Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Cornstalk (d. 10 November 1777), Shawnee leader, whose Indian name was variously rendered in colonial records as Comblade, Coolesqua, Hokoleskwa, Keightughque, Semachquaan, and Tawnamebuck, may have been a son or grandson of the Shawnee leader Paxinosa, a man known to be friendly to the British. During the first half of the eighteenth century Paxinosa's band lived at various locales in present-day Pennsylvania, and it is possible that Cornstalk was born in that colony. Some members of this band moved to the Scioto plains north of the Ohio River during the 1740s, and Paxinosa followed in 1760. Little is known of Cornstalk's life, in part because of a general confusion about the historical antecedents of the Shawnee before the mid-eighteenth century, by which time most Shawnee dwelt on the banks of the Scioto River in what became the state of Ohio.

As the British colonies expanded, both Virginia and Pennsylvania claimed the Ohio country and formed distinctive policies toward its Native American inhabitants. The French also maintained a presence in the area until the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763. There are undocumented reports that Cornstalk led raids into the Virginia frontier on behalf of the French during that war, and he was also said to have led several attacks on settlers in the Greenbrier region during Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763–1764. The earliest documented reference to Cornstalk is in the record of the peace conference in November 1764 at which Henry Bouquet, a British colonel, held him and five other hostages at Fort Pitt to ensure the Indians' cooperation. Cornstalk soon escaped and remained a powerful advocate of peaceful relations between Indians and whites.

The years after that conference witnessed periodic violence and acts of retaliation by both sides. On 25 April 1774 the royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, called out the militia of several western counties to defend the frontier settlements from the Indians. Dunmore's action led to an escalation of violence against friendly Indians, as well. On 30 April a party of whites killed several peaceable Mingoes, including a woman, at Yellow Creek, and infuriated Mingoes set out to avenge the deaths, aided by sympathetic members of other tribes. There is evidence that Cornstalk sought to avert open warfare and preserve the neutrality of the Shawnee. Through emissaries he assured Dunmore that the "foolish young people" who desired war were under control, and he sent word to John Connolly, Dunmore's representative at Fort Pitt (which Connolly called Fort Dunmore), that he would restrain his warriors until he learned the governor's intentions. Cornstalk also directed three men, including his brother Silver Heels, to escort British traders in the Ohio Valley back to the safety of Pittsburgh.

Acting under Dunmore's authority, Connolly sent a party of militia after the departing Shawnee. Silver Heels was shot and wounded. As the Shawnee prepared for war, Dunmore led an army southwest from Pittsburgh to rendezvous with a militia force of about 1,100 men commanded by Colonel Andrew Lewis, marching toward the Ohio River from the east. Just before sunrise on 10 October 1774, two of Lewis's men encountered a combined force of Delaware, Mingoes, Shawnee, Wyandot, and others waiting at the mouth of the Kanawha River near Point Pleasant. One escaped to warn the other Virginians. At sunrise the Indians under Cornstalk's command attacked. Several Virginians identified the loud, clear voice of Cornstalk encouraging his men throughout the battle. After several hours of intense fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, the Indians fell back, using the swampy terrain to cover their retreat.

Having prevented the Virginia armies from launching an invasion of the Scioto, Cornstalk approached Dunmore and asked for peace in order to protect the Shawnee villages. Some of Cornstalk's warriors and other chiefs wanted to continue to fight, to which Cornstalk replied that they might as well kill their women and children before fighting to the death themselves. He agreed to terms with Dunmore later that month in the treaty of Camp Charlotte, through which the Shawnee returned white prisoners and property and ceded hunting rights in Kentucky. Cornstalk was reported to have spoken eloquently at the peace talks and to have insisted that the whites share the blame for inciting the violence. Lewis's son later wrote that his father recalled that Cornstalk was "the most dignified looking man, particularly in council, he ever saw."

Despite persistent bitterness on both sides after what later historians called Dunmore's War, Cornstalk evidently adhered to the treaty and continued to advocate nonviolence. He championed neutrality when the Revolutionary War began, even though other Native American leaders allied themselves with the British in hopes of dislodging American settlements from the western country. Cornstalk took part in conferences with Connolly at Fort Dunmore in July 1775 and with commissioners appointed by the House of Burgesses that autumn. In the spirit of neutrality, he and Red Hawk, a Delaware, approached Fort Randolph at Point Pleasant in October 1777. According to one account, Cornstalk warned the American officers that most Indians were inclined toward the British and that despite his own desire for peace he and his tribe would have to "run with the stream." In an attempt to ensure Shawnee neutrality, Captain Matthew Arbuckle detained Cornstalk and his companions as hostages. On 10 November 1777 while Cornstalk's son Elinipsico (Allanawissica) was visiting the fort, Indians shot and killed a soldier nearby. A vengeful mob quickly formed, and despite Arbuckle's orders, the enraged men stormed Cornstalk's cabin. They shot everyone inside and killed Cornstalk, his son, and two other Indians.

Governor Patrick Henry denounced the murders and offered a reward for apprehension of the killers. In the spring of 1778 James Hall and three other men were separately examined in the Rockbridge County Court, which then had jurisdiction over all that portion of western Virginia, on suspicion of being responsible. No witnesses appeared to testify against any of the men, however, and the court found them not guilty. One week after Hall's acquittal, he took the oath of office as a captain in the county militia.

Cornstalk's known surviving relatives included his sister Nonhelema, also known as the Grenadier Squaw, and a son named Cutemwha, or the Wolf. Cornstalk was buried near Fort Randolph. After builders accidentally unearthed his presumed grave in 1840, the remains were moved to the grounds of the Mason County courthouse, and in 1954 they were moved again to Tu-Endie-Wei State Park on the site of the Battle of Point Pleasant.

Sources Consulted:
Influential early accounts include John Stuart, "Memoir of Indian Wars, and Other Occurrences; By the Late Colonel Stuart, of Greenbrier," ed. Charles A. Stuart, in Collections of the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society 1 (1833): 37–66 (third quotation on 58), in Frederick Webb Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, in Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 30, pt. 1 (1907): 350 (with undocumented birth date of ca. 1720), and Lyman C. Draper, "Sketch of Cornstalk, 1759–1777," Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 21 (1912): 245–262; identified as 1764 hostage in Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Archives, 1st ser., 9 (1852): 229–232; Williamsburg Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), 13 Oct. 1774, supplement (first quotation); Virginia Historical Register, and Literary Advertiser 1 (1848): 30–33 (second quotation on 33); most of the essential documents relating to the 1770s and Cornstalk's death, many in Lyman C. Draper Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wis., printed in Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., Documentary History of Dunmore's War, 1774 (1905), The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775–1777 (1908), and Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777–1778 (1912), and others in William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence: A Documentary Record (1973–1983), vols. 3–4, 7; Cornstalk's mark, 19 July 1775, on MS Treaty of Fort Dunmore, 44, George Chalmers Collection, New York Public Library; death date in Patrick Henry proclamation, 27 Mar. 1778, printed in Williamsburg Virginia Gazette (Purdie), 3 Apr. 1778; Rockbridge Co. Order Book (1778–1783), 8–9, 13, 17, 20.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Laura T. Keenan.

How to cite this page:
Laura T. Keenan,"Cornstalk (d. 1777)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 ({url}, accessed [today's date]).

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