The Path Along The Schuylkill

                          The Path Along The Schuylkill

It was January 4th 1778, and once again the General had not slept well. He rose before dawn and as was his practice, he wandered down to the southern banks of the Schuylkill River.  Valley Forge had been particularly cold since New Year’s Day, and he was awaiting any word about new supplies being smuggled out from the friends his Army still had in Philadelphia.

The Congress had recently been moved and sheltered in York which was about seventy miles due West of his current position in Valley Forge.  The British had taken Philadelphia and were rumored to be encamped in the heart of the city.  Many residents had fled the Capitol just before the British arrived.  Fresh off their success at the Battle of Brandywine, they did not receive the warm welcome that they were expecting when they entered the city.  According to European standards, when you capture the capitol city of your enemy, the war is then over.  The problem with Philadelphia however was that this was not Europe — and Washington was no ordinary General.

Standing alone by the river’s bank, the General thought he saw something move in the tall grass to his right.  His first instinct was to draw his cap and ball pistol, but for
a reason unexplained, he did not.  He called out in the direction of the movement, but no sound was heard.  As he turned to walk back to his tent, he saw a branch move and heard the same sound again.  Slowly, a figure about six feet tall emerged from the river brush.  As he walked slowly toward where the General now stood, it was clear this was no combatant, either Colonial or British — this was an Indian.

He walked directly up to the now still Washington and extended his hand.  He said his name was Tamani, and he and his people were living on three of the islands located in the middle of the Schuylkill River about two miles East of where they were now. The Lenape were a branch of the Delaware Tribe that had originally migrated South from Labrador.  They had populated almost all of southeastern Pennsylvania and especially those lands that bordered the Delaware River.  The British had inflicted tremendous cruelty on the Lenape during their march toward Philadelphia and had driven the entire tribe from almost all of their ancestral lands.  The Colonists had been much kinder and had in fact been interacting peacefully with the Lenape back to the time of William Penn.

Tamani spoke very good English, and General Washington knew how to ‘sign.’  Sign was the universal language spoken by almost all of the indian tribes and was conveyed with a complex series of hand gestures.  After Tamani saw that the General could understand his words, he discontinued his ‘signing.’  Tamani told the great American leader that his people had been driven from their native lands along the banks of the Delaware and were now in hiding inside the treeline of three remote islands just a short distance down the Schuylkill.  They would leave and go ashore every night to hunt pheasant and deer but always be back before dawn so the British scouts would not discover them.  Tamani was bitter and angry about what the British had done to his people, and he was also upset that the British had commandeered many of the Colonists homes in the city. The displaced were now living in rustic shacks along the banks of both the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, and many of these Colonists were his friends.

General Washington asked Tamani if he had seen any British troops in the last several days.  Tamani said he had not and in fact had not seen any Red Coats any further west than Gladwyne or Conshohocken.   Washington asked Tamani how he could know this for sure.  Tamani said that he and his two sons knew of all British troop movements because there was a secret path on the other side of the river that ran all the way from Valley Forge to the falls at Gray’s Ferry.  Gray’s Ferry is where the British had a built a bridge that floats (Ferry) across the river this past winter, and it was their primary way to cross into the city from all directions South.

Washington was more than intrigued.  He asked Tamani how many members of his tribe knew about this secret trail.  Tamani said just he and his two sons.  Tamani had two sons and a daughter by his wife Wasonomi, but only the two boys had been down the 17-mile trail that paralleled the river on the far bank.  He also said that the trail could not be seen from the water because it was so heavily covered with native Sassafras and Poplars. The dense brush made the northern bank impossible to see from either a boat or when viewed from a quarter mile away on the southern shore.  By keeping this trail a secretWashington thought to himself — even the Indians knew that loose words sometimes trump the loudest canon.

Washington told Tamani that the only information he had received was from the few brave horse mounted scouts that had tried to infiltrate the city at night. They would then flee before morning with whatever local knowledge the remaining loyalists to the revolution could provide.  Lately, he had been losing more men than had been returning.  Tamani told the General that by using the trail, he could pass totally unseen into the city on any night and return along the same route without the British noticing.  From where the trail ended at Grays Ferry, he and his oldest son had climbed the tall poplars and watched British troop movement both in and around the city.  The General now extended his own hand to Tamani and said: I need you to do something for me.

I need you to take me along this path and show me what you have seen. Tamani stood frozen for a moment as if he didn’t believe his own ears.  Here was the Great General of the American Army, the greatest general that he had ever heard of, wanting to make the 17-mile trip to Philadelphia virtually alone and unprotected by his troops.  Washington also told Tamani that he could tell no one of his plan.  

To ensure this, General Washington took the plume from his Tricorn Hat and presented it with great ceremony to Tamani.  He said: Tamani,  you and I are now brothers, and we must keep between us what only brothers know.  Tamani sensed the importance of the moment and handed Washington a small pouch from the breechcloth he was wearing.  Inside was the Totem of his family’s ancestry.  It was a small stone with a Turtle inscribed on one side and a spear on the other.  The General took the stone in both of his hands and placed it over his heart.  Both men agreed to meet again along the river’s bank at dawn of the second day.

