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Edwin L. Sabin

The Battle of the Blue Licks (1782)

And the Defeat of Daniel Boone

The French and Indian War opened by George Washington and badly continued by General Braddock lasted almost ten years, or until February, 1863. England won possession again of all the country east of the Mississippi River, except New Orleans, and gained Canada as well.

Now the Colonies—Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the rest—were forbidden by England to occupy the Ohio Valley; it was to be left to the Indian traders and the military. But the British traders and the army officers were not popular among the Indians. They acted harshly and the Indians much preferred the gay, brotherly French. So when at the close of the war the English began to take over the French posts at the Great Lakes of the Canada border, Chief Pontiac the Ottawa started in to seize the Ohio Valley for the French.

He did not succeed. Nevertheless for many years the Indians dreamed of their old free life when the only white men in their lodges were the French.

Of course, the orders from England limiting the American settlers to the country east of the Allegheny Mountains could not be enforced. American traders visited the Indians along the Ohio River. One of them, John Findlay of North Carolina, brought back such glowing report of a new land, called Kain-tuck-ee, where no tribes lived, that in 1769 Daniel Boone and a party of explorers went in, to look it over.

By the time that the War of the Revolution blazed up, Kentucky contained a number of fortified settlements. In 1775 there were Harrodsburgh, Logan's Station, and Boonesborough (Daniel Boone's town) in central Kentucky south of the Kentucky River. During the war other settlements were born. Still others had been started in the north, upon the West Virginia border.

Seeing that the Long Knife Americans were edging into the Ohio Valley the Indians—the Shawnees, the Wyandots, the Mingo Iroquois, the War Delawares, the Miamis—sided with England. Something had to be done. There was constant fighting between the red Americans and the white Americans, for the Ohio Country.

The settlements in Kentucky were attacked. The leaders such as Daniel Boone, dark James Harrod the "Lone Long Knife," the noble Benjamin Logan, and their comrade captains, stood fast.

When in the spring of 1782 the Indians learned that the war had ended and that their British father had given up—"had been laid upon his back" by the Americans—they grew desperate indeed. They had helped him, they had killed Americans; and for what good? The settlements were here, and he himself had done fighting.

The crafty British traders among them asserted that the father across the water had not quit; he was only resting. A peace between the two white nations certainly would be bad for the red nations. If the great king gave up, then the Americans would be free to drive the Indians out of the land. So the time had come to help the British father by striking a great blow.

The Indians agreed. The British Indian agent Captain William Caldwell organized four hundred warriors to march from the principal Shawnee town of Chillicothe, near present Piqua, western Ohio, against the Kentucky settlements.

Alexander McKee and Matthew Elliot, other agents, were Captain Caldwell's aides. Simon Girty, George Girty and James Girty, renegade white Americans living with the Indians, led their bands of Shawnees and Wyandots. There was a detachment of Canadian Rangers from Detroit. It was a strong column, for the Shawnees and Wyandots sent their best.

They all crossed the Ohio River at the Kentucky northern border. In the night of August 15 they arrived before Bryant's Station. Bryant's Station was the northernmost settlement of Kentucky, about five miles north of Lexington, the capital. It had been founded in 1779 by William Bryant, who had married Daniel Boone's sister.

The forty log cabins which were built in two lines and connected by a strong palisade fence to form a fort, defended themselves successfully all day of August 16. The militia and settlers, both men and women, put up a fight that is famous in history. One young man, Aaron Reynolds, defied Simon Girty and called him a dirty dog. Captain Caldwell's force could not break in.

Expresses rode madly south on the Lexington road, for aid from the other settlements. Forty-six men cut their way in, from Daniel Boone's town of Boonesborough, twenty-three miles. By sunrise of August 17 all the Caldwell Indians and whites had vanished into the forest.

But Daniel Boone himself was on his way from Boonesborough, with reinforcements for Bryant's Station. As major he commanded the Boonesborough militia. With him there were his brother Samuel, and his youngest son Israel. From Harrodsburgh Colonel Stephen Trigg brought up other militia including the fiery Irishman Major Hugh McGary. At Lexington Colonel John Todd had assembled his Lexington militia.

