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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XII. - Cornstalk and the Battle at Point Pleasant


The name of Cornstalk, the Shawanee Chief, once thrilled the heart of every white man in Virginia, and terrified every family in the mountains. He was, to the Indians of Western Virginia; like Pocahontas to the tribes on the sea coast, the greatest and last chief. In the days of his power, the Shawaness built their cabins on the Scioto. They had once dwelt on the Shenandoah, and covered the whole valley of Virginia. At the approach of the whites to the mountains they had retreated beyond the Alleghenies. The names of the various smaller tribes that once were scattered over the country west of the Blue Ridge, and east of the Ohio, have not been preserved. No historical fact of importance depends upon their preservation. There was a name applied to all the tribes, whether it was generic, or from conquest, or a confederacy, or from all combined none can tell. The eastern Indians called the western tribes Massawomacs, their natural enemies. Under whatever name they existed, or from whatever parts composed, these savages were represented by chiefs that owned the authority of Cornstalk, and were at the time the Valley was settled by the whites called Shawanees. The last battles fought along the Shenandoah or Potomac, were between the Catawabas from the South, and the Delawares from the North, on fields abandoned by their savage owners.

Cornstalk, like other savages, has no youth in history. The first we know of him is in plundering and massacre in 1763. In that year he exterminated the infant settlements on Muddy Creek and the Levels, in Greenbrier. The Indians were received as friends, and provisions given them in profound security. Unprovoked they suddenly massacred the males and took the women and children captives. Cornstalk passed on to Jackson’s River, and finding the families on their guard, hastened on to Carr’s Creek, and doomed some unsuspecting families to the tomahawk and captivity. In the same year depredations were made near Staunton, with the same secrecy and ferocity. Col. Bouquet marched to Fort Pitt, with a regiment of British soldiers and some companies of militia. The Shawanees made a treaty, on the Muskingum, and delivered up th prisoners to return to desolate homes. The massacre on Carr’& Creek was terribly visited on Cornstalk, when a defenceless hostage, after the lapse of more than twenty years. All savages seem alike, as the trees in the distant forest. Here and there one unites in his own person the excellencies of the whole race, and becomes the image of savage greatness. Cornstalk was gifted with oratory, statesmanship, heroism, beauty of person, and strength of frame. In his movements he was majestic; in his manners easy and winning. Of his oratory, - Col. Benjamin Wilson an officer in Lord Dunmore’s army, says—“I have heard the first orators in Virginia, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, but never have I heard one whose powers of delivery surpassed those of Cornstalk.” Of his statesmanship and bravery there is ample evidence in the fact that he was head of the confederacy, and led the battle at Point Pleasant.

The whole savage race was alarmed at the attempts of the white-men to occupy Kentucky; and the preparations to lay off the bounty lands, for the soldiers of Braddock’s war, near Louisville, at the falls of the Ohio, drove them to exasperation. A confederacy was formed, and the Shawanee chief was not backward in the excitements and preparations for war. Mutual aggravations on the frontiers followed by plunderings and murders, of which the whites could no more say they were innocent than the savages, brought on the war. In the progress of the confederacy and the war, events took place that have left the impression in Virginia, that Governor Dunmore was more anxious to secure to his majesty George 3d, the friendship of the numerous tribes of Indians bordering the colonies, than to avenge the wrongs Virginia was suffering from savage hands, either as the fruits of his own misdoings, or the overflowing of savage ferocity. In April of 1774, Col. Angus M’Donald of the Valley of the Shenandoah, led a regiment against the Indians on the Muskingum. He destroyed their towns and secured some hostages; and the hope was indulged that the frontiers would be safe. The Indians fully convinced that acting by tribes, or small companies, they would all share the fate of the Muskingums, made the last effort of savages, and acted in concert. The Governor now had no alternative; he must meet the Indians with a force becoming a Governor of a Province and the officer of a powerful king.

