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Bittinger: Native American Military Service

05/24/12 5:55PM By Cyndy Bittinger
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(Host) Commentator Cyndy Bittinger is a teacher, writer and historian who's been researching Native American history in Vermont. She says that for Native Americans who know their history - especially concerning events that followed early contact with European settlers - Memorial Day has complex meaning.  

(Bittinger) During the North American wars of the 18th century, Native Americans were forced to take sides among three warring factions: the French, the British and American rebels. Some fought with Ethan Allen in the American Revolutionary War in return for the promise of blankets and weapons. Yet others fought against him because they opposed the encroachment of non-native settlers in what we now call Vermont.

Joseph Susapp is remembered in Newbury with a gravestone inscribed with the complimentary words, "the friendly Indian guide" and his death date of 1819.  He was a Micmac adopted by the Abenakis who scouted for Col. Jacob Bayley during the American Revolutionary War and helped build the Bayley-Hazen Military Road that began in Newbury and ran north up to the Canadian border. Susapp later received grants from the state of Vermont and his grave is marked with a flag on Memorial Day.

William Apess was a Pequot, raised in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but his enlistment in the militia to fight for the Americans in the War of 1812 brought him to camp on the shores of Lake Champlain with about five thousand other men. They won the Battle of Lake Champlain against the British.  That should have brought Apess the distinction of military recognition, but he became an outspoken critic of American policies. He led a peaceful protest in Mashpee, Massachusetts in support of the Wampanoags' desire to return to home rule.  His preaching and writings brought him considerable attention. In 1836 he gave a major speech on the mistreatment of his people at the Odeon theater in Boston.

Gradually, most Vermont natives retreated to Canada, but reappeared here from time to time.  From 1798 to 1874, they repeatedly presented their claims of land to the Vermont legislature and were repeatedly denied.  In 1835, fifteen Abenaki encamped in Windsor en route to taking a young man to Dartmouth College to study.  The college had been founded to teach Indians and President Eleazar Wheelock sought out Natives, but many were reluctant to enroll where they would learn to farm and speak in the English tongue.  The historical record doesn't tell us how the young man fared at Dartmouth, but Wheelock and subsequent presidents eventually shifted focus away from native youth, since they too often returned to native customs and beliefs.  Samson Occom was the rare exception, a student of Wheelock's who became a missionary and organized the first Presbyterian Church congregation begun by Native Americans without outside assistance.

During the Civil War, more than three thousand Natives fought on the Union side.  For example, the first Vermont Calvalry Regiment included four Mohawks who enlisted in Alburg.

Ely S. Parker was a native from New York State who served as General Grant's adjutant and in 1865 drafted surrender terms to conclude the Civil War. When this full blooded Seneca walked into the room at the Appomattox courthouse, General Lee of the Confederate Army, quipped, "I'm glad to see one Real American here."  Parker replied, "We are all Americans, sir."
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