“Ron-nyan-es” or “Striking the Sky,” Big Turtle Clan
(1822 – 1887)
By Sallie Cotter Andrews – Tewatronyahkwa, Deer Clan
Nicholas Cotter was born in Canada, just across the river from Detroit, March 6, 1822. His Catholic baptismal records, now in London, Ontario, state that his parents were Francis Cotter, Sr., and Catherine Brown Cotter. Their Wyandotte names were Tahatonne and Zha-a-rish. Nicholas’ Wyandotte name was Ron-nyan-es meaning “Striking the Sky” of the Big Turtle clan. Armand Warrow was his godfather.(1) A map of the Huron Reserve of 1836 reveals that Nicholas had an allotment on the Canadian side of the Detroit River as did his father, Frances, and his brother Hiram.(2) Nicholas was 14 at that time. He was also listed as a “Warrior of the Wyandot Tribe of Indians residing on the Huron Reserve” along with his father, Francis, and brother, Anthony. They are also listed as “Warriors of the Huron.”(3)
In 1843, when he was 20, he and his parents and siblings were among the Wyandots living in Canada and Michigan who joined the Wyandots in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and moved west to Kansas.(4)
He married girl and in 1849 had a daughter, Caroline E., of the Snipe Clan.(5,6) Nicholas was reportedly one of the Indian scouts who went with John C. Freemont, “The Pathfinder,” to California in 1849.(7) It was written that the explorers took a route through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and many in their party froze and starved to death on the way; the survivors even ate their leather gloves. When they arrived in California, they were in such poor health that they had to be fed spoonfuls of mush and milk until they were able to eat more without danger to their lives.(8)
Nicholas returned to Kansas and was elected by the tribe as “Ferryman” on the Kansas River for the year 1853.(9) Prior to 1855, Nicholas’ wife died. On the 1855 roll, Caroline E. is listed with Nicholas, but without a mother. Nicholas is listed as 33 years of age and Caroline E. as 6.(10) [Caroline E. grew up and married John Spicer of the Seneca-Cayuga tribe. They were married for 15 years. The Quaker missionaries recorded that Caroline had become a Christian in 1883. She died Dec. 23, 1893, in the Seneca Nation, I.T.(11) She may have previously married a Peoria man named John “Jack” (Cha-ka-ha) Valley before marrying John Spicer.] (12) In 1860, Caroline was residing with the Forseythe family; and in 1865 with the John Buckley family.(13)
When the Civil War began in 1861, 35 Wyandot men joined the 6th and 12th regiments of the Union Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, part of the Kansas Indian Home Guard.(14) But just as the Civil War split families and sometimes caused brother to fight against brother, it also divided the Wyandot nation into opposing sides. William Long recorded in his Indian-Pioneer History interview in 1937 that four men in the county rode with Confederate guerrilla fighter and leader William Clarke Quantrill, fighting in the battles at Pea Ridge (1862), Baxter Springs (1863), Hudson Bottom and Blue Mound. Two that he named were Frank Whitewing and Nicholas Cotter.(15) Were they really Confederates? Well, for Nicholas, we might conclude that his feelings did in fact run deep. Nicholas had already had a son whom he named Jefferson Davis Cotter. Jefferson was born on September 28, 1861, in Wyandotte County, Kansas. His mother was Susan Nofat Punch, age 24. Nicholas was 39.(16,17)
On the 1869 roll, which gave an update of the 1855 roll, following Nicholas’ and Caroline’s names are entered the names of Elizabeth Arms and Schofield Arms, Elizabeth’s son, and it listed that that they were residing in Indian Territory.(18) (Elizabeth’s mother died in 1852 and her father, John Arms, died in 1856. What happened to Schofield is not known at this time. Elizabeth, an orphan, became the ward of George I. Clark in 1855 and Matilda Hicks in 1858. In 1861, she was with the Isaac Brown family).(19) On April 17, 1869, Elizabeth’s son, Joel Anthony Cotter, was born in Wyandotte, I.T.(20) Elizabeth was 24; Nicholas was 47 years of age.
In 1876, Nicholas became a delegate of the Wyandotte nation and travelled to Washington, D.C., on tribal business in the company of John Sarahass and Matthew Mudeater. There he was photographed by William H. Jackson, staff photographer for the United States Geological Survey of the Territories. His photographs is now at the Smithsonian Institution.(21)
In 1879, Nicholas became a translator and navigator for Friends missionary, Jeremiah Hubbard in Indian Territory. Nicholas became a Christian, and the two travelled together for several years. Nicholas translated when necessary and also led the singing in the Wyandotte language – the song “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is specifically mentioned. The two stayed overnight at many homes including at Mathias Splitlog’s home and Irvin P. Long’s home, and Jeremiah Hubbard recorded that the old men liked to stay up all night and talk.(22)
On November 12, 1879, probably at the urging of Jeremiah Hubbard, Nicholas married Elizabeth Arms.(23) She was 25 years younger than Nicholas. They had long before formed a blended family. Jeremiah Hubbard always wanted to re-marry couples who had been “married in the Indian way.” On the 1885 roll, Nicholas is listed as the father (age 65), Elizabeth as the mother (age 40), Jefferson as a son (age 24), Joseph (aka Joel Anthony) as a son (age 17), and Huldah Bonwill Cotter as a daughter (age 10).(24) [Huldah Bonwill Cotter was named for Quaker missionary, Huldah Bonwill, from Massachusetts, who served at the Indian school in Wyandotte.(25) Jefferson and Huldah attended the Seneca Indian School; Jefferson also went to Haskell Institute; Joel and Huldah went to the Haskell Institute in 1889.(26) In 1885, Nicholas’ first daughter, Caroline E., was already married to John Spicer; she died in 1893.](27)
Nicholas served as Chief of the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma from 1880 to 1882.(28) On September 16, 1885, Nicholas’ son, Joel Anthony Cotter, was enrolled at Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and attended for three years.(29)
Nicholas Cotter’s legacy is one of a full, adventurous life. He started out strong – as a warrior of his nation. He moved with the times and travelled from Canada to Oklahoma and coast to coast – to California and Washington, D.C. — by river and trail. He fought for what he believed in, sought adventure and served others as a father, ferryman, warrior and soldier, scout, missionary translator and singer, and chief of his tribe. He had three wives and four children. His children received an education and grew up to be good citizens.
His grandson, Leonard Nicholas Cotter, served as Chief of the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma for 38 years and named his own son Leonard Nicholas Cotter, Jr., whom they called “Nick.”(30)
Nicholas Cotter’s photograph, taken in 1876, shows his strong features, powerful hands and gentle eyes – the mark of his character.
Nicholas died October 10, 1887(31) at the age of 65, and reportedly was buried in the Bland Cemetery.(32) The Quaker “Friends’ Review” said he passed away quite suddenly.(33) His marker is now gone and his exact resting place is not known to us. But his story and spirit is alive in the hearts of his family and nation.
Research by Grace Warrow Manning, Yvonne Gibbs and Lil Splitlog at St. John the Baptiste Church, Amhurstburg, Ontario, Canada, and Assumption Church in Windsor, Ontario – given to Sallie Cotter Andrews in the 1990s.