Thursday, January 8, 2015

Exotic Visitors: "the last of the Mohicans" Come to England, 1766

by Jacqui Reiter

An unexpected visit 
 
The summer of 1766 was especially wet. The five children of British politician William Pitt were staying at the seaside town of Weymouth for their health, but the relentless rain kept them from doing much sea-bathing.

The children had been in Weymouth less than a week before an unexpected adventure broke the rain-sodden monotony. On 24 July, four men and three women from the Wappinger tribe of Mohecannuk in New York landed at Weymouth after a month-long journey across the Atlantic. Edward Wilson, the Pitt children's tutor, described what happened:
A message came from the Chiefs themselves to inform the Ladies & Gentlemen [Hester, John, Harriot, William, and James Pitt] that if they had known that any of Mr Pitt's family was in town they wou'd have paid their respects to them first; and that now they wou'd absolutely see nobody till they had done themselves that honour ... At their coming into the room, the Chief of the Mohecaunnuck [sic] Tribe made a speech to Master Pitt [nine-year-old John, the eldest son] in the Indian tongue, & at the conclusion, presented him with a written translation of it in English.[1]

The seven natives made a tremendous impression on the Pitt children, who ranged in age from ten and a half to six and had never travelled far from home. Their mother, in London, could well imagine "the surprise of honest little John at being so extraordinarily addressed ... an odder event I think cou'd not well happen".[2] At least two of the children, Hester and William, wrote letters about it to their parents (seven-year-old William's was in Latin), and the other three probably did so too. "We found by talking to them that they had Christian names the same as the English," Hester wrote to her mother.[3]

The Mohecannuk of Stockbridge

 
Statue of Daniel Nimham by Michael Keropian (Wikimedia Commons)

The "Christian names" of the four Mohecannuk men that so surprised Hester Pitt were Daniel Nimham (or Ninmaham), Jacob Cheeksaunun, John Naunaphtaunk, and Solomon Uhhaunauwaunmut. (The names of the three women are not recorded). They had come all the way to Britain out of sheer desperation: their ancestral lands had been taken from them, and they wished to petition the King in person to have then restored.[4] 

The name "Mohecannuk", occasionally written "Mohican", is almost certainly familiar to many from James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans. In 1766 the Mohecannuk weren't quite as badly off as Cooper made them out to be, but, like many North American tribes, they were very much under threat from colonial expansion.

Land belonging to the Mohecannuk tribe in the 18th century (Wikimedia Commons)

The Wappinger were a subset of the Mohecannuk. The name possibly came from the Algonquian "Wapani", or "Eastern People", since they were the easternmost Mohecannuk people: their lands lay along the east bank of the Hudson River, across the border between New York and Connecticut, over 200,000 acres in all. The tribe was small but well-established: at the start of the 17th century they numbered about 1000, and their number had grown considerably by the mid-18th century.[5]

After initial struggles with the early Dutch and British settlers in the 17th century, the Wappinger decided the colonists were here to stay and they might as well do business with them, although culturally they kept themselves aloof. The problem was they had always been hunters and farmers, and they soon found their land parcelled up and sold, or simply taken, by the European arrivals.[6]

The Philipse family
 
By the time Daniel Nimham became chief, or Sachem, of the Wappinger tribe in 1760, much Mohecannuk land had already been lost to Dutch and British settler families such as the Van Renssalaers and the Livingstons. The real threat, however, came from a family called Philipse.

The Philipses were originally Dutch. Vrederic Felypsen had arrived in New Amsterdam in 1674, but he soon took an oath of allegiance to the British Crown and anglicised his name to Philipse. He and his son Adolph set about establishing themselves as one of the most powerful landowning mercantile families in New York. Through marriage alliances and strategic purchases the Philipse lands soon extended twenty-four miles in three counties, from Croton River to Spuyten Duyvil Creek, including parts of New York City.[7]

Frederick Philipse III (Wikimedia Commons)

 Felypson's great-grandson, Frederick Philipse III, took over the estate in 1751. He had considerable local clout: he represented Westchester County in the New York Assembly from 1751 to 1775, where he was well-known for supporting and proposing measures friendly to the British Crown.[8] When he decided to absorb the ancient Wappinger hunting grounds into his lands, therefore, he probably did not expect much resistance.

