Self-determination and survival: these were the factors that drove the actions of Indigenous peoples of eighteenth century colonial frontiers. Yet the ways in which they navigated the wars of their time were far more diverse than standard histories of the American Revolution typically confer. Though a close read of Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook’s involvement—from childhood to…
The American Revolution, much like most of American history, is commonly considered a white people’s narrative.[i] Broadly framed, it is a story of Europe and European-descended people fighting against oppression from an unjust European government told by Europeans and Americans of European descent. Within this narrative, Indigenous people and other non-Europeans exist only as a help or a hindrance to the European goals of invasion and colonization.[ii] As such, this narrative is disingenuously exclusive. Thank you, Humanities New York, for creating an opportunity for the contributors to this project to reveal the ethnic diversity inherent in our understanding of this important chapter in the American founding.
The history of the American Revolution is not a simple narrative populated exclusively by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Instead, it contains a multiplicity of intersectional identities and corresponding motivations. Increased representation of various identities within the narrative leads to a more nuanced and historically complete understanding of the past which, when acknowledged, strengthens our understanding of the present.[iii] Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook’s participation in King George’s War, the French and Indian War, as well as the American Revolution all highlight the complexities of Haudenosaunee involvement in European conflicts on Indigenous land as well as intra-confederate political and military conflict within the Haudenosaunee Confederation.
There is a general assumption among many students of the American Revolution that everyone who fought was fighting in support of or against American Patriots. Many believe that the war can only be understood when seen through the lens of advancing European conquest and colonization. They assume that Indigenous allyship resulted either from European/European-descended leaders putting their political goals on to Indigenous people, who, in turn, willingly accepted this as their raison d’être or that, in taking on allyship, Indigenous people willingly subjugated their own political goals. Neither is true. It’s the complexity of human motivation that in times of war people fight or abstain from fighting to preserve or extend their own political influence: their control over people and land. That this was the case on eighteenth-century colonial frontiers should not come as a surprise.
Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook was born into an Abenaki community at Saratoga (in what is now New York State), then adopted into the Mohawk community at Kahnawake (a French Jesuit mission to the Mohawks, now a Mohawk territory in Quebec, Canada) and finally came to live at Akwesasne (a Mohawk territory straddling the US-Canadian border and the Canadian Ontario-Quebec border). His story stands as a fascinating example of Indigenous self-determination and survival. Studying his life affords us insight into the larger and more complex histories of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse aka the Iroquois) Confederacy, the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (the People of the Flint aka the Mohawk Nation). Cook’s life experience also presents examples of Indigenous agency and survival played out against a backdrop of European politics, religion and racism on the eighteenth-century colonial frontier.
Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook was a Mohawk Patriot. Within what American historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes as the “consensual national narrative” Mohawks are most commonly described as Loyalists.[iv] Explanations of Mohawk involvement focusing on Mohawk-Loyalist allyship while ignoring the Mohawk-Patriot counterpart are incomplete. They account neither for Mohawk agency nor do they consider the Mohawk imperative of surviving European invasion and colonization. Just as general discussions of African American participation in the American Revolution are inevitably framed by the Loyalist artifacts of Dunmore’s Proclamation (1775) and the Book of Negroes (1783), the liberty of Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) would seem only to be achievable as the result of an American colonial defeat. Situating BIPOC exclusively on the “losing side” of the American Revolution justifies their exclusion (and their descendants’ exclusion) from the spoils of victory, historically setting aside the creation of the Early Republic as a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon space as well. And it wasn’t. For Haudenosaunee warriors, the fight was not for Patriot or Loyalist liberty, but for Mohawk liberty.
Like his Loyalist Mohawk counterparts, Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook, a Mohawk of African descent who was first a French—and later an American—ally, fought to secure liberty for himself and his people and to protect the land, including in his own stake in it. Due to his Patriot allyship, in the years after the war it was untenable for Atiatonharónkwen to return to his life in Kahnawake; he was forced first to establish a new home among the Oneidas and later in among the St. Regis in Akwesasne.
Nia-man-rigounant (Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook) as a Child Abandoning Land, Securing Liberty: King George’s War (1744–1748)
In 1737, Nia-man-rigounant was born to an Abenaki/Mohegan mother and an African father in what is now known as Schuylerville, New York, a neighborhood of Saratoga.[v] In 1745 the French and their Indigenous allies raided Saratoga killing 30 people and capturing between 60 and 100 others, including Nia-man-rigounant and his family. Captain Louis de La Corne mistook the young boy for a slave, using the nine-year-old’s appearance as justification. Was it the boy’s skin color? His facial features? His hair texture? The record is silent on this. Whatever it was, it was enough for La Corne to exclaim in French, “He is Negro, and he is mine.”[vi] It may have been the first time his African ancestry was used against him, but it would not be the last. His mother objected in Abenaki language shouting, “He is my child!” It was only when she appealed to La Corne’s Mohawk allies that La Corne relinquished his claim. Then Nia-man-rigounant and his mother followed the Iroquois band to the French Catholic Mission of Sault-Saint-Louis, present-day Kahnawake.
