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The Story of Two Colonists Who Broke An Agreement with Native Americans


John and Walter Winter’s timing was terrible. Nervous about hostile Native Americans, the two took it upon themselves to kill three of them in northern Chester County in 1728. “It was not an era when pioneers dared go berserk,” wrote historian Hubertis M. Cummings. “Unarmed Pennsylvania dared not risk the disaffection of the Conestogoes, the Delawares or the Five Nations.”

Back then, Native American lives mattered in a way they wouldn’t a generation later. Pennsylvania had been founded with an agreement that both natives and settlers would treat each other fairly, and therefore provide no cause for fighting. Almost 50 years after, both sides were still committed. The colony didn’t even have a militia, leaving European settlers little other choice. 

Not much is known of the Winters. Some describe them as brothers, others father (John) and son (Walter). Historian John Nelson says they were Welsh immigrants. One online genealogist identifies John Winter as an Irishman, born about 1665, who came to Maryland at age 15, married and had eight children. Walter, born 1704, was the second. Eventually, the family moved north to Pennsylvania.

Whatever their background, by 1728, the Winters were living northwest of present-day Reading in an area called “Cucussea.” Cucussea was an English corruption of the Lenape word Gokhosing (“place of owls”) for a spot in Spring Township where a small stream flows into Tulpehocken Creek. The stream and the unincorporated community that surround the area now carry the name Cacoosing.

Welsh settlers had migrated up the Schuylkill Valley from the Main Line Welsh Tract and, before 1740, their farms took up large swaths of land. Swedes settled at Morlatton (present-day Douglassville). Germans and Scots-Irish were also beginning to arrive.

Just to the south was the Coventry iron forge, founded in 1717 by Samuel Nutt, an early industrialist, member of the Colonial Assembly and, in 1728, a justice of the peace. Named for Nutt’s home in Coventry, England, the forge was the first in Chester County and a substantial operation for the time. “In 1718, Jonathan Dickinson mentions in a letter that the ironworks 40 miles up the Schuylkill are very great,” wrote historian J. Leander Bishop in 1866. “The reference here was probably to the Coventry Forge on French Creek in Coventry Township, Chester County. This bloomery was built by a person named Nutt who made other large improvements at the place.”

Even so, Native Americans were not strangers in the neighborhood. In the early 18th century, with Pennsylvania’s Quaker legislators determined to continue William Penn’s peaceful policies, the colony became a haven for tribes broken up by war elsewhere. In 1714, dislocated Shawnee—previously native to Ohio and the western portions of Virginia and Pennsylvania—asked an Oneida chief, Carondawana, to be their representative to the Pennsylvania government. The Shawnee were then living in central Pennsylvania.

Native Americans made good customers for Philadelphia merchants. They brought furs and bought manufactured goods—clothing, tools, firearms and liquor. Liquor caused problems, though. “When we drink it, it makes us mad,” said one sachem. “We then abuse one another; we throw each other into the fire; seven score of our people have been killed by reason of the drinking of it, since the time it was first sold to us.” 

But liquor—rum, in particular—was such a profitable trade item that, when the Iroquois requested official assistance in stopping the traffic, the European settlers declined.

Settlers, often just off boats from Europe, and Native Americans, long familiar with the lands on which farms were being created, made each other nervous. According to historian Eric Hinderaker, that was especially so when armed warriors crossed settled lands.Hinderaker, that was especially so when armed warriors crossed settled lands.

In 1720, a party of Iroquois warriors showed up in Conestoga on their way south to raid Catawba settlements in the Carolinas. Nearby settlers were terrified when, according to one resident, the Iroquois shot “our people’s (livestock) for their diversion only, without touching them for food” and robbed a merchant. Worse, several warriors “had the boldness to assert that all the lands upon Susquehanna River belonged to them, and that the English had no right to settle there.”

A subsequent conference between Iroquois elders and Pennsylvania authorities confirmed both sides’ commitment to restrain and punish their transgressors. 

