October 26, 2014

Shawnee Chief Cornstalk

Shawnee Chief Cornstalk (aka Keigh-tugh-guawas, Hokoleskwa, Hokolesqua, Wynepuechsika, Peter Cornstalk and Peter Fry) was born in 1720, in Mason County, Virginia (now West Virginia). He became chief of the Shawnee Native Americans and led them to battle against the Americans (particularly the Virginians).  He later became the chief of many tribes.

Painting of Shawnee Chief Cornstalk

Chief Cornstalk was a prominent leader of the Shawnee nation just prior to the American Revolution. His name, Hokoleskwa, translates loosely into “stalk of corn” in English, and is spelled Colesqua in some accounts. He was also known as Keigh-tugh-qua and Wynepuechsika.

Historians believe he may have been born in present-day Pennsylvania, and with his sister, Nonhelema, moved to the Ohio Country, near present day Chillicothe, when the Shawnee fell back before the wave of expanding white settlement.

Dunsmore’s War of 1774

Cornstalk played a central role in Dunmore’s War of 1774. After the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, settlers and land speculators moved into the lands south of the Ohio River in present-day Kentucky.

Although the Iroquois had agreed to cede the land, the Shawnee and others had not been present at the Fort Stanwix negotiations. They still claimed Kentucky as their hunting grounds. Clashes soon took place over this. Cornstalk tried unsuccessfully to prevent escalation of the hostilities.

The Battle of Point Pleasant
The greatest battle in which he led his forces was the Battle of Point Pleasant on 10 October 1774.  On that date, when the white settlers were moving down into the Kanawha and Ohio River valleys, the Native American Confederacy prepared to protect their lands by any means necessary. The nations began to mass in a rough line across the point from the Ohio River to the Kanawha River, numbering about 1200 warriors.

They began to make preparations to attack the white settlers near an area called Point Pleasant on the Virginia side of the Ohio River. As word reached the colonial military leaders of the impending attack, troops were sent in and faced off against the Indians. While the numbers of fighters were fairly even on both sides, the Native Americans were no match for the muskets of the white soldiers.

The battle ended with about 140 colonials killed and more than twice that number of Indians. The tribes retreated westward into the wilds of what is now Ohio and in order to keep them from returning, a fort was constructed at the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers.  Many Native Americans were killed and many Americans were killed.  Overall, the Native American forces were defeated. 

American Revolution
With the American Revolution began, Cornstalk worked to keep his people neutral. He represented the Shawnee at treaty councils at Fort Pitt in 1775 and 1776, the first Indian treaties ever negotiated by the United States. Many Shawnees nevertheless hoped to use British aid to reclaim their lands lost to the settlers. By the winter of 1776, the Shawnee were effectively divided into a neutral faction led by Cornstalk, and militant bands led by men such as Blue Jacket.

Cornstalk Made Peace

As time passed, the Shawnee leader, Cornstalk, made peace with the white men. He would carry word to his new friends in 1777 when the British began coaxing the Indians into attacking the rebellious colonies. Soon, the tribes again began massing along the Ohio River, intent on attacking the fort.
Cornstalk and Red Hawk, a Delaware chief, had no taste for war with the Americans and they went to the fort at Point Pleasant on November 7, 1777, to try and negotiate a peace before fighting began.
Cornstalk told Captain Arbuckle, who commanded the garrison, that he was opposed to war with the colonists but that only he and his tribe were holding back from joining on the side of the British. He was afraid that he would be forced to go along by the rest of the Confederacy.


When he admitted to Arbuckle that he would allow his men to fight if the other tribes did, Cornstalk, Red Hawk and another Indian were taken as hostages. The Americans believed that they could use him to keep the other tribes from attacking.

They forced the Native Americans into a standoff for none of them wanted to risk the life of their leader. Cornstalk’s name not only stuck fear into hearts of the white settlers up and down the frontier, but it also garnered respect from the other Indian tribes.

He was gifted with great oratory skills, fighting ability and military genius. In fact, it was said that when his fighting tactics were adopted by the Americans, they were able to defeat the British in a number of battles where they had been both outnumbered and outgunned.

Although taken as hostage, Cornstalk and the other Indians were treated well and were given comfortable quarters, leading many to wonder if the chief’s hostage status may have been voluntary in the beginning.

Cornstalk even assisted his captors in plotting maps of the Ohio River Valley during his imprisonment. On November 9, Cornstalk’s son, Ellinipisco, came to the fort to see his father and he was also detained.

Death of Cornstalk

When, on November 10, 1777, an American militiaman from the fort was killed nearby by unknown Indians, angry soldiers brutally executed Cornstalk, his son Elinipsico, and two other Shawnees.

When the soldier’s bloody corpse was returned to the fort, the soldiers in the garrison were enraged. Acting against orders, they broke into the quarters where Cornstalk and the other Indians were being held.

Even though the men had nothing to do with the crime, they decided to execute the prisoners as revenge. As the soldiers burst through the doorway, Cornstalk rose to meet them.

It was said that he stood facing the soldiers with such bravery that they paused momentarily in their attack. It wasn’t enough though and the soldiers opened fire with their muskets.

Red Hawk tried to escape up through the chimney but was pulled back down and slaughtered.

Ellinipisico was shot where he had been sitting on a stool and the other unknown Indian was strangled to death. As for Cornstalk, he was shot eight times before he fell to the floor. 

American political and military leaders were alarmed by the murder of Cornstalk; they believed he was their only hope of securing Shawnee neutrality. At the insistence of Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, Cornstalk’s killers (whom Henry called “vile assassins”) were eventually brought to trial, but since their fellow soldiers would not testify against them, all were acquitted.

