Sunday, April 29, 2018

Fine Young Cannibals

no mention of the cannibalism

I scooped up a random book last month called The First Frontier by Scott Weidensaul. It promised “The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America”. That sounded like something for me to chew on! It turned out to be a marinade of forgotten American history through the mid-1700s. It contained all sorts of interesting morsels I didn’t know about. This post is about one of the more savory ingredients.

The author mentions a Miami chieftain named Memeskia who had a village near modern Piqua OH called Pickawillany. I’ve been there before and if you can get past the 20th-century scramble of strip malls there is a lot of palatable history there. In the early part of the 18th century, the Miami aligned themselves with the French who were battling the British for control of these new (to them) lands. Memeskia was known to the French as La Demoiselle, which translates literally to “young lady”. It is believed that this was a grandiloquent translation of his Indian name which meant "dragonfly", both meaning impulsive and unpredictable.

Over the years the native people had become on reliant French and British traders for goods and allied themselves with one or the other. The Native Americans provided animal skins and furs in return for a thriving European market. These arrangements were often choppy. Memeskia broke with the informal Miami/French coalition believing he and his new village could gain more power and prestige by serving the British. Now essential British trade items such as weapons, cloth, food, and metal cooking items were now being produced in the Colonies to the East and thus becoming better and cheaper than imported French goods. This change in alliances earned the chieftain the new name of Old Briton.

Needless to say, this steamed the French who feared the idea would boil over into bands of other Miami and they would slowly lose control of New France to the British. Tensions were simmering to a boil. Eventually, a full course attack was ordered on Old Briton's village. On June 21st, 1752 the village was attacked by a blended force of pro-French Ottawa, French Canadians, and Ojibwa led by Charles Langlade, a French/Ottawa fur trader. Cheddar-heads may know this name from local history class as "The Father of Wisconsin".

photos courtesy of
because mine are terrible
This story sounded familiar to me since I had been to Piqua a few times. There is an Ohio historical marker there for this battle as it was a flashpoint to the French and Indian War. The marker states rather blandly that after Langlade and his men destroyed the village, “Memeskia was executed”. 
That's it.
They left out the spicy part.
As it turns out, Old Briton was ritually cannibalized in front of the survivors. Yep. They boiled him in a pot and gobbled him up. No mention of a side dish.
Unfortunately, I was unable to drum up any more bits about this post-battle dinner party because the primary source does not offer any. As it turns out two of the six English that were taken prisoner, Thomas Burney and Andrew McBryer, two English traders who were hidden during the attack told what happened at Pickawillany to Captain William Trent (the founder of Trenton NJ). He, in turn, wrote to Governor Dinwiddie of colonial Virginia on July 6th, 1752:
"They killed one Englishman and took six prisoners, one Mingoe and one Shawanees killed, and three Twightwees (an alternate term used then for the Miami); one of them, the old Pianguisha (Memeskia's Miami band) king, called by the English Old Britain, who, for his attachment to the English, they boiled, and eat him all up. "
There is also an August 1752 letter from the Miami that formerly resided at Pickawillany delivered by Burney to the Governor of Pennsylvania, still asserting their allegiance to the English. It said in part, "Brother Onas*...we saw our great Piankashaw King taken, killed, and eaten within a hundred yards of the fort before our faces".

1592 depiction of Indian cannibalism
Historians have speculated it's possible that this act was a way to literally absorb Memeskia back into the pro-French body while also providing a simply gruesome warning to the others to not trifle with the French alliance. Memeskia's people did move back to French-controlled Indiana so I suppose they got the message loud and clear.

You may have noticed that Burney is connected with the only two written records of this account. In fact, most of what we know about the battle was from Burney.

Keep in mind that nearly all Indians were illiterate and many whites were at that time too, so we rely on literate white men for these written accounts. It's possible the cannibalism never occurred at all and was invented by Burney to drum up revenge against the dreaded French and their "savage" Indian allies. Military leaders were also known to inflate the size of the enemy in their reports. While Burney surely met with the Miami for the letter that was delivered later, he may have added on the gruesome story there as well. As an English trader with his livelihood at stake, this would surely be a motive. There are no written records from the only other white survivor, Andrew McBryer who died later in 1752. I have also found no specific recollections by any surviving Miami told to anyone else either way.

As far as plausibility, I'd heard of Indians consuming the hearts of freshly killed enemies to ingest the courage of the victim, in fact, this supposedly did happen to one of the other English traders here. But as far as I know, full on cannibalism was fairly uncommon and taboo among most American Indians. It did supposedly occur among the Iroquois and some Ojibwa bands. There were definitely Ojibwa in Langlade's force.
Food for thought.
Oof. You've noticed all the other culinary references in this post too right?

One wonders why the Ohio Historical Connection would leave out one of the most intriguing and sensational aspects of this battle on the sign? Maybe they felt there was not enough evidence to warrant its mention. But again Burney's account is the only one. Maybe Memeskia was simply killed during the battle versus "executed". No wonder many find history dull and boring. I think it's worth a mention as "alleged" or plausible. To think! Ritualized cannibalism right here in Ohio (possibly)! Wow! Teach that in a history class (or a sign) and folks might actually pay attention.

*a friendly term originally used by the Iroquois for William Penn extended to the current Governor. Onas means feather or quill.

additional reading and references: 
American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity by R. David Edmunds
The Miami Indians of Indiana: A Persistent People, 1654-1994 by Stewart Rafert
Journal of Captain William Trent from Logstown to Pickawillany, A.D. 1752