When by forced marches they were gathered at Bryant's Station, about noon of August 17, they had one hundred and sixty horsemen, swelled to one hundred and eighty-two horse and foot by the Bryant's garrison.

Colonel Todd was chosen commander-in-chief. Colonel Benjamin Logan was expected at any hour with another detachment, from Logan's Station. Whether to wait for him, they did not know. They feared that the Caldwell invaders might get away without punishment, unless pursued at once.

Daniel Boone favored waiting until Colonel Logan should arrive. As matters now appeared, the Indians and Canadians were the stronger party and might prove a tough problem. The trail signs said that they were retreating leisurely; they were disappointed but not defeated, and probably would give battle in the hopes of winning plunder.

Major Hugh McGary supported Daniel Boone.

"Let us halt here for twenty-four hours, and we'll have Logan's help," he said. "Then we can follow those scoundrels clear to their towns if necessary to catch 'em. As matters now are, we're too few. That villain Girty claimed they had six hundred whites and warriors, didn't he? Of course he lied; but we'll allow 'em three hundred, at the least. And they're well armed. I'll pledge you my head that they'll not go back as fast as they came on, and we'll have plenty of time to overhaul 'em after Logan joins us. Then we can battle them with good chance of success."'

But Colonel Todd laughed.

"Why, sir, if a single day is lost, those red varmints can never be overtaken. They'll cross the Ohio and disperse. Now is the time to strike them, while they are in a body. You talk of numbers! Nonsense, sir! The more the merrier. For my part I'm determined to pursue without a moment's delay, and I doubt not but that there are brave men here to follow me."

Colonel Trigg sided with him. The arguments for and against pursuit at once lasted all the afternoon. A number of the hot-headed Kentuckians grew impatient. They feared no odds, they were wild to punish the reds and the renegades and teach them to keep out of Kentucky; and when the scouts reported that the Caldwell column actually had blazed the trees along the route, as if to challenge the eye, the hot-heads twitted the cautious Boone and McGary men with being afraid.

That was enough. One Kentuckian was held equal to any three Indians. The vote was taken, to pursue without waiting for the Logan detachment. Early in the morning of August 18, the one hundred and eighty-two, commanded by Colonel John Todd, started out to catch up with the enemy.

From Bryant's Station a buffalo trail wended north-east forty miles to the Lower Blue Licks of the Licking River. The Blue Licks was a famous crossing of the Licking, on the way to the Ohio. It also was a great spot for the deer and buffalo which sought the salt of the "licks."

The trail had been made still plainer. The Indians had blazed either side of it with their hatchets, so that all might see. This did not look good to Daniel Boone. Such a thing was contrary to Indian custom—wasn't "natteral." It seemed like a defiance, to the hot-heads, and they waxed the hotter. The little column hastened. By evening it had covered thirty-three miles. The Lower Blue Licks crossing of the Licking River lay only six or seven miles before.

Camp was ordered. The trail had continued very fresh. When in the dewy morning of August 19 the van of the column burst out from the forest into the meadow bottoms of the Blue Licks, the riders sighted the rear-guard of the enemy full in view on the other side. Several Indians, just out of rifle shot, were climbing a rocky ridge, gazed back, and in no hurry at all proceeded upon their way.

The column halted, to consider. The Indians had acted bold and confident; evidently were luring the pursuit on. Colonel Todd sent a handful of scouts across, to examine the country. If the column advanced by the trail, it would have to climb up that same rocky ridge—a ridge of black, ugly rocks cropped bare by the deer and buffalo, and containing no covert except a few low cedars. Beyond the ridge, what?

While the scouts were gone, the colonel called a council of the officers, and asked for Daniel Boone's opinion again. Daniel Boone spoke slowly, leaning upon his long "Betsy" rifle and chewing a twig.

