Modern Replica of Fort Randolph in Point Pleasant, WV (Wikimedia Commons)
At Fort Randolph, erected on the old Point Pleasant battlefield, Captain Matthew Arbuckle decided to take matters with the Shawnee into his own hands. He was already suspicious of the Shawnee in general, and Cornstalk in particular. In 1776, he reported that Cornstalk had traveled to Detroit and was “Treating with the English.”[i] Of course, this was William Wilson’s attempt to preserve the neutrality of tribes nearer Detroit by inviting them to a pace conference. Cornstalk had gone on the mission to lend weight to Wilson’s voice with those tribes. Arbuckle did not know that. In August 1777, Arbuckle reported to Brigadier General Edward Hand, the new Continental Commander at Fort Pitt, that two of his soldiers driving cattle into the fort had been killed and scalped, after which “they,” meaning Indians, had killed two more men, one child, one negro and taken one little girl prisoner from Greenbriar.[ii]
In October, 1777, after a summer of violence, two Shawnee, including the leader Red Hawk, arrived at Fort Randolph, professing peace and inquiring about a rumored invasion. Indeed, Brigadier General Edward Hand was then planning a major offensive across the Ohio and frontier posts were busy gathering supplies for it. It came to naught that fall, but that outcome still lay in the future. The Shawnee also wanted someone to explain the meaning behind a black wampum strand delivered to them by the Delaware and originally said to have come from General Hand. Black was generally understood to be the color of war and death. Arbuckle detained the two Shawnee. Cornstalk’s son arrived at the fort a week later to inquire about the detention and tell Arbuckle that some Shawnee chiefs would pay him a visit. Arbuckle resolved to take those Shawnee prisoner as well when they arrived.[iii] When Cornstalk himself came to the fort a few days later, as his son had promised, Arbuckle did just that. In both cases, Arbuckle dispatched messages to Hand telling the general of his intentions to hold any arriving Shawnee until instructed otherwise by Hand. For his part, Arbuckle “was well satisfied the Shawanese are all our enemies.”[iv]
Seizing representatives from a potential adversary’s family, tribe, clan, community, country, etc. was an ancient practice. Such prisoners served as de facto hostages and could be harmed if their kinfolk back home behaved in a manner the imprisoning entity did not like. At the same time, Shawnee were well known to have participated in cross-border raids. So, Arbuckle’s behavior was not unprecedented. Dunmore had done the same after the Treaty of Camp Charlotte. Given an inability to distinguish between tribes among many Americans, a failure to distinguish among Shawnee clans is also understandable and not so arbitrary as it may appear in retrospect. Still, an opportunity to reassure those Shawnee who might listen of peaceful American intentions and strengthen the hand of pro-peace Shawnee in internal tribal discussions was lost, replaced with the hostility of imprisonment.
At the fort, Cornstalk kept his word given at Camp Charlotte, relating events among the tribes to the Americans, cautioning them about Shawnee war parties in the field, and even describing the lay of the land between the Shawnee towns and the Mississippi.[v] One of Cornstalk’s sons, Elinipseco, turned up a few days later on the opposite river bank and exchanged shouts with his father. The son then came across the river, whether voluntarily or at Arbuckle’s order is unclear.[vi]
The next day, November 10th, troops gathering for Hand’s intended fall expedition across the Ohio were hunting local deer in conjunction with some of the garrison at Fort Randolph. Two men, Sam Hamilton and a member of the Gilmore family were on the opposite bank of the Kanawha River. Unknown Indians came down to the river bank and hid among reeds where the Kanawha joins the Ohio then killed Gilmore as he and Hamilton came by. Arbuckle heard the shot, but did not see the perpetrator. Hamilton made it to the river bank and yelled that Gilmore had been killed.
Gilmore belonged to the company of Captain John Hall, who was related to the Gilmore family. Hall and some of his men crossed the river, rescued Hamilton and retrieved Gilmore’s body. Unfortunately, the Gilmore family had an uneasy history with Native Americans, apparently including Cornstalk. During the French and Indian War, a band of Shawnee led by a much younger Cornstalk had crossed into Augusta County, Virginia and massacred a branch of the Gilmore family in 1759 on Carr’s Creek. Another band raided the area again in 1763.[vii]
Captain John Stuart, who was with Arbuckle and heard the shot that killed Gilmore, warned the fort’s commander that Hall’s men would demand vengeance on the Indians then imprisoned in the fort. Arbuckle dismissed the likelihood, logically noting that Cornstalk and his fellow Shawnee prisoners were innocent of the murder. Sure enough, as Captain Hall and his men landed on the Fort Randolph side of the river, their anger boiled over and shouts to kill the Indians in the fort were raised. Some may have suspected that the Indian raiders had accompanied Elinipseco to the fort. Arbuckle and Stuart immediately tried to calm them, but Hall “came up the bank pale as death with rage.” Hearing the commotion, an Indian interpreter’s wife rushed to warn Cornstalk that men were coming to kill him and the Shawnee, blaming Elinipseco for bringing the Indian raiding party to the fort. Elinipseco panicked and denied the accusation, but Cornstalk was steady and encouraged his son not to fear “for the great Spirit above had sent him there to be killed.” As Hall’s party reached the door to the cabin and stormed in, Cornstalk stood up and was immediately felled by seven or eight bullets while his son was killed, still seated next to him. One of the Shawnee Arbuckle imprisoned earlier tried to escape up the chimney, but was shot as well while the other “was shamefully mangled.”[viii] Captain Stuart thought Cornstalk had a premonition of his death and was resigned to it.
