Hokoleskwa. That is the name the Shawnee Confederacy knew him by. We know him by a different name, Chief Cornstalk.
Little is known of Cornstalk’s early life. It is suspected that he was born in either Pennsylvania or Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley about 1720, before the Shawnee were forced west into Ohio. According to later sources, his father was the head of the Chalahgawtha (Chillicothe) Shawnee, and his mother was the daughter of the Mekoche Shawnee chief, making Cornstalk a powerful figure from birth.
The first recorded mention of Cornstalk is his participation in the French & Indian War. Cornstalk, chief since his father’s passing, sided with the French to prevent British expansion and led raids against the Virginia frontier. It is said that he personally led the raid that committed the Kerr’s Creek Massacre in 1759, the worst in Virginia during the war.
After the British victory in the war, the Shawnee were one of the tribes allied with Ottawa Chief Pontiac against British expansion into the Ohio Valley. Understand that after the war, the Allegheny Mountains were set as the border, and the colonists frequently ignored this fact. To defend their homeland, Pontiac’s Confederacy led raids against the frontier from New York to southern Virginia. The Shawnee, again, led raids against frontier settlements to discourage them from moving west. Kerr’s Creek and the Greenbrier settlements were virtually wiped off the map.
Had Cornstalk gotten his way, this would’ve been his last war. British treaties, specifically the Treaties of Fort Stanwix and Hard Labour, dashed those hopes. Those treaties, with the Iroquois and Cherokee, gave the colonists West Virginia and moved the border to the Ohio River. Problem is, the tribes actually living here never agreed, and fought back against this deal. This got worse, and sparked Lord Dunmore’s War, when Virginians finally retaliated and ended up attacking the wrong tribe, twice.
For the sake of space, I’ll make both events very simple. Based on rumors that the Shawnee were preparing for war, colonists in Wheeling decided to strike first and murdered 11 Mingoes in the Yellow Creek Massacre. Two were close relatives of Mingo Chief Logan, and he retaliated by attacking frontier settlements. Then, to punish Logan (a Mingo), Colonel Angus MacDonald led an army against the Shawnee towns of Wapatomica and burned the towns to the ground. I’m sure you can see what caused the problem.
So, by September of 1774, the Virginians had royally screwed up. Though I suppose they did manage to do one thing: unite every tribe of the Ohio Country against them. The Shawnee, Mingo, Delaware, Ottawa, and Wyandot were ready for full-scale war, and they looked for a leader. They looked to Cornstalk.
Cornstalk, like Washington, was a born leader and master strategist. When his spies informed him that Dunmore had split his army, leading one down the Ohio while Lewis came up the Kanawha, he knew that he could never let them meet. One had to be destroyed, and he knew Lewis would be vulnerable at Point Pleasant.
We often forget, Cornstalk came within a hair of actually destroying Lewis’ army. In the opening shots of the battle, Colonel Lewis and Colonel Fleming both fell mortally wounded, the battle lines collapsed, and the Virginians were pushed back to within yards of the encampment at the Point. A few more yards and the Virginians would have had nowhere to go. It would have been absolute destruction.
Unfortunately for Cornstalk, the Virginians rallied at the last moment and held just long enough to be reinforced by Major John Fields and another 400 men. The battle ended in a stalemate, and Cornstalk knew more reinforcements under Colonel Christian would arrive in the night. The only option left open was to retreat and fortify their towns at Chillicothe.
Again, unfortunately for Cornstalk, Dunmore beat them there. He was now stuck between two Virginian armies, with double the men he had, better weapons, and more supplies. Stuck between complete destruction and, well, complete destruction, he saw one option to save the lives of his people. In the Treaty of Camp Charlotte, he pledged total and complete surrender and agreed to never again wage war against the Virginians.
Fast forward three years. Cornstalk is desperately trying to keep the peace, and stay out of the Revolution. While at Fort Randolph on a mission of peace, he and two other chiefs are detained and help the Virginians map the Ohio Country. Then, another Yellow Creek. Two Virginians are killed while out hunting, and the militiamen reacted by murdering the only other Native Americans nearby, despite their innocence.
The murderers were never brought to justice, and Cornstalk’s murder led to the Ohio tribes allying with the British, costing untold thousands of casualties that could have been prevented.
Cornstalk was quietly buried outside Fort Randolph. This grave was discovered during road work in the 1840s and moved to the courthouse grounds, then moved again to Tu-Endie-Wei in 1954 during construction of the new courthouse.
Information from Ohio History Central, the WV Encyclopedia, and the West Virginia State Archives.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.