"Wall, I do know these Blue Licks, an' I ought to. They're a place I can't forgit. Once I was taken prisoner hyar by the Shawnee, an' ag'in I was attacked hyar an' my brother Squire was killed in my sight. The Blue Licks have alluz brought me bad fortune. Now, the river makes a horse-shoe bend around these licks. This buff'ler trace mounts atop yonder ridge, whar those Injuns disappeared. The country gits brushier, an' thar's two ravines, headin' in on either side the ridge, formin' a right good ambuscade. If the enemy is layin' for us, he'll be in them two ravines. We've come too fur to go back. We kin wait hyar, for Logan; or we kin divide up, send one party up river to cross at the rapids an' cut in for the rear of any ambuscade whilst t'other party attacks straight in front. I'll say frankly, gentlemen, that to my notion, knowin' Injuns as I do, we're faced by a bigger force than we reckoned on, an' we're in a tight place of their own choosin'. No man dare accuse me of not bein' willin' to fight when a fight's due; but I'd advise purty keerful reconnoiterin' till we're sartin jest what we're up against. I don't like all this silence and boldness and lonesomeness, nohow. Thar's mischief brewin'."

The scouts returned. They reported that the Indians were gone. No enemy was to be seen; no movement had been glimpsed. The ridge and the country around it seemed deserted.

The men hesitated and discussed. But Hugh McGary, who had been taunted with cowardice back at Bryant's Station, could hold in no longer. He was one of the earliest of the Kentucky settlers; had lost thirty of his forty horses to the Indians; had become an Indian hunter and an Indian hater.

"You all could talk big enough, back at Bryant's," he angrily said; "and when I spoke of waiting for Logan you hinted that I was showing the white feather. So I gave way and joined the pursuit very willingly. Now when you have a chance to strike the enemy you turn pale and talk of waiting, yourselves, and of 'numbers' and 'position,' and all that. We'll see who'll fight. You're scared into being wise at last, but you've come far for a fight and fight you shall or I'll disgrace you forever." He uttered the war-whoop. "Let all who are not cowards follow me!" cried Major Hugh McGary, spurring his horse into the ford, and waving his hat.

The hour was eight o'clock. Some ahorse, some afoot, the hot-heads clashed after Major McGary; the remainder of the one hundred and eighty-one had to follow. A little order was enforced when they reached the farther bank. Major Harland and company took the trail in the advance; Colonel Trigg commanded on the right, Major McGary in the center, Daniel Boone on the left.

Colonel Todd, commanding all, oversaw from behind the center. He was an experienced fighter; had served as adjutant-general to General Andrew Lewis in the great Indian battle of Point Pleasant, 1774.

Up the ridge the column hustled, stung by Major McGary's words, and foolishly not throwing skirmishers out upon the flanks, or in the fore.

The country was just as Daniel Boone had said. And the enemy was prepared, just as he had feared. The dare of Major McGary brought terrible rebuke. Bravery is one thing, rashness is another. The advance of Major Harland had scarcely passed to the top of the ridge when from the grass and brush of a ravine on his left a deadly volley crackled—in a moment had struck down twenty of his twenty-three men!

Daniel Boone and the left files arrived first in support; and they, too, met the withering blast. McGary and Colonel Stephen Trigg arrived. Very soon the Kentuckians were fighting for their lives. They were in the open; the enemy filled the ravines on either side—began to extend rapidly around on the right, cutting off retreat to the river.

Major Harland had been killed; so had Colonel Trigg and Captains McBride and Gordon and Major Bulger. Colonel John Todd still sat his horse; but he was bleeding from several wounds and clung with both hands to the saddle. Daniel Boone's son Israel was down and dying.

"Back! Back across the river!"

That was the cry. Horse and foot, those who were able tore for the meadow bottoms and the ford. Daniel Boone rushed forward, first, to pick up Israel. The Indians had sprung from ambush; the whole slope of the ridge and the bottoms clear to the ford were a great eddy of painted reds and buckskin-clad whites. Tomahawk and knife proved too much for emptied rifles. The remnants of the Kentuckians were being driven headlong into the water. Colonel Todd had fallen from his saddle at last.

Daniel Boone had delayed to rescue Israel. He saw himself barred from the river by a mass of Indians. Carrying Israel he plunged aside into a smaller ravine. He knew all this country well.

Indians followed him close. He fought them back, by pointing his rifle at them. They would dearly have loved to capture "Captain Boone" again—the Big Turtle who had escaped from their midst twice before, and had long defied them, at Boonesborough.

