Oskanondonha (1710-1816) (Oneida) was a "pine tree chief". He was born into the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock people (also called Conestoga), but was adopted into the Oneida people. Alternate spellings for his name include Skenando, Skenandoa, Skonondon, and Shenandoah. When he later accepted Christianity, he was baptized as John.
During the colonial years, he supported the English against the French in the Seven Years' War. Later, during the American Revolutionary War, he supported the colonials and led a force of 250 Oneida and Tuscarora warriors in western New York in their support. A longtime friend of the minister Samuel Kirkland, a founder of Hamilton College, his request to be buried next to Kirkland was granted. In the procession at the funeral of Skenando were Oneida, students and officers from Hamilton College, Mrs. Kirkland and her family, and many citizens of Clinton, New York.
Oskanondonha was born in 1710 into the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock people (also called Conestoga), located in present-day eastern Pennsylvania. He was adopted into the Oneida people, one of the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Alternate spellings for his name include Skenando, Skenandoa, Skonondon, and Shenandoah.
As an adult man, he was notable for his height, estimated to be 6'5," and was said to have a commanding presence. The Oneida elected him as a "Pine Tree Chief", in recognition of his leadership and contribution to the tribe. This position allowed him a place in the Grand Council of 50 chiefs of the Confederacy, representing all the clans of all the nations. It was not hereditary, nor could Oskanondonha name a successor. The name referred to a man being recognized as a chief and rising up inside the tribe.
During the Seven Years' War (also called the French and Indian War in the United States), Chief Skenando favored the British against the French and led the Oneida in their support in central New York. He was said to have saved German colonists in German Flatts, in the Mohawk Valley, from a massacre.
During the next decades, he formed more alliances with the ethnic German and British colonists in central and western New York.
Samuel Kirkland, a Protestant missionary who went to the Iroquois country of western New York in 1764, encountered Chief Skenando there and mentioned him in letters. Kirkland returned to the area in 1766 and worked with the Oneida for the remainder of his life. After Kirkland persuaded the chief to become baptized, Skenando took the name "John". Many of the Oneida converted to Christianity in the decade before the American Revolutionary War.
In part due to the friendship with Kirkland, Chief Skenando favored the colonials and led the Oneida to be their allies during the Revolutionary War. He led many Oneida to fight against the British and their Iroquois allies, who came from four nations of the Confederacy. Chief Skenando commanded 250 warriors from the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes. In the 1800s New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins gave him a silver pipe in recognition of his contributions. Today it is displayed at Shako:wi, the Oneida Nation museum at their reservation near Syracuse.
The Oneida oral tradition tells that Chief Skenando provided critical food, sending corn to General George Washington and his men during their harsh winter at Valley Forge in 1777-1778. Washington is said to have named the Shenandoah River and valley in his honor. In addition, Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, aided the troops by teaching them how to cook corn properly for full nutrition and how to care for the sick. Washington gave her a shawl in thanks, which is displayed at Shako:wi.
Skenando was the father-in-law of the Mohawk war leader Joseph Brant, who allied with the British during the revolution. Brant had Skenando jailed at Fort Niagara for a period in 1779 during the war when the Oneida chief was on a peace mission to the Iroquois. Brant hoped that the British could help contain colonial encroachment against the Iroquois.
After the war, Kirkland continued to minister to the Oneida. About 1791 he started planning a seminary, a boys' school to be open to Oneida as well as white young men of the area. In 1793 he received a charter from the state for the Hamilton Oneida Seminary, and in 1794 completed its first building, known as Oneida Hall. By 1812, the seminary developed as the four-year institution known as Hamilton College.
After Skenando died in 1816, he was buried at his request (and with the Kirkland family's approval) next to his friend Kirkland, who had died in 1808, on the grounds of Kirkland's home in Clinton, New York. Today the property is known as Harding Farm. As a measure of the respect for the chief, the procession at his funeral in 1816 included students and officers from Hamilton College, the widow Mrs. Kirkland and other members of her family, and numerous town residents, in addition to his son and members of his family and nation. In 1851, both bodies were reinterred in the cemetery of Hamilton College, of which Kirkland was a co-founder.
Legacy and honors
- A monument to Skenando was erected by the Northern Missionary Society at the Hamilton College cemetery. Its inscription recognizes his leadership, friendship with Kirkland, and important contributions to the rebel colonists during the war.
- 2002, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Oneida County Historical Society.
- "Pine Tree Chiefs", Haudenosaunee Confederacy, accessed 20 May 2014
- John Warner Barber, Henry Howe, Historical Collections of the State of New York, "Account of the Death of Skenandoa"], S. Tuttle, 1842, pp. 362-364, accessed 5 July 2011
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Skenando". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
- Michael Nassar, "Five Native American Treasures Within Driving Distance", New York Daily News, 15 July 2008
- "Cultural Heritage: American Revolution", 5 July 2010, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin
- "The Revolutionary War", 5 July 2010, Oneida Indian Nation
- "Polly Cooper", Oneida Indian Nation