During the cold winter months of February 1778, a 17-year-old Frenchman named Peter Du Ponceau joined the soldiers at the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, encampment of Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army.
Du Ponceau had arrived with Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a former Prussian military officer who had volunteered to serve in the army and train Washington’s soldiers much like professional European soldiers.
The young Frenchman, who also knew how to speak German, English and Italian, was acting as a translator for von Steuben in his new role. Several years later, in 1781, Du Ponceau became a citizen of Pennsylvania; and after the war, he became a lawyer.
In 1836, he wrote some letters about his time at Valley Forge, including one particularly interesting story that occurred sometime before the British evacuated Philadelphia June 18, 1778, and the Continental Army left Valley Forge in pursuit.
One morning, while out for a walk before breakfast, Du Ponceau heard a voice singing a fashionable French opera song. In his own words, Du Ponceau wrote:
“I cannot describe to you how my feelings were affected by hearing those strains so pleasing and so familiar to me, sung by what seemed to be a supernatural voice, such as I had never heard before, and yet melodious and in perfect good taste. I thought myself for a moment at the Comedie Italienne and was lost in astonishment …”
There, in the woods of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, amid the awful mess that had been the winter encampment of Washington’s Continental Army, was “a tall Indian figure in American regimentals” with “two large epaulettes on his shoulders” singing French opera:
Ce que je dis est la vérité même.
Tous les trésors de’ l’univers
N’ont de valeur que par l’objet qu’on aime,
Que par la main dont ils nous sont offerts.
Un bouquet qu’unit un brin d’herbe
Donne par toi, toucherait plus mon cœur;
Il serait un don plus superbe.
Il ferait plus mon Bonheur.
What I say is the truth.
All the treasures of the universe
Only have a value by the object we love,
Or by the hand that offers them.
A bouquet made of grass
Given by you would please my heart;
It would be a more superb gift.
It would be total happiness.
These verses, from Act 1, Scene 8 of an opera called Le Roi et le Fermier (The King and the Farmer), a comic opera in three acts, were written by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817), who became internationally famous as a result of this work.
First premiered in 1762 at the Opera-Comique in Paris, the opera was based on Robert Dodsley’s tale The King and the Miller of Mansfield and told the story of how the English king loses his party while hunting in Sherwood Forest. As a result of its success, it had been performed many times over the years since its first premiere.
When the singer finished, Du Ponceau approached him and, speaking in French, complimented his voice. The officer, surprised to hear another French speaker, extended his hand in greeting and struck up a conversation.
As the two men walked through the camp, the officer asked why the French had abandoned the Indians and explained that his people would not consent to call the English “Fathers,” as they viewed the French alone as deserving of that honorific.
Finally, the officer asked Du Ponceau some questions about the royal family of France and whether they meant to retake Canada from the English.
Next, the conversation turned to just who the French opera-singing Continental Army officer really was. He told Du Ponceau that he was from the Abenaki nation and that he had served the Continental forces in Canada in 1775 under Gen. Richard Montgomery and that when the army had retreated in the spring of 1776, he had followed them south and been with them ever since.
Continuing in French, the officer said, “One calls me here Colonel Louis. It is the name which I received with the baptism … for I am a good Christian and a good Catholic.”
About this time, the two men had reached von Steuben’s quarters, and the baron received Du Ponceau’s guest cordially and invited him to breakfast. When they were finished, the men continued their conversation, and Du Ponceau learned that Colonel Louis “had been educated by the Jesuits of whom he spoke with great respect. They had taught him reading and writing and many other things, which he enumerated.”
This is likely how Colonel Louis had learned to sing French opera. Whether he had seen the opera performed in Quebec or Montreal, or simply been taught the song by the Jesuit missionary Father Jean-Baptiste Tournois, perhaps as a way to learn the French language, is unknown.
Born in 1740 to an African slave father and an Abenaki mother, the young boy and his family had been kidnapped in 1745 from the Schuyler Plantation near Saratoga, New York, by a group of French soldiers and Mohawk Indians. The soldiers had intended to sell them as slaves in Canada. However, Louis’ mother was able to convince the Mohawks to adopt her and the boy into their tribe. Louis’ father was sold in Montreal, and a few years later, his mother died in the village where the Mohawks lived.
The young boy was then raised by a French missionary priest who visited the Mohawk village where he had been living. Father Tournois, who had arrived in Quebec during the summer of 1741 and joined other missionaries at Fort Sault-Saint-Louis, taught him how to speak French and also baptized him as a Catholic with the name Louis, likely in honor of the saint for which the fort was named.
During the French and Indian War, Louis fought with the French at Ticonderoga and Oswego and led a group of warriors in battle at Quebec. However, with the French surrender at the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British gained all of Canada, which Louis did not like.
In 1775, Louis saw that the Americans were fighting for freedom from British rule, and he volunteered to fight for Washington against his old enemy. Washington asked him to serve as a scout and messenger for the Continental Army, and by 1776, he had raised a group of 400 to 500 Iroquois Indians (Mohawk, Oneida and Tuscarora) to fight for the Americans and earned the nickname “Colonel Louis.”
With these Indians, Colonel Louis fought alongside the American troops at the Battle of Saratoga in upstate New York in 1777, and many of them spent the winter with Washington’s army at Valley Forge until the spring of 1778, where Du Ponceau first met him.
In 1779, Colonel Louis was actually promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army, not only confirming the nickname others had given him years earlier, but making him the highest-ranking Native American in Washington’s army.
After the America victory at Yorktown, Virginia, and the Peace Treaty of 1783, Louis moved to an Oneida village and married an Oneida woman named Marguerite Tewennihata and raised a family.
Colonel Louis served the United States again by acting as a peace negotiator with various tribes in the Ohio River Valley in the 1790s.
In 1812, Colonel Louis, who was by now too old to fight, followed his sons into battle against his old enemies, the British.
They joined an American Army that invaded Canada in 1814 and were at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane near Niagara Falls, Ontario. The battle, fought July 25, 1814, was one of the bloodiest of the War of 1812 and is still the largest ever fought on Canadian soil.
During another skirmish, in October 1814, Colonel Louis fell from his horse and subsequently died in the American camp. At his funeral, he was honored with a military salute by the American troops. He was buried near Buffalo, New York.
Years later, Colonel Louis’ companion from the Valley Forge encampment, Peter Du Ponceau, who only had this one memorable meeting with him, reminisced that “with a little more teaching” he “would have been a valuable acquisition to the French opera. … I parted with him with much regret, and never saw him since.”
Anthony Gerring is the director of advancement services at Ave Maria Radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan.