The Native American warrior and frontier diplomat Cornstalk was a member of the Maquachake division of the Shawnee tribe. He was born in western Pennsylvania around 1720. We know almost nothing about his early life, but he most likely moved west with most of the Shawnee tribe to modern-day Ohio.
Cornstalk fought on the side of the French against the colonists during the French and Indian War. He led a raid against English settlers in Rockbridge County, Virginia in 1759. Then, during Pontiac’s War, he led raids in the Greenbriar area of Virginia.
After Pontiac’s warriors were defeated in 1763, British Colonel Henry Bouquet took a number of Native Americans—including Cornstalk—as hostages to Fort Pitt, at modern- day Pittsburgh. It is uncertain whether Cornstalk escaped from Fort Pitt, or whether he was eventually released. He next appeared in 1774, when clashes between Native Americans and white settlers along the Ohio River frontier threatened to develop into a full-scale war.
Cornstalk wrote to the British governors of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, asking for a cessation of hostilities. His answer came in the form of an attack force led by John Murray, governor of Virginia.
In the councils that followed, Cornstalk spoke for peace. However, when the Shawnee voted for war, Cornstalk agreed to lead his Maquachake warriors to battle. On October 10, 1774, Cornstalk and his followers fought in the Battle of Point Pleasant, in present-day West Virginia. Despite an energetic and imagi- native attack plan, Cornstalk and his men were defeated.
At a meeting with Governor Murray Cornstalk agreed to accept the Ohio River as the southern boundary of the Shawnee tribe. Cornstalk then went into retirement.
The start of the American Revolution brought Cornstalk back to public life. He encouraged his tribesmen to remain neutral, and he made many gestures of good will toward the new United States government. In 1777, he went to American Fort Randolph—the site of the Battle of Point Pleasant—to warn the garrison there of potential Indian attacks stirred up by British agents.
Cornstalk was held prisoner at the fort, and when an American soldier was shot and killed in an ambush, Cornstalk, his son, and several other Native Americans were brutally murdered by the garrison. Some of the murderers fled; the others were tried and acquitted.
Cornstalk’s murder led to nearly 20 years of fighting between the Shawnee and the white Americans. He had worked valiantly over the years in an effort to bring peace between his people and the English settlers— but the hatred and mistrust on both sides was too much to overcome.