When delving into the mid-1700s, especially on the Virginia
frontier, one becomes accustomed to unanswered questions. People were
too busy trying to survive to keep records. So many times, the
researcher must admit there’s just no way to resolve the unknown.
But in looking back to the Kerr’s Creek Massacre, more than one crucial
question makes this a puzzle with numerous missing pieces.
in the late 1800s and early 1900s, apparently the first time anyone
thought to confine the legends to paper, couldn’t be certain of the
dates of the two Indian raids.
Both the Rev. Samuel Brown
(possibly the son of Mary Moore Brown who spent three years in captivity
after her family was killed in Southwest Virginia) and Rockbridge
County History author Oren Morton disagree.
Possible dates are 10
Oct. 1759 for the first raid and Sunday, 17 July 1763, for the second
raid. Or the 1763 date for the first raid and October 1764 or 1765 for
the second raid and/or possibly even a third raid.
the 1763 date seems agreeable for the Big Spring massacre story. But
Brown says the McKee family’s tragedy occurred in conjunction with the
big massacre at the spring, while others say the McKee incident came at
the end of the first (or last) raid. Everyone agrees that the Shawnees,
under Chief Cornstalk, invaded Kerr's Creek twice.
the dates and the scope of action, the Kerr's Creek raids possibly tie
the area with all three wars in the last half of the 1700s--the French
and Indian War (1756–1763); the Pontiac Conspiracy (1760–1763); and the
American Revolution--when the influence of the Kerr's Creek incidents
incited a local militiaman to sneak into a blockhouse and assassinate
the imprisoned Cornstalk in 1777.
While I have tried to be
sensitive to the Native American’s part in this story, this was a land
at war in the 1700s. As in all wars, political factions often take
advantage of simple folks on both sides who’d rather live in peace. On
both sides, the forgotten dead are the heroes.
So much of what
has been written about that time is from legends told and retold around
supper tables and fireplaces. While the facts may not all be true, the
honor paid to the lives lived and lost create a legacy that reminds us
where we have been and makes us think about who we are.
Most of the story is from the Weekender of Lexington, Virginia appearing December 6, 1997. The Weekender story came to me by piecemeal, but I believe that it is complete but may be mixed with another account. I reprint the story with permission of the editor of the Weekender; they did not have a copy of the story from which I could give a complete and accurate reproduction.
Rockbridge County, VA, what I call "God's Country" is a serene area consisting of several small cities and towns with many hamlets scattered here and there. But, it was not always calm and peaceful, for in the early 1700's Rockbridge County was in the budding stages of development and many Indians lived there. The true story of the Kerr's Creek Massacre (pronounced Carr) has been handed down through the generations. Although it's been over two hundred years ago, many folks in Rockbridge County still talk about it as if it happened yesterday.
From an entry in the old family Bible of J. T. McKee's grandfather, as follows: His wife Jennie died July l7th, 1763. She was killed in the first invasion. The second visitation of the savages was a little more than. two years after the first, on the tenth of October, 1765.
The number of Indians in the first visit was 27, as counted by Robert Irvine, who was on a bluff near the road at the head of the creek. Both invasions were of the Shawnee tribe, who, most of all the savages, harassed the whites. The first band of these blood-thirsty warriors who visited Rockbridge in 1763, I think I have satisfactorily ascertained, were a part of a much larger company who had been on a war expedition against the Cherokees or Catawbas of the South, and were then on their return to their towns north of the Ohio River. They came up byway of the Sweet Springs and Jackson's River. Some knowledge of their approach had been obtained, and they were met by a company of men under the command of Capt. Moffit, at or near the mouth of Falling Spring Valley in Allegheny County.
The Indians, who were aware of the approach of the whites, had posted themselves in ambush, behind the comb of a ridge along which Moffit's men were moving, and suddenly their whole force opened fire from their concealed position. The whites were taken by surprise, thrown into confusion and a total defeat followed. A number of men were slain, amongst whom was James Sitlington of Bath County, an uncle of the families of that name, at present living in that county. He was a recent immigrant from Ireland, and was highly esteemed and useful, on account of his intelligence and exemplary life. After the rout, all of the Indians went some miles down Jackson's River, and came up the valley of the Cowpasture.
On the plantation owned by Colonel Thomas Sitlington, there lived a black-smith by the name of Daugherty. He and his wife barely made their escape to the mountains with their two children. The house and shop were burned, with all their contents, except a flax hackle, which the Indians took out of the house and laid on a stump. Daugherty removed to the South, and in after years rose to considerable distinction.