At Kahnawake, Mohawks adopted Nia-man-rigounant and he became Atiatonharónkwen. It was here, I imagine, he learned French and where he “converted” to Catholicism. After his mother died, a Jesuit missionary persuaded young Atiatonharónkwen to accept a position as an acolyte. His conversion seems to have been more of a cultural accommodation than a spiritual transformation. While Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook was known to prefer Catholicism to other forms of Christianity, he did not adhere to all dogmas and was “liberal to other religious sects.” An intellectual and mature young man, he spent his free time gathering both knowledge and wisdom from Mohawk elders and French priests as they spoke in council meetings.
Nia-man-rigounant’s mother exchanged her connection to the land and a war-torn life in Saratoga for a more stable one in Kahnawake. Her son of African descent became Atiatonharónkwen, a Mohawk who converted to Catholicism to secure his liberty.
Atiatonharónkwen Protecting Haudenosaunee Territory in Colonial New France and New England: The French and Indian War (1755–1763)
Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook joined the French and Indian War at its very beginning in 1755. The 18-year-old was heavily involved with the fighting around Lake George, Ticonderoga, and Fort William Henry. He joined in the Battle of Lake George in September 1755, holding his own in a clash with Roger’s Rangers, which strengthened his reputation as a “warrior of the first order” who excelled in “courage and bravery.”[vii] At the Battle of the Monongahela in July of that same year, Atiatonharónkwen and other French-allied Haudenosaunee warriors defended Fort Duquesne from the attacks of General Edward Braddock’s troops, who consisted of the English regulars, colonial militias, and Indigenous allies. Atiatonharónkwen distinguished himself by saving the life of a French officer.
In 1756 Atiatonharónkwen joined with General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm’s forces and contributed to French victories in the Battles of Fort Ontario and Fort Oswego. In July 1758 Atiatonharónkwen took command of a small party of Haudenosaunee warriors for the first time. Fighting under Montcalm, the small group with fewer than 3,600 French troops stood against 7,000 British regulars and 10,000 colonial troops. After the French victory, both General Montcalm and Chevalier de Levy praised Atiatonharónkwen as a “good soldier for the French and a brave warrior for the Indians.”[viii]
The next year—on September 13, 1759—the French were defeated in Quebec. The English victory in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Montcalm’s death, and the French failure to retake Quebec the following year broke Atiatonharónkwen’s spirit. An English victory signaled a certain end to Mohawk (certainly French-allied Mohawk) liberty. Unlike the French, the English were committed to permanent occupation of traditional Haudenosaunee territories, putting French-allied Indigenous nations in competition with English land speculators and settlers over land and other resources. A staunch French ally, Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook never accepted life under the English government.
Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook Allies Himself with American Colonists: The Interwar Years (1763–1774)
Between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook met with Gen. Schuyler and John Bleeker in Albany. His visits allowed him to stay abreast of English colonial politics. By 1775, Cook had allowed three events to influence his decision to join other Kahnawake Mohawks and ally with the rebelling American colonists. All occurred between the end of the French and Indian War and the start of the American Revolution: Pontiac’s War (1763–1766), Parliament’s decision to draw the Proclamation Line of 1763, and Parliament’s attempts to tax North American colonists led to a sharp break in the relationship between American colonists and England.