An expedition into the Indian country was planned. Point Pleasant, at the junction of the great Kanawha with the Ohio, was the place of rendezvous. The Governor was to- collect forces in the lower part of the Valley of the Shenandoah and the mountains, and proceeding to Fort Pitt go down the Ohio in boats. Gen. Andrew Lewis was' to lead the force, raised in Culpepper, Augusta, Bedford, and all the upper part of the Valley, and on‘the head of Holston, and proceeding down the Kanawha to meet the Governor at the Point. Gen. Lewis made his rendezvous at Camp Union, Lewisburg, about the 4th of September. His brother Charles Lewis, led the Augusta regiment under the Captains, George Matthews, Alexander M’Clenachan, John Dickinson, John Lewis, Benjamin Harrison, William Paul, Joseph Haynes and Samuel Wilson. Col. William Fleming commanded the Botetourt companies, under Captains Matthew Arbuckle, John Murray, John Lewis, James Robertson, Robert M’Clenachan, James Ward and John Stuart. Col. John Fields, a lieutenant in Braddock’s war, and one that escaped the massacre of Cornstalk’s inroad on Greenbrier, led the men from Culpepper. Captains Evan Shelby, William Russell and Harbert led companies from Washington County, and Captain Thomas Buford those from Bedford, and east of the Ridge, and west of the James: these four were to be under the command of Col. William Christian. On the 11th of September, General Lewis began the march, with about eleven hundred men. Captain Arbuckle was the pilot through the mountains and down the river. There was no track of any kind for the army; few white persons had ever gone down the Kanawha. The distance, about one hundred and sixty miles, was passed over in nineteen days. Provisions were supplied from pack-horses, and from the cattle driven along for the purpose. After waiting for some days, and hearing nothing from the Governor, Lewis despatched two messengers to Fort Pitt for intelligence. On Sabbath, the 9th of October, three men came to Lewis’s Camp, express from the Governor, to give information of his march, by land, from the mouth of the Hockhocking directly to the Shawanee towns, with orders for the forces at the point to join him there. Lewis was surprised and vexed at this movement of Dunmore; and began to indulge suspicions, that never left him, greatly derogatory to the purity of the Governor’s motives. One of the express, by name M’Cullough, enquired for Captain John Stuart, afterwards Col. Stuart of Greenbrier, who was on guard. He renewed an acquaintance he had formed with him in Philadelphia. “In the course of the conversation,” says Stuart in his narrative, "he informed me he had recently left the Shawanee-towns, and gone to the Governor’s Camp. This made me desirous to know his opinion of our expected success in subduing the Indians ; and whether he thought they would be presumptuous enough to offer fight to us,” as we supposed we had a force, superior to anything they could afford us. He answered, “Aye, they will give you grinders, and that before long. And repeating swore, we should get grinders very soon.” The express returned to the Governor. While Lewis and his men were thinking only of the Shawanees, and perhaps a few allies, M’Cullough was giving notice to Stuart of a fact, he appears not to have noticed at the time, that the confederacy was strong enough to meet them all in the field, and would soon make trial of their strength. On the next morning the battle at Point Pleasant was fought. Two young men going out on a deer hunt, very early happened to ramble up the river Ohio, and after proceeding a few miles came suddenly upon a camp of Indians making preparations to march. The young men were discovered, fired upon, and one killed. The other fled in all haste for the camp, and entered it at full speed, at about sunrise. “He stopped,” says Stuart, “just before my tent; and I discovered a number of men collected around him as I lay in my bed. I jumped up and approached him to know what was the alarm, I when I heard him declare that he had seen above five acres of land covered with Indians as thick as they could stand one beside another.”

