During the winter encampment at Valley Forge, as thousands of men huddled around drafty wooden cabins, with dwindling supplies, and battled boredom and disease, a relief effort was organized hundreds of miles away.
George Washington, ensconced at the Potts House in the heart of the Valley Forge encampment, was very aware of the dire straights that his forces were exposed to. Throughout the winter he sent missives, directly and through intermediaries, discreetly asking for more aid, for supplies, for changes to military bureaucracy. He even consented to a delegation of congressmen to visit Valley Forge and see first-hand the situation in the winter of 1777-1778.
In a proverbial sense, he did not leave any stone unturned to try and ease the plight of his forces or continue to stay abreast of British designs, less than twenty-miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After hearing of the contributions of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras at the Battle of Oriskany in New York, Washington sent a letter of invitation for the Native Americans to visit his army. Approximately 50 warriors along with supplies made the few hundred mile journey from upstate New York to eastern Pennsylvania. They left their villages on April 25 and arrived on May 15,1778 in Valley Forge. The leaders of the Oneida party dined with Washington. Five days later some of the warriors participated in the engagement at Barren Hill under the Marquis de Lafayette. Six of the warriors gave their life in service to their ally.
In 2007 historian Joseph T. Glatthaar published a book about the Oneidas and their contributions to the American victory in the war. The title, in part, is Forgotten Allies. A fitting testament to the service and sacrifice this tribe underwent in their partnership with the fledgling American nation.
If the Oneidas were the “forgotten allies” than in the winter encampment at Valley Forge there was a forgotten woman that tramped south with her fellow Oneidas. Her name was Polly Cooper.
Along with the warriors, whom Washington wanted to serve as scouts, the Oneidas brought much needed supplies, including bushels of white corn. While the leaders dined at the Potts House, Cooper established a de-facto cooking show. She handed out the white corn to the soldiers and taught them how to use husks to make soup and ground grain to make it palatable.
This much needed food sources, along with an improved supply chain under quartermaster Nathanael Greene rounded out the bleak winter with the glimmer of hope for better supplies in the upcoming campaign season.
The Oneida, including Polly Cooper for her services, refused any and all payment. Friends help friends in need is what the Oneida told Washington and his officers. However, a tradition exists in the history of the Oneida nation. That story, passed down orally from generation to generation, highlights that Marth Washington, in her gratitude for what Polly Cooper did for the rank-and-file of the Continental army, presented the Oneida heroine with a shawl and bonnet.
Another account reads that Cooper was gifted a black shawl that she saw for sale in a store window. The Continental Congress appropriated the money for the clothing item and gifted it as their thanks to her. This shawl is still in the ownership of her descendants and has been loaned to the Oneida cultural center from time to time.