An Indian-Fighter, a Native American warrior and a U.S. Marine; the stories of Ann Bailey, Nonhelema Hokolesqua and Delsie Swearingen
If you have ever visited Watoga State Park, you may have hiked some of her trails. One of the more popular destinations is the Ann Bailey lookout tower. Two trails will deliver you there, the Ann Bailey Trail starting just above the T.M. Cheek Overlook and the notoriously strenuous Arrowhead Trail out of the Riverside Campground.
Built of blight-infected American chestnut trees by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, this rustic lookout tower celebrates a warrior woman of the Revolutionary War period. Ann Bailey was a household name throughout the late 1700s and much of the 19th century, and with good reason.
Born in England in 1742, Ann quickly developed a strong sense of patriotism. This would someday be a boon to our infant country.
At the tender age of five, she witnessed the public execution of a traitor in London. This left a lasting impression on Ann, whose soldier father fought for England in many battles abroad.
She arrived in America in 1761 and soon thereafter married Richard Trotter. He was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant, leaving Ann bitter against the Indians.
Vowing revenge for the death of her husband, she found a caretaker for her son, William, and became a familiar face among the border soldiers on the Virginia frontier.
In 1785, she married John Bailey, a notable leader of the border guard in Southwest Virginia. A few years later, the two moved to Fort Lee in what would become present-day Charleston, West Virginia.
It was here that Ann took on the dangerous job of messenger and scout, specifically the area between Fort Lee and Fort Randolph in Point Pleasant. This area was then the western frontier of America and was already occupied by a number of warring tribes.
This lone woman would saddle her horse and ride unaccompanied on wilderness trails to and from various forts and settlements.
The act of supreme courage that made Ann Bailey famous for all time began in Fort Lee in 1791. During a particularly vicious and overwhelming Indian attack it was discovered that, much like what happened in the story of Betty Zane, the fort would soon run out of gunpowder.
The closest source was in Lewisburg. Without the precious black powder, it was apparent to all in the fort that they would be overrun and killed in relatively short order.
In his book Life and Times of Ann Bailey, Virgil Lewis describes what happens next in a way that hastens an unavoidable lump in one’s throat. “A hundred miles lay between Fort Lee and Lewisburg. Col. George Clendenin summoned the garrison together and called for volunteers, for men who would risk their own lives, in an effort to save others.’
“Not one would enter upon the perilous journey. Brave men looked each other in the face only to see reflected back the dismay which appalled the entire garrison. Then was heard in a determined tone the words ‘I WILL GO,’ and every inmate of that beleaguered fort recognized the voice of Ann Bailey.”
Shortly after that, the best mount in the fort was handed over to Ann. Alone and undeterred by the hostile forces outside, she rode out of the stronghold’s gate and galloped straightaway toward Lewisburg’s Fort Savannah.
Arriving in Lewisburg after a hundred-mile ride through the wilderness, Ann did not tarry. Refusing the offer of a guard to accompany her, she accepted a fresh mount and packhorse loaded with gunpowder. Without further delay, she headed straight back to Fort Lee.
Of course, this story has a Hollywood ending – Ann arrives unscathed at Fort Lee to shouts and cheers, and within a day, the hostiles were driven off.
Those same men she shamed by her courage and action spread the word about the heroine of the Kanawha Valley. The Indians she fought so hard against bestowed upon Ann the title “The White Squaw of the Kanawha,” a title based upon their respect for her.
Ann Bailey was but 32 years old when her first husband, Richard Trotter, was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant. Her grief drove her to become a fearless and competent soldier bent on fighting the Indians who killed her husband. Indians led by the equally fierce and capable Shawnee Chief, Cornstalk.
Cornstalk’s sister, 56-year-old Nonhelema Hokolesqua, was a Chief of the Shawnees, presiding over various villages, including Lower Shawneetown that occupied both sides of the river around present-day Portsmouth, Ohio.
Nonhelema’s story is quite different from that of Ann Bailey. Where Ann lived to the ripe old age of 83, dying peacefully in her bed beside two of her grandchildren, little is known of Nonhelema’s death.
Likewise, Ann is eternally memorialized in the Tu-Endie-Wei Park at the Battle of Point Pleasant scene.