The camp of Lewis was in motion. A battle was about to take place, the most fierce ever waged with savages by the forces of Virginia, on her own soil. A braves company had never been assembled, in the colony, than that which was encamped, the second Sabbath of October, 1771, on the banks of the Ohio and Kanawha, under the command of General Andrew Lewis. “It consisted,” says Captain Stuart, “of young volunteers well trained to the use of arms, as hunting in those days was much practised, and preferred/ to agricultural pursuits, by enterprising young men. The produce of the soil was of little value on the west side of the Blue Ridge; the ways bad, and the distance to market too great to make it esteemed. Such pursuits inured them to hardships and danger. They had no knowledge of the use of discipline, or military order, were in an enemy’s country, well skilled in their own manner of warfare, and were quite unacquainted with military operations of any kind. Ignorance of their duties, together with high notions of independence and equality of condition, rendered the service extremely difficult and disagreeable to the commander, who was by nature of a lofty and high military spirit.” One of the Augusta companies that took its departure from Staunton, excited admiration for the height of its men, and their uniformity of stature. In the bar-room of Sampson Matthews, a mark was made upon the walls, which remained till the tavern was consumed by fire, about seventy years after the measurement of the company was taken. The greater part of the men were six feet two inches, in their stockings ; and only two were but six feet. Patriotic and brave, these valley boys submitted to the rigid discipline of Lewis, whom they had known from childhood, with a reluctance that, under a foreigner, would have been rebellion. Travelling through an untried wilderness, they out marched Dun-more on a beaten track, repulsed the Shawanees, and were on the march for the Indian towns when arrested by an order from the Governor. Their General had seen service. A Captain in 1752, he was with Washington at the Little Meadows, and received two wounds. In 1755, he was Major under Washington, and in endeavoring to rescue Grant from his rash adventure, was taken prisoner. While in captivity, he quarrelled with Grant for abusing the Americans ; and to show his contempt, spit in the English Major’s face. “ In person,” says Stuart, “ upwards of six feet high, of uncommon strength and agility, and his form of the most exact symmetry that I ever beheld in human being. He had a stern and invincible countenance, and was of a reserved and distant deportment which rendered his presence more awful than engaging.” The Governor of New York observed about him, while acting as Commissioner from Virginia, at the treaty of Fort Stanwix—“ the earth seemed to tremble under him as he walked along.” Of his bravery and general fitness to command, his troops never expressed a doubt; but of his severity of discipline they loudly complained. Their insubordination and thoughtlessness coming in contact with his sense of honor and propriety, gave rise to clamor, but never produced ill-will.

Cornstalk led the Indians. His band of warriors was made up of the entire forces of the Shawanees, of the young warriors of the Wyandots, the Delawares, the Mingoes, and Cayugas, and the smaller tribes under their control. “Of all the Indians,” says Stuart, “the Shawanees were the most bloody and terrible, holding all other men, as well Indians as whites, in contempt as warriors, in comparison with themselves. This opinion made them more fierce and restless than any other savages ; and they boasted they had killed ten times as many whites as any other Indians. They were a well-formed, ingenious, active people, were assuming and imperious in the presence of others not of their nation, and sometimes very cruel. It was chiefly the Shawanees that. cut off the British under General Braddock, in the year 1755, only nineteen years before our battle, when the General himself, and Sir Peter Hacket, the second in command, were both slain, and the mere remnant only of the whole army escaped. They too defeated Major Grant and his Scotch Highlanders, at Fort Pitt, in 1758, where the whole of the troops were killed or taken prisoners.” The number of warriors assembled could never be ascertained. They have been estimated variously from one thousand down to four hundred. Cornstalk led his force across to the east bank of the Ohio, on Sabbath evening, October 9th, about the time the express left the camp of Lewis, desiring a battle with Lewis before the forces of the Governor were united; and to surprise the camp at the Point, at its breakfast hour, halted for the night at the distance of about two miles. It is scarcely possible the express should not have known something of the Indian movements. While Lewis was unconscious of the near approach of his enemy, Cornstalk, almost within sight of the Point, held a council of his chiefs and principal warriors, and proposed to go into camp and ask for peace. Whether he designed merely to try the spirit of his braves now about to be engaged in a hard battle, or whether convinced, from the past movements of the whites, and the little the Shawanees had gained, by their victories and massacres, for a series of years, of the impossibility of arresting the progress of the Virginians, the hated “long knives,” to the West, he desired now, with a show of savage power, to settle an advantageous peace, cannot now be known. He was capable of doing either. The councilunanimously demanded battle. Preparations were then made to surprise Lewis at sunrise. The deer hunters prevented a complete surprise. The unwounded one fled to the camp and gave the alarm.

The savages, as speedily as possible, pressed on after the fugitive, not to lose their advantage by this discovery.

