Franz Mesmer used it in his "treatments". Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss composed for it, and by the time of Franklin's death over 5,000 had been constructed.
But the instrument soon fell out of favor, partly out of fear that it could cause insanity in those who played or listened to it...
Since Franklin features in the story, it seems appropriate to include his favorite invention in the soundtrack.
The glass armonica lends itself well to soundtrack work and could blend well with other styles while still maintaining it's powerful and otherworldly sound. It would be interesting to construct a "GRAND ARMONICA" with larger bowls and maybe bowls made of brass or other materials in order to generate powerful or modulating bass tones.
Below is a more classical and probably familiar use of the instrument.
HAUDENOSAUNEE & NATIVE AMERICAN MUSICAL TRADITIONS
Drumming and dancing feature in the script, and the joyful, participatory tradition of the Haudenosaunee (and the Celts) is contrasted to the stiff formality of dance in the English court. This piece also features call and response, which is discussed below in relation to African traditions, and which is said to be a differentiating characteristic of the indigenous music of the eastern woodlands.
Dennis Yerry is a Haudenosaunee composer and musician who's work has been featured in soundtracks, recordings, and theatrical presentations. Native American flute music has a long tradition and could be well incorporated into this soundtrack, and also into collaborative pieces involving music from more than one tradition.
The video below is the trailer for the 2017 documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World". The movie makes the argument that Native American musical traditions, far from being eradicated, simply went underground, then re-emerged later at the heart of American popular music. An amazing documentary.
EUROPEAN CLASSICAL MUSIC
Henry Purcell was one of the most "English" of all composers and his music was popular at the time of our story. I've imagined his "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary" to be an integral part of the final battle scene. Specifically, I imagine the "March" with drum and trumpets that starts his piece to play as the final battle is about to begin, and then to transition into "In the Midst of Life We Are In Death" as the battle finally erupts. ("In the Midst of Life" is the second of his "sentences". It starts at 4 minutes 40 seconds in the video below and it's a beautiful bit of poetry and music, and I find the mix of faces in the video to be captivating.)
Allegri's "Miserere" is powerful and haunting and I've imagined this as another piece to play later during the final battle. (Crazy trivia I learned while researching the script: this piece was composed around 1638 and only three copies of the score were ever distributed, all to European aristocrats and church leaders, in order to control and limit the number of performances and to heighten the impact of those few performances that were permitted. Miserere was performed annually at the Sistine Chapel, and the story goes that in 1770 a fourteen-year-old Mozart heard one of these performances, then went back to his room and wrote the whole thing down from memory. He then went back and listened again that evening and made a couple of adjustments to his work. It was this copy - made from two listenings - that allowed the piece to be widely performed, starting just a few years before the time of our story.)
AFRICAN MUSICAL TRADITIONS
Call and Response is an ancient tradition of interactivity and democratic participation from Sub-Saharan African (and also from the Eastern woodlands of North America, see above), and it features in the script. The video below shows call and response and group dancing in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya.
Below, call and response singing and drumming in Ghana.
In the Ted Talk below, Chris Johnson explains how the banning of the African drum gave birth to "American Music", and he documents the pervasive presence of the drum in African American life, despite the ban... He also mentions in passing that the Brits banned bagpipes in the "British Isles" (starting in 1746, which drove many Scots to the relative freedom of the New World, and which also - ironically - may have encouraged some Scots to enlist in the British Army, where the playing of the pipes and the wearing of the kilt were permitted, and which will be part of our story as well).
TRADITIONAL CELTIC MUSIC
In the script, there's a scene in a tavern involving traditional Celtic music, and one of the heroes of our story plays fiddle. Celtic music can work well as part of an atmospheric soundtrack or as a prominent musical set piece. It would be wonderful to mix with the other traditions presented above.
Below, a couple tunes played with attitude by the Bothy Band.
And, finally, a semi-random tribute to the ability of the Irish to turn anything at all into an excuse for making music together: in this case a delayed flight... I accidentally lived in Ireland for two years back in the day and this kind of thing is a large part of why.