The Last Indian Raid Upon the Western Frontiers of Virginia

The Last Indian Raid Upon the Western Frontiers of Virginia

By Emory L. Hamilton

From the unpublished manuscript, Indian Atrocities Along the Clinch, Powell and Holston Rivers, pages 243-255.

The last Indian raid upon the frontiers of Southwest Virginia, and the one that cost the life of the half-breed Indian Chief Benge, who had been a scourage to the frontier for years with his lightning assaults on the inhabitants and his barbaric cruelty took place on April 5, 1794.

Benge sometimes referred to as "the Bench," was a half-breed whose father, John Benge lived among the Indians. While a half-breed Cherokee, for many years, Benge lived among his adopted people the Shawnees. No Indian attacks on the frontier were more cruel than those led by Benge, and he, perhaps of all the Indians, carried out the most raids and killed the greatest number of people. Bishop Francis Asbury of the Methodist Church, who visited this area in the 1790s in his Journal says that Benge was reported to have killed and captured upwards of one hundred souls on the frontier.

R. M. Addington, History of Scott County, page 115-119, gives an accurate account of this episode:

One of the most beautiful farms in Scott County is the 'Livingston Place,' now owned by the heirs of the late Peter Jett. It is situated on the North Fork of Holston, near the mouth of Livingston's Creek. This tract of land was first occupied, it seems, by William Todd Livingston, who enjoyed the rather unique distinction of being the first, and, for some years, the only man in Washington County to have a double christian name. Upon the death of William Todd Livingston, his sons, Peter and Henry, inherited his estate, including a large number of slaves. Now for some reason, the Indians often sought out the Negro slaves for the purpose of capture. This seems to have been particularly true of Benge, who, it was thought, sometimes made trips to the settlements in order to spy out the farms upon which Negro slaves were employed. The presence of Negro slaves on the Livingston farm, therefore, may have caused the attack which Benge and his gang made upon it. Mrs. Elizabeth, wife of Peter Livingston, a few days after her rescue, gave the following account of the affair. This account was certified to, and forwarded to the Governor of Virginia.

April 6, 1794, about ten o'clock in the morning, as I was sitting in my house, the fierceness of the dog's barking alarmed me. I looked out and saw seven Indians approaching the house, armed and painted in a frightful manner. No person was then within, but a child of ten years old, and another of two, and my sucking infant. My husband and his brother Henry had just walked out to a barn some distance in the field. My sister-in-law, Susanna, was with the remaining children in an out house. Old Mrs. Livingston was in the garden. I immediately shut and fastened the door; they came furiously up, and tried to burst it open, demanding of me several times to open the door which I refused. They then fired two guns; one ball pierced through the door, but did not damage. I then thought of my husband's rifle, took it down but it being double triggered, I was at a loss; at length I fired through the door, but it not being well aimed I did not execution; however, the Indians retired from that place and soon after that an old adjoining house was on fire, and I and my children suffering much from the smoke. I opened the door and an Indian immediately advanced and took me prisoner with the two children. I then discovered that they had my remaining child in their possession, my sister, Sukey a wench with her young child, a Negro man of Edward Callihan's, and a Negro boy of our own about eight years old. They were fearful of going into the house I had left, to plunder, supposing that it had been a man that shot at them, and yet was within. So our whole clothing and household furniture were consumed in the flames which I was then pleased to see, rather than it should be of use to the savages.

We were hurried a short distance where the Indians were busy, dividing and putting up in packs for each to carry his part of the booty taken. I observed them careless about the children, and most of the Indians being some distance off in front, I called with a low voice to my eldest daughter, gave her my youngest child, and told them all to run towards neighbor John Russell's.

They were reluctant to leave me, sometimes halting, sometimes looking back. I beckoned them to go. I inwardly felt pangs not to be expressed on account of our doleful separation. The two Indians in the rear did not notice this scene, or they were willing the children might run back.

That evening the Indians crossed Clinch Mountain and went as far as Copper Creek, distant about eight miles.

