“Stand on the southern bank of the Ohio River at its confluence with the Scioto River in 1758 and watch the Shawnee women pulling weeds and tending crops for the last time. This is the northeastern most corner of Kentucky. Among the farmers strides a tall, powerful woman, giving instructions about the migration that will soon be undertaken. Across the river is a significant village: lower Shawnee Town, one of many multinational villages that arose in the 1730s and 1740s as the Shawnees returned to the Ohio River valley.”
So begins Craig Thompson Friend in his essay on Kentucky’s frontier, featured in the book, Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times. Advocating for a more inclusive history of Kentucky, Friend pointedly remarked about the fact that Kentucky women’s history has often left out the stories of non-white women – especially those who inhabited the region before it was a Commonwealth. Originally Shawnee and Eastern Cherokee territory, Kentucky was overtaken by the Iroquois during the early years of the French fur trade. Yet as Iroquois power waned in the early 18th century, the Shawnee and Cherokee re-established their presence.
Friend’s text of a “tall, powerful woman” is a picture of a real Shawnee woman: Nonhelema Hokolesqua. Born in 1718, she spent her early life in Pennsylvania before spending time in Alabama, then again in Pennsylvania, where she married. By 1750 – at the age of 32 – Nonhelema was a village chief. When her first husband died in 1754, she re-married and they moved to the Ohio and Kentucky area, re-establishing their presence in the region they had once called home. As Friend recounts:
“Nonhelema became a wife, a chief, an overseer of domestic productions, and a warrior – all made possible through the Shawnees’ view of the world as a system of balance: war/peace, hunting/farming, the above world/the underworld, men/women. As in most other Native American cultures, such balance among the Shawnees assured prosperity, and while not ensuring gendered equality, it made gendered hierarchy difficult. Men’s and women’s areas of influence and responsibility were complementary: in contrast to killing, which was at the heart of men’s primary responsibilities of protecting villages and providing game, women exerted life-power as producers of crops, clothes, domestic goods, and children.”Dr. Craig T. Friend, Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Melissa A. McEuen and Thomas H. Appleton, Jr.
This role as producers of crops gave women economic power. They had specific rituals that celebrated their roles as providers, recognizing their relationship to Shawnee cosmology – which held the creator of life was a female deity named Kohkumthena or Old Grandmother – as well as their relationship to the fertility of the earth. This elevated women’s status – compared to their white counterparts and some Eastern tribes – despite the fact that the Shawnee were patrilineal. Women could also serve alongside or as chiefs – both in war and peace. Nonhelema was one such chief, whose primary responsibilities are recounted as domestic affairs, planting and harvesting, and organizing feasts.
Yet Nonhelema could – like other Shawnee women – become a diplomat and war chief. Accounts from white settlers of meetings with Shawnee detail how Shawnee welcomed women to negotiation meetings, stating “some Women were wiser than some Men,” as well as tales of women joining in battles during the French and Indian War of the 1760s. Nonhelema became such a warrior, being cited for her bravery and earning the moniker “Grenadier Squaw” for her role in the Battle of Busy Run in 1763. Early settlers even named her village, over which she presided, as “Grenadier Squaw’s Town.”
However, by the mid-1770s, Nonhelema returned again to being a peace chief, warning settlers of impending attacks. Partially this may have been her age – she was now in her 60s – but also because of shifting tribal needs and encroachment by white settlers. As Friend writes, “European men expected to interact with other men, requiring Shawnee women to give up many traditional roles – a pattern found among the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Creeks during the era. It is plausible that Nonhelema’s abandonment of the war-chief role resulted from Europeans’ dismissal of her in a ‘man’s’ role.” Such notions also introduced gender hierarchy to the Shawnee – and trying to adapt, Shawnee men began revising ideas of gender and assuming European traditions. Eventually, Nonhelema’s town was abandoned and the tribes migrated northwestward. As settlers continued to push, Nonhelema appealed to the Continental Congress for a two-thousand-acre grant in Ohio on which to settle, in compensation for losses she incurred and her efforts to preserve peace. The Congress’s response is telling: rather than grant her request, they sent her one dress of clothes per year and one ration of provisions each day for the remainder of her life.
A year later, an American army raided Nonhelema’s village – killing their leader and taking Nohelema and her daughters captive. Shawnee oral tradition says that they cut the then 73-year-old’s fingers off her right hand, at which point she disappeared from the historical record.
Like so many Shawnee women, Nonhelema’s life embodies the transition from colonization to eradication. Though Shawnee ways had already changed drastically by the time Nonhelema was born – a result of over 200 years of contact with various European explorers and settlers – Nonhelema was among the last to remember when women held social, political, and economic power. She was among the last to act as chief in both war and peace, to preside over her people and negotiate or fight for their safety and right to live.
Standing on the banks of the Ohio River in northern Kentucky, one might almost feel her spirit again, asking us to recognize that the land we stand upon once belonged to her people and their ancestors, and that we should remember the ways of living, the acknowledgements of women’s power and ability, that Nonhelema and the Shawnee embodied. Though one of an innumerable many, Nonhelema’s story remains a testament to the millions who came before whites ever set eyes upon Kentucky.