General Lewis, on hearing of the near approach of the enemy, deliberately lighted his pipe, and proceeded to give his orders with entire self-possession and decision. The camp was put in order for immediate battle. Col. Charles Lewis and Col. Fleming were directed to detail a part of their forces, under their oldest Captains, and advance in the direction of the reported enemy. The Colonels hastening on as directed, sent forward scouts, and while yet in sight of the camp-guards, heard the discharge of musketry and saw the scouts fall; and in a few moments received a heavy fire along their whole line. The two Colonels fell badly wounded; Lewis having discharged his piece, and as he said “sent one of the savages before him to eternity,” fell at the root of a tree. The preparations to bear the Colonels to the camp, together with the suddenness of the attack, threw the detachments into confusion, and they began to fall back. Meeting Colonel Fields and his company they immediately rallied, and drove the assailants some distance beyond the ground of the first fire. The Indians disappeared. Colonel Fleming was borne into camp entirely disabled. Colonel Lewis, supported by Captain Murray, his brother-in-law, and Mr. Bailey of Captain Paul’s company, unwillingly returned to his tent. The Indians speedily rushed on again with their yells and their fire; and soon yielded the ground to the advancing Virginians. Then forming a line, from the Ohio to the Kenawha, enclosing the Virginia forces, and stationing a band of warriors on the opposite bank of the Ohio to intercept any fugitives, by alternately advancing and retreating, they carried on the battle without cessation and with unremitting ardor. Early in the forenoon Colonel Lewis breathed his last while the battle was raging around him. The wound of Colonel Fleming, though severe, was not mortal. When the confusion of the “first attack had subsided, the forces of Lewis, unaccustomed as most of them were to war and discipline of armies, became prompt in their obedience to orders, alert in their movements, cool in their bearing, and daring in their advance to meet the foe, and firm in meeting their onsets. Coming near the lines the savages would sometimes cry out, “we are eleven hundred strong, and two thousand more coming.” This gave rise to the suspicion that either the Governor or his express had given the Indians information respecting Lewis’s camp. One voice was heard, during the day, shouting above the din of battle. Captain Stuart, attracted by its singular strength and tone, asked of a soldier who had been much among the Indians, if he knew that voice. “It is Cornstalk’s,” replied the soldier. “And what is he shouting?” said Stuart — he is,” said the soldier, “shouting to his men — Be strong! — Be strong Cornstalk was often seen with his warriors. Brave without being rash, he avoided exposure without shrinking; cautious without timidity in the hottest of the battle, he escaped without a wound. As one of the warriors near him showed some signs of timidity, the enraged chief, with one blow of his tomahawk, cleft his skull. In one of the assaults, Colonel Fields, performing his duty bravely, was shot dead. His men, having on the march declined, with their Colonel, the command of Lewis, were now, though reconciled to the General, greatly dispirited by the loss of their own beloved commander. The faltering of the ranks encouraged the savages. “Be strong! Be strong! echoed through the woods over the savage lines in the tones of Cornstalk ; and as Captain after Captain, and files of men after files of men, fell, the yells of the Indians were more terrific and their assaults more furious. The bravery of Lewis never wavered. Equal to the occasion, he was seen moving majestically from place to place; and wherever he appeared, his “stern invincible countenance,” and calm bravery, aroused his brave men to higher and still higher heroism. Early in the battle he contrived to despatch two runners up the Kenawha, to hasten the advance of Colonel Christian. Throughout the whole day the Indians continued their assaults with unabated, rather increasing, fury; and the “long knives” showed the terrible Shawanees, they could avenge the fall of their companions. Towards evening, Lewris, seeing no signs of retreat, or even cessation of battle, despatched Captains Shelby, Matthews and Stuart, at their request, to attack the enemy in the rear. Going up the Kenawha, under cover of the banks, to Crooked Creek, and up that Creek, under cover of the bank and weeds, they got to the rear of the Indians unobserved, and made a rapid attack. Alarmed at this unlooked for assault, and thinking the reinforcement of Colonel Christian was approaching, before whose arrival they had striven hard to finish the battle, the savages became dispirited, gave way, and by sundown had recrossed the Ohio. Colonel Christian entered the camp about midnight; and found all things in readiness for a renewed attack. But the battle had been decisive, and the retreat of the Indians rapid and complete. The loss of the Virginians on this day, 2 Colonels, 6 Captains, 3 Lieutenants and 64 subalterns and privates, was in all seventy-five killed, and 140 wounded. About one-fifth of the whole force was disabled. The loss of the Indians could not be known. Colonel Christian marched over the field, the next morning, and found thirty-three dead, left by the Indians, in their rapid flight, probably those killed in the assault on their rear which decided the battle.

