Chief Cornstalk after an 1870 rendering (Wikimedia Commons)
The American Revolution on the frontier was brutal. Neutrality was difficult position to maintain, but some Native American tribes attempted it. In the Ohio River Valley, it was particularly challenging. But, for a time the Shawnee and Delaware tribes in modern-day Ohio sought to navigate their way between British power in Detroit and the Americans in Pittsburgh. Chief Hokoleskwa, known as Cornstalk among the whites, was a leader of the pro-peace factions of the Shawnee. Unfortunately, it got him killed.
Hokoleswka was a key Shawnee leader in Dunmore’s War, waged between the Ohio tribes and Virginia settlers the year before Lexington and Concord. In that war, John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore and the last British governor of Virginia, conducted a punitive raid against the Shawnee along the Scioto River in modern-day Ohio, who had been raiding colonial settlements south and east of the Ohio River. Dunmore sent two columns against the Shawnee. One, led by the governor himself, advanced down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt and then overland toward the Shawnee villages around Chillicothe. A second column advanced down the Kanawha River, which empties into the Ohio at Point Pleasant, in what is now West Virginia.
In his definitive study of the war, Dunmore’s War, historian Glenn Williams credited Cornstalk—who had generally favored peace—with the strategy of attacking the two columns separately and well away from the heart of Shawnee power on the Scioto. Cornstalk hoped that foiling one advance would improve the tribe’s negotiating position. Cornstalk led Native American forces against the southern column at Point Pleasant, nearly defeating it. Unfortunately for the Shawnee, Dunmore’s other column rapidly marched on Chillicothe and forced the Shawnee to the peace table at Camp Charlotte, where the Virginians and the Shawnee signed a treaty ending the war.[i]
Cornstalk’s status as a Shawnee leader and accomplishments on the battlefield gave him a prominent role in the negotiations. At Camp Charlotte, he attributed the conflict to the colonials and rabble rousers among the Mingo tribe. He admitted no responsibility for the war, although he conceded Shawnee had participated in the conflict. Observers and subsequent historical accounts credited Cornstalk with persuasive rhetorical powers. One participant commented, “When he rose, he was in no wise confused or daunted, but spoke in a distinct, and audible voice, without stammering or repetition, and with peculiar emphasis. His looks while addressing Dunmore, were truly grand and majestic; yet graceful and attractive. I have heard the first orators in Virginia, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, but never have I heard one whose powers of delivery surpassed those of Cornstalk on that occasion.”[ii]
As events in the east developed and the colonies went to war with England, Cornstalk worked to keep the Shawnee neutral. He had opposed Dunmore’s war and given his word to respect the peace at Camp Charlotte. The British, however, now had other ideas. They, of course, sought to mobilize Indian power against the Americans all along the Appalachian frontier. In the north, their efforts focused on the Iroquois Confederation, and, in the south, on the Cherokee. In Ohio, British eyes naturally fell on the Shawnee, who had tried to organize the so-called “western tribes” into a confederation capable of resisting white encroachment earlier, and who had led the Ohio Indians in Dunmore’s War.[iii]
Cornstalk likely appreciated the irony of resisting British efforts to reignite a war the Shawnee had just lost. By and large, he was successful in maintaining his tribe’s neutrality during 1775 even as the western tribes closer to British power at Detroit moved toward war with the Americans. In 1775, he led a group to a meeting with the Americans, where he pledged peace and reaffirmed a commitment made at Camp Charlotte to inform the whites of any plans by miscreant young men to raid the frontier. He also sought to put to bed lingering white concerns about horses and prisoners in Shawnee hands who had been taken during Dunmore’s War and who the Shawnee had pledged to return, declaring that he personally had scoured various villages to ensure prisoners and horses were returned. The exceptions were children borne by negro women to a Shawnee father as he did not think it fair to deliver them to a state of slavery.[iv] Still, the Shawnee did not trust American professions of peace. Several chiefs informed the Virginians (who claimed the lands in Kentucky), “We are often inclined to believe there is no resting place for us and that your Intentions were [sic] to deprive us entirely of our whole Country.”[v]