In one of General Jackson's military reports, he is favorably mentioned as the "Valuable General Daugherty." After the burning of his house, the Indians came up on the river where Old Millboro now stands and where they divided their company, the larger part setting out for the Ohio River, and the smaller one of 27 turning their faces for the destruction of the peaceful settlement or Kerr’s Creek.
* * * * * * *
When Blood Flowed In Kerr's Creek
By Deborah Sensabaugh
Editors note: This is the first of three parts on the early history of the Kerr's Creek area of Rockbridge County which, in the mid 1700s, was the site of two Indian raids that left many early area settlers dead.
They barred their doors on Kerr's Creek in 1759. What with the howling wolves and the fall leaves crunching into October, the distance between the two and three-room cabins. They primed their flintlocks and latched their shutters, straining at soft footfalls outside. A snuffling bear, a snorting buck, a painted Shawnee brave with ready tomahawk.
And they died on Kerr's Creek anyway. War on the frontier showed no favorites, granted no mercy.
The talk up and down the settlement had been of war more than crops or new babies or acres cleared. That and the families already moved eastward or south to the Carolinas where the dreaded Ohio River and its tributaries ran red with French and British blood.
Trouble began in 1754 when the French crept south from Detroit to Montreal. Already posted along the Mississippi to New Orleans, they had only to secure the trans-Alleghany frontier to form a barrier to all British expansion. Then, using their Indian allies, they could push Britain and her colonists into the sea.
Pawns in a game of colonial domination, the naïve Native Americans and the feisty Ulster Scotch-Irish were lured into place. The English had battled the Irish and Scots for years. With an offer of free land on the frontier, the tenacious Scotch-Irish would die defending hearth, home and British land investment.
Meanwhile, over peace pipes, cheap trade goods and watered whiskey, the French bought the Indians with promises. Help us destroy the settlements and we’ll return your land. We don’t want to colonize, but to build trading posts.
The French and Indian War blazed up and down the frontier.
At first, British losses stacked like cord-wood in winter. Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie had sent a young surveyor, George Washington, to warn away the French in what is now western Pennsylvania.
In 1754, the French captured a half-finished fort at the Ohio triangle, named it Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh). In July, Washington surrendered his hastily constructed fort called Necessity. A year later, British General Braddock was defeated in the wilderness below Duquesne.
But in 1757, the tide turned when William Pitt took charge of the British war effort in the Colonies. For two years, his troops conquered fort by fort across the frontier. In 1759, Wolfe defeated Montcalm. By 1760 the British captured Montreal and by February 1763, the Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War.
But the treaty wasn’t signed soon enough to save the settlers on Kerr's Creek.
When Joseph Tees, founder of Waynesboro, followed the old Indian trail toward the Alleghany Mountains, he and his sons William and Charles paused in a breathtaking valley opening at the foot of a long western ridge. Meandering in a shallow S-curve along a bold creek, the valley contained enough flat land to invite settlement. Later Francis McCown received a patent of 928 acres on Tees Creek. In 1746, he sold parcels to Hugh Martin, Robert Erwin and Samuel Norwood.
Other early settlers at the foot of North Mountain were the Gilmores, McKees, Hamiltons and Logans. Three Cunningham brothers arrived with their families – Hugh, James and John. The eldest, Hugh, bought a tract from Benjamin Borden in 1748 near John Carr’s. He called it Big Spring after the numerous springs that gathered into a pond and created an ideal cabin site. In 1762, he sold the land to his son, Jonathan, who had married Mary McKee.
In the fall of 1759, the two Telford boys walked home, possibly from school. Their walk turned into a run. Breathless, they told of a naked man they saw hiding behind a tree. No one thought twice about their tale until later. Several weeks passed. The trees topping North Mountain and House Mountain bled down the hillsides in red and gold, as a party of 60 Shawnee warriors followed their chief, Cornstalk, from the Ohio. Winding through the mountains, they split outside the Greenbrier settlements. Acting friendly, the larger band worked their way down the Greenbrier, gaining the settlers’ confidence before attacking and killing most of them.
From what is now Millboro in Bath County, 27 of the warriors slipped over Mill Mountain about two miles north of the present Midland Trail near where Interstate 64 now cuts toward Clifton Forge. A pile of stones said to be placed there by Indian warriors through the years marked the mountaintop. The stones were dozed away with the building of 64. Workers hoping to find graves or artifacts under the rock pile were disappointed.