Upon reaching a place of safety, the Indians held a council. They had been defeated in their long expected great battle. The “long knives” were pressing on. Cornstalk enquired, what should be done. No one spoke. After a solemn pause, Cornstalk arose. “We must fight, or we are undone. Let us kill our women and children, and go and fight till we die.” He sat down. After a long pause, he rose again and striking his tomahawk into the council post, said—“Then I’ll go and make peace.” The warriors around replied, “ough! ough! ough!” Runners were immediately despatched to the Governor to solicit terms of peace, and to ask for protection from “the long knives;” and Cornstalk and his sister, the grenadier squaw, set out to meet the Governor. The time and place of conference were agreed upon. The chiefs were speedily to meet the Governor near Chilicothe.

After burying the dead and making suitable accommodations for the wounded, Lewis began a rapid march for the Scioto. Messengers from the Governor arrested his march. At Killicanie Creek, the Governor accompanied with the chief, White Eyes, had an interview with General Lewis. Requesting a particular introduction to the officers of the Valley forces, he paid them high compliments for their general bravery and for their personal conduct in the late battle. Lewis very reluctantly let pass the opportunity of avenging upon the Indian villages, one of which was in sight, the massacres and murders committed by Cornstalk at Muddy Creek, the Levels, and Carr’s Creek, and the death of the brave seventy-five, that had just fallen in battle. The Governor’s course impressed more deeply on Lewis’s mind the prejudice, probably unfounded, that the interests of Virginia were less cared for than became a patriot Governor. It was retorted upon the General, that severity in camp and cruelty to Indians, might be more agreeable to his ideas of propriety than to the feelings of community at large.

On the third, the appointed day, Cornstalk, with eight chiefs, met the Governor, near the Scioto; and it was agreed mutually that hostilities should cease, the prisoners be delivered up, and that a treaty should be ratified the next summer at Fort Pitt. The conference lasted a number of days. Some of the Mingoes being present, Dunmore sent two interpreters to Logan requesting hi3 attendance. He replied—“I am a warrior and not a counsellor. I will not go.” The conference was opened by Dunmore’s reading from a paper, to be interpreted, his charges against the Indians, for their infractions of former treaties and their many and unprovoked murders. “When Cornstalk rose to reply” says Col. Wilson — “he was in no wise confused or daunted, but spoke in a distinct and audible voice, without stammering or repetition, and with peculiar emphasis. His looks while addressing Dunmore were truly grand, yet graceful and attractive.” As he became excited he was heard through the whole camp. He sketched in lively colors the once prosperous condition of his tribe when some of its divisions dwelt on the Shenandoah. He inveighed against the perfidiousness of the whites, most particularly exclaiming against the dishonesty of the traders. He proposed that no one be permitted to trade with the Indians on private account; that fair prices should be agreed upon, and the traffic be committed to honest men; and finally that no spirits of any kind should be sent amongst them; because firewater brought evil to the Indians.” In this conference, as in the battle, Cornstalk won the highest praise from the English officers. His design to cut off his approaching enemies in detail, and the platform he proposed for a treaty were worthy of a commander and a diplomatist.

Of the persons engaged in the battle at the Point, some became eminent in succeeding years, and are remembered — as Colonel Fleming who suffered from his wound during life; Isaac Shelby, Governor of Kentucky and Secretary of War; William and John Campbell, heroes of King’s Mountain; Evan Shelby of Tennessee, Andrew Moore the first member of the United States Senate, west of the Blue Ridge; John Stuart of Greenbrier; General Tate of Washington County; Col. Wm. M’Kee of Kentucky; John Steele, Governor of Mississippi territory; Col. Charles Cameron of Bath ; General Bezaleel Wells of Ohio; and General George Matthews, distinguished at Guilford and Brandywine, and Governor of Georgia.