During the French and Indian War in North America, Daniel Nimham and his Wappinger joined forces with the British commander Sir William Johnson and fought against the French. Because most of the men were away fighting, the remaining Wappinger moved, temporarily (or so they thought), to Stockbridge, Massachusetts.[9]

While they were away, however, Frederick Philipse took possession of the empty Wappinger lands. His claim to the lands was, ostensibly, legitimate: in 1697, Adolph Philipse had engaged in a treaty with the Wappinger to purchase part of their lands in northern New York. The problem lay in interpreting the treaty. Nimham claimed the treaty had only sold a part of the Wappinger lands; Philipse claimed his ancestor had been granted the whole lot by the Governor of New York.[10]

The matter went to court. New York's legislature rejected the Wappinger case. They appealed to the Governor, who (on the advice of the Council – of which Philipse was a member) dismissed them out of hand in February 1765.[11] This left the Wappinger with no recourse but to take their complaint to the highest level: the King himself.

The Wappinger in England
 
Alien and exotic as they were, Nimham and his party attracted much interest, and considerable sympathy, among the English. They arrived with no money, but an official order was issued to look after them at government expense and local society fell over themselves to host and entertain them.[12]

After their visit to the Pitt children, the Wappinger travelled by coach to the Duke of Kingston's ball, where they "danced according to their manner, with the war whoop", and practised English country dances. They were taken on a tour of Stonehenge and Wilton House on their way to London, which they reached in early August, where their host (a Mr Lowe) showed them off at Marylebone Gardens.[13]

"The Sachems are remarkably tall and stout," the newspapers reported gleefully, "one of them six Feet and an Half high without Shoes, which they don't wear, of a brown shining Complexion, and bold manly Countenance, dressed in the Indian Manner. The Women, who are Ladies of Fashion, were of the same Complexion with the Men".[14]

Nimham had spent some time living with an English family as a child, and so could talk a little English. The Pitt tutor, Mr Wilson, noted that "one of them ... is a kind of Interpreter to the rest", presumably Nimham. Despite this, they travelled with an unnamed "Major", who acted as a barrier between the Wappinger and the curious crowds.[15]

They spent some weeks in London, waiting. They never did see the King, but they did receive a favourable response from the Lords of Trade, recently appointed under the new ministry of William Pitt (now Earl of Chatham). The Secretary of State, Lord Shelburne, instructed their lordships to report "there is foundation for further examination into the state of the facts and proceedings upon which the Complaint [of the tribe] is grounded". The Lords of Trade concluded the Governor and Council of New York had acted with "unreasonable Severity, the Colour of great Prejudice & Partiality and ... an intention to intimidate these Indians from prosecuting their claims".[16]

Unfortunately, the Lords of Trade did not have the last word. The King did not review the petition, and a second court case in the Colonies reached the same conclusion as the first. Philipse exemplified the old adage that possession was nine-tenths of the law.

Aftermath
 
Karma works in strange ways, and Philipse did not get to enjoy his spoils for long. He chose the wrong side in the American Revolution, and in 1776 was proscribed as a traitor to his country. New York appropriated all his land in much the same way as Philipse had dispossessed Nimham's people. Philipse died in exile in 1786.[17]

Nimham's story was no happier. Alienated by the inattention of the British Crown to his people's plight, he joined the rebel side during the Revolution. He and fifty Wappinger warriors were surrounded and killed by British and Loyalist troops at the Battle of Kingsbridge in August 1778.[18]

The remaining Wappinger were eventually absorbed into the Oneida Nation. They never, of course, recovered their land, and eventually moved west. Today their descendants live on a reservation in Shawano County, Wisconsin.[19]

It's a sad ending to a rather romantic tale. I wonder whether the Pitt children ever discovered what happened to the Mohecannuk Indians who visited them on that rain-swept July day in Weymouth.

