Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Monday, June 1, 2015

Kerr's Creek Massacre: Part 2

Death Stalks The Banks Of Kerr's Creek

Guest Post

By Deborah Sensabaugh

Nearly 30 years ago, Clarence Tardy decided to clean out Big Spring, make a pond there, get rid of the overgrown marsh, let the many springs flow freely.

“We moved 30,000 yards of mud,” recalls Tardy.  “Know what the workmen brought up?  Pieces of big old logs, all black where they had been burned.”

Tardy saved some of those pieces, all that’s left of the Cunningham cabin the Shawnees burned in 1763.

As log cabins went on the frontier, Cunningham’s was one of the sturdiest around.  Some historians refer to it as a blockhouse, big enough to afford some protection to a number of settlers.

Tardy surmises it sat near the edge of the spring, not where the brick Federal style house sits now.

When the Treaty of Paris ended the British and French struggled for Colonial domination, the French pulled out.  The British claimed all the territory east of the Mississippi except for some French Caribbean islands.  As the French retreated, tribes along the Great Lakes and through the Ohio Valley watched their chances shrivel.  The British long advocated colonization and the Indian nations had felt the squeeze. 

Scarcely had the treaty ink dried before a powerful Ottawa chief named Pontiac began uniting the tribes throughout the Ohio.  Said to have been instrumental in Braddock’s defeat near the opening of the French and Indian War, Pontiac had become a brilliant strategist who realized that without a united front the Native Americans were doomed.  In a short time, he’d recruited from all the tribes from Lake Superior to Mexico.  Each tribe in the confederation was to choose its best warriors.  In May 1763, the warriors were to attack 14 British garrisons along the frontier.  Of those 14, all but four were captured.  One of the four was Detroit, Pontiac’s personal goal.  That summer, war raged up and down the frontier.

Once again, the Shawnee Chief Cornstalk was assigned the area he knew well, the eastern Alleghanies, the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers, Botetourt, Kerr's Creek, Augusta.  Small forts dotted the frontier from the French and Indian War.  A confident Cornstalk knew he could take them all.

As the warriors gathered supplies and weaponry and set their faces south and east, the Kerr's Creek farmers broke ground for the ’63 season.  They’d rebuilt the last cabins burned in 1759.  Families stowed empty chairs in lofts or along walls, and realized the frontier belonged to the living.  In the little cemetery overlooking the spring, mounded graves sank level with the thick grass.  But in many cabins, visions of death and destruction still replayed in the dark, woke children, sent shivers through the stoutest settler.

June greened the young crops.  July scattered fireflies among the trees at the edges of farm clearings.  Nights hummed with cicadas.

Atop North Mountain again, Cornstalk’s warriors lounged beside a spring and watched the comings and goings in the valley.  Some historians believe they were waiting reinforcements.  The final total of warriors is estimated between 40 and 60.  Someone from the settlement saw moccasin tracks in a cornfield and told everyone what he found.  Next, a hunter spied the Indian encampment from the top of a hill and rushed to spread the alarm.  That’s when the warriors swooped toward Big Spring.

July 17th, a Sunday, marked special meetings at the Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church.  Many of the settlers had traveled there.  But other accounts say the special church meeting was at Jonathan Cunningham’s cabin.  Still others say the settlers had fled to Cunninghams and were saddling horses and organizing a flight to Timber Ridge where the men carried their guns to church.  No one knows for sure, but other than the McKee cabin, which could have been attacked first, the Shawnees seemed intent on the Big Spring farm.

William Gilmore and another man turned toward the mountains to scout for Indians.  Concealed nearby, the Indians shot the two men and swooped upon the nearly 100 men, women and children milling around.  Two or three younger men advanced toward the enemy, and lost their lives immediately.

In one account, when the Shawnees sprang from cover, Mrs. [Alexander] Dale grabbed a stud colt that had never been ridden and swung onto its back.  Managing to balance her baby and cling to the horse, she fled the pursuing Indians.  Outrunning them, she dropped her baby in a rye field and hid herself in the brush, obviously sending the horse on.  Later, she returned and found the baby unharmed in the rye.

She said the terror-stricken people ran in every direction, trying to hide.  The Indians chased first one, then another, killing everyone in their path.  Another account says even the cattle were shot, bristling with arrows.

Mrs. Dale recounts that some people threw up their hands, entreating for mercy.  The Shawnees killed most, spared some.  Any man resisting was shot immediately.  Some whites fled for the spring pond, hiding both in the water and in the weeds along the banks.  The warriors found them, killed them and tossed the bodies in the pond.

Thomas Gilmore had died defending his family.  His wife, Jenny [sic: Elizabeth], stood over his body, grappling with a tomahawk-wielding Indian.  When a second ran up to kill her, the first threw up his hand, sparing her life for her bravery.  She was led off, with her son James, and two daughters, into captivity.

