The Early Life of Atiatonharonkwen
The boy who came to be known as Chief Atiatonharonkwen and Colonel Louis Cook was born in 1737 in old Saratoga (modern Schuylerville) a small settlement on the Hudson River, 11 miles east of Saratoga Springs. His mother was an Abenaki Indian and his father was an African slave. Many years later he told an acquaintance that his Abenaki name was Nia-man-rigounant, and that it had something to do with a multi-colored bird.
There was an old fort in Saratoga in a sad state of disrepair, but the Governor of New York could not get the funds to fix it up, so he withdrew the troops that were stationed there. This left the town defenseless against an incursion of the French and their Kahnawake allies that took place in October of 1745.
Fort Saratoga and the surrounding settlement were burned to the ground, and the settlers that weren’t killed or burned to death in their houses were taken captive. French soldiers claimed the slaves, and the Kahnawake warriors claimed the Indians they found. Because he looked more African than Indian, one of the soldiers grabbed our little hero. His mother cried out that he was her son. The Kahnawake warriors intervened, and he was allowed to stay with his mother. They were taken to Kahnawake where they were adopted into the tribe. This was probably when he got the name Atiatonharonkwen, a Mohawk name that translates as either “He pulls the people down” or “He unhangs himself from the group.”
The mother of Atiatonharonkwen died in the years after their arrival in Kahnawake, so the priest of the mission persuaded him to live with him and serve as his atttendant.
As Eleazer Williams wrote,
Here Lewis acquired the french language of which he spoke with ease. He grew up pretty much as other Indians Boys of the place. He was early discovered as having inquisitive mind. In his youth he was often seen in councils to hear the orators of the day and to learn the object of their deliberations. From these councils, he often said [in] his old age, that “he learned the Lessons of [wisdom].”
When the French and Indian War erupted in 1754, he was in his teens and old enough to go to war. We can safely assume that he did so in the war paint and attire of his Kahnawake brothers. The presence of a young warrior who looked more African than Indian was nothing unusual among the Indians, who regularly took in escaped slaves or slaves they captured on raids. They joined the many white captives that were taken from New England, who were also known to paint up like their Indian brothers to the point that they were indistinguishable.
Williams tells us that Atiatonharonkwen was one of the warriors who defeated Braddock on the Monongahela, scouted for the French at Lake George, was injured in a skirmish with Roger’s Rangers near Lake Champlain, was present at the taking of Oswego, defended Carillon against Abercrombie, and was in Quebec for the conquest. Basically, he was Magua in The Last of the Mohicans.
When the war ended, he resumed the life of a hunter. He got married and started a family. We don’t hear much about him until the American Revolution. He was unable to reconcile himself to English rule, so he took an interest in the affairs of the thirteen colonies and ventured among them to see for himself what all of the commotion was about.
His initiative earned him an audience with General George Washington and an appearance before the Massachusetts House of Representatives where he shared intelligence about efforts of the British to win over Kahnawake and the other members of the Seven Nations of Canada. This was in 1775. In January of 1776, he visited Washington again with a dozen warriors, which is mentioned in Washington’s writings:
On Sunday evening, thirteen of the Caughnawaga Indians arrived here on a visit. I shall take care that they be so entertained during their stay, that they may return impressed with sentiments of friendship for us, and also of our great strength. One of them is Colonel Louis, who honored me with a visit once before.
Three days later, Washington wrote to General Philip Schuyler about the visit of Atiatonharonkwen and his Kahnawake delegation:
They have, notwithstanding the treaty of neutrality which I find they entered into with you the other day … signified to me a desire of taking up arms in behalf of the united colonies. The chief of them who, I understand, is now the first man of the nation, intends, as it is intimated, to apply to me for a commission, with the assurance of raising four or five hundred men, when he returns.
He may have exaggerated his standing at Kahnawake to impress General Washington. Instead of 500 men, he could probably only count on the 12 men who were with him at the moment, and even that isn’t certain. Somehow his gambit worked. Washington chose to grant his wish for a commission. In 1779, his nickname “Colonel Louis” became official when he was made a lieutenant-colonel in the Continental Army. By then the bulk of his people were fighting on the side of Great Britain, and he was leading Oneida and Tuscarora warriors instead!
Atiatonharonkwen’s record in the American Revolution is just as notable as his record in the French and Indian War, but much better documented. For instance, he was with the American forces that were ambushed by British troops and warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy at Oriskany Creek in August of 1777, and is mentioned in one of the popular accounts of the battle:
A private soldier named Louis, a rough and daring old hunter who, after the Indian fashion, carried his knife and tomahawk with him, became so much excited in the heat of the battle, that one of his comrades occupying a tree next to him, asked him, ‘Louis, what is the matter?’ ‘Matter enough,’ said Louis, ‘there is one of the black serpents lying in the fork of a fallen tree and every time he rises up he kills one of our men. I can stand it no longer; either he or I must die.’ As he said this he raised his rifle and fired. The Indian leaped into the air and fell dead across the fork of a tree which had sheltered him. Louis gave a wild Indian whoop and then ran up to his victim.-tore off his scalp and, returning to his comrades, threw it down before them, saying: ‘That fellow will do no more harm.’
In March of 1778, General Philip Schuyler gave Atiatonharonkwen an assignment that shows just how much confidence the American military put in this man:
I have engaged Louis, commonly called Colonel Louis a friendly Caghnawaga and [ ] of sense & Enterprize who is going into Canada by the way of Aswegatchie with three or four trusty Oneidas to burn if possible the Enemy’s Vessels on Ontario if not to attempt the Destruction of those at St. John’s and have promised a thousand Dollars in Species as a Reward if the one or the other is accomplished.
Don’t let all the scalping and whooping and burning ships fool you. Colonel Louis Cook was also a man of refinement, as he demonstrated at Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. A young Frenchman named Peter Stephen Du Ponceau came upon him in the woods one morning, dressed in his officer’s uniform, and singing a French opera song!
One of his assignments in the war was to keep an eye on the activities of Captain Joseph Brant, a Mohawk in the British service; just as one of Brant’s assignments was to keep an eye on him. They became mortal enemies during the war and were both present at Oriskany. Their hatred carried on after the war, when they both got involved in land sales to the Americans and blamed each other when things exploded in the 1790’s. These controversial dealings are the reason why our kids don’t run around with Colonel Louis Cook and Joseph Brant action figures to this day…well, that and the fact that nobody has ever made any.