J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Real Story of “Boiling Water”

On 18 June 1756, early in the French and Indian War, Lt. Charles Lee wrote home to his sister Sidney from the New York frontier:

I have the honour to be adopted by the Mohocks into the Tribe of the bear under the name of Ounewaterika, which signifies boiling water, or one whose spirits are never asleep, by which I am entitled to a Seat and the privilege of Smoking a pipe in their Councils; but I do not flatter myself that I am so much indebted to my own merit for these dignities as to my alliance with one of the most illustrious families of the Six Nations.

My Wife is daughter to the famous White Thunder who is Belt of Wampum to the Senakas which is in fact their Lord Treasurer. She is a very great beauty and is more like your friend Mrs. Griffith than anybody I know. I shall say nothing of her accomplishments for you must be certain that a Woman of her fashion cannot be without many.

I must mention to you an instance of gratitude which a young Indian shew’d me lately. He is called Joseph and has liv’d with me a great deal. About a month ago, he says to me, Ounewaterika, you are my best Brother and I will make you a handsome present that you may remember me. I cou’d not conceive what he meant; but he immediately set out for Tikenderoga (the French fort) where he lay sculking for two or three days until he had an opportunity of knocking on the head a French Sergeant, and taking off his scalp, with which he hurried away to me and presented it to me elegantly dress’d up with ribbons. You may think that I am endeavouring to make my Letter Romantic but I give you my word and honour that it is every syllable facts.
Lee went on to become a lieutenant colonel in the British army, then a general in the American army.

Should we count “Ounewaterika,” or “Boiling Water,” as a nickname, like those of other prominent Revolutionary War figures I’ve been assessing?

In fact, some of Lee’s friends in England used “Boiling Water” as his nickname. Biographer John R. Alden quotes Sir Charles Davers writing to Horatio Gates sometimes in the late 1760s, “It would make the heart of so callous a bouger as I am to jump if I could meet you and boiling water, & Hall [John Hall-Stevenson] somewhere or other.”

I don’t have the expertise to know if “Ounewaterika” is a good transliteration of a Mohawk phrase, and if “Boiling Water” is an accurate translation of it. But biographers agree that it’s an excellent metaphor for Lee’s roiling, powerful, and dangerous personality.


Anonymous said...

"Ohneka" is Mohawk for "water", so there may be some validity to the nickname if one considers spelling variations and the use of 'ohneka' as a root word.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, but I don't know how Mohawk words are constructed. And the appearance of the word "water" itself within Lee's spelling of the word is curious. But of course he had water on his mind as he transliterated.

Anonymous said...

True, that. At the very least, it's an interesting combination of lack of knowledge of native american language and high self-opinion.

J. L. Bell said...

It would be amusing if the best Mohawk translation of that word turned out to be "Big-nosed git who smells like dogs."

Unknown said...

Perhaps reaching out to someone of the Mohawk community would shed some light on the translation as well as give a sense of their language and work structure. The community of Kanatsiohareke @ Fonda, NY has yearly language immersion courses as well.

Albie said...

These tales of Native American and White Folks interactions, might we say "attractions" to one another are fascinating.

I have a xerox copy of a book written four years after the "kidnapping" of my quakers relatives right around the Revolution. It's packed away because of my move from Maine to Boston, but the gist is that my Pennsylvania Quaker relatives who lived in Philadelphia, sent their son, Benjamin Gilbert, age 12, to live with their country relatives, Benjamin Gilbert, Sr., where he wouldn't be exposed to the roughness of city life. These relatives had good relations with the local Indians.

Fast forward, six Indians from three tribes, Mokawks one, as I recall, kidnapped 13 members of the family, took them to Canada to replace family members who had been killed by Colonists. If you were lucky and replaced a relative who was loved, you got good treatment. If the relative was not loved, it could be hard. (I am not schooled in such accounts and am not talking about what is "true," but what was said.

Three years later after negotiations among Brits, French, Colonists & Indians, they are released (the father died during the journey to Canada.) Ben had so adapted to Indian life, he couldn't make the transition back. "Injun Ben" he was called. Betsy Gilbert, also 12, bonded with her Indian father, I think "John Huston" but not sure of spelling. Many years later when Huston sent some representatives to negotiate with Whites in DC, and Betsy, then middle aged heard of it, she baked some cookies, made a scarf and sent them to the emmasaries to give to her "father," "from your White daughter, Betsy."

(This personal family tale is only intended to say we should learn more about the real relationships. When I finally find the box this rather long copy is in, I could quote it directly.)

I love this blog!