The Women of the American Revolution/The Women of Kentucky

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The Women of the American Revolution
by Elizabeth F. Ellet
The Women of Kentucky; Mrs. Boone, Mrs. Whitley, Mrs. Harvey, Mrs. Daviess, Mrs. Russell, Mrs. Woods, Mrs. Merrill
Third Edition - 1849

MANY were the brilliant exploits of the pioneers of Kentucky, and among them many a tale of woman's fortitude, intrepidity, and heroism, lived long in the recollection of those who witnessed or mingled in the stirring scenes. No materials can be gathered for extended memoirs of those dwellers in the forest, whose history, were it recorded, would throw so strong a light upon early western life; but a few detached anecdotes illustrative of their trials in the times of civil war may be found interesting.*

The wife of the distinguished pioneer Daniel Boone -after whom Boone County was named-and her daughters, were the first white women who stood upon the banks of the Kentucky River. They removed to the new fort, afterwards known as Boonesborough, in the summer of 1775. This place soon became the central object of Indian hostilities. A cabin, not far distant, erected to found a new fort some years afterwards, was attacked by the savages, one man and his wife killed, and the other, Mr. Duree, mortally wounded.

  • See Collins's Historical Sketches of Kentucky.

His wife, who had barred the door, grasped a rifle, and told her husband she would help him to fight, but received the answer that he was dying. Having presented the gun through several port-holes in quick succession, she sat down beside her husband with the calmness of despair, and closed his eyes in death. Some hours passed, in which nothing more was heard of the Indians, and taking her infant in her arms-her son, three or four years older, following her, she sallied forth in desperation to make her way to the fort at White Oak Spring. Wandering in the woods, and running till she was nearly exhausted, she came at length to the trail, and pursuing it, met her father-in-law, with his wife and son, on their way to the new station. The melancholy tidings changed their course; they led their horses into an adjoining cane brake, unloaded them of the baggage, and regained the White Oak Spring before daylight.

The wife of Whitley, another of the enterprising hunters whose adventurous exploits have shed a coloring of romance over the early history of Kentucky, manifested a spirit of adventure and a love -of independence equal to his own. To his observation that he had heard a fine report of Kentucky, and thought they could obtain a living there with less hard work-her answer was-" Then, Billy, I would go and see;" and in two days he was on his way with axe and plough, and gun and kettle. She afterwards collected his warriors to pursue the Indians. This was on an occasion when the emergency called for prompt action-the camp of an emigrant named M'Clure having been assaulted in the night and six whites killed. His wife fled into the woods with her four children; but the cries of the infant she bore in her arms betrayed her place of retreat. She heard the savages coming towards the spot, eager to imbrue their hands in innocent blood; she could have escaped with three of the children by abandoning the youngest; the night, the grass, and the bushes, offered concealment-but how could the mother leave her helpless babe to certain destruction? She resolved to die with it. The other affrighted little ones clung to her for protection; she dared not bid them fly and hide themselves, lest the savages should discover them; she hoped her arms might shield them, should the inhuman enemy find them at her side. The Indians came, and quickly extinguished both hopes and fears in the blood of three of the children. The hapless mother and infant were taken to their camp, where she was compelled to cook the meal on which the murderers feasted. In the morning they pursued their way, forcing her to accompany them, riding an unbroken horse.

Whitley was not at home when the news of this outrage was brought to his station. His wife immediately despatched a messenger for him, and sent, in the meantime, to warn and assemble his company. When he returned, he found twenty-one men awaiting his orders. Directing his course to the war-path, he gained it in advance of the savages, who had stopped to divide their plunder; concealed his men, and opening a deadly fire upon them as they approached, soon dispersed them, and rescued the captives.

