Kerr's Creek Carnage May Have Led To The Birth Of Rockbridge County
By Deborah Sensabaugh
Editors note: This is the final part of a look at the early history of the Kerr's Creek area of Rockbridge County which, in the mid-1700s, was the site of two Indian raids that left many early area settlers dead.
Big Spring is still a good place for going back. Melancholy in winter, the lapping water gropes like fingers toward the banks where the cabin stood, where the people fell like broken dolls. In the mist you think you see them, and then realize it’s only cedar trees.
The graves on the hillside, the tales of school children, fear driven to run past the blood fields. Suddenly, the crow calls are the cries of the lost and a warm breeze turns chill across the interstate, cutting east on the Midland Trail.
In 1777, Kerr's Creek’s past seemed determined to prove the Biblical adage, “Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword.” For the Shawnee sachem Cornstalk, death rode seven bullets from a Kerr's Creek gun, and maybe gave rise to a new county that proved to the frontier she would take care of her own.
Once the treaty at Oswego (New York) ended the Pontiac Conspiracy in 1765-66, border warfare skipped like wildfire here and there. Kentucky, newly opened for settlement, came under attack, as did Southwest Virginia, the Ohio Valley and the Conococheague Valley in what is now western Maryland. The lack of a concentrated Native American federation, however, made skirmish and guerrilla warfare the norm.
Then, in 1744, British influence began growing on the frontier. In October, armies under Andrew Lewis (from Lewis settlement, or Staunton, later founding a settlement at Salem) and Charles Lewis (Bath County) marched from Fort Union (present Lewisburg) to Point Pleasant where the Kanawha empties into the Ohio. Other colonial forces, under Virginia Gov. Dunmore (British agent), were to converge from Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh) and squeeze the Indians away from the western Virginia settlements.
Kerr's Creek’s old archenemy, now a great strategist and chieftain, drew warriors from near and far. Cornstalk was ready to meet the foe with an ace in his headband. Lord Dunmore, unbeknown to the frontier militia, had agreed to stay away from the Point Pleasant rendezvous point....
Instead, the Lewis army engaged the enemy, and while the militia finally won the day, more than 70 died. Cornstalk lost 20. Some historians consider this the first battle of the American Revolution, since the British supposedly had conspired with the Indians against the colonists. While that point is debated by many, history indicates the struggle for Indian allegiance progressed rapidly from that point. The British, like the French, knew if they could make enough political promises to the Ohio Valley nations, those warriors would fight the colonists to the death.
At Point Pleasant, Fort Randolph was constructed and garrisoned as the Revolutionary War loomed over the Transalleghany.
By 1777, the British had united the Ohio Valley tribes, with the exception of the Shawnees whose overall chief was none other than the Kerr's Creek nemesis. For some reason, however, Cornstalk opposed uniting with the British and warring with the settlers.
Later, Cornstalk’s sister, known 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 Kerr's Creek, Collier's 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 El-li-nips-i-co, 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 Kerr's 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.
Capt. Arbuckle and Capt. 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 El-li-nips-i-co and Cornstalk. El-li-nips-i-co denied the Indians on the riverbank had accompanied him.
Ever the dignified chief Cornstalk reassured El-li-nips-i-co, “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 sided 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 Capt. Hall, the return home was bittersweet. He had led the soldiers who killed the perpetrator of the Kerr,s 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 Kerr's Creek fields meant little.
In October that year, the Virginia legislature granted that Rockbridge County be formed from Botetourt and Augusta lands. On 7 April 1778, the first Rockbridge court was held at Samuel Wallace’s home. Capt. Hall was called for examination. He didn’t show. On April 28th, 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 Kerr's Creek firsthand.
Kerr's 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.
Withers’s Chronicles of Border Warfare
Morten’s Rockbridge County History
Strickler’s Roanoke Times, “Death of Indian Had Part In Founding Rockbridge”
Dunlap’s 1936 “Scrapbook”
a 1944 Hart newspaper account (including Rockbridge court records)
Diehl papers from the Washington and Lee Leyburn Library collection
Source: The Weekender, Lexington, Virginia (December 13, 1997), pp. 1-3.
Reprinted with the permission of the News-Gazette