In 1776 the Shawnee began to split. Like most communities during the war, the tribe contained various factions, some pro-war, and some pro-peace. The Shawnee were already divided into several functional groups, each of which focused on certain tribe-wide functions. Cornstalk led the Maquachake division, usually responsible for health and medicine in the tribe and providing the tribe-wide role of counselor. Pro-war voices in the other divisions, however, encouraged by the more militant among them, western tribes farther along the path toward war, and the British, grew dominant.[vi] For example, a Shawnee chief accompanied a group of northern Indians headed for Cherokee territory to encourage them to make war on the Americans. Other Shawnee participated in raids against Americans in western Virginia/Pennsylvania and Kentucky, even capturing Daniel Boone’s daughter.[vii] All the while, Cornstalk sought peace, but continued to lose influence among the Shawnee. In June, William Wilson, an Indian trader on the frontier, journeyed from Fort Pitt and made a circuit of the Ohio tribes on his way to the Indian towns around Detroit, where he intended to invite various chiefs to a conference at Fort Pitt. (Wilson set out for the Delaware towns and decided at Coshocton to travel on to the Wyandot on the Sandusky River, much closer to Detroit.) Cornstalk accompanied him. While Wilson was visiting a Wyandot town, the British Lieutenant Governor, Henry Hamilton, arrived, called his own conference and tore up Wilson’s invitation to a peace conference in front of the Indians, likely including Cornstalk.[viii]
American efforts to preserve a peace were not entirely futile, however. By November, the American Indian Agent at Fort Pitt could report to the Continental Congress that delegates from the Iroquois Confederacy, Delaware, Shawnee, Munsey, and Mahican tribes had assembled at Fort Pitt and pledged to remain at peace with the Americans and neutral in the American-British conflict. Ominously, his same report noted the recent murders of two women, one man, four wounded, and two soldiers killed and scalped not far from Fort Randolph (built at Point Pleasant).[ix] At the conference, Cornstalk again played the wounded party, professing a commitment to peace, conceding some Shawnee were participating in frontier raids (at the instigation of those pesky Mingoes), accusing the white men of breaking prior treaties, and admitting that the pro-peace party among the Shawnee chiefs were unable to control their more belligerent tribe members.[x]
The pledge of peace could not prevent the coming Shawnee split, however. Blue Jacket led the more militant Pekowi and Chillicothe divisions of the Shawnee.[xi] Although they had traveled to Pittsburgh together, the two leaders, Cornstalk and Blue Jacket, decided to split the tribe in the winter of 1776-1777. Cornstalk would take his neutral band to the center of Delaware power at Coshocton on the Muskingum River closer to Pittsburgh. The neutral Delaware commanded respect among both Americans and pro-war Indians, although neither would heed its advice. Blue Jacket would move west to Mad River, while other bands settled on the Little Miami River. (Blue Jacket came to dominate Shawnee deliberations. After the Revolution, he led a confederation of tribes against the Americans during the wars in the Northwest Territory, defeating the stalwart Arthur St. Clair, a veteran of the American Revolution.)
Unfortunately, efforts by Cornstalk and other like-minded leaders notwithstanding, Indian raids and retaliatory raids by American frontiersman across the Ohio River intensified in the winter of 1776-1777. Local raids around McClelland’s (near modern Georgetown, KY) and Logan’s stations, (near St. Asaph’s, KY) led settlers to flee to the anticipated safety of Harrodsburg and Boonesborough, also in Kentucky. But, as alarms passed, settlers customarily returned to their farms and fortified houses to tend crops and cattle. In March 1777, a large Indian force, perhaps more than 200, crossed into Kentucky to attack Harrodsburg. There, they came across three settlers, killing one and taking another prisoner. The third escaped to warn the settlement, which the Indians attacked on March 15th. Failing, the Indians turned toward Boonesborough, demonstrated outside that fort, and then fell upon a reoccupied Logan’s Station.[xii] Unlike the brief encounters at Harrodsburg and Boonseborough, the Indians laid siege to Logan’s Station for several weeks until finally driven off by a relief column from Virginia proper.[xiii]
Further up the Ohio River, closer to Fort Pitt, white-Indian relations were no less violent. Suspicions of a pending Indian invasion were palpable. Colonel William Crawford reported to Congress from Fort Pitt on April 22nd:
“the late depredations and murders which were committed by the Indians at different places in this neighbourhood, makes it appear to me as if a general irruption was threatened. On the 6th and 7th instant [April], they killed and scalped one man at Raccoon Creek, about twenty five miles from this place; at Muchmore’s plantation, about forty five miles down the Ohio, they killed and scalped one man, and burnt a woman and her four children; at Wheeling they killed and scalped on man, the body of whom was much mangled with tomahawks and other instruments suitable for their barbarity; at Dunkard’s Creek, one of the west Branches of the Monongahela river, they killed and scalped one man and a woman and took three children; and at each of the above places they burned houses, killed cattle, hogs &c.”[xiv]
It is worth noting that Crawford, who was a longtime resident on the frontier and generally familiar with Native Americans, did not distinguish among tribes or clans in his correspondence with Congress. Instead, like many frontier settlers and militia officers, he lumped all Native Americans into one category: Indian. A situation that called for delicate diplomacy and careful distinctions was being overwhelmed by simple racial hatred.
