Cornstalk, Shawnee Chief


Last Updated: 6 years

A great deal about Cornstalk, a Shawnee chief, has been written, referring to him by at least three names. He was born ca 1720 in one of the Shawnee villages in the drainage of the upper Susquehanna River.

Cornstalk is said to have been born in western Pennsylvania at least by 1720, but some sources say 1708, 1710, or 1715 and his current grave marker says 1727. He moved with his family when he was about 10 to Ohio.

At that time, the Shawnees were undergoing another of their migrations and his family moved to Ohio River country on it’s Scioto River tributary, in what is now southern Ohio.

By the end of the French and Indian War in the early 1760’s, he had become a principal leader of the Tribe and remained so until he was murdered by whites at Fort Randolph (Point Pleasant, now West Virginia) in 1777.

Shawnee Chief Cornstalk
Cornstock – Painting by Hal Sherman His 1763 foray up the Kanawha River to its Greenbrier reaches was a scourge to Virginians. Cornstalk attempted to ambush part of Lord Dunmore’s Virginia army at Point Pleasant where the Kanawha empties into the Ohio in 1774. Failing, he deftly negotiated a peace settlement, saving the Tribe from devastation.

Largely however, Cornstalk and his family were peacemakers and his 1777 death happened on such a mission. He had guided the Tribe through the years just prior to the American Revolution, leading them on another migration to put distance between them and European usurpers.

At least three possible names

In studying Shawnee Chief Cornstalk, several different native names for him appear, purporting to have the same meaning. The word cornstalk is an English rendition of something similar to a stalk, stem or blade of maize, however, few if any writings about the Chief document the meaning of the native names.

Hokolesqua, Wynepuechsika and Keiga-tugh-qua show up in literature most frequently, but treatments of the words, except to relate to Cornstalk, is lacking. The great chief has had all bestowed on him as his native moniker.

In his book, Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees, 2000, University of Nebraska Press, author John Sugden points out that Shawnee children received names in infancy but were at liberty to change them later in life (p. 27).  Blue Jacket and Silver Heels (Silverheels), a younger brother of Cornstalk, hunted together and sold deer skins to Pennsylvania traders as youngsters. Both became respected Shawnee warriors.

Artist Hal Sherman contributes: “From Draper (Manuscripts) 3Dxviii, the Indian name of Cornstalk was Keigh-tugh-qua signifying a blade (or stalk ) of the maize plant.

Hal Sherman also states: “The Ohio Historical Society published a pamphlet on the Indian Chiefs of Ohio and a picture of an engraving of Cornstalk with a note stating that it was after McKinney and Hall’s copy of the original in the Smithsonian. The engraving shows him in the same headdress as Karl Bodmer’s portrait of the Mandan Chief Mato-Tope.”

In Indian Agent George Morgan’s journal’s he was also called Colesqua and his father was White Fish. It listed his brother as Nimwha.

C. Hale Sipe’s The Indian Chiefs of Pennsylvania says he went by the name of Tamenebuck, or Taming Buck. The most popular name in Ohio seems to be the Shawnee name of Hokolesqua.”

American National Biography by Oxford University Press, lists in Cornstalk’s entry, Hokoleskwa, as meaning “a blade of corn”.

Original names are rendered in white settlers’ records as Colesqua, Keightughque, and Semachquaan. A 1764 document identifies him with Tawnamebuck, a Shawnee who attended the Lancaster Treaty proceedings in Pennsylvania in 1748, but probably is in error.

Noel Schutz, a longtime worker in Shawnee linguistics, culture and history, relates that hokolesqua comes from hokoleshkwa, “Stalk (of plant).” By nuance, it could be stalk of maize.

The other most common names utilized for him are Wynepuechsika and Keigh-taugh-quah-qua (Some identify him with Taminy Buck who was a well-known chief in Pennsylvania and was probably associated with Corn Stalk only by the similarity of the name (probably taamini-, ‘corn’ + po’k- ‘mashed”; also Tomenebuck; Tamene Buck; Tokmene Buck; Domini Buck).