In May 1728, a party of Shawnee—painted and armed for battle—appeared among settlers living along Manatawny Creek, east of present-day Reading. As their leader later explained, they were investigating reports that Catawba warriors had come north. While among the settlers, the Shawnee resupplied, even entering houses to demand hospitality. Some settlers claimed they heard the warriors speaking another language. “It might have been French, which raised questions about the Indians’ loyalty to the colony,” wrote Hinderaker.Hinderaker.

War between the English and French Canada, and their respective Native American allies, was a staple of the colonial period. Terrified, the settlers organized a posse, which chased down the Shawnee. That encounter ended in gunfire and minor injuries. Word of the skirmish spread, changed, and was exaggerated. 

At Cucussea, the Winters heard from a German that—as Walter Winter later related—“the Indians had killed sundry Dutchmen (and) had killed two and wounded three Christians.” No such incident is recorded. 

His response was to turn his house into a fort, calling the neighbors to shelter there and securing the windows “in case any attempt should be made upon them.”

While the Winters were busy with this, the agitated son of neighbor John Roberts showed up with news of armed Native Americans at his father’s house, threatening his life. The Winters, plus another man, grabbed their muskets and headed out.

Crossing a log bridge on the approach to the Roberts house, Walter later related in his official statement that he “saw an Indian man, some women and some girls sitting on a wood pile before John Roberts’ door.”

Perhaps startled, the Indian man got up, “took his bow and, stepping backwards, took an arrow from his back, putting it to the string of the bow, whereupon [Walter], apprehending the Indian who was going to shoot at him, presented his gun and shot at the Indian man.” 

Walter testified that he saw blood on the man’s chest. “John Winter at the same time shot one of the Indian women,” he continued, “and then run up and knocked another Indian woman’s brains out.” 

When the Native American girls ran away, Walter picked up the dropped bow and fired an arrow before chasing one of them down. They got to the cabin in time for Walter to see the injured man—Toka Collie, an elderly Delaware Indian familiar to the settlers—stagger into a nearby swamp, where he died from his musket wound.

The next morning, the second girl was found in Collie’s cabin. The Winters beat her and dragged her back to the Roberts house. The dead women were tossed into a hole and covered with leaves.

A day or so later, Pennsylvania Gov. Patrick Gordon—appointed to his post two years earlier—received a note from Nutt, informing him of “the disagreeable news that one Walter Winter and John Winter, and others, have murdered one Indian man and two Indian women, and that the said Winters have brought two girls to receive some reward.”

Lest Gordon miss his most important concern, Nutt made it plain: “Most certainly such actions will create the greatest antipathy betwixt the several nations of Indians and the Christians. We desire the governor to warn the inhabitants not to be so ready to attack the Indians. And we will use all endeavors to hinder any such like proceeding on the part of the Indians,” wrote Native American trader James Le Tort.

Gordon, a retired regimental commander with decades of service in the British army, got the point. Pennsylvania had no regiments to call on. The Native Americans would have to be placated with justice. Officials and citizens were alerted to “levy hue and cry with horse and with foot within the province of Pennsylvania after ye said Walter Winter and John Winter.”

Gordon also sent a messenger with presents for the injured girls, plus instructions that a skilled person should dress their wounds. He sent interpreters to the important chiefs, describing what he was doing to apprehend the criminals. 

Ten days later, surrounded by 30 of Pennsylvania’s senior leaders, Gordon met for two days with 17 chiefs of the Delaware, Ganawese, Shawanese and Mingoes. He spoke of the friendship dating back to Penn and presented the natives with coats, blankets, shirts, gunpowder and shot, plus rum, bread, pipes and tobacco. And for relatives of the deceased, “these six handkerchiefs to wipe away their tears.” 

Allumanapees, a chief of the Delaware, responded that he was “glad of the friendship and agreement that subsists between the Indians and the Christians, and he will always endeavor to strengthen and increase it.”

Gordon followed through, and the Winters were hanged at Chester.

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