Burial, Monuments and Curses

Grave Monument of Chief Cornstalk, ShawneeThe bodies of the other Indians were then taken and dumped into the Kanawha River but Cornstalk’s corpse was buried near the fort on Point Pleasant, overlooking the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers. Here he remained for many years, but he would not rest in peace.

In 1794, the town of Point Pleasant was established near the site of the old fort. For many years after, the Indian’s grave lay undisturbed but in 1840 his bones were removed to the grounds of the Mason County Court House where, in 1899, a monument was erected in Cornstalk’s memory.

In the late 1950’s, a new court house was built in Point Pleasant and the chief’s remains (which now consisted of three teeth and about 15 pieces of bone) were placed in an aluminum box and reinterred in a corner of the town’s Tu-Endie-Wei Park, next to the grave of a Virginia frontiersman that Cornstalk once fought and later befriended.

 A twelve foot monument was then erected in his honor.

Chief Cornstalk statue at Pt Pleasant

And this is not the only monument dedicated to the period in Point Pleasant. Another stands 86-feet tall and was dedicated in August 1909, one month behind schedule.

Originally, the dedication ceremony had been set for July 22 but on the night before the event, the clear overhead sky erupted with lightning and struck the upper part of a crane that was supposed to put the monument into place. The machine was badly damaged and it took nearly a month to repair it.

MonumentLegends arose about Cornstalk’s dying “curse” being the cause of misfortunes in the area (later supplanted by local “mothman” stories), though no contemporary historical source mentions any such utterance by Cornstalk.

The legends say as he lay there dying in the smoke-filled room at the fort, he was said to have pronounced his now legendary curse. The stories say that he looked upon his assassins and spoke to them:

I” was the border man’s friend. Many times I have saved him and his people from harm. I never warred with you, but only to protect our wigwams and lands. I refused to join your paleface enemies with the red coats. I came to the fort as your friend and you murdered me. You have murdered by my side, my young son…. For this, may the curse of the Great Spirit rest upon this land. May it be blighted by nature. May it even be blighted in its hopes. May the strength of its peoples be paralyzed by the stain of our blood.”

He spoke these words, so says the legend, and then he died.

The monument was finally dedicated and stood for years, until July 4, 1921. On that day, another bolt of lightning struck the monument, damaging the capstone and some granite blocks. They were replaced and the monument still stands today.

But what is this bedeviled obelisk that seems to attract inexplicable lightning on otherwise clear evenings? It is a monument to the men who died in the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant, when Cornstalk and his allies were defeated.

Could the freak lightning strikes have been acts of vengeance tied to Cornstalk’s fabled curse? Many believed so and for years, residents of the triangular area made up of western West Virginia, southwest Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio spoke of strange happenings, river tragedies and fires as part of the curse.

Of course, many laughed and said that the curse was nothing more than overactive imaginations, ignoring the death toll and eerie coincidences that seemed to plague the region for 200 years after the death of Chief Cornstalk.

Many tragedies and disasters were blamed on the curse:

1907: The worst coal mine disaster in American history took place in Monongah, West Virginia on December 6, when 310 miners were killed.

1944: In June of this year, 150 people were killed when a tornado ripped through the tri-state triangular area.

1967: The devastating Silver Bridge disaster sent 46 people hurtling to their death in the Ohio River on December 15. Many have also connected this tragedy to the eerie sightings of the Mothman, strange lights in the sky and odd paranormal happenings.

1968: A Piedmont Airlines plane crashed in August near the Kanawha Airport, killing 35 people on board.

1970: On November 14, a Southern Airways DC-10 crashed into a mountain near Huntington, West Virginia, killing 75 people on board.

1976: In March of that year, the town of Point Pleasant was rocked in the middle of the night be an explosion at the Mason County Jail. Housed in the jail was a woman named Harriet Sisk, who had been arrested, for the murder of her infant daughter. On March 2, her husband came to the jail with a suitcase full of explosives to kill himself and his wife and to destroy the building. Both of the Sisk’s were killed, along with three law enforcement officers.

1978: In January, a freight train derailed at Point Pleasant and dumped thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals. The chemicals contaminated the town’s water supply and the wells had to be abandoned.

1978: In April of that same year, the town of St. Mary’s (north of Point Pleasant) was struck with tragedy when 51 men who were working on the Willow Island power plant were killed when their construction scaffolding collapsed.

And there have been many other strange occurrences, fires and floods. Most would say however that floods are a natural part of living on the river, although Point Pleasant was almost obliterated in 1913 and 1937. It might be hard to tie such natural occurrences into a curse, but what about the barge explosion that killed six men from town just before Christmas 1953? Or the fire that destroyed an entire downtown city block in the late 1880’s? Some have even gone as far as to blame the curse for the death of Point Pleasant’s local economy, an event linked to the passing of river travel and commerce.

So how real is the “curse”? Is it simply a string of bloody and tragic coincidences, culled from two centuries of sadness in the region? Can it be used to explain why the area seems to attract strange happenings and eerie tales? Or is the area somehow “blighted”, separate from any curse, and attractive to the strangeness that seems to lurk in the shadowy corners of America?

The reader is asked to judge the validity of such curses for himself. For the most part, the deaths and tragedies seem to have waned over the years, perhaps dying out at the bicentennial of Chief Cornstalk’s death. Largely, the curse has been forgotten over time and today, Point Pleasant is better known for its connection to otherworldly visitors like Mothman than for Indian curses and bloody frontier battles.

Fact or coincidence? Who can say… but I hope, for the sake of the people of the Ohio River valley, that Chief Cornstalk will finally rest in peace!

Famous Shawnee
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