The Mothman, the Thunderbird, and the Curse of Chief Cornstalk

Since it’s getting close to Halloween, and it’s also Columbus Day, which of course is when the problems started between the white man and the Native Americans, I thought I’d discuss the famous Mothman of Point Pleasant, and its connection to the Curse of Chief Cornstalk.

Silver Bridge collapseA movie called The Mothman Prophecies was released in 2002, starring Richard Gere, and it was pretty popular.  According to the movie, the Mothman was trying to warn people prior to the collapse of the Silver Bridge on December 15, 1967.

On that fateful day, after hundreds of Mothman sightings and similarly strange events spanning a little over a year, the Silver Bridge (over the Ohio River, which connected West Virginia and Ohio) collapsed due to undetectable structural failure during 5:00 rush hour.  There were 37 vehicles on the bridge at the time, and 31 of them fell with the bridge.  49 people lost their lives either in the ice-cold river below, or due to falling on the Ohio banks.  Nine people were seriously injured.

After the collapse of the Silver Bridge, people stopped seeing the Mothman, which is why the sightings are attached even today to the bridge collapse.  Many people here absolutely believe in the Mothman, and have no question in their mind whether it actually existed.  The question which is still the subject of heated debate in this area, though, is whether the Mothman was here to warn us of impending disaster, or whether the Mothman caused the disaster.

Mothman statueDespite the story in the movie, I was always taught that the Mothman had nothing to do with warning us about the Silver Bridge disaster.  I was taught by one of my family elders, who was of pure Shawnee descent, that the collapse of the Silver Bridge was the vengeance of Chief Cornstalk, who in 1777 placed a blood curse upon that very area.  She believed that so strongly, in fact, that she kept a framed photo of the Silver Bridge on her wall, to remind herself of what happened.

I remember she would sit us kids on the floor around her, light up her old corncob pipe, sit back in her old creaky rocking chair, and regale us with tales of her Native American ancestors.  One of those ancestors (though I was never sure to what degree he was related, or if she just believed they were related because they came from the same tribe) was the famous Chief Cornstalk.  What follows is the story as it was relayed to me.

For millenia, the abundant Ohio River Valley around Point Pleasant was home to multiple Native American tribes, including the Shawnee.  Their leader in the late 1700s was Chief Kite-ug-gua (translated to Cornstalk), and their rock drawings exist even today.  Among those drawings are depictions of a large bird-like creature with large saucer-like eyes, known as the Thunderbird.  So the Mothman wasn’t a new thing at all, really.  It was actually something known to Native Americans for hundreds if not thousands of years, long before the Mothman ever appeared.

The Thunderbird was a servant of The Great Spirit, and it lived atop the hills and mountains.  It was huge, and according to legend, could cause wind and the sound of thunder with its wings, and lightning by blinking its huge eyes.  It is said that the Thunderbird could change its appearance to that of a man, by pulling back its beak and removing its feathers.  It was a very dangerous and wrathful spirit, and its power could be summoned through The Great Spirit, to avenge the Native Americans against their enemies.

Multiple people at the time of the Mothman sightings described very strange men dressed in ill-fitting black suits, who knocked on their doors pretending to be every imaginable type of official in order to get inside.  They acted very strangely, even being described as very clearly not human; these strange men scared people so badly, in fact, that they contacted the police and started bolting their doors.  The descriptions generally described them as having very strange eyes, and speaking in a weird sing-song voice.  Witnessed also relayed that these men seemed amazed by common everyday items, as if they’d never seen them before, so they understandably made those who encountered them extremely uncomfortable; one of the people who had such an encounter with these strangers was a local reporter.

People also described repeated interference with electrical objects.  They described televisions losing their signal and showing colors they’d never seen before (most televisions back then were black and white, so those televisions shouldn’t have shown any color).  They also described cars suddenly losing all power and dying in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, while they were being driven.

There were over 100 witnesses to the Mothman phenomena, and most were considered to be credible.  They would talk of being chased by a large, approximately seven-foot-tall birdlike creature with large glowing red eyes, sometimes at speeds of over 100 miles per hour.  They would also talk of this same creature appearing before them on remote roads or even in their own yard, sometimes peering with its large red eyes into their homes.

Many of those people were so frightened by what they had seen, and so sure that what they had seen was real, they went straight to the police station to report it.  Many also reported being paralyzed by the sight of its blood-red eyes, including one woman who actually dropped her baby as a result.  Though the baby was crying and possibly hurt, she was paralyzed and unable to respond to her baby’s cries for several minutes.

