Shawnee Chieftess Nonhelema Worked To Negotiate Peace In The 18th Century

Jul 23, 2019

Native American tribes were the first to settle in western Pennsylvania. The names they gave rivers and towns are still here today, but many leaders of these tribes have been forgotten. Nonhelema, a Shawnee warrior and peacemaker, is one of these figures.

Born around 1718, Nonhelema spent her early life in western Pennsylvania. Her brother was Cornstalk, a prominent Shawnee leader. Pressured by expanding white settlement, the tribe moved to eastern Ohio near Scippo Creek.

Nonhelema was an important part of the community and lead the tribe’s peace council, according to Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma Chief Glenna J. Wallace.

“The peace council was always made up of females and there was always a leader of the peace council,” Wallace said.

In 2006, Wallace became the first woman to be elected chief. She represents her people in public appearances, passes down traditions and maintains cultural customs. Peace councils were significant entities. Before Shawnee men went to battle, they had to go before the council to explain why they needed to fight and “the peace council had to give approval for that,” Wallace said.

At the Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park, a display talks about the role of Cornstalk, Nonhelema's brother, saying he was one of the few leaders who tried to keep the peace between Shawnee and settlers following fighting over their land.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Women managed the food supply, so they could decide if going to battle was a shrewd idea.

“[The women] knew that [the men] should never be going to war just to be gaining recognition, there had to be a valid reason,” Wallace said.

Nonhelema, which Wallace said means “not a man,” was well respected in her tribe and beyond -- she was nicknamed Grenadier Squaw by white traders, who called their strongest soldiers grenadiers. She was also extremely tall, with many estimating her height to be around 6 feet 6 inches tall. And, she was a fierce warrior, according to Carolyn Seitz with the Mt. Oval National Historic Site at Genadier Squaw Village in Ohio.

“When it came time … to do battles, she was right up there with her brothers,” Seitz said.

But Nonhelema knew her tribe’s survival depended on keeping the peace. When the American Revolution began, she and Cornstalk tried to do what was best for their tribe. Other Shawnee tribes had backed the British, but Nonhelema favored the Americans. In 1777, her brother Cornstalk traveled to Fort Randolph in West Virginia to negotiate with the Americans. But while he was there, a different group of Native Americans killed a soldier. Furious, the Fort Randolph Americans attacked Cornstalk, killing him.

Historical writer Joan Hochstelter said Nonhelema was near the fort when her brother was killed.

Credit The Ohio Historical Society

“And I can just I can't imagine when she came back to the fort and discovered what happened,” Hochstetler said. “But she never wavered in her support for the Americans.”

Nonhelema even separated from the Shawnee. “Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present” by Bernard A. Cook says she warned soldiers of Shawnee attacks and served as a translator for settlers.

She married several times, and had children with Colonel Alexander McKee whose land would go on to become McKees Rocks borough, as well as Richard Butler, who would have a city, street and county named after him. For her service to the new American government, Carolyn Seitz says Nonhelema petitioned for a plot of her own land.

“But instead the Congress gave her a pension of daily rations and an annual allotment of blankets and clothing,” Seitz said.

Nonhelema died in 1786. She was a firm believer in keeping promises and maintaining treaties with settlers and did so to protect her tribe. But her devotion to both the Shawnee and the United States went unrecognized at the time. Finally, in 1978, Logan Elm State Park in Ohio, about three-and-a-half hours from Pittsburgh, created a monument to her legacy.

An introduction to WESA's profiles on women in Pittsburgh history with Gloria Forouzan, office manager for the mayor.