Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 9, No. 1
CORNSTALK THE SHAWNEE
By Dr. W. B. Morrison
While the Shawnees, sometimes called the "Arabs of the New World," were a small tribe of Indians, whose original home was
the Scioto Valley of Ohio, in proportion to their numbers probably no other Indian tribe, except possibly the Apaches of the
Far West, ever fought the white race with as much determination and resourcefulness as did this body of Indians. In mental
ability they stood far above the average of their race. It is said that a Shawnee frequently was able to converse in four
or five languages, including French and English. This was the tribe that produced the great Tecumseh, who came so near to
forming the only really dangerous Indian confederacy. For many years the Shawnees terrorized the hardy colonists of the four
states embracing the present confines of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. It was their boast that they inflicted
upon the white man ten times as much loss as they themselves received. But their brave and bloody fights were all in vain.
Step by step the white pioneer pushed them westward to Indiana, Illinois, then Kansas, until now the shattered remnants of
the tribe are to be found in the central part of Oklahoma, where a flourishing western city perpetuates their name.
The hostility of the Shawnees against the American pioneers was first aroused about the middle of the Eighteenth Century,
the bold Scotch-Irish began to cross the Alleghenies and press on into the Ohio Valley. The Shawnees naturally became the
allies of the French in the French and Indian War, and it was during this war that we first hear of Chief Cornstalk. He was
a dangerous foe. One of the most terrifying things about Cornstalk and his Shawnees was the uncertainty of their movements
and the long distances they would travel to attack some unsuspecting settlement.
On October 10, 1759, Cornstalk with a small body of warriors suddenly appeared on the headwaters of Kerr's Creek, in what
now Rockbridge County, Virginia—nearly three hundred miles from the Scioto. Without warning they fell upon the Scotch-Irish
settlers, killed and scalped ten of them, burned their homes, and then hastened westward through the
mountain passes with eleven prisoners and several thousand dollars worth of booty. It is said that there were two Frenchmen
with the savages. A company of militia pursued the Shawnees, surprised them and recovered all the prisoners and the booty,
even the scalps of the dead. But the savages all escaped.
The next time we hear of the activities of Cornstalk is in the Pontiac War of 1763. Again he led a band of desperate savages
into the same peaceful Virginia Valley. This time, the residents of Kerr's Creek had some little warning of the approach of
the Indians, and on Sunday, July 17, 1763, many of them had gathered at the blockhouse of Jonathan Cunningham, at Big Springs,
almost in sight of New Monmouth, now one of our most prosperous Presbyterian churches of the Virginia Valley. But after all,
the Indians surprised the settlers, captured the blockhouse, killing the men and carrying away the women and children as prisoners.
The losses of the settlers in killed and captured were probably as many as fifty, though there are conflicting stories as
to the exact number. The graves of the victims of this massacre may still be seen in what is known as the "McKee burying ground,"
near Big Spring, about seven miles north of Lexington, Virginia.
The prisoners taken by Cornstalk's band were carried all the way to the Scioto, suffering untold hardships by the way. When
reached the Indian camp grounds it is said that the Shawnees held a big celebration, in the course of which they called upon
some of the women prisoners to sing for them. The brave old Presbyterian women sang Rouse's version of the 137th Psalm, one
stanza of which reads:
"For there a song requested they
Who did us captives bring;
Our spoilers called for mirth and said
'A Song of Zion sing.' "
We hear little of the activities of Cornstalk again for about ten years. It is said that he became convinced of the futility
of warfare against the pioneers, and that his voice was for peace in the councils of the Red Men. However, the War of Revolution
was brewing, and emissaries of the British were busy among the Indians of the Ohio Valley. A formidable confederacy of most
of the Indian tribes along
the Ohio was formed, and leadership placed in the hands of the famous Logan and Cornstalk. Governor Dunmore of Virginia took
steps to meet the danger, sending one force down the Ohio from Pittsburgh, and another, composed of the Virginia militia under
General Andrew Lewis, down the Kanawha. At Point Pleasant, near the confluence of the Kanawha and the Ohio, on October 10,
1774, Cornstalk and his allied Indian force attacked the Virginians in an all-day fight, one of the bloodiest and most determined
in the annals of our history. The losses on both sides ran into the hundreds, but Indians were finally repulsed. It is charged
that Governor Dunmore was in no hurry to bring aid to the militia, being content for the Indians and the independent backwoodsmen
to exterminate each other.
As the War of Revolution proceeded, Cornstalk consistently advised his followers against taking sides with the British. However,
in 1777, the Americans determined to forestall another Indian attack by carrying the war into the enemy's country. General
Edward Hand was in command of the American frontier forces with headquarters at Pittsburgh. There was also a garrison at Point
Pleasant in charge of Captain Arbuckle of the Virginia militia. The Shawnees sent two of their prominent men over to Point
Pleasant to protest against the impending invasion. Arbuckle seized and held them as spies.
A few days later, El-i-nip-si-co, a son of Cornstalk, came to find out why the delegates had been detained. Some misleading
promises to the Indians were evidently made, for soon Cornstalk himself came to Point Pleasant and was similarly held. On
November 10, 1777, while officers of the milita were having a conference with the Indian prisoners, two of the soldiers from
the garrison went across the Kanawha to hunt. They were fired on by hidden Indians, and one of them, Robert Gilmore, a relative
of the Kerr's Creek victims of Cornstalk's first raid, was killed and scalped. His comrades raised the alarm, and soldiers
of the post went over, soon returning with the bleeding corpse of young Gilmore. Many of the soldiers at Point Pleasant were
from Rockbridge, and they firmly believed that this latest attack was a part of the treachery of Cornstalk and his followers.
The cry was at once raised, "Let us kill the Indians in the fort." And in
spite of the earnest protest of Captain Arbuckle and others, a great mob of the pioneer soldiers rushed to the log cabin where
the Indians were confined, and shot them to death. Cornstalk, as his enemies approached, bared his breast, saying: "If any
Big Knife has anything against me, let him now avenge himself." He fell with seven or eight bullets through his body. The
other Indians were also shot, and the body of at least one of them mutilated.
General Hand arrived from Pittsburgh a short time later, but such was the feeling among the soldiers that he did not dare
to arrest the perpetrators of the deed. Patrick Henry, then a governor of Virginia, offered a reward for the apprehension
of the murderers of Cornstalk, but though a number of them were afterwards brought to trial in Virginia, no witnesses appeared
against them, and the matter was dropped. This unfortunate affair precipitated a bloody war with the Indians, but nevertheless
it seemed to meet the approval of the stern pioneers who had suffered so severely at the hands of these savages. They believed
with all their hearts in the adage later attributed to General Phil Sheridan, that the "only good Indian is a dead Indian."
A rhymester of the period has left these lines, which scarcely suggest regret:
"Cornstalk, the Shawnees' greatest boast,
Old Yie, by whom much blood was lost,
Red Hand and El-i-nip-si-co
Lie dead beside the Ohio."
Cornstalk may be regarded as a typical Indian leader. His savagery and cruelty were characteristic of the Red Man. But today
can admire the bravery and resourcefulness he displayed against odds, and we can also deplore his disgraceful death. If any
of our readers should ever visit the little town of Point Pleasant, county seat of Mason County, West Virginia, they will
find in the courthouse yard a dignified granite monument erected to the memory of Cornstalk by the citizens of that community
in 1896—a belated recognition of the ability and valor of an Indian foeman.
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