The siege of Bryant's station, near Lexington, which took place in August, 1782, gave occasion for a brilliant display of female intrepidity. The garrison was supplied with water from a spring at some distance from the fort, near which a considerable body of the Indians had been placed in ambush. Another party in full view was ordered to open a fire at a given time, with the hope of enticing the besieged to an engagement without the walls, when the remaining force could seize the opportunity of storming one of the gates. The more experienced of the garrison felt satisfied that Indians were concealed near the spring, but conjectured that they would not unmask themselves, until the firing on the opposite side of the fort should induce them to believe that the men had come out and were engaged with the other party. The need of water was urgent, and yielding to the necessity of the case, they summoned all the women. "Explaining to them the circumstances in which they were placed, and the improbability that any injury would be offered them, until the firing had been returned from the opposite side of the fort, they urged them to go in a body to the spring, and bring up each a bucket full of water. Some, as was natural, had no relish for the undertaking, and asked why the men could not bring water as well as themselves, observing that they were not bullet-proof, and the Indians made no distinction between male and female scalps. To this it was answered, that the women were in the habit of bringing water every morning to the fort; and that if the Indians saw them engaged as usual, it would induce them to think their ambuscade was undiscovered; and that they would not unmask themselves for the sake of firing at a few women, when they hoped, by remaining concealed a few moments longer, to obtain complete possession of the fort. That if men should go down to the spring, the Indians would immediately suspect something was wrong, would despair of succeeding by ambuscade, and would instantly rush upon them, follow them into the fort, or shoot them down at the spring.

" The decision was soon made. A few of the boldest declared their readiness to brave the danger, and the younger and more timid rallying in the rear of these veterans, they an marched down in a body to the spring, within point blank shot of more than five hundred Indian warriors! Some of the girls could not help betraying symptoms of terror; but the married women, in general, moved with a steadiness and composure that completely deceived the Indians. Not a shot was fired. The party were permitted to fill their buckets, one after another, without interruption; and although their steps became quicker and quicker, on their return, and when near the fort, degenerated into a rather unmilitary celerity, with some little crowding in passing the gate, yet not more than one-fifth of the water was spilled, and the eyes of the youngest had not dilated to more than double their ordinary size."*

  • M'Clung's Sketches of Western Adventure.

At the siege of Logan's fort, while the men composing the small garrison were constantly at their posts, engaged in a vigorous defence, the women were actively employed in moulding bullets. In 1779, General Simon Kenton owed his liberty to female compassion. He was one of the most celebrated pioneers of the west, and was honored by having his name given to one of the counties of Kentucky. In an expedition for taking horses from the Indians, he was captured, and for eight months suffered incredible cruelties at their hands, till at length, being transferred to a Canadian trader, he was delivered to the British commander at Detroit. Here, while he worked for the garrison, his hard lot excited the commiseration of Mrs. Harvey, the wife of an Indian trader. His exterior was calculated to interest in his fate the gentle and enthusiastic sex; he was but twenty-four years of age, and according to one who served with him, "was fine looking, with a dignified and manly deportment, and a soft, pleasing voice, being wherever he went a favorite among the ladies." He appealed to Mrs. Harvey for assistance, and she promised at his solicitation to aid him and two other Kentuckian prisoners in their escape, and to procure them rifles and ammunition, which were indispensable on a journey through the wilderness. It was not long before she found opportunity to execute her benevolent design. A large concourse of Indians was assembled at Detroit, in western parlance, "to take a spree;" and before indulging in their potations, several stacked their guns near Mrs. Harvey's house. As soon as it was dark, she stole noiselessly out, selected three of the best looking, hid them quickly in her garden in a patch of peas, and, careful to avoid observation, hastened to Kenton's lodgings, to inform him of her success. Her directions were, that he should come at midnight to the back of the garden, where he would find a ladder, by means of which he could climb the fence and get the guns. She had previously collected such articles of ammunition, food and clothing, as would be necessary in their journey, and with Kenton's knowledge had hid them in a hollow tree some distance from the town. No time was lost by the prisoners in their secret preparations for flight. At the hour appointed, they came to the end of the garden; the ladder was there, and Kenton climbing over, saw Mrs. Harvey already waiting for him, seated by the place where she had concealed the guns. No woman ever appeared half so beautiful in the eyes of the grateful young hunter. His thanks were expressed with the eloquence of true feeling; but she would not suffer the fugitives to waste moment; the night was far advanced, the shoutings of the Indians, in their drunken revelry, could be heard all around them; a few hours would reveal their escape and the loss of the guns, and instant pursuit would be made. She bade him make haste to be gone; and with a brief farewell Kenton joined his companions, with whom, hastening from the city, he travelled towards the prairies of the Wabash. He never ceased to remember and acknowledge, in language glowing with gratitude and admiration, the kindness of the trader's wife; but when the lapse of half a century had changed the aspect of the whole country, still delighted to dwell on this adventure, saying that he had seen her a thousand times in his reveries as he had last beheld -her " sitting by the guns in the garden."