He found out that he could not shake them off, if he carried Israel. And Israel was dead. Then he faced about in earnest. An Indian charged him with the hatchet. He let Israel drop, and fired. He did not miss. Acting very fast, before the pursuit should close in on him again, he stowed Israel's body in a nook, and ran; gained the river below the ford, and swam across.

At the ford, above, there was fighting. Captain Netherland had crossed safely, on his horse, and might have continued. He had been another of those men called "cowards" at Bryant's Station. Now when the riders would have raced on, regardless of everything except their own scalps, he turned his horse into their path.

"Halt!" he shouted. "Shame on you! Would you leave your comrades afoot and helpless? We must cover the retreat or they'll all be butchered in the water."

The men heard him. They obeyed—they also turned, and with rifle fire cleared the Indians from the ford and helped the struggling foot soldiers to win the hither bank. The Indians poured after, swimming and wading, above and below. Flight was again the only thing.

Captain Robert Patterson, who had founded Lexington in 1779, arrived. He was an elderly, heavy man, and was wounded; had lost his horse but now was upon another, for halfway from the ridge to the river young Aaron Reynolds, well mounted, had seen him staggering along. Aaron was the same bold youth who had defied Simon Girty at Bryant's Station. Reynolds did not hesitate for a moment.

He had vaulted from his saddle shouting:

"Here! Take my horse, captain. I'm active on my feet and can get away. You must ride, sir."

He boosted Captain Patterson aboard and running, dived into the ravine that Daniel Boone had entered. He out-footed the Indians, to the river, and swam over. But his buckskin trousers were so soaked that he could go no farther until he had stripped them off and wrung them. While he was sitting, the Indians came upon him and took him prisoner. Three of them led him away as captive.

Then two of the Indians left, to get scalps and plunder. Aaron watched his chance. The one Indian stooped to tie his moccasin. Aaron instantly leaped at him, struck him flat with a blow of the fist, and bolted; doubled through the thickets, ran like a deer, and saved himself.

Captain Patterson made him a present of two hundred acres of good land.

This evening the majority of the Kentuckians who were alive gathered at Bryant's Station, after a flight of forty miles. Of the one hundred and eighty-two sixty had been killed, twelve wounded, seven captured. For a third time the Blue Licks had been a fatal spot to Daniel Boone. And Kentucky never before had felt such a terrible blow. The flower of her armed men had been defeated.

Colonel Logan and four hundred and fifty militia from Logan's Station had marched into Bryant's this very day. They had pushed on at best speed to overtake the Colonel Todd column and save it from destruction; for Colonel Logan also had feared.

A few miles out of Bryant's they had met the first of the fugitives, and had learned that reinforcements were in vain. So they had turned back, to wait for complete news.

On the next day Colonel Logan advanced upon the Blue Licks with his column and a few of the Todd men, including Daniel Boone. The battle field was a frightful sight. Hot sun, and animals, and the fishes in the river had done bad work. Not an Indian, dead or living, was to be found. All that they themselves might do was to collect the bodies of the fallen Kentuckians and bury them. Full many a day there was wailing and weeping in fair Kentucky.

Of all the higher officers only Daniel Boone, Major Levi Todd, the brother of Colonel John Todd, and Major Hugh McGary had escaped. Hugh McGary lived for a long time afterward, until killed while hunting. He never admitted that his rash temper had led him to act wrongly.

The battle of the Blue Licks was the last battle of the Revolution, and the last attack of the Indians upon Kentucky. In September they again crossed the Ohio in force and tried Fort Wheeling settlement of West Virginia, as told in "Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters," but they gained nothing. After this they only foraged in small parties, seeking plunder, and kept close to the Ohio River border.

But to avenge the defeat at Blue Licks, General George Rogers Clark, commanding at Louisville (the Falls of the Ohio), organized an army of one thousand militia and volunteers; the Daniel Boone and the Colonel Logan men from interior Kentucky joined him; they all marched north, November 4, from the Ohio at present Cincinnati; destroyed Chillicothe or Piqua and other Shawnee towns, and showed the Indians that no help could be expected from their British father, against the Long Knives. He was done fighting.