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Death of Cornstalk

This article appears to give a good, detailed historical view of the death of the Native American chief Cornstalk and related events. However (although I admit that I haven't read the specific sources that are cited in the article), I believe that it falls into the same trap as many stories about Point Pleasant and Fort Randolph, and confuses the Arbuckle brothers, Matthew and William.

At the famous Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, Matthew was a well-known frontiersman, and a 34-year-old Captain, whereas William was a 22-year-old private. Most stories of Cornstalk's death three years later identify the fort's commander, Captain Arbuckle, as Matthew, not William. And though it is possible, I doubt that William had become a 25-year-old captain in the interim.

In the 1780's after Matthews's death, William continued to serve at, or at least live in the vicinity of (the new) Fort Randolph, and some stories say that he also served as commandant. But I know of no records that say that he did, or that he definitely achieved the rank of Captain. However, it is certainly plausible that he acted as commandant of the fort at some point.

- Robin Richmond

The Death of Shawnee Chief Cornstalk

By 1777, the British had united the Ohio Valley tribes, with the exception of the Shawnees whose overall chief was none other than the Kerrs Creek nemesis. For some reason, however, Cornstalk opposed uniting with the British and warring with the settlers.

Later, Cornstalk's sister, know as the Grenadier Squaw, petitioned both Indians and Whites for an end to the war. She often warned settlements of impending Indian attacks, and her contemporaries accepted she was a Christian who had come to believe war was wrong. No one knows whether her brother also had accepted her faith, but in his later years, Cornstalk had an unexplainable change of heart that set him at odds with his entire nation and led to his death.

When Cornstalk saw even his influence wouldn't keep the Shawnees from allying with the British, he left for Fort Randolph with Red Hawk (possibly a Delaware) and another Indian.

Capt. William Arbuckle received the Indians and heeded Cornstalk's warning that "as the current set so strongly against the colonies, even [the Shawnees] would float with the stream in spite of [Cornstalk's] endeavors to stem it." The chief was adamant. The hostilities would begin immediately.

Arbuckle made two quick decisions. He detained Cornstalk, thinking a hostage wouldn't hurt possible negotiations. And he told the troops that Virginia's new government was rising, and that all hell was about to break loose on the frontier. The preceding month, the official cry for volunteers had seen companies raised, reluctantly on the settler's part, for Fort Randolph.

Locally, Col. George Skillern led three or four companies. The Botetourt and Augusta militia included men from Kerrs Creek, Colliers Creek and the Buffalo. Locals were under command of Capt. James Hall from the Buffalo. They combined with Capt. John Paxton's men from Short Hill, rendezvousing at Collierstown on Oct. 7. They marched into Fort Randolph on Nov. 5, and they were spoiling for a fight.

At Fort Randolph, the volunteers awaited General Hand, who was to march from Fort Pitt with men and supplies for war on the Ohio Valley nations, much as Lord Dunmore had planned three years earlier.

Imprisoned in comparative comfort in a cabin in Fort Randolph, Cornstalk drew maps and acquainted the officers with all the Ohio country. Cornstalk's son, Ellinipsico, concerned at hearing nothing from his father, arrived at Randolph and moved in.

Next day, supplies being short, two of Hall's men crossed the Kanawha to hunt. Their names were Robert Gilmore and Hamilton, and it is likely their families had been in the middle of the Kerrs Creek carnage. After the hunt, Gilmore and Hamilton returned to their canoe on the riverbank when two Indians who had been hiding opened fire. Gilmore fell and was scalped.

Captain Arbuckle and Captain Stuart of the Greenbriar company stood on the opposite bank wondering why the hunters were shooting so close to the fort when they had been commanded not to. At that moment, Hamilton ran down the bank, crying that Gilmore had been killed. Hall's men immediately sprang into action. Leaping into a canoe, they paddled furiously to Hamilton's rescue, retrieving both him and Gilmore's corpse. Even before they landed on the Fort Randolph side of the river, the cry, "Let us go and kill the Indians in the fort" arose. They assumed the warriors on the riverbank had accompanied Cornstalk's son.

Hall led his men when Arbuckle and Stuart stepped in front of them, they drove them back with drawn muskets. With Hall were William Roane, Hugh Galbreath, Malcolm McCown and Adam Barnes.

The interpreter's wife had recently returned from Indian captivity and had exhibited great respect for the Shawnee chief. She ran to the cabin to warn Ellinipsico and Cornstalk. Ellinipsico denied the Indians on the riverbank had accompanied him.

Ever the dignified chief Cornstalk reassured Ellinipsico. "My son, the Great Spirit has seen fit that we should die together and has sent you here to that end. It is His will and let us submit; it is all for the best." Cornstalk then turned to meet Hall and his men. Tall and commanding, the 50-year old chief opened his shirt to present a symbolic target to the soldiers. He was shot seven times and fell without a sound. His son, likewise, accepted his fate with dignity. Red Hawk, hiding himself in a chimney, was found and killed as well.

It is said Cornstalk had a premonition of his death. Just the day before, he had spoken in a meeting with the officers, "When I was young and went to war, I often thought, each might be my last adventure, and I should return no more. I still lived. Now I am in the midst of you, and if you choose, may kill me. I can die but once. It is alike to me, whether now or hereafter."

His Shawnees, upon hearing of his fate, resolved to avenge their chief, and immediately side with the British. Another bloody war was about to begin on the frontier.

Within days, General Hand arrived from Pitt, but without the troops and supplies. The militia disbanded. The volunteers returned home. But, for Captain Hall, the return home was bittersweet. He had led the soldiers who killed the perpetrator of the Kerrs Creek massacres, personally participating in the second. But Hall also had disobeyed the orders of the fort's commandant and had led his men in the same. He was to be tried far from home, in Fincastle, where the memory of the mutilated bodies on Kerrs Creek fields meant little.

In October that year, the Virginia legislature granted that Rockbridge County be formed from Botetourt and Augusta lands. On April 7, 1778, the first Rockbridge court was held at Samuel Wallace's home. Captain Hall was called for examination. He didn't show. On April 28, however, Hall came to court. This time, there were no witnesses for the commonwealth, and he was acquitted.

The Cornstalk incident supposedly took place in November, with Rockbridge being approved as a county in October. But the Philadelphia Record says the whole scheme was to keep Hall's trial among those who remembered Kerrs Creek firsthand.

Kerrs Creek, fate and a great Shawnee chief who found wisdom too late became tied in one bundle with ropes of hatred, revenge and a group of men pushed too far in a terrible war."

Writers note: In recounting this story, I used several references. I've found inaccuracies in some, but when dealing with events in the distant past, accurate records are few. Sources used:

  1. Withers's "Chronicles of Border Warfare,"
  2. Morten's "Rockbridge County History,"
  3. Strickler's Roanoke Times "Death of Indian Had Part In Founding Rockbridge,"
  4. Dunlap's 1936 "Scrapbbook",
  5. a 1944 newspaper account (including Rockbridge court records), an
  6. the Diehl papers from the Washington and Lee Leyburn Library collection.
Published in The Weekender, Lexington, Virginia (December 13, 1997), pp. 1-3.
Reprinted with the permission of the News-Gazette
(The Weekender is a publication of The News-Gazette Corp.
Darryl Woodson, Editor)

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