We hear no more of Cornstalk, till in the spring of 1777, he visited Point Pleasant and sought an interview with Captain Arbuckle, the commander of the Fort. The Chief Redhaw^k and a few attendants accompanied him. In this interview he informed Captain Arbuckle, that the coalition of the tribes west of the Ohio, formed by the English against the colonies, was nearly complete; that the young Shawanees, thirsting for revenge for their companions slain in the battle at the Point, were eager to join the confederacy; that he had opposed the whole proceeding, believing that the safety of the Shawanees was in the friendship of “the long knives;” that he believed his tribe and nation “would float with the stream in despite of his endeavors to stem it;” and that hostilities were about to commence. Captain Arbuckle detained the chief, and sent a messenger to Williamsburg. Under orders from the Governor, Colonel Skillern, of Rockbridge, with difficulty raised a volunteer force in the Valley, and Captain John Stuart raised a small company in Greenbrier, composed chiefly of militia officers serving as privates, of whom he was one. At the Point the Colonel waited for General Hand, from Pittsburg, to lead against the Indian towns. While waiting for the General the officers held frequent interviews with Cornstalk. One afternoon, as he was delineating upon the floor the geography of the country between the Shawanee towns and the Mississippi, and showing the position and course of the various rivers, that empty into those mighty streams, a shouting was heard from the opposite banks of the Ohio. Cornstalk arose deliberately, and went out, and answered the call. Immediately a young chief crossed the river, whom Cornstalk embraced with the J greatest tenderness. It was his son Elinipsico. The young man, i distressed at his long absence, had come to seek his father. At a council of officers held the next morning Cornstalk was present by invitation. He made a speech, recounting his course since the battle of 1771; his proposing to kill the women and children, and for the warriors to fight till they were all killed; of his propositions and negotiations for peace; and of the present prospect of war; and his own views of the position of things. ‘‘ He closed every sentence of his speech,” says Stuart—“when I was a young man and went to war, I thought it might be the last time, and I would return no more. Now I am here among you; you may kill me if you please; I can die but once; and it is all one to me, now, or another time.” His countenance was dejected as he declared that he “would be compelled to go with the stream; and that all the Indians were joining the British standard.

About the time the council closed, two of the volunteers, returning from a deer hunt on the opposite side of the Ohio, were fired upon by some Indians concealed upon the bank. “Whilst we were wondering,” says Stuart, “who it could be shooting contrary to orders, or what they were doing over the river, we saw that Hamilton ran down to the bank, who called out that Gilmore was killed. Young Gilmore was from Rockbridge; his family and friends had been mostly cut off by the incursions headed by Cornstalk in 1763; he belonged to the company of his relative Capt. John Hall. His companions hastily crossed the river, and brought back the bloody corpse, and rescued Hamilton from his danger. The interpreter’s wife, lately returned from captivity, ran out to enquire the cause of the tumult in the fort. She hastened back to the cabin of Cornstalk, for whom she entertained a very high regard for his kind treatment to her, and told him that Elinipsico was charged with bringing the Indians that had just killed Gilmore, and that the soldiers were threatening them all with death. The young chief denied any participation, even the most remote, in the murder. “The canoe had scarcely touched the shore,” says Stuart, “until the cry was raised—let us kill the Indians in the fort, and every man, with his gun in his hand, came up the bank pale with rage. Capt. Hall was at their head, and their leader. Capt. Arbuckle and I met them and endeavored to dissuade them from so unjustifiable an action. But they cocked their guns, threatened us with instant death if we did not desist, and rushed by us into the fort.” Elinipsico hearing their approach, trembled greatly. Cornstalk said, “My son, the Great Spirit has seen fit that we should die together, and has sent you here. It is his will. Let us submit. It is best;” and turned to meet the enemy at the door. In a moment he fell, and expired without a groan. He was pierced with seven bullets. Elinipsico sat unmoved upon his stool; and, like his father, received the shots of the soldiers, and died without motion. Redhawk endeavored to escape by the chimney, which proved too small. He was shot, and fell dead in the ashes. Another Indian present was cruelly mangled, and murdered by piece-meal. The fort was covered with gloom. The soldiers gazed in sadness on the dead bodies of Cornstalk and his son. Col. Skillern did not arrest the murderers. General Hand arrived without forces or supplies, and took no notice of the deed. The militia received orders to return home. The civil authorities made some investigations, but the county court of Rockbridge, after ascertaining with some degree of certainty the actors in the bloody deed, proceeded no further. Some of the witnesses died, and others fled; and the distresses and vexations of the seven years’ war diverted the public attention. The exasperated Shawanees took ample vengeance for that cruel and unexpiated slaughter. The blood of multitudes along the frontiers flowed for Cornstalk and Elinipsico and Redhawk, before the peace of 1783.


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