The presence of mind, and cool deliberate courage of Mrs. Daviess, of Lincoln County, brought about the deliverance of herself and family from the savages. Early one morning, her husband having left the house for a few moments, four Indians rushed into the room where she was still in bed with her children. They ordered her, by signs, to rise immediately; and one of them inquired how far it was to the next house. She instantly comprehended. that it was important to make the distance appear as great as possible, for the purpose of detaining them at the house till her husband, who had evidently taken the alarm, should have time to bring assistance.

Counting on her fingers; she made them understand that it was eight miles. She then rose and dressed herself; after which she showed the savages various articles of clothing one after another-their pleased examination delaying them nearly two hours. Another Indian, who had been in pursuit of her husband, now entered the house, and holding up in her sight his hands stained with pokeberry juice, at the same time using violent gestures and brandishing his tomahawk, endeavored to persuade her that the fugitive had been slain. Her quick eye, however, at once discovered the deception, and she rejoiced in the evidence that her husband had escaped uninjured.

The house was now plundered of every thing that could be carried away, and the savages set out, taking with them Mrs. Daviess and all her children as prisoners. The mother's care was in requisition to provided for their safety, and she was obliged to make the two oldest carry the younger ones, for well she knew that death would be the penalty of any failure of strength or speed. The Indians watched them closely, that no twigs nor weeds were broken off, as they passed along, which might serve to mark the course they had taken. Even the length of Mrs. Daviess' dress interfering, as they thought, with their movements, one of them drew his knife and cut off some inches of it.

Meanwhile this courageous woman was revolving projects for accomplishing a deliverance. She determined at length, if not rescued in the course of the day, to make a desperate attempt at night when the Indians should be asleep, by possessing herself of their arms, killing as many as she could, and inducing the belief of a night attack to frighten the others. To such extremity was female resolution driven in those times. Those who knew Mrs. Daviess entertained little doubt that her enterprise would have succeeded; but she was prevented from the perilous attempt-being overtaken and rescued by nine o'clock, by her husband and a party of friends.

Another act of courage displayed by Mrs. Daviess, strikingly illustrates her character. A marauder who had committed extensive depredations on the property of Mr. Daviess and his neighbors, was pursued by them with the purpose of bringing him to justice. During the pursuit, not aware that they were on his track, he came to the house, armed with gun and tomahawk, to obtain refreshment, and found Mrs. Daviess alone with her children. She placed a bottle of whiskey on the table, and requested him to help himself. While he was drinking, she went to the door, took his gun, which he had set there on his entrance, and placing herself in the doorway, cocked the weapon and levelled it at him. He started up, but she ordered him, on pain of instant death, to sit down, and remain quiet. The terrified intruder asked what he had done; she replied that he had stolen her husband's property, that he was her prisoner, and she meant to stand guard over him. She kept him thus, not daring to make the slightest movement towards escape, till her husband and his party returned and took him into custody.