Not yet finding the stems involved, Schutz notes Wynepuechsika is glossed as “Stout Man”, for Cornstalk’s son of that name. Since Peter Cornstalk is frequent in the literature, researchers and authors may have equated Wynepuechsika to Cornstalk, meaning the father rather than the son. Schutz notes that Keigh-taugh-quah, another common name for Cornstalk, but actually that of one of his sons, may relate to the stem {takhwa-} “pound, grind to make bread’.

Schutz continues with, “At the time Peter Chartier’s band was in Alabama among the Creeks, the “King” of the Shawnee there was listed as “King Aculusska’ of the village of “Shalapheagyee” (a variant among the Creek of the village of Chillichacagees, the Chalakaa Shawnee village in the south [with the plural ending -ki) with other Shawnee headmen on September 25th, 1755.

Aculusska is a variant of Hokoleskwa. If this identification is admitted, Cornstalk was in the south at this time with a great many of the hostile Shawnee.”

Cornstalk Genealogy

In a speech of 1775, Cornstalk seems to describe himself as the son of White Fish, but Matthew Arbuckle, who knew them both, implies otherwise in a letter of December 1776. 

Moravian missionary records indicate that he was the son or grandson of noted headman Paxinosa, a well known Pennsylvania Shawnee head chief, and circumstances suggest this to be true.

Wikipedia says his parents were Moytoy II Pigeon of Tellico (of Tainesi, Cherokee) (1687-1760), and Hawwaythi. 

Wikipedia lists three spouses: Helizikinopo (1715-1756), m. ca. 1739; Ounaconoa Moytoy (1715-1755), m. ca. 1740; and Catherine Vanderpool (1725-1806 or 1808), m. 1763-1777.

Elizabeth was a white captive Cornstalk married prior to her repatriation.

Schutz notes that Cornstalk’s ‘siblings were Nonhelema ( “grenadier Squaw”; Catherine), Silverheels, and Nimwha.

Some of his children that have been mentioned are Oceano Cornstalk, Elinipsico (Elinipso, Elinispisco Nipseko) Cornstalk (1745-Oct. 10, 1777), Aracoma Cornstalk,  (The Aracroma legend, married Boiling Baker), Greenbrier (name from the Greenbrier area of the Kanawha River?), Bluesky, Wynepuechiska (Peter), Wissecapoway, Piaserka (The Wolf). Other names mentioned are Elizabeth, Esther, Peter, Nern-Pe-Nes-Quah, and Keigh-taugh-quah. 

The Life of Cornstalk

Little is known of his early life, but by 1763 Cornstalk had become a Shawnee tribal chieftain and led war parties against several white settlements.

In 1764, soldiers raided his tribal town and took him captive. He was carried to Fort Pitt as a hostage, but escaped the following year.

In the following years, he became Sachem of all Shawnee tribes and finally king of the northern confederacy of Indian tribes, composed of the Shawnees, Delawares, Mingoes, Wyandottes and Cayugas.

Stories tell of Cornstalk’s participation in the French and Indian War (1754–1763), though these are probably of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true. His alleged participation in Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763–1766) is also unverified, though he did take part in the peace negotiations.

After the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, settlers and land speculators moved into the lands south of the Ohio River in present-day Kentucky. Although the Iroquois had agreed to cede the land, the Shawnee and others had not been present at the Fort Stanwix negotiations. They still claimed Kentucky as their hunting grounds. Clashes soon took place over this. Cornstalk tried unsuccessfully to prevent escalation of the hostilities.

Attempting to block a Virginian invasion of the Ohio country, Cornstalk led a force of Shawnee and Mingo warriors at the Battle of Point Pleasant.  On Oct. 10, 1774, he led 1,100 of his braves against an equal number of Colonial troops at Pt. Pleasant in a fight also known as Dunmore’s War, and after a violent battle, was defeated.