In Pontiac’s War the members of the Western Confederacy continued the fight begun in the French and Indian War, but this time without overt French assistance.The Western Confederacy did not alter their military and political goals of pushing the English out and regaining control of the contested Ohio River Valley. There are no sidekicks in history. The two aforementioned goals are the reasons Indigenous nations had joined with each other and the French against the English in the first place—not to benefit the French, but to work with them in pursuit of a shared goal. Parliament drew the Proclamation Line of 1763 as a cost-saving measure because they did not have the troops (and finances) to fight the Western Confederacy and to control the influx of land-hungry colonists prepared to squat on the lucrative land claims of wealthy English land speculators. Many colonists read the act as a blatant attempt to deny them access to their hard-won spoils of victory. Additionally, Parliament decided to tighten its economic control over the colonies by closing the loopholes in old tariffs while simultaneously creating new taxes. The income was intended to both support English regulars against Pontiac’s Western Confederacy and to pay down the debt incurred fighting the French and Indian War (1763–1774). When Parliament taxed its American colonies to negate the cost of the war, the colonists protested; they formed committees of correspondence and they boycotted English goods. One act was particularly telling: the Boston Sons of Liberty blackened their faces and dressed as Mohawk warriors the night they dumped English tea in Boston Harbor.[ix]
Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook was as aware of these events as any of the colonists outside of Boston were, proclaiming about the Patriots:
The King of England would make slaves of them, and their country as a nursery to keep up the strength of his army & navy and as a treasury to enrich his kingdom. To these they will never submit—their cause is a good cause, and they will be victorious.[x]
Atiatonharónkwen argued that their fight to retain their God-given control over themselves, their people, and their property (including their land) was a just one. The colonists would never allow the unjust English king to conquer them and use their land and natural resources to facilitate his imperial goals. Atiatonharónkwen understood their position. Afterall, wasn’t this the reason the Kahnawake Mohawks had joined with the French and fought against the English in the last war?
Atiatonharónkwen as Patriot and Rebel Mohawk: The American Revolution (1775–1783)
The idea that Haudenosaunee peoples would fight to the death over whether Americans achieved liberty centers European problems within a Haudenosaunee narrative. This approach implies that the struggles and sacrifices that brought about the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace pale in the face of the American Revolution. It did not. Once again, there are no sidekicks in history. Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook’s commentary on the American rebels’ reasons reveals motivations which he shares. He and other Haudenosaunee fought to defend their own liberty, land, self-determination, and survival. Sometimes they fought on opposite sides or not at all in pursuit of the same goal. We can also see Cook’s changing connections to liberty, loss, and land can be seen in his relationships with General George Washington, Rev. Samuel Kirkland, the Oneidas, Thayendanegea Joseph Brant, and Degonwadonti Molly Brant.
In 1775, and again in 1776, Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook traveled as part of a Kahnawake delegation to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet with the Patriot leadership. Unsurprisingly, Cook was hard at work building a diplomatic relationship between Kahnawake leaders and American rebel leadership. American colonists had been a part of the English forces who fought against Kahnawake Mohawks and other French-allied Indigenous warriors during the French and Indian War. Cook had witnessed colonists’ negative and at times violent reactions to the Proclamation Line of 1763 and Parliament’s attempts to close the loopholes in existing tariffs and introduce new taxes. He now saw the American rebels as a breed apart from the Kahnawakes’ British enemies during the French and Indian War. Between 1763 and 1775, American colonists had become dissatisfied with Parliament’s political, economic, and military decisions. They now had more in common with France’s Indigenous allies, the Kahnawakes among them.
When Cook met with the newly appointed Commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington, on August 4, 1775, he was nearly 40 years old. Washington had agreed to the meeting on the recommendation of Colonel Bayley of Coos, who had described these Haudenosaunees as “favorable.” They had rejected the Grand Council’s decision to remain neutral, British General Guy Carleton’s attempts to persuade them to side with the English and now considered allying themselves with American rebels.[xi] The Kahnawake delegation brought valuable military information about Carlton’s troop and naval strength. As a token of respect and gratitude, Washington gave Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook a silver pipe that became one of his most prized possessions.[xii]
When the Kahnawake delegation returned to Cambridge six months later, Cook lobbied for an officer’s commission. He argued that making him an officer would show the rest of the Haudenosaunees that the Americans viewed them as respected partners capable of influencing military strategy. Akiatonharókwen fought as part of the Oneida contingent in the Battle of Oriskany during late summer 1777 and joined the Oneidas at Valley Forge for the Continental winter encampment of 1777–78. He also acted as a spymaster.[xiii] In 1778 he was tasked with collecting intel on the activities of the British in general and the pro-British Mohawk warrior Thayendanegea Joseph Brant in particular. The two men were well aware of each other and there was no love lost between them.[xiv]
In 1780 the Second Continental Congress awarded Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook a Lieutenant Colonel of the Calvary’s commission for his service to the American people.[xv] He retired to Oneida territory in 1783, but a year later moved to St. Regis (Akwesasne), obviously preferring it to Kahnawake as it was on the American side of the border. Atiatonharónkwen’s position was exceptional: due to his rank, he received military grants in land from the State of New York and a “land tract” from the Oneidas, as well as several sums at different times from the federal government. Cook was unique; other Kahnawakes did not fare as well. Unlike with the Oneidas, the US Congress had “made no special provision” for the Kahnawakes, “who had so nobly volunteered in the American Cause were left to find a home where they could.” In many cases they were left homeless and destitute by the US government.[xvi]
Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook was a Mohawk of African descent. The highest-ranking Indigenous member of the Continental Army, Lieutenant Colonel Cook was a Mohawk Patriot. Yet while he declared the Patriot’s cause just, he allied himself with the rebelling European colonists for his own reasons. In securing his land and liberty, Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook (like other Haudenosaunees) joined with the allies forces that would aid him in achieving his and his communities’ goals. There are no sidekicks in history.
