I said last week that the next few weeks would tell the stories of Mason County’s fallen members of the U.S. Armed Forces. This week, we’ll begin with the American Revolution.
The Revolution here in Mason County was somewhat different than other regions. There were no British armies marching down the valley, as there were in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. Nor were there any allied British-Native American armies, as there were in Illinois and northern Ohio. We were the dividing line between the two, the warning should either army try to cross the mountains.
Virginian militiamen kept watch from their forts on our side of the Ohio, ensuring that no Native Americans attempted to use the Kanawha Valley as a means to attack settlements like they had in recent wars. Likewise, the Native Americans kept a constant vigil from the opposite side of the river to protect their villages from the Long-Knives. Of course, with two longstanding enemies separated only a hundred or so yards, there were bound to be sparks.
Cornstalk tried to prevent those sparks from igniting a wildfire that he feared would lead to the end of his people, but we all know how that ended. In retaliation for the murder of militiaman Robert Gilmore by unknown assailants, he and three other friendly and peaceful chieftains were murdered in cold blood. Gilmore and Cornstalk were buried just outside Fort Randolph. The others were unceremoniously thrown in the river.
Unfortunately, Cornstalk’s murder triggered the blaze that he had hoped to prevent. Enraged by his murder, the Shawnee Confederacy allied with the British and launched devastating raids against the frontier. Thousands died in the aftermath.
At Fort Randolph, in April 1778, a small band of Shawnee appeared outside the fort before turning away. Lieutenant Moore and a small detachment were sent after them, but this was no simple scouting mission. They were caught in an ambush, and according to noted frontiersman John Stuart, Moore and two of his detachment were killed. They were undoubtedly buried next to Cornstalk and Gilmore.
It’s worth noting that the Virginians learned their lesson. When the Wyandot attempted the same trick in May, nobody left the fort, and the Siege of Fort Randolph began. According to commanders William McKee and Matthew Arbuckle, only one militiaman was killed, an unnamed private. He too, was undoubtedly buried outside the fort.
Fast forward to the present day. Fort Randolph (1776-1779) stood between what are today the Mansion House and American Legion, on “apex of the upper angle formed by the confluence of the Great Kanawha and Ohio.” The graves were on the east side of the fort, near the entrance. I think you might see where I’m going with this.
If the fort was between the Mansion House and American Legion, what is now to its east? Main Street, of course! Sure enough, in 1840, street workers discovered remains near the old fort.
The question, then, is who did they uncover? Longstanding tradition holds that it was Chief Cornstalk, who was then reburied next to the courthouse, and finally moved to Tu-Endie-Wei in 1954. My question, I suppose, is how did they know it was Cornstalk? How did they differentiate him from at least five militiamen buried in the same area?
Granted, records from the 1840s are sparse. The skeleton may have shown evidence of dozens of gunshots, clear evidence that it was Cornstalk. Or, they may have discovered his tomahawk and other personal effects in the grave. Perhaps Dr. Samuel Shaw, Point Pleasant’s most respected physician during this time, confirmed his identity. I don’t think we’ll ever know.
What we do know is that only skeleton was uncovered in 1840. That leaves at least five other graves beneath the lower end of Main Street. Patriots all, they died defending the western border of our young nation, and their contributions are remembered and honored this Memorial Day.
Information from the WV State Archives and surviving letters relating to Fort Randolph.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.