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Shingas's tale is a sad tale; a cautionary tale; one which again reminds us of the frailty of humankind and its capacity for inhumanity as well as for compassion and nobility. It was a tragedy of Shakespearian dimensions played upon an Eighteenth Century stage here in western Pennsylvania.
I began with the question,"Who was Shingas?" I thought that library research would quickly unearth sufficient material to write a reasonable narrative. In fact, I had hoped to find that an enterprising scholar sometime in the past two and a half centuries had written a dissertation on Shingas. Though short sketches of his life exist, I have not found a biography.
While this has made the task more difficult, it has also proved to be vastly more rewarding. I have had to rethink America's pre-revolutionary history and to learn about the Delaware Indians who were, for half a century, resident along the Beaver River. The Delawares were, of course, an oral society and left no written records. The little we know of their lives during the 18th Century was recorded by others. Their historical existence therefore depends upon a thin trail of documents recorded by Europeans, many of whom had axes to grind. However sincerely they sought truth, what they wrote could only provide a reflected, two-dimensional, image of the richness of Delaware culture. Such accounts tell little about perceptions or motives. Building a history depends upon surmise, conjecture and creative imagination. Upon those, much of what follows is based.
Though he was King of the Delawares at a time when western Pennsylvania became briefly the cockpit of a global contest for empire, documentation of Shingas's life is fragmentary. Little exists to tell us about the man. Contemporary documents record public events, mainly negotiations with or attacks upon Europeans. We learn that he resisted Iroquois domination, French incursions and English settlement west of the Alleghenies. We must deduce his actions and strategy from the records made primarily by sometimes hostile colonial authorities. of his relations with other Delawares, the Shawnees and Mingoes (the Iroquois who had moved to the Ohio Country), virtually nothing is recorded. Yet these matters occupied much of his life, for these were the people he moved among.
Because Shingas played an important role in some significant events which shaped the American future, he is mentioned frequently and his words, as recorded by others, are sometimes quoted extensively. He was powerful orator.
I am convinced that he was quite fluent in English. we know that his older brother, Pisquetomen, served as an official interpreter for the colonial authorities and therefore may assume that Shingas had regular contact with English speakers in his household. He was, after all, born after the Delawares had already had a century of contact with the English.
We are blessed by the retentive memory of one of his English captives, Charles Stuart, who recorded at length an address by Shingas to a group of prisoners in November, 1757. This account provides unique insights into Shingas's perceptions of important events in which he was directly involved.
He is mainly remembered as "Shingas, the Terrible", leader of the 'savages' who scalped defenseless women and children along the Pennsylvania frontier from 1755 to 1757. His raids were directed against settlers who had, in the Delaware's view, violated the solemn assurances given repeatedly that English settlement west of the Alleghenies would be prohibited. Those raids provoked Philadelphia into a declaration of war.
On April 14, 1756, despite the Quaker principles of its founder, Pennsylvania ended seven decades of peace with the Delawares. During those seven decades the Delawares had lost virtually all their lands and been driven to migrate by stages across Pennsylvania from the Delaware Valley to the Ohio Country. Not once did they "raise the hatchet" against the English, despite the many grievances they suffered. The Quaker Peace Testimony and Penn's first letter with its "Love and Consent" clause was reciprocated by the trust and peaceful desires of the Delawares. Now, in the face of Quaker objections, war was declared, recognition of Shingas was withdrawn, and a price was placed on his scalp. Penn's sons, now in power, had not the same moral fiber or principles as did William.
Though Shingas was, in war, daring and courageous,
he was far from being a savage. His kindness to prisoners is frequently
affirmed. He was transformed into a warrior when he could see
no peaceful path. He refused to let Delawares be tools of the
Iroquois. He was unwilling to have Delawares die to fight English
wars of conquest, especially when the land conquered was rightfully
that of the Indians. He sought to keep the Delawares neutral and
repeatedly admonished both French and English to leave the Delaware's
hunting grounds and to fight their wars in their own countries
or upon the sea. He desired peace and only wanted for the Delawares
what had been promised; a place to live with secure lands of their
own. He was happy to remain Indian. He did not wish to become
a Christian nor to accept European ways even though he requested
the Moravian missionaries, whom he trusted, to send teachers and
craftsmen among the Delawares so they could learn the skills needed
to become self-sufficient.
Entangled in a web of competing claims on the lands essential to Delaware survival and confronted with the superior military force of two empires, Shingas served his people with courage and conviction. His story has the elements of a classic historic tragedy and is, I believe, worthy of the telling.
John Cool's book will soon be available at the Beaver History Museum for sale. For this reason, only the introduction of the book is available here. Bits of his presentation to the Beaver Heritage Foundation are available by clicking here. Full length versions can be viewed at the History Museum.