Nothing reported about the Mothman, from electrical failures to a birdlike creature to strange inhuman men in black to paralysis, fails to be explained by the Native American legend of the Thunderbird.  For that reason, many believe that the Mothman was actually the Thunderbird, especially since paralysis related to the color of blood is actually mentioned in the Curse of Chief Cornstalk.

In the late 1700s, Chief Cornstalk tried to keep peace between the Native American tribes, and the white man intruders.  Though the Native Americans had been driven to the Ohio side of the river by the white man, and so many Native Americans were killed in that bloody battle that the Ohio River and its banks turned red – an event which my grandmother said was “200 years to the day before that bridge fell down” – Chief Cornstalk was often successful in convincing other tribes to allow the white man to live within their fort at Point Pleasant without being attacked.  Eventually the other tribes decided to attack the fort and take back their land, however, and when Chief Cornstalk couldn’t convince them to not attack, he went to the fort with his young son, as proof that he had peaceful intentions, in order to warn them.

Though he went to the fort in peace, the Chief and his son were taken captive in the belief that it would stop the Native Americans from attacking the fort.  However, that changed when a couple of soldiers were out hunting, and one was killed by Native Americans due to the fact that they were holding Chief Cornstalk and his son hostage.  When the other soldier returned with the dead body, his fellow soldiers were enraged.  They burst into the room where Chief Cornstalk and his son were being held, and murdered them both in cold blood.

Legend has it that with his dying breath, Chief Cornstalk placed a curse upon Point Pleasant, calling upon The Great Spirit to avenge their deaths.  The curse of Chief Cornstalk, as I was told the story, is as follows:

“I was the white man’s friend.  Many times I have saved the white man and his people from harm.  I never made war with you, except to protect our land.  I refused at the peril of my own people to join your enemies in the red coats.  I came to this fort as your friend, and you have murdered my young son, who harmed no one, and you have murdered me when I came only to save you.  For this, may the curse of the Great Spirit rest upon this land and its inhabitants.  May it be blighted by nature, and may it be blighted in its hopes.  May the strength of its people be paralyzed by the stain of our blood.”

The Curse of Chief Cornstalk is something taken very seriously in this area, by the way.  I was taught from a young age that the Native Americans really do have supernatural powers, due to their close relationship with nature, and that a Native American curse is something to be taken very, very seriously.

Do I believe that Native American curses are real?  Well, let’s just say I’d go completely out of my way to never make a full-blooded Native American angry, especially one who still practices their ancient culture.  Perhaps that’s out of respect, or perhaps it’s out of fear.  But most likely, given what I was taught as a child, it’s a little bit of both.

Belief in Native American legends, including a belief that they could place curses upon you, is very common in West Virginia.  As a result, many here believe that the Mothman was really the Thunderbird, and that it arose to extract the vengeance of Chief Cornstalk.

When you think about it, it actually makes more sense to believe that the Mothman was the vengeful Thunderbird, than that it came to warn people of impending disaster.  Truth is, the Mothman never warned anybody about anything, it just scared people half to death.  Some claimed they had nightmares about bodies floating in the river surrounded by Christmas presents, and that was in the movie too, but (quite conveniently) those people never told anyone about those dreams until after the disaster.  So the Mothman never gave any hint that a disaster was coming, much less where it would occur, even when it appeared in human form and could have done so very easily.

Of course, no one really knows for a fact what the Mothman was, or if it even really existed at all.  It could have been a very large bird (we have some really humongous birds in this state) seen in darkness and at an angle, so that it looked much larger than it really was.  The eyes could have been a reflection from headlights or flashlights, which made them appear both red and extremely large.  It could even have become a case of mass hysteria, especially once the stories started circulating. Maybe the strange men were just visiting from another country.  Maybe the electrical problems were caused by overhead electrical wires, or a bad batch of automobile batteries being sold at a local store.  The number of possible logical explanations for the various Mothman phenomena are nearly endless.

So did the Mothman try to warn us about the collapse of the Silver Bridge?  Was the Mothman actually the wrathful Thunderbird which caused the collapse of the bridge, as part of the Curse of Chief Cornstalk?  Or, was the Mothman just a figment of people’s imaginations?  In West Virginia, you’ll find plenty of people who believe in each of those theories so strongly, they’ll argue with you about it all day long.

Either way I look at it, the simple truth is that we’ll never actually know the truth about the Mothman of Point Pleasant.  It sure is interesting to think about it, though.


One thought on “The Mothman, the Thunderbird, and the Curse of Chief Cornstalk

  1. I’m conducting a survey of bloggers who blog about the Appalachia region. The results will be presented at the Appalachian Studies Conference in March 2014. If you send me your email I will send you the survey link and more information. My email is in the form below. Thanks

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