Students of the American Revolutionary period can better understand Mohawk rationales behind their decisions to form, break, or maintain alliances with Europeans or European colonists by acknowledging the concepts of Indigenous agency and self-determination. Although Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook stood in direct opposition to Thayendegea Joseph Brant, they shared the same goals: survival and persistence. Atiatonharónkwen Louis Cook believed that American independence would assure Mohawk independence. The actions of both Cook and Brant illustrate an Indigenous commitment to the tenets of agency and self-determination that continue to this day.
Melissane Schrems is Chair and Associate Professor of the History department, and coordinator of the Native American Studies, at St. Lawrence University, where she has taught since receiving her doctorate in History from Boston University 2003. Schrems is both an academic and a public historian, and teaches American and United States history focusing on the European discovery/invasion and continued colonization of present-day North America and the English-speaking Caribbean. Schrems was previously the MacAllaster Professor of North Country Studies (2018–21) and currently serves as the Native American Student Alliance Faculty Advisor, SLU AAUP President, and a Black Laurentian Initiative Grant Review Committee Member. She has served on the board of Directors of the Fort de La Presentation Association (Ogdensburg, NY), and has worked as a consultant with the Shelburne Museum (Shelburne, VT).
[i] Land acknowledgement: Saint Lawrence University in Canton, NY, occupies the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee (the People of the Longhouse)/Iroquois Confederacy. The United States is granted continued claim to this territory by the confederated nations (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka “the People of the Flint”/Mohawk, Onyota’a:ka “the People of the Upright Stone”/Oneida, Onondagaono “the Hill Place People”/Onondaga, Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ “the People of the Great Swamp”/Cayuga, Onongawaga “the People of the Great Hill”/Seneca, and Skarureh “the People of the Hemp”/Tuscarora) through a diplomatic relationship beginning with the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794. While this acknowledgement is not enough to honor the people and the land, its purpose is to promote the visibility of Indigenous peoples and raise awareness of their suppressed histories.
[ii] Note about word usage: I use “Indigenous” rather than “Indian.” Please consider those terms as interchangeable in understanding this essay. To make Indigenous identities more accessible within the historical narrative, I use the Indigenous names of Indigenous people first, followed by their European names, and deviate from this treatment only when it is clear that they have set that first name aside through adoption. I write the word “negro” only when quoting historical sources.
[iii] “Intersectionality” is a term used in describing the various social, economic, and religious identities that a single person or group represents.
[iv] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 2.
[v] Barbara Graymont, “Atiatoharongwen,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. V, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 16, 2022, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/atiatoharongwen_5E.html.
[vi] Darren Bonaparte, “Louis Cook: A French and Indian Warrior,” [The People’s Voice, September 16, 2005] Wampum Chronicles, accessed February 18, 2022, https://www.wampumchronicles.com/frenchandindianwarrior.html.
[vii] Eleazar Williams, The Life of Colonel Louis Cook,[the Papers of Franklin B. Hough, New York State Archives, (c. 1851)] transcribed by Darren Bonaparte, Wampum Chronicles, accessed March 7, 2022, https://www.wampumchronicles.com/colonellouis.html.
[viii] Williams, The Life of Colonel Louis Cook.
[ix] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 2.
[x] Williams, The Life of Colonel Louis Cook.
[xi] Colin G. Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 223.
[xii] Darren Bonaparte, “Louis Cook: A ‘Colonel’ of Truth?”, [The People’s Voice, September 23, 2005] Wampum Chronicles, accessed February 18, 2022, http://www.wampumchronicles.com/coloneloftruth.html.
[xiii] Williams, The Life of Colonel Louis Cook.
[xiv] Darren Bonaparte, “Missions of Atiatonharongwen,” [The People’s Voice, October 7, 2005] Wampum Chronicles, accessed February 22, 2022, http://www.wampumchronicles.com/missionsofatiatonharongwen.html. After the American Revolution, Brant threatened Cook’s life and sent men to Akwesasne to make good on that threat, but that’s another story.
[xv] Williams, The Life of Colonel Louis Cook.
HNY’s “Land, Liberty, and Loss” series is supported by “A More Perfect Union,” a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities designed to demonstrate and enhance the critical role the humanities play in our nation, and to support projects that help Americans commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.