Col. Louis Cook: Operatic Abenaki, US Patriot, Devoted Catholic

Valley Forge Louis Cook Abenaki Trumbull 1785

During the cold winter months of February 1778, a 17-year-old Frenchman named Peter Du Ponceau joined the soldiers at the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, encampment of Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army. Du Ponceau had arrived with Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a former Prussian military officer who had volunteered to serve in the army and train Washington’s soldiers much like professional European soldiers.

The young Frenchman, who also knew how to speak German, English and Italian, was acting as a translator for von Steuben in his new role. Several years later, in 1781, Du Ponceau became a citizen of Pennsylvania; and after the war, he became a lawyer. In 1836, he wrote some letters about his time at Valley Forge, including one particularly interesting story that occurred sometime before the British evacuated Philadelphia June 18, 1778, and the Continental Army left Valley Forge in pursuit.

One morning, while out for a walk before breakfast, Du Ponceau heard a voice singing a fashionable French opera song. In his own words, Du Ponceau wrote: “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 be a supernatural voice, such as I had never heard before, and yet melodious and in perfect good taste. I thought myself for a moment at the Comedie Italienne and was lost in astonishment …”

There, in the woods of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, amid the awful mess that had been the winter encampment of Washington’s Continental Army, was “a tall Indian figure in American regimentals” with “two large epaulettes on his shoulders” singing French opera…

Read the full article in the National Catholic Register.

Advertisements

Benjamin Gleason and Those Bothersome Canadian Indians

benjamin-gleason-headstone-bennett-cemetery-dummerston-vt

The headstone of Mr. Benjamin Gleason, early settler of Dummerston (then Fulham). In the Bennett Cemetery on Schoolhouse Rd, E. Dummerston, VT.

Benjamin Gleason was an early settler of Fulham/Fullum (now known as Dummerston), Vermont. He was born in 1745 in Framingham, MA – the same year that Nehemiah Howe was captured by Abenaki raiders on Putney Great Meadows just a few miles north of Dummerston. These were the early days of what is often called King George’s War (1744-1748), part of the European War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), and the third of the four so-called French and Indian Wars. Benjamin was one of the four sons of Sgt. Isaac and Thankful (Wilson) Gleason, later of Petersham, MA. He came to Westmoreland, NH, just across the Connecticut River, with his brothers when he was a young man and lived between both there and Dummerston for the rest of his life.

He married Mary Cole (circa 1775), who was born directly across the Connecticut River, on Canoe Meadow in Westmoreland, NH, eldest daughter of Jonathan and Edith (Davis) Cole. Her birth was sometime before 1764, in the blockhouse her father, Deacon Jonathan built as protection for the family and neighbors because, the record states, “in the early days of the settlement he was often annoyed by the Indians.”  Benjamin and Mary Gleason eventually had nine or ten children, depending on your sources. Benjamin was present in Westmoreland in March of 1776, when the roll call was taken of “all males above twenty-one years of age (lunatics, idiots, and negroes excepted)” and the Association Test of loyalty to the Revolutionary cause was administered. Benjamin ended up serving in the American Rebellion and his gravesite bears a veteran’s marker; his father Sgt. Isaac had served many years in the last French and Indian War, at Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Fort Duquesne.

In the History of Dummerston is this striking anecdote:

Benjamin Gleason, a pensioner, served in the army 7 years. He was born in 1745, lived in this town many years, and died Oct.23, 1823, aged 78. Nothing can be ascertained about his long experience in war; but we met with one old gentleman, who told us the following story of his killing an Indian:

The Indians had come down the Connecticut valley, from Canada for the purpose of destroying the property of the whites and taking them prisoners. Gleason was an object of their search; but he was vigilant, and managed to escape into the forest, on the approach of the savages. His place of retreat was soon discovered; and with the intention of capturing him alive, an Indian came toward him looking very good-natured, and for the purpose of deception, came toward him pretended that he was going to shake hands, saying, as he walked along, “Sagah?” “Sagah?” in English how are you? how are you? “I’ll Sagah you,” said Ben and instantly shot him dead. The Indians were greatly enraged, on finding their comrade dead; but Gleason was too cunning for the red men, and was never made their prisoner.

I bounced this apocryphal story – the only reference I have ever found to the Abenaki language in the local settler’s history record, other than names – over to one of my language coaches and a fluent speaker of Western Abenaki, Jesse Bruchac. Jesse’s insightful reading is as follows: Very cool! Could be two things, saagat means “I’m sorry” and sagiljandi means “shake hands”.

It almost goes without saying that this strange tale, passed down in the community and originally related, no doubt, by the protagonist himself – Benjamin Gleason – may have more than one truth behind it. Dead men tell no tales and history is written by the victor. Without witnesses a story is simply hearsay, or perhaps better described as “I will say what I want you to hear.”

Sources:

  • History of Cheshire and Sullivan Counties, New Hampshire, J.W. Lewis & Co., 1886.
  • Gazetteer of Cheshire County, NH, 1736-1885, Hamilton Child, 1885.
  • History of the Town of Dummerston: the First Town Settled by Anglo-Saxon Descendants, David Lufkin Mansfield, 1884.
  • Western Abenaki Facebook discussion group.