[i] Glenn Williams, Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era, (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2017).
[ii] Ruben Gold Thwaites, ed., Alexander Scott Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1895), p. 186. The observer’s comments are in footnote 1 at the bottom of page 186. The original work by Withers appeared in 1831. Withers was a local historian who primarily collected oral histories from descendants of frontier families and wrote down local conventional wisdom. His work suffers from all the weaknesses attendant in his methodology. Another historian fascinated with the period, Lyman Draper, saved Withers’ work for future generations, annotated it in places, and collected supplemental material, much of which was later published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Thwaites came along late in the 19th century and further annotated the material recorded by Withers and collected by Draper. The reference here is to the first printing of the Thwaites edition. Because Thwaites was so prolific, this source will be cited as Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare. The quote is repeated in Wills De Hass, History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia, (Wheeling: H. Hoblitzell, 1851), p. 162 and James McMechen, Legends of the Ohio Valley; or Thrilling Incidents of Indian Warfare, 4th ed., (Wheeling: West Virginia Printing Company, 1887) p. 16. McMechen’s work is less rigorous than the Whithers/Draper/Thwaites edition and he may well have drawn on earlier editions of Whithers’ book. De Hass was a member of the Maryland and New York Historical Societies and more rigorous than McMechen. While he is silent on his source of the quote as well, Withers appears to be the first place in which it was published. Another local historian, Joseph Doddridge, also collected oral history from the locals in their elderly years and their descendants at the dawn of the 19th century. Like Withers’ work, Doddridge’s went through several iterations. He agrees that Cornstalk blamed the war on white aggression, but only credits Cornstalk with delivering his speech “in so loud a tone of voice that he was heard all over the camp.” Joseph Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783, inclusive, together with a Review of the State of Society and Manners of the First Settlers of the Western Country, (Pittsburgh: John S. Ritenour and Wm. T. Lindsey, 1912), p. 178. Doddridge first published his work in 1824. The reprint cited here comes from an edition that includes a memoir of Doddridge from his daughter.
[iii] Colin G. Calloway, The Shawnees and the War for America, (New York: Viking, 2007), p. 47.
[iv] Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777, Draper Series, Vol. II, (Madison, WI: Madison Historical Society, 1908), pp. 100-105. The speech was delivered October 11th, 1775.
[v] Quoted in Calloway, The Shawnees and the War for America, p. 59.
[vi] Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 158-168.
[vii] Calloway, The Shawnee and the War for America, p. 60; William Hintzen, Border Wars of the Upper Ohio Valley, 1769-1794, (Ashland, KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2011), pp. 56-57; Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, note 20, p. 187.
[viii] “Disposition of the Indian Tribes, Summary of a Report made by the Commissioners of Indian Affairs at Pittsburgh to Congress,” September 25, 1776, in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777, p. 202 and “Indian Depradations from the Pennsylvania Packet, August 27, 1776,” in the same volume, p. 188.
[ix] “Summary of a letter from Colonel George Morgan to the President of Congress,” November 8, 1776, in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777, p. 217.
[x] Calloway, The Shawnee and the War for America, pp. 61-63.
[xi] John Sugden, Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), p. 46.
[xii] Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, pp. 200-203.
[xiii] Withers’ dates are sloppy in this period. He has the invading Indians setting out in March and the relief occurring in August/September. The relief column was not locally organized but dispatched from farther east to bolster local ad hoc defenses in Kentucky.
[xiv] Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777, pp. 250-251; The Maryland Journal reported on the Muchmore attack from Philadelphia on May 15th, reporting also that an Indian trader had recently returned from the Shawnee towns on the Scioto where he found a small Shawnee raiding party, accompanied by Indians from the Wyandot and Mingo tribes preparing to set out for the frontier. Thwaites and Kellogg eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777, pp. 253-254.