Seeing that this coming Tuesday is the 243rd anniversary of the Battle of Point Pleasant, allow me to set the scene for you.
It’s 1774, and we’re in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. For the last decade, the Shawnee Confederacy has been fighting any effort to expand into western Virginia and the Ohio Valley, which they rightfully considered their ancestral homeland. This has resulted in numerous conflicts between settlers and the Shawnee, leaving hundreds dead and scaring many into leaving the Shenandoah Valley. All can see that war is coming, but how did we reach this point?
When Europeans began to explore the interior of their colonies in the 1670s, they found that the dominant Native American tribe was no doubt that of the Shawnees. They were spread across the Mid-Atlantic, from Pennsylvania in the north to Georgia in the south and Illinois in the west. They were so powerful that their language became the common trade language for all Native Americans, much like English throughout the world today. However, this would not continue past 1750.
The first blow to the Shawnees’ power base came from another tribe, the Iroquois. During a war over the fur trade, the tribes of the Ohio Valley were forced into submission by the Iroquois. While this destroyed much of their political power, the Shawnee still oversaw a vast territory. This changed as settlers began moving into the Shenandoah Valley. Rather than face constant conflict, the Shawnee agreed to recognize the Allegheny Ridge as the new border between European settlement and the Shawnee lands. To prove their sincerity, the Shawnee sent out messengers urging the entire tribe to collect in Ohio and Kentucky, where they could consolidate their power. This was the situation in 1758.
The next problem came when the British government failed to keep their word. Rather than using the Allegheny Mountains as the western boundary of their colonies, they allowed settlers to spread into the Ohio Valley. To make matters worse, the Iroquois and the British soon signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, which gave away all Iroquois lands south of the Ohio River (AKA West Virginia and Kentucky). From the Shawnee perspective, this was both a violation of two treaties and an encroachment into their ancestral lands. The British had violated the Treaty of Easton, which prevented settlement west of the Alleghenies, and the Iroquois had violated the treaty which ended the Beaver Wars and required them to protect the Shawnee and their interests. By all laws and customs of the Shawnee, they had to retaliate, and retaliate they did.
From 1755-1774, the Shawnees, led by Hokoleskwa (Chief Cornstalk), raided settlements throughout the Ohio, Kanawha, Greenbrier, and Shenandoah valleys, massacring hundreds in an attempt to force them out. No region was spared. At Lewisburg, two entire settlements were wiped out. The same happened at Kerr’s Creek, Va., twice. There were also attacks at Morgantown, Wheeling, and Bulltown.
Frontiersmen began writing to the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, in the hope that he would send troops or munitions to protect them. Instead, Dunmore went a step further and ordered every militia captain to raise their militias and join his march against the Shawnee. From Winchester, Va., Dunmore led an army of 1,700 militiamen to Wheeling and then into Ohio. From Lewisburg, Andrew Lewis led an army of 1,100 militiamen to the mouth of the Great Kanawha River, where he was to meet Lord Dunmore’s army and continue towards the Shawnee towns near present-day Chillicothe.
Next week, I’ll be continuing this story with the Battle of Point Pleasant and the Treaty of Camp Charlotte.
Information from the WV Encyclopedia, letters from Dunmore’s War, and Virgil Lewis’ “History of the Battle of Point Pleasant.”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.