Chief Cornstalk and his people suffered devastating losses at the Battle of Point Pleasant, and once peace was struck, he and his family were committed to keeping that peace. Sadly, his efforts to keep the peace would ultimately lead to his death.
After Cornstalk and the Ohio Valley Tribes signed the treaty of Camp Charlotte shortly after the Battle of Point Pleasant, a tenuous, uneasy peace settled in over the Ohio Valley. Chief Cornstalk preached peace to his people – but the outbreak of the American Revolution in April 1775 changed everything.
“You see a split between the Ohio Indians,” said Dr. Kevin Barksdale, a professor of American history at Marshall University. “You have the young warriors, who want to continue the fight, who see the American Revolution and the British cause as an opportunity to drive whites off their land…but Cornstalk certainly maintain his agreement to maintain peace.”
The changing alliance was nothing new to the frontier, according to Barksdale. Native tribes often sided with whichever European group offered them the chance to drive back settlers. Now, less than a year after funding Lord Dunmore’s war against the Ohio Valley tribes, the British were funneling supplies and weapons to those same tribes, encouraging them to attack the frontier of the now-rebellious colonies.
The outbreak of the revolution also had a major impact on the key colonial figures of Lord Dunmore’s war. Lord Dunmore was hailed as a hero as he returned to the colonial Virginia capitol of Williamsburg, but as on the frontier, the revolution changed everything. In June 1775, Dunmore was essentially run out of Williamsburg by violent protests against the British. One of the leaders of those violent protests was none other than Andrew Lewis, Dunmore’s former subordinate who had led the Virginia Militia in the Battle of Point Pleasant. Dunmore would spend more than a year on the British frigate HMS Fowley before finally leaving the colonies as the revolution intensified.
Back in the Ohio Valley, Cornstalk and his family spent much of 1775 and 1776 doing their best to preserve the peace, even as members of their own Shawnee tribe planned attacks against settlers. If he knew a native raid was in the works, Cornstalk would travel to their target, warning them of the pending attack.
Local Historian Craig Hesson says Cornstalk’s actions saved hundreds of lives across the frontier, both native and white. But by early 1777, Cornstalk realized he could no longer prevent a return to all-out war. With warriors from his tribe planning an attack on Fort Randolph, built on the site of The Battle of Point Pleasant, Cornstalk set out for that hallowed ground to give a final warning that he could no longer keep the Shawnee at bay.
Upon learning this the commander of Fort Randolph, Captain Matthew Arbuckle, decided to keep Cornstalk at the fort – a common practice on the frontier, according to Hesson. “If you were in a frontier fort, you would keep a high-ranking official of the enemy within the fort to keep it safe. If you were in a native village, you would keep a high-ranking official in the village to keep it from being attacked,” Hesson explained, “it was just a smart tactic.” Cornstalk was not considered a prisoner – but he was not free to leave. For example, when Cornstalk’s son, Elinipsico, came to investigate why Cornstalk had been gone so long, Cornstalk welcomed him at the gates of the fort. Elinipsico was not allowed to leave Fort Randolph either.
Events outside of Fort Randolph would seal Cornstalk’s fate.
Knowing the British were instigating the natives to attack, about 200 militiamen had assembled in a camp outside Fort Randolph. One day, when two of those militiamen crossed the Ohio River to hunt, they were attacked by a war party from the Mingo Tribe. One was killed, but the other made it back to Point Pleasant. The other militiaman demand revenge against the Natives – and Cornstalk is one of the only natives around.
A group of militiamen came to the gates of Fort Randolph, demanding the natives inside – including Cornstalk and his son – be brought out, and would not accept no as an answer.
“They basically shove Arbuckle and (his second-in-command, captain) Stewart out of the way, telling them ‘we’re going to kill the Indians, and we’ll kill you first to get through to them,” said Hesson.
Chief Cornstalk was shot at least 7 times. He, his son Elinipsico, and two other natives held inside the fort were murdered in cold blood.
Somewhat surprisingly, the men who killed Cornstalk were arrested and tried, but Cornstalk’s bloody past robbed him of posthumous justice.
“The problem was, no one would come forward against (the militiamen),” explained Hesson. “Chief Cornstalk had wiped out those villages in the Greenbrier Valley, the people knew that. Chief Cornstalk had led the Indian tribes in Lord Dunmores war, the people knew that. So when it came down to having witnesses come forward to testify against them, no one would, and the men end up going free.”
Despite his efforts at peace, Cornstalk’s murder caused a new, more intense wave of violence to sweep over the frontier.
“It seems as though the Native American warriors from these Ohio Indian tribes kind of forgot about his peace overtures and began to see him as this great warrior again,” said Barksdale, “and they want revenge for Cornstalk…and of course it completely undermines any efforts at peace.”
Cornstalk’s remains were buried outside Fort Randolph, and in modern times he was re-interred at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park. But where Cornstalk’s life ended, his legend began.
“Cornstalk becomes a kind of Boogeyman from the 1770’s all the way up through the 1790’s,” Barksdale said. “Parents would tell their children, you know, behave, or you need to go to sleep, or Chief Cornstalk is going to get you.”
And, of course, there’s the legend that Chief Cornstalk left a curse on Point Pleasant when he was murdered. The story gained traction in the 1960’s, when some attributed the appearance of the Mothman and the collapse of the Silver Bridge, to the Curse of Chief Cornstalk.
“As we know, everything bad that happens is blamed on Chief Cornstalk,” Hesson said jokingly, “There is no Curse of Chief Cornstalk.” Hesson said Cornstalk’s peaceful nature (at his death) makes it unlikely he would want to curse Point Pleasant, and even if he did, he likely wouldn’t have had time to say much of anything as he was shot at least 7 times.
Hesson said historians can pinpoint where the myth of the curse originated – 144 years after Cornstalk’s death.
“It was a part of play done in 1921 and they needed to make it more exciting, and I think they did,” Hesson said, “but the real history is much more interesting.”
The Curse of Chief Cornstalk may be a myth, but Barksdale says the curse speaks to what makes the Appalachian region so unique.
“it just says a lot about Appalachian Culture,” said Barksdale, “about our belief in folktales and ghosts….and maybe guilt…maybe guilt over what happened to Cornstalk.”
If you know of a piece of Hidden History in the Tri-State, email reporter Will Vance at firstname.lastname@example.org@wowktv.com, and include “Hidden History” in the subject.