Nonhelema, despite her loyalty to the Americans, was met with a much darker end.
Nonhelema, born in 1718, was a woman of stature in more ways than one. At six foot six inches tall, she towered over most men, both native and white.
She didn’t become a chief of the warrior Shawnees on her considerable domestic skills alone. She earned it on the battlefield in the Battle of Bushy Run against the British in 1763.
Nonhelema’s lifespan bridged a significant cultural shift for the Shawnee, particularly for women. Until the arrival of the Europeans, the Shawnee did not have a strict gender hierarchy. A woman could be a warrior, a chief or a diplomat if that was her inclination.
Nonhelema served as both war chief and peace chief, and a guide and translator. However, since the Battle of Bushy Run, she worked valiantly to keep peace with the white settlers.
But, how was peace to be possible when the white intent was to eradicate Nonhelema’s people?
As European settlers penetrated the Shawnee and Cherokee lands of the frontier, the need for dialogue between the two groups became necessary to avoid bloodshed.
Although, as we well know, massacres frequently occurred on both sides.
Nonhelema was one of the last women chiefs to serve as a diplomat between the whites and the Native Americans. Why? Because the Europeans were almost exclusively represented in talks by men and seemed to prefer to only deal with men.
This ultimately created a gender hierarchy favoring men in the Shawnee culture.
Nonhelema and her brother, Cornstalk, agreed that the Shawnee should take a neutral position regarding the American Revolution. For Nonhelema’s part, she proactively met with settlers and repeatedly warned them of rogue Shawnee attacks.
In one instance, her efforts in warning the inhabitants of Fort Donnelly (present-day Greenbrier County) were rewarded with the destruction of her entire herd of cattle. This lends credence to the maxim, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Despite the decades of help she had provided the settlers in her own land, the American Army destroyed her village in 1785. They killed her husband, taking her and her daughters captive.
There are two versions of what happened next to 73-year-old Nonhelema. The American version is that she created a dictionary of the Shawnee language. The Shawnee oral tradition has it that the soldiers cut off the fingers of her right hand.
Little is known about Nonhelema after her capture. She died less than a year later.
Fast forward to the late 20th century and meet a modern warrior – Delsie Swearingen.
Three years in the Army followed by an 18-year stint in the U.S. Marines, Delsie knew at 19 years old what she wanted to do with her immediate future. Some of her higher aspirations would soon come face to face with the realities of being a woman in the military of the late 1970s.
It wasn’t until 1948 that the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act went into effect, permitting women to be full members of all Armed Services branches.
This law did not prevent certain restrictions on women in any Armed Services branch. And, it certainly didn’t curtail individual officers and enlisted men from demonstrating their personal biases against serving with women.
In Delsie’s experience, there was a minority of openly biased men.
“You always have your ten percent,” she said. “For those, you had to be twice as good to be considered equal.”
Although Delsie had both Airframe and Powerplant certifications that she earned at night school while in the Army, she could not perform maintenance on aircraft in the Marines. This was understandably frustrating.
Women were simply not permitted to be mechanics in a combat-ready squadron, regardless of their credentials or expertise.
I would think that pilots and crew, if they were asked, would prefer having their aircraft repaired and maintained by the best mechanic available. Be it man or woman.
The real irony of Delsie’s experience was that, although she could not physically perform maintenance on military aircraft, she could and did teach aircraft mechanics.
Delsie shared an experience at the infantry school in Camp Pendleton, California, that further illustrates the fragility of some men’s egos. An officer on base threw a challenge to the women pitting his men against them in an obstacle course event.
The women won, but the results, usually published in the base newspaper, were ignored altogether. It has been said that no one has ever choked from swallowing their pride.
Author’s note: Before Delsie retired from the Marines, women were allowed to be aircraft maintenance officers and pilots. Additionally, it is essential to point out that most men were welcoming and respectful. Just a few unenlightened men have always made it more difficult for women to enter traditionally male-dominated roles.
Next week, in concluding our National Women’s Month celebration, we will meet more extraordinary women right here in Pocahontas County. They have knocked down barriers and opened doors in the workplace and in service to Pocahontas County and our country.
Citations are available upon request.