The news was not well received in Virginia. Some were outraged by the death of an innocent man, no less one who had advocated peace among the western Indians. George Morgan, the Congressional Indian Agent at Pittsburgh, would refer to it as a massacre.[ix] His mention of the event, in March 1778, also raised Brigadier General Hand’s aborted February campaign to the Cuyahoga River, which resulted in the regrettable deaths of a Delaware chief’s relations at a time when the Delaware were neutral but going through the same internal divisions as the Shawnee.
Others were equally concerned with its likely impact on frontier security. Colonel William Preston, a political leader and militia officer in Virginia’s Augusta County, wrote a colleague “I am apprehensive this Conduct will be followed by very bad consequences to the Frontiers, by engaging us in a war with that Revengeful & Warlike Nation and their Allies.”[x] For his part, Brigadier Hand arrived at Fort Randolph shortly afterward on a tour of the frontier posts. Although he shared Preston’s concern about the diplomatic impact, he took no immediate action against Captain Hall or his men and merely informed Virginia Governor Patrick Henry.[xi] In Hand’s defense, he was desperately short of men to defend the frontier and may not been have able to spare the murderers from that mission.
The Governor, however, was not so sanguine.[xii] He offered a reward for the apprehension of the murderers and authored a proclamation condemning Cornstalk’s murder, asking the Indian agent at Pittsburgh to circulate it among both whites and the various Indian tribes.[xiii] Prudently, he also anticipated new Indian offensives in retaliation and warned frontier defenders to prepare for a renewal of hostilities. In the spring of 1778, Captain Hall and three of his men, Hugh Galbraith, Malcolm McCown, and William Rowan, were all tried and acquitted when no witnesses produced evidence against them.[xiv]
It is not easy to assess the impact that Cornstalk’s murder had on the progress of the war in the Ohio Valley. Native Americans already at war or inclined that way remained so, while the Delaware who favored peace maintained their preferences. The murder certainly gave militants a stronger argument in Indian counsels. The Shawnee assembled a significant force to attack Boonesborough, KY in the spring, but instead settled for a capturing over two dozen men from the town out gathering supplies, including Daniel Boone.[xv] (He eventually escaped). A smaller raid struck Fort Randolph itself and then deeper into the Kanawha River Valley that the fort was there to protect.[xvi]
But, events in the west were already overtaking Cornstalk and his efforts to preserve Shawnee neutrality. His position, and that of his division, had been in the decline since the war started. British Indian policy shifted in 1777 and took a more aggressive stance toward the frontier, directly encouraging the Indians to attack American settlements. The result was a series of intensifying raids in Kentucky, which had already prompted a young Virginia militia major for Kentucky county, George Rogers Clark, to begin developing a plan to strike toward British power in the west. He proposed a campaign to the Illinois country, which Governor Patrick Henry approved. Clark and his forces conducted one of the most celebrated campaigns of the war, capturing Vincennes, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia on the Mississippi in 1778, even nabbing the British Lieutenant Governor, Henry Hamilton, in 1779 when the latter recaptured Vincennes. The war in the west had indeed passed Cornstalk by. Today, he is buried at Point Pleasant in West Virginia, where a prominent memorial marks his grave not far from the site of his murder.
Chief Cornstalk’s Grave (Wikimedia Commons)
[i] “Capt. Matthew Arbuckle to Col. William Fleming, August 15, 1776, in Thwaite and Kellogg, eds., in Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777, op. cit., pp. 185-187.
[ii] “Capt. Matthew Arbuckle to Gen. Edward Hand, October 6th, 1777” in Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louis Phelps Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, Draper Series, Vol. III, (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1912), p. 127.
[iii] “Capt. Matthew Arbuckle to Gen. Edward Hand, October 6th, 1777” in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, p. 125.
[iv] “Capt. Matthew Arbuckle to Gen. Edward Hand, November 7th, 1777,” in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, pp. 149-150.
[v] “The Murder of Cornstalk: Narrative of Capt. John Stuart, n.d.,” in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, pp. 157-158.
[vi] Henry Harvey, History of the Shawnee Indians, from the Year 1681 to 1854, Inclusive, (Cincinnati: Ephraim Morgan & Sons, 1855), pp. 304-305.
[vii] “The Murder of Cornstalk: Narrative of Capt. John Stuart,” in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, p. 159 note 1.
[viii] “The Murder of Cornstalk: Narrative of Capt. John Stuart,” in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, p. 160; “Deposition on the murder,” November 10, 1777, in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, p. 162.
[ix] “Col. George Morgan to the President of Congress,” March 31, 1778, in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, p. 256.
[x] Col. William Preston to Col. William Fleming,” December 2, 1777, in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, pp. 168-169.
[xi] “Gen. Edward Hand to Gov. Patrick Henry,” December 9th, 1777, and “Gen. Edward Hand to Jasper Yeates,” December 24th, 1777 in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, pp. 175-177, and p. 188.
[xii] “Gov. Patrick Henry to Col. William Fleming,” March 14th, 1778, in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, pp. 225-226.
[xiii] “Gov. Patrick Henry to Col. William Preston and Col. William Fleming,” March 27th, 1778 in Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, pp. 240-241; De Hass, History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia, p. 173.
[xiv] Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, note 43, pp. 177-178.
[xv] Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, note 47, p. 252.
[xvi] Ethan A. Schmidt, Native Americans in the American Revolution, (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2014), p. 147; De Hass, History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia, pp. 240-241.