__________

References


[1] Edward Wilson to Lady Chatham, 26 July 1766, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/67 f 3

[2] Lady Chatham to Edward Wilson, 29 July 1766, in Lord Ashbourne, Pitt: Some Chapters of his Life and Times (London, 1898), p. 3

[3] Lady Hester Pitt to Lady Chatham, 21 August 1766, National Archives Hoare MSS PRO 30/70/5/330a; William Pitt to Lord Chatham, [August 1766], in J.H. Rose, William Pitt and National Revival (London, 1911), p. 44

[4] Alden T. Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 176-8

[5] Patrick Frazier, The Mohicans of Stockbridge (Nebraska, 1992), pp. xi-xv, 2

[6] Frazier, pp. 9, 12

[7] State of New York, An American Loyalist: the ordeal of Frederick Philipse III (NY, 1976), p. 6

[8] An American Loyalist, pp. 8, 13-4

[9] Vaughan, pp. 176-8

[10] Report of the Lords of Trade on the Petition of the Wappinger Indians, 30 August 1766, in J.R. Brodhead (ed), Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, VII (Albany, 1856), 868-70

[11] Report of the Lords of Trade, 868-70

[12] New Daily Advertiser, 8 August 1766

[13] Caledonian Mercury, 11 August 1766

[14] Public Advertiser, 8 August 1766

[15] Edward Wilson to Lady Chatham, 26 July 1766, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/67 f 3; New Daily Advertiser, 8 August 1766; Public Advertiser, 8 August 1766

[16] Report of the Lords of Trade, 868-70

[17] An American Loyalist, pp. 26, 31

[18] "Daniel Nimham" (Wikipedia), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Nimham (accessed 8/1/2015)

[19] Frazier, p. xi

 __________

Jacqui Reiter has a PhD in 18th century political history. She believes she is the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and is writing a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://alwayswantedtobeareiter.wordpress.com/.

9 comments:

  1. A great post, really enjoyed learning about this. Alas, the British Crown once again disappoints. One could write a catalog of such avoidance of duty. I'm glad the tribe sided with American for its independence even though it cost them much.

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  2. You made it so I could see the meeting with the Pitt children . It's touching the Mohecannuk tried to get justice in this manner . But nothing like justice was going to stop the land stealing This reminds me of a Mother Jones quote about a mine strike

    The miners lost because they had only the constitution. The other side had bayonets. In the end, bayonets always win.

    The Mohecannuk only had justice. The other side had might and numbers .

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  3. This was a sad time. They helped make America free and were treated very bad.

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  4. Victoria Owens sent this comment: What a great piece – thanks! For what it is worth, another group of Native Americans visited England in the 1760s – a small delegation from the Cherokee. In the previous decade, their tribe had been at war with British settlers in Carolina. In 1761 they made peace, and sent emissaries to London the following year to seal friendly relations.
    The episode makes an intriguing parallel to this wonderful account of the Mohecannuk in Weymouth. Unlike the 1766 party, the Cherokee somehow achieved an audience with George III, but perhaps more significantly, they seem to have intrigued the entire nation. Even far-flung provincial newspapers like the Derby Mercury noted the visitors’ enjoyment of the British custom of shaking hands, their taste for sweet wine and the mixture of ‘majesty and moroseness’ in their faces. Sir Joshua Reynolds produced a group portrait and Francis Parsons did a stunning picture of the chieftain Oconostata, or Cunne Shote, wearing a red cloak and silver gorget and holding a vicious looking long-bladed knife. Both paintings are in the Thomas Gilcrease Collection, Tulsa, Oklahoma and viewable online.

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    1. Suggested keywords to search for these paintings? There seems an irony in both the Dutchman and the Native Americans choosing the wrong side for their benefit.

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    2. Fascinating! I will admit my interest with the Wappinger arose from my interest in the Pitt family. I wanted to know what happened to them and wasn't really expecting to find out. Research tangents are quite amazing. :-)

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  5. Yes, the Mohicans were let down by the British government, but only after they had already been wickedly exploited - like so many of the native peoples - by the American settlers. The Trail of Tears a couple of generations later is an appalling episode which ranks with "ethnic cleansing" of modern times.

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