The wife of Joseph Russell, who, with her children, was taken captive, had the presence of mind, when on their march, to leave signs which might show the direction they had taken, by occasionally breaking off a twig and scattering along their route pieces of a white handkerchief which she had torn in fragments; so that General Logan's party found no difficulty in the pursuit; At the house of Mr. Woods, near the Crab orchard in Lincoln County, a singular adventure occurred. He had gone one morning to the station, not expecting to return till night, and leaving his family, which consisted only of his wife, a young daughter, and a lame negro man. Mrs. Woods was at a short distance from her cabin, when she saw several Indians approaching it. Screaming loudly to give the alarm, she ran to reach the house before them, and succeeded; but before she could close the door, one of the savages had pushed his way into the house. He was instantly grappled with by the negro, a scuffle ensued, and both fell on the floor, the black man underneath. Mrs. Woods could render no assistance, having to exert all her strength in keeping the door closed against the party without; but the lame domestic, holding the Indian tightly in his arms, called to the young girl to take the axe from under the bed and despatch him by a blow on the head. Self-preservation demanded instant obedience, and after an ineffectual blow, the Indian was killed. The negro then proposed to his mistress to let in another of those still trying to force open the door, and dispose of him in the same manner; but the experiment was thought too dangerous. Shortly after, some men from the station discovered the situation of the family, and soon scattered the besiegers.

It was at the Blue Lick Springs, the most noted watering place in the west, that the bloody battle was fought with the Indians which shrouded Kentucky in mourning, and is only less famous than Braddock's defeat, in the annals of savage warfare. A romantic incident is related as having occurred after that fatal action. * Among the unfortunate captives who had survived the ordeal of the gauntlet, and had been painted

  • Judge Robertson's Address on the Fourth of July, at Camp Madison, in 1843.

black by the savages, as devoted to torture and death, was an excellent husband and father. By some unaccountable freak of clemency, his life was spared when all his fellow prisoners were butchered. For about a year his friends believed him numbered with the slain of that disastrous day. His wife was wooed by another; but continued to hope against hope that he yet lived and would return to her. Persuaded, at length, through the expostulations of others, that her affectionate instinct was a delusion, she reluctantly yielded a consent to the second nuptials, which, however, she postponed several times, declaring that she found it impossible to divest herself of the belief that her husband lived. Again she submitted to the judgment of friends, and the day of her marriage was appointed. Just before the dawn of that day, when we may suppose her wakeful from reflection, the crack of a rifle was heard near her lonely cabin. Startled by the familiar. sound, she leaped out "like a liberated fawn," exclaiming as she sprang towards the door, "That's John's gun!" and in an instant was clasped in the arms of her lost husband. In poetical justice to the disappointed suitor, it, should perhaps be mentioned, that nine years afterwards the same husband was killed at "St. Clair's defeat"-and that in proper time he obtained the hand of the fair widow. The scene of this occurrence was in Garrard County, Kentucky.

An incident that occurred at a fort on Green River, show's the magnanimity which the dangers besetting the emigrants of that period often gave opportunity to exercise. Several young persons belonging to the fort were pulling flax in one of the distant fields. They were joined by two of their mothers, the younger carrying an infant. The whole party was attacked by some Indians, who rushed from the woods, and pursued them towards the fort, yelling and firing upon them. The elder of the two mothers, recollecting in her flight that the younger, a small and feeble woman, was encumbered with her child, turned back in the face of the enemy, who were still firing, and rending the air with hideous yells, snatched the babe from its almost exhausted mother, and ran with it to the fort. She was twice shot at when the foe was near, and one arrow passed through her sleeve; but she escaped without injury.

The attack on the house of John Merrill, in Nelson County, Kentucky, is related differently in some particulars by different authorities; but they agree in citing it as a remarkable instance of female heroism.* Merrill was alarmed at midnight by the barking of the dog, and on opening the door, was fired upon by several Indians. He fell back wounded, and the door was instantly closed by his wife, who, an Amazon in strength and courage, stood on guard with an axe, and killed or wounded four as they attempted to enter through a breach. They then climbed to the roof to come down the chimney. She hastily ripped a feather-bed, and threw it on the fire. The blaze and smoke brought down two Indians, whom she despatched, while she wounded the cheek

  • Drake's Book of the Indians. McClung's Sketches of Western Adventure, etc.

of another who meanwhile assailed the door. He fled with a loud yell; and afterwards at Chillicothe gave an exaggerated account of the strength and fierceness of the "long knife squaw."