Near the head of the creek atop a bluff, Robert Irvine scarcely breathed as he counted the war party on the trail.
At the first cabin along the creek at present day Denmark, Charles Daugherty (husband of Rebecca Cunningham) and his family was killed. Next was the Jacob Cunningham cabin. With Cunningham away, his wife was killed, his 10-year old daughter knocked unconscious and scalped. She later came to and survived to face the Indians a second time on Kerr’s Creek.
Next came the home of Thomas Gilmore, the elderly Gilmore and his wife were leaving to visit a neighbor when they were killed and scalped. The rest of the Gilmores escaped.
Five of the ten members of the Robert Hamilton family next fell victim. By that time, the community was alerted to the danger, with residents scrambling for safety everywhere.
Harry Swisher, who owns the old Laird homestead that previously was the McKee farm, says the old log cabin still exists under the clapboards of a renovated 1910 farmhouse. “The logs are huge,” Swisher says, spreading his arms to illustrate early log construction. When he and his family remodeled the old house, they discovered the central log portion. With two rooms up and down, a shallow fireplace and a ladder to a loft, the cabin appeared easily fortified. A small window between the floors allows a view of the hillside behind, and Swisher says from the round top of the hill, the entire valley, with Big Spring, is visible.
“I remember my dad saying survivors scrambled up that hill where they could see where the Indians were going. They could hide there,” Swisher says.
Since the house is up a hollow where U.S. 60 now comes from Lexington, Swisher believes the old house could be the McKee home spoken of in the raid stories.
John and Jane or “Jenny” Logan McKee had six children whom they’d sent to Timber Ridge for safekeeping.
When the alarm sounded through the neighborhood, the McKee’s fled their home (one account says up a wooded hillside in back, agreeing with Swisher’s father’s story). One account says their barking dog gave them away, another said a black servant sounded the alarm with her cries of fright. Mrs. McKee could not run quickly (one account says she expected a child) and John had left the house without his gun.
As the Indian pursuit neared the McKee’s, Jenny begged John to run on. “Otherwise, our children will have no parents.”
It’s said McKee paused, helping his wife to hide in a sink hole on the Hamilton farm. His parting words were “God bless you, Jinney.” It’s also said as he looked back from his race, he saw the tomahawk fell his wife.
With Indians almost close enough to catch him, and encouraged by his wife’s sacrifice, he bounded on.
When the Indians gave up chasing him, McKee hid until dark when he returned to find his wife. She lay in the sink hole, having survived long enough to wrap her kerchief around her head wound. He buried her where she lay and wrote her name in the family Bible. John McKee lived to rear his motherless children whose descendants were numerous along Kerr's Creek and in westward expansion.
Another account, published in The McKees of Virginia and Kentucky, related John was at a neighbors tending to some sick children. When he returned home, he found his wife killed and scalped.
The settlers listed in the cemetery records as killed in the first raid on Oct. 10, 1759, and possibly interred in the McKee Cemetery near Big Spring are: Isaac Cunningham, Jacob Cunningham (son of James and Mattie), the Charles Daugherty family, four of the John Gilmore family, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Gilmore, ----- Gray (no first name listed), five Robert Hamilton family members, James McGee, Alexander McMurty, Robert Ramsay, James Stephenson, Thomas Thompson, Samuel Wilson and John Winyard.
Since most accounts stress that no captives were taken on Kerr's Creek during the first raid and many men were killed, perhaps many of the men took a stand while their families escaped.
Charles Lewis of the Cowpasture raised three companies of militia (about 150 men). Charles Lewis led one company, John Dickenson and William Christian headed the other two. These three companies of militia went after the Indian warriors. They overtook the tribesmen near the head of Back Creek in Highland County. The Captains decided to attack at three points.
Two white scouts were sent ahead as an advance. They were ordered to shoot if the enemy realized the soldiers were nearby. The scouts came upon two braves, one leading a horse, the other holding a buck across the back of the horse. In an attempt to get the upper hand, the scouts fired and Christian’s company charged with a yell. The other companies were still miles behind the advance group. The Indians escaped with very little loss. The militia companies caught up with the Shawnee at Straight Fork, four miles below the present West Virginia line, their campfires revealed their location. About twenty Indians were killed. The booty they were carrying was retaken and sold for $1200.00. Thomas Young was the only white man killed, and Capt. Dickenson was wounded.
Source: The Weekender, Lexington, Virginia (December 6, 1997), p. 1, pp. 4-5.