Following his defeat, Cornstalk pursued a peace policy and forbade his braves to molest whites. Cornstalk retreated and would reluctantly accept the Ohio River as the boundary of Shawnee lands in the Treaty of Camp Charlotte.

A Virginia officer, Col. Benjamin Wilson, wrote of Cornstalk’s speech to Lord Dunmore at Camp Charlotte in 1774, “I have heard the first orators in Virginia, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, but never have I heard one whose powers of delivery surpassed those of Cornstalk on that occasion.”

With the American Revolution begun, Cornstalk worked to keep his people neutral. He represented the Shawnee at treaty councils at Fort Pitt in 1775 and 1776, the first Indian treaties ever negotiated by the United States. Many Shawnees nevertheless hoped to use British aid to reclaim their lands lost to the settlers.

By the winter of 1776, the Shawnee were effectively divided into a neutral faction led by Cornstalk, and militant bands led by men such as Blue Jacket.

During the American Revolution the British tried to build a coalition of Indians to fight against the colonists. Chief Cornstalk alone refused to join, although many members of his tribe opposed him. Chief Cornstalk had come to believe that his people’s survival depended on their friendly relations with the Virginians.

In the spring of 1777, he visited the garrison at Point Pleasant with a small contingent of Indians, and informed the colonials of the coalition that was forming and tried to warn the settlers that the British were trying to incite his tribesmen to attack them.

Fearing an attack, Colonial soldiers seized Cornstalk and his companions and imprisoned them in Fort Randolph as hostages. A month later, Cornstalk’s son, Ellinipsico, came to the fort to see his father. During his visit, a soldier walking near the fort was killed by another Indian and other soldiers rushed to Cornstalk’s quarters to kill him In revenge.

Cornstalk, who is described by historians as a handsome, intelligent, and highly honorable man, stood calmly in the doorway to his cell and faced his slayers.

But before he was mowed down by nearly a dozen rifle shots and the soldiers entered the room and killed his son and Chief Red Hawk who were visiting at the time,it’s said he had something final to say.

The Cornstalk Curse

The stories say that he looked upon his assassins and said to them, “I was the border man’s friend. Many times I have saved him and his people from harm. I never warred with you, but only to protect our wigwams and lands. I refused to join your paleface enemies with the red coats. I came to the fort as your friend to warn you, and you murder me.”

“You will murder by my side, my young son…. For this, may the curse of the Great Spirit rest upon this land. May it be blighted by nature. May it even be blighted in its hopes. May the strength of its peoples be paralyzed by the stain of our blood.”

Many tragedies and disasters were blamed on the curse in the years to come. The murder of their chieftain turned the Shawnees from a neutral people into the most implacable warriors, who raided Virginia settlements tor 20 years after the incident.

