Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Nonhelema

Episode Summary

Nonhelema (c. 1720s-1796) was a great warrior and leader of the Shawnee Tribe who deftly led her people through a time of great change and turmoil.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Our woman of the day was a great warrior and leader of the Shawnee Tribe who deftly led her people through  a time of great change and turmoil. Let’s talk about Nonhelema. 

We don’t know the details of whe Nonhelema was born, but it was around the 1720s probably in western Pennsylvania. We also don’t know much about her childhood besides the fact that she seems to have come from a prominent family from the Shawnee Tribe.

Nonhelema’s story really picks up in the late 1750s during the period of the French and Indian War. By this point, she and her brother,  known as Hokoleskwa or Cornstalk, were living in the Ohio Valley. The Shawnee had moved there under pressure by increasing white settlement. Cornstalk had become a prominent Shawnee Chief and warrior.

As a quick reminder, the French and Indian War was the North American portion of a larger war called the Seven Years War. In North America, British and French colonists fought as each side attempted to further expand their sphere of influence. Native people also took sides. The British basically won.

Like other sibling duos in Native history, Cornstalk  and Nonhelema led together during peace and war. For example, at the Battle of Bushy Run in 1764, Nonhelema led warriors alongside her brother. That battle was part of what’s known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, a fight between Native Americans and the British who were hot off their victory in the French and Indian War.  

When rumblings of revolution began to take hold across the colonies,  Cornstalk and Nonhelema decided that the best strategic move for the Shawnee people would be  to support the American settlers over the British. This was a risky move considering the perceived military might of the British. Cornstalk  was assassinated in 1777, but Nonhelema stayed the course with the support of her husband, Moluntha, who was also a prominent leader and warrior. 

When Nonhelema learned that some Shawnee had traveled to join the British at Fort Detroit, she responded by rushing to warn the Americans of this development. She disguised two Revolutionary soldiers in traditional Shawnee garb  so that they could travel undisturbed to Fort Donnelly to warn of the impending attack. Those Shawnee who had allied themselves with the British destroyed Nonhelema’s cattle as payback. Nonhelema and her people moved to escape further trouble. 

But her work for the Americans wasn’t over. In 1780, Nonhelema guided and translated for Augustin de la Balme, a French expat soldier who was tasked with leading a major campaign against British troops in what’s now Illinois. 

Sadly, Nonhelema’s loyalty wasn’t rewarded. In 1786, Nonhelema and her husband Moluntha, both elderly by this point, were captured in yet another war, the Northwest Indian War. That war was between a confederation of Native American tribes with the support of the British against the new United States. 

Though the Americans who captured Nonhelema and Moluntha were initially ordered not to harm them, one of the men, Hugh McGary, felt differently. McGary asked Moluntha if he had been at the Battle of the Blue Licks. Moluntha didn’t understand the question but repeated “Battle of the Blue Licks.” McGary took that as confirmation and killed Moluntha with a tomahawk. 

Nonhelema tried to protect Moluntha and was injured herself before another man  tackled McGary. 

Nonhelema was then taken to Fort Pitt and held there. While there, she helped compile a dictionary of Shawnee words and their meanings in English. She died soon after her release.

Nonhelema lived an extraordinary life as the world around her changed dramatically. She married three times, twice before her final marriage to Moluntha, and she also had sons with two white men, a son named Thomas with British Indian Agent Alexander McKee, and a son named Tamantha with an American officer named General Richard Butler. Tamantha also became a great warrior.  

As always, we’ll be taking a break for the weekend, so tune in on Monday for the story of another leader.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. I strive to learn something new every day. I’m guessing that if you’re listening to this show, you feel the same way. That’s why I’m so excited to talk to you about The Great Courses Plus. Their online streaming service offers thousands of lectures on a huge number of topics. It’s like going back to school without tests -- though I’m sure your trivia skills will get a boost. In the spirit of this episode, I highly recommend the course Native Peoples of North America to learn more about the Revolutionary War from the Native perspective. Right now, Encyclopedia Womannica listeners can get a free month of unlimited access. Sign up today at The-Great-Courses –PLUS –dot -com –slash – ENCYCLOPEDIA. That’s thegreatcoursesplus.com/ENCYCLOPEDIA.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator! 

Talk to you on Monday!