Thursday, May 2, 2013

White Eyes and his Name


       Many Ohio towns have inherited Indian names.  Especially in smaller, out of the way places, towns and villages were often named for their Native founders or given the name, or an English equivalent.  In our own area, one need travel no further than Tontogany, Maumee, Ottawa, or Wapakoneta to see, perhaps not an Indian town, but at least a landscape feature with a Native name.  Sometimes the name is familiar, sometimes not.

            In Coshocton County, there was once a village with the evocative name of White Eyes Plains.  An description from 1881 reads:  “A broad expanse of level country, White Eyes plains begins in the western Part of the township [Lafayette Township] and continues eastward eight or ten miles through Oxford township into Tuscarawas County.”  Settled by Europeans about the year 1803, White Eyes Plains seems never to have been a town in the sense of businesses and homes together in a compact settlement.  We do know that White Eyes Plains had a post office in 1815 to until 1892 (with a brief pause in 1854-55), when the name changed to Isleta.   For part of this time, the post office was kept in a nearby village, Oxford Station.  Such were the vagaries of post office politics. 

            But if White Eyes Plains is a flyspeck on the map, the Native leader for whom it was named was considerably more famous.  White Eyes (c1730-1778) was a Lenape, or Delaware, Indian leader who led a movement among his people in favor of the rebelling American colonies.  Although large swaths of his life are unrecorded, here is a summary of what we do know.

            White Eyes, whose name was so hard for settlers to pronounce that one source dodged the question, and rendered his name as “something like Koquethagechton,” was unknown in the historical record until 1766.  He then appeared as a messenger at the end of the French and Indian War.  That he was trusted with this task  “…suggests he may have been well suited for interaction between Indians and whites…”  White Eyes kept a tavern and trading post in western Pennsylvania, but moved with his tribesman to the Muskingum Valley of eastern Ohio, pushed there by white settlers around Pittsburgh.  He married Rachel Doddridge, daughter of a settler who had been killed by natives.  He set up his own town on the banks of White Eyes Creek at its mouth with the Tuscarawas River, at the eastern end of the White Eyes Plains.  In 1774, he was elected principal chief of the Delaware Indian nation.

            Also in 1774, White Eyes was involved in Lord Dunmore’s War, a scrap between Virginia colonists and the Shawnee that foreshadowed the American Revolution.  White Eyes unsuccessfully tried to negotiate peace between the two.  After the war, White Eyes sought to negotiate the safety of the Delaware nation with Dunmore.  When the Revolution broke out, the Delaware nation split into factions.  Part of the tribe remained neutral in the conflict, and was led by Konieschquanoheel , or Captain Pipe.  White Eyes cast his lot with the Americas.  His ultimate goal was to create a Delaware Indian state with representation in Congress.  White Eyes addressed the Continental Congress in April of 1775 with this aim, and in 1778 signed a treaty with the new republic which outlined these goals. 
In November of 1778, White Eyes served the American army as negotiator in a hostile move toward Detroit.  White Eyes, heading for our part of Ohio, vanished.  Army officials told the Delaware that he died of smallpox.  In later years George Morgan, a friend of White Eyes, wrote to Congress that White Eyes had been murdered by American militiamen, who then covered up their deed to keep the Delaware nation within the American sphere of influence.  It is now generally accepted that White Eyes was murdered, although the details are unclear.

            It is sad that so many Native people have no monument beyond giving their names to our landcape, especially those who tried to work with the settlers who now occupy that land.  White Eyes lived and died long ago, but we would do well to remember him.  His story reminds us that working for a just cause does not absolve bad actions.  This keeps Indian place names from being merely quaint.

{Sources include A. A. Graham, History of Coshocton County, Ohio (1881), and Gregory Dowd, A Spirited Resistance (1992).]

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