Before torching the Cunningham cabin, the Shawnees killed Jonathan Cunningham and his wife.  Cunningham had a distillery and the Shawnees carried off all the whiskey they could find.

Margaret Cunningham (Jacob’s daughter), the 10-year old girl who survived scalping in the first raid, was captured along with James, Betsy and Henry Cunningham.  One account says when she arrived at the Shawnee town, a warrior brought out a scalp and sat it on her head, communicating that it was her own hair.

Also taken were Archibald, Mary and Marian Hamilton.  Another account, however, says Mary Hamilton was among the dead.  When her fiancĂ© John McCown discovered her body, he went into a depression and died two years later of a broken heart.  His family buried him beside her on the little hillside in the McKee cemetery.  Another account says Mary Hamilton had a baby in her arms when captured.  She dropped it in the weeds and, later, when she was ransomed and returned home, she found its bones.

During the church service at Timber Ridge, rumor was given of trouble at Big Spring, but in an age of slow communications, rumors often were disregarded.  When someone else rushed breathlessly into the service and told of the raid, the settlers rushed about gathering family and friends.  Many fled into the Blue Ridge Mountains, since no one knew where the Shawnees might hit next.

One account says the Indians paused for the night at the spring near the head of Kerr's Creek, where they had been camped.  There, the prisoners spent the night listening for rescuers.  After drinking Cunningham’s whiskey, the war party would have offered little resistance to a rescue party, but the area had been thrown into so much confusion no militia was raised at that time.  The next day, William Patton and others ventured to the Big Spring to bury the dead.  They were attacked by Indians, but Mrs. Dale said one of the burial party rode up the valley, and a small party of Indians shot at him.

The Shawnees marched their captives toward the Ohio.  Those later returned told of the march, during which one fretful infant was killed and thrown on the shoulders of a girl.  She was killed the next day.  Another infant was impaled on a spear and left as a threat to pursuers as the captives walked on.

The afternoon of the massacre, the Indians returned to their camp on North Mountain. They sat around and drank the whiskey they had stolen from Cunningham's still. They became so intoxicated they could have put up little resistance. There was little to fear, [as] most of Rockbridge was in a panic. On the following day, two Indians went back, either to see if they were being followed, or to look for more whiskey. Mrs. Dale saw them shoot at a man as he rode up the valley. The man wheeled his horse and the Indians clapped their hands and shouted.

At one of the encampments, some of the prisoners found some leaves of a New Testament, and being anxious to preserve them, were drying them at the fire, when one of the Indians snatched them up and threw them in the fire, no doubt thinking they were some communication which they wished to send home.  However, a few days later, Jenny Gilmore was asked to sing a hymn.  She chose Psalm 137, singing “On Babel’s stream we sat and wept, When Zion we though on, In midst therof we hanged our harps, The willow trees thereon; For then a song requested they, Who did us captive bring, Our spoilers called for mirth, and said A song of Zion sing.”

Numerous captives from the Cowpasture (Bath and High county areas) were brought as more returning Shawnees swelled their ranks with plunder.

Years later, the Rev. John D. Shane interviewed Mrs. Jane Stevenson about the Kerr's Creek raids.  She told one story of some children on Kerr's Creek who were out picking haws.  One child lagged behind.  When the others were taken by the Indians, she was not discovered. . .

Mrs. Stevenson says the raid took about two hours since the Indians had the land “all spied out.”  Jane Stevenson lived seven miles from Kerr's Creek and her mother, Jane Warwick, was killed by Indians in 1759.

She also told of James Milligan, captured at Kerr's Creek.  He escaped on Gauley Mountain (now in West Virginia) and said he counted 450 total prisoners from the region.

Once on the Chillicothe [OH], the Shawnees separated to their villages, with the captive Kerr's Creek families [being] separated as well.  Jenny Gilmore and her son John were sent to one village, her two daughters to another.  She never saw them again.

For the Shawnees and Delawares, Pontiac’s war ended when Colonel Bouquet treatied with them on 9 Nov. 1764.  In August the next year, Pontiac’s other allies treatied at Oswego, confirming the treaty up and down the frontier in 1766.

Conditions of the treaty included return of all white captives.  Jenny Gilmore had been sold to a French trader at Fort Pitt.  She came home.  Her son, John, who had been living with the Shawnees, was brought back to Bath County by Jacob Warwick.  Eventually John and his mother reunited and moved back to the Gilmore homestead on Gilmore’s Creek, which empties into Kerr's Creek near Big Spring.

The fate of the other captives and families is not known.

With the treaty signed, the Delawares moved their villages further west.  The American Revolution was around the corner, during which most Delaware tribes sided with the British in a last attempt to regain conquered lands.  The Shawnees were among the last to bury the war hatchet with the whites.

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