For most of two days, Washington thought about his narrow escape at Brandywine and how these British had menaced him all along the Delaware River to this isolated field so far from where he wanted to be.  He had heard from one of his own scouts that there was British dissension within some of Howe’s troops, but he wanted to see firsthand what he might be facing.  At daybreak on the second day, he walked to the riverbank again.  This time he again saw no life or activity only a small fox with her yearling kits heading down the steep bank to drink.  

After twenty minutes, the General turned to walk away when he heard a whistle coming from the same bush as before.  He approached cautiously and there stood Tamani, but he was not alone.  He had two young men with him that looked to be about a year apart in age.   These are my two Sons, Miquon and Yaqueekhon, Tamani said, as he pointed downriver.  It is just the three of us who know the way along the river that leads to where your enemy sleeps.  Washington greeted both young braves by touching them on both shoulders and then turned to Tamani and said:.  I would like to take the path to the British, and I would like to take it tonight.

Tamani said that he and his two sons would be ready and waiting and that they could leave as soon as the sun was down.  Washington said he would like to leave earlier than that and that he would meet them where the river turns when it is the deer’s time to drink.  During the winter months that would roughly be 4:00 in the afternoon.   With that, the three native men turned away and disappeared into the trees.

Tonight, Washington would alert his men that he would be working and then sleeping at the Isaac Potts House, (better known as Washington’s Headquarters), instead of in his field tent which was his usual practice. He needed to be alone so he could slip away unnoticed along Valley Creek to where the Schuylkill turned and where he would then meet his three new friends.

The General had been spending most of his nights with his troops sleeping in his field tent high atop Mount Joy.  It was here that he was provided with the best views to the east toward Philadelphia.  He had felt guilty about sleeping in the big stone headquarters with the comfortable bed and fireplace for warmth when so many of his men froze.  Tonight though, there would be no sleep and no guarantee of what the morning might bring.  

With all the risk and challenge set before him, he approached it like every battle he had fought up until now.  This would be a fight for information and one that just possibly might allow him to formulate a timetable and a plan for his next attack.  He lit the candle in his bedroom window — as was his practice — and locked the door from the outside.  He then slipped out the side door of the big stone house and headed for the bank. It was now 3:45 in the afternoon and already starting to get dark.

As the General arrived at the bend in the river he saw two canoes pulled up on the bank and covered with branches of pine.  Standing off in the trees, about fifty feet from the two craft, were Tamani and his two sons.  Tamani greeted Washington as his brother.  He explained that they would take the two small boats downriver for what the whites called five miles, and then cross to the other side to begin their walk.

Washington was in a canoe with the older of Tamani’s two sons Miquon.  They paddled quietly for over an hour until Tamani ‘signed’ back something that Miquon quickly understood. From where they were now, on the right (south) side of the river, he signaled for them to head directly across the Schuylkill to the bank on the far side.  This was what the Delaware Tribe had always referred to as Conshohocken.  

As they reached the far bank, Tamani’s two sons quickly hid the canoes in the underbrush.  As Washington started to walk toward Tamani, Miquon took a satchel out of the first canoe and handed it to the General.  For your feet, said Miquon.  Washington opened the satchel and found a large pair of Indian leggings with Moccasins attached at the bottom.  These will help you to walk faster, said Tamani, as Washington sat on a log, removed his boots, and strapped them on.  In two more minutes, the four men were walking east on the hidden trail just ten feet from the north bank of the Schuylkill River.  They had 12 miles still to go, and the surrounding countryside and river were now almost totally covered in darkness.

I say almost, because there were a few flickering lights from lanterns on the far southern bank.  The four men listened for sounds, but heard nothing, as the lights faded and then disappeared as they progressed downstream.  Miquon told his father that they needed to get to the British War Dance before the moon had passed overhead (roughly midnight), and his father grunted in agreement.  Washington wondered what this British War Dance could possibly be but figured that he would wait for a more appropriate time to ask that question.

For two hours, the four men walked in silence.  The only sounds that any of them heard were the breathing of the man in front and the ripples from the approaching current.  The occasional perch that jumped in the dark while hunting for food kept them alert and vigilant as they continued to visually scan the far bank. The going was slow in many places, but at least the terrain was flat and well worn down.  Someone used this path on a regular basis, and the General couldn’t help but wonder not only who that might be but when they had last used it.

Tamani stopped by a large clump of rocks at the river’s edge and reached behind the smallest of the boulders.  He pulled out a well-worn leather satchel and laid it on the ground in front of the other three men.  Miquon reached inside and handed a small ball which was lightly colored to the General.  Pinole, Miquon said as he placed it within Washington’s open hand. Pinole, you eat, Miquon said again.  Tamani looked at the slightly perplexed General and said, Pinole, it’s ground corn meal and good for energy, you eat!  With that, the General took a bite and was surprised that the taste was better than he had expected.  They lingered for no longer than five minutes on the trail and were again quickly on their way.  Washington marveled at the speed and efficiency of his Indian guides and again thought to himself: "The Indian Nations would have been very hard to beat if they could ever have come together as one force.  We could learn much from them."