  • 1833 – A cholera epidemic strikes the Wheeling district, killing 23 in one day.
  • 1906
    • Jan. 4. 22 are killed at Coaldale mine in Mercer County.
    • Jan. 18. 18 are killed at Detroit mine in Kanawha County.
    • Feb. 8. 23 are killed at Parral mine in Fayette County.
    • Mar. 22. 23 are killed at Century mine in Barbour County.
  • 1907
    • Jan. 29. Mine disaster at Stuart in Fayette County kills 84 (or 88).
    • Feb. 4. 25 are killed at Thomas mine in Tucker county.
    • Dec. 6. Explosions at a coal mine at Monongah kill 362 men and boys in the worst mine disaster in U. S. history.
  • 1909 –  Mine disaster at Switchback kills 67.
  • 1937 – Ohio River flood of 1937 took place in late January and February 1937. With damage stretching from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois,one million people were left homeless, with 385 dead and property losses reaching $500 million ($8.7 billion in 2015 dollars). 
  • 1944 – In June of this year, 150 people were killed when a tornado ripped through the tri-state triangular area.
  • 1950 – The Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950 became West Virginia’s snowiest month on record.This remarkably heavy snow led to 160 deaths.
  • 1854 – The Wheeling Bridge is blown down by high winds.
  • 1966 – 1967 Mothman sightings, a strange man-bird creature.  
  • 1967 – The devastating Silver Bridge disaster sent 46 people hurtling to their death in the Ohio River on December 15. Many have also connected this tragedy to the eerie sightings of the Mothman, strange lights in the sky and odd paranormal happenings.
  • 1968 – A Piedmont Airlines plane crashed in August near the Kanawha Airport, killing all 35 people on board.
  • 1970 – On November 14, a Southern Airways DC-10 crashed into a mountain near Huntington, West Virginia, killing 75 people on board.
  • 1976 – In March of that year, the town of Point Pleasant was rocked in the middle of the night be an explosion at the Mason County Jail. Housed in the jail was a woman named Harriet Sisk, who had been arrested for the murder of her infant daughter. On March 2, her husband came to the jail with a suitcase full of explosives to kill himself and his wife and to destroy the building. Both of the Sisks were killed, along with three law enforcement officers.
  • 1985 – Election Day floods (also known as the Killer Floods of 1985 in West Virginia) produced the costliest floods in both West Virginia and Virginia in November 1985.
  • 1991 – West Virginia derecho was a serial derecho (storm) that started in Arkansas in the early morning hours of April 9, 1991, and made its way northeast, finally dying out over Pennsylvania late that evening. Two people were killed and 145 were injured in the event.
  • 2009 – North American blizzard was a powerful nor’easter that formed over the Gulf of Mexico in December 2009, and became a major snowstorm that affected the East Coast of the United States and Canadian Atlantic provinces. The snowstorm brought record-breaking December snowfall.   Virginia abd West Virginia were declared a state of emergency. Seven deaths were reported to have been caused by the storm.
  • 2016 – A flood hit areas of West Virginia and nearby parts of Virginia, resulting in 23 deaths. The flooding was the result of 8 to 10 inches (200 to 250 mm) of rain falling over a period of 12 hours, resulting in a flood that was among the deadliest in West Virginia history.

American political and military leaders were alarmed by the murder of Cornstalk; they believed he was their only hope of securing Shawnee neutrality. At the insistence of Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, Cornstalk’s killers — whom Henry called “vile assassins” — were eventually brought to trial, but since their fellow soldiers would not testify against them, all were acquitted.

Burial Places of Cornstalk

Monument commemorating the grave of Shawnee Chief Cornstalk
Monument commemorating the grave of Shawnee Chief Cornstalk,
Point Pleasant Battle Monument State Park
The grave of Cornstalk has been moved several times. Originally, he was buried near Fort Randolph, Virginia (now West Virginia) the colonial outpost at which he had been killed when he came to talk about peace.

Then in 1840, street builders unearthed his grave, and the remains were moved to the courthouse grounds in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

In 1954 the old courthouse was torn down to build a new courthouse and it was decided to move the grave to historical Tu-Endie-Wei Park at the junction of the  Ohio and Kanawha Rivers. Today, this area is preserved as Point Pleasant Battle Monument State Park.

Before the last reinterment, amateur archeologists began digging, and after 10 hours of fruitless labor, it was feared that the chief’s remains might not be found. But persistent diggers finally came upon rust stains from the metal box in which Cornstalk had been reburied. In loose earth, they found three teeth and 15 bone fragments which were decided to be “undoubtedly those of Cornstalk.” 

This final resting place is near the field of his most famous battle. His oft-moved grave now lies beside those of Colonial soldiers killed in that struggle—the battle of Pt. Pleasant, Oct. 10, 1774 — and Frontier Heroine Ann Bailey.

The last pieces of his remains were sealed in an aluminum box in the center of a four-ton stone monument bearing the simple inscription: “Chief Cornstalk, 1727-1777.”

Further Reading:

The Shawnees and the War for America
Native American Tribes: The History and Culture of the Shawnee
Warrior Woman: The Exceptional Life Story of Nonhelema, Shawnee Indian Woman Chief (Cornstalk’s sister)