The moon was almost directly overhead when Tamani raised his right arm directing the others behind him to stop.  There were lights up ahead and voices could now be heard in the distance.  Tamani told the General: One more mile to ferry crossing.  With that they proceeded at a much slower pace while increasing the distance between each man.  Tamani and Miquon had made this trip many times, but this was the first time that Yaqueekhon had been this far.  For Washington, the feeling of being back in his beloved Capitol, coupled with his hatred of the British, had his senses at a high level.  He felt an acute awareness overtake him beyond that of any previous experience.

Looking across the river toward ‘Grays Ferry’ reminded Washington of the many times he had played along the Rappahannock River in Virginia as a boy.  He moved to ‘Ferry Farm’ in Virginia when he was still young and when his father Augustine had become the Managing Partner of the Accokeek Iron Furnace.  Those days along the Rappahannock were some of the happiest of his life, and he secretly longed for a time when he could mindlessly wander a river’s banks once again — but not tonight!

Miquon now pointed to a tall clump of trees directly ahead.  They were right along the river’s edge and there were large branches that protruded out as much as twenty feet over the water.  Tamani said: We climb.

From this location, the four men climbed two different trees to a height of over forty feet.  Once situated near the top they secured their packs, looked off toward the North, and waited.  From this position they could clearly see Market Street and all of the comings and goings in the center of town.  Washington noticed one thing that gave him pause … he didn’t see any British soldiers.  Tamani told the General in a hushed tone that almost all of the soldiers were in German’s Town (Germantown) with only a small detachment left in the center of the city for sentry duty and to watch.

Why Germantown Washington asked?  This had been the site of our last battle, and he was surprised more troops had not been positioned in the center of town to protect the Capitol.  Too much food and drink, Tamani said.  It took Washington a minute to process the words from before. The British War Dance.  The Indians also had a sense for satire and irony.

                        The British Had Been Celebrating

Is it possible, the General wondered, that the British could still be celebrating their last victory at the Battle of Germantown, and could they have let the King’s military protocol really slip that far? Washington knew that General Howe was under extreme criticism for his handling of the war so far, and there were rumors that he might now be headed back to England to defend himself before parliament.

                               When The Cat’s Away …

Washington’s impression of what he was now facing immediately changed.  He believed he was now charged with defeating a British force that had tired and lost faith in the outcome of the war.  In their minds, if capturing the new American Capitol had not turned the tide, and men were willing to freeze and starve in an isolated woods rather than surrender, then this cause was almost certainly lost. In that mood they decided to party and celebrate in a fait accompli.

                           A Revolutionary ‘Fait Accompli

For three more hours, they observed Philadelphia in its vulnerable and seemingly de-militarized state.  Many of the houses were empty as the residents had left when the outcome of the Battle of Brandywine was made known.  Washington closed his eyes, and he could see Mr. Franklin walking down Market Street and talking with each person that he passed.  He then saw a vision from deep inside of himself showing that this scene would be recreated soon.  The British couldn’t last in the demoralized state that they were now in. He knew now that it was more important than ever, for he and his men, to make it through the rest of the long cold winter, and into the Spring campaign of 1778.

Washington signaled to Tamani that it was time to go.  Before he left, he asked if he could borrow the Chief’s knife.  After climbing down the big poplar, he walked around to the side of the tree that was facing Philadelphia and inscribed these immortal words  — WASHINGTON WAS HERE!

All the way back along the trail, Washington was a different man than before.  If he had ever had any doubts about the outcome of the war, they were now vanished from his mind.  He asked Tamani and his two sons if they would continue to monitor the trail for him on a weekly basis.  They said that they would,and would he please keep their secret about being encamped on the three islands in the middle of the Schuylkill River.  They also pledged their help as scouts, in the coming spring campaign, against what was left of the British.

Washington pledged both his secrecy and loyalty to the Lenape Tribe and continued to meet with Tamani along the banks of Valley Creek until the winter had finally ended.  The constant updating of information that Washington had originally seen with his own eyes allowed him to formulate a plan that would drive the British from the America’s forever.  He was forever grateful to the Lenape people, and together they kept a secret that has remained unknown to this very day.

With all the rumors of where he slept, or where he ate, there is one untold rumor that among Native People remains true.  Along a dark frozen riverbank, in the company of real Americans, the Father of Our Country stalked the enemy. And in doing so …

                                      He walked !
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Submitted by KurtPhilipBehm on April 27, 2024

17:06 min read

Quick analysis:

Scheme X X X XA X B X A C X D X E X B F X X A X A X X X E X X C F X D C C X X X D X X
Characters 18,936
Words 3,418
Stanzas 39
Stanza Lengths 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1

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