April 7, set off early in the morning, crossed Clinch River at McLean's Fish Dam (1) about twelve o'clock, then steered northwardly toward the head of Stoney Creek. There the Indians camped carelessly, had no back spy, and kept sentries out. This day's journey was about twenty miles.

April 8, continued in camp until the sun was more than an hour high; then set out slowly and traveled five or six miles and camped near the foot of Powell's Mountain. This day Benge, the Indian Chief, became more pleasant, and spoke freely to the prisoners. He told them he was about to carry them to the Cherokee towns. That in the route in the wilderness was his brother with two other Indians hunting, so that he might have provisions when he returned. That at this camp were several white prisoners taken from Kentucky, with horses and saddles to carry them to the towns. He made inquiry for several persons on Holston, particularly old General Shelby, and said he would pay him a visit during the ensuing summer, and take away all his Negroes. He frequently inquired who had Negroes, and threatened he would have them all off the North Holston. He said all the Chickamauga towns were for war, and soon would be very troublesome to the white folks.

This day two of the party were sent by Benge ahead to hunt.

April 9, After traveling about five miles which was over Powell's Mountain, (2) a party of thirteen men under command of Lieutenant Vincent Hobbs, of the militia of Lee County met the enemy in front, attacked and killed Benge the first fire, I being at that time some distance off in the rear. The Indian who was my guard at first halted on hearing the firing. He then ordered me to run, which I performed slowly. He attempted to strike me in the head with a tomahawk, which I defended as well as I could with my arm. By this time two of our people came in view, which encouraged me to struggle all I could. The Indian making an effort at this instant pushed me backward, and I fell over a log, at the same time aiming a violent blow at my head, which in part spent its force on me and laid me for dead. The first thing I afterward remembered was my good friends around me, giving me all the assistance in their power for my relief. They told me I was senseless for about an hour.

Certified this 15th day of April, 1794. A. Campbell.

The Lee County Court was in session when the news came that the Indians had invaded the Holston settlements. Court immediately adjourned, and a company of men hastily organized, under Lieutenant Vincent Hobbs, to go in search of the enemy. Hobb's company proceeded at once to a gap int he mountain through which, it was surmised, the Indians would be most likely to pass on the return to their towns. Hobbs, upon arriving at this gap, however, found some Indians had already passed through before him. Pressing on in great eagerness to overtake the enemy, he soon came up with two Indians kindling a fire. These were killed, and, upon examination, it was found they were in possession of plunder which must have been taken from the Livingstons. Hobbs concluded that these two Indians had been sent on ahead to hunt and collect provisions for the main body. The object of Hobbs was now to make a quick retreat to cover his own sign if possible, at the gap, before the Indians could discover it, and perhaps kill the prisoners and escape. Having gained this point, he chose a place of abuscade; but not exactly liking this position he left the men there, and taking one with him by the name of Van Bibber, he went some little distance in advance to try to find a place more suitable for his purpose. As they stood around looking for such a place, they discovered the Indians coming up with their prisoners. They cautiously concealed themselves and each singled out his man. Benge, having charge of the younger Mrs. Livingston, led the van, and the others followed in succession; but the Indian who had charge of the elder Mrs. Livingston was considerably behind, she not being able to march with the same elastic step as her sister. When the front came directly opposite to Hobbs and Van Bibber they both fired, Hobbs killing Benge, and Van Bibber the one next behind him. At the crack of the rifle the other men rushed forward, but the Indians had escaped into a laurel thicket, taking with them a Negro fellow. The Indian who had charge of the elder Mrs. Livingston tried his best to kill her, but he was so hurried that he missed his aim. Her arms were badly cut by defending her head from the blows of his tomahawk. The prisoners had scarcely time to recover from their surprise before the two Livingstons, who heard the guns and were now in close pursuit with a party of men from Washington, came running up and with a gust of joy received their wives at the hands of Hobbs. Four Indians were killed and five escaped. It appears they were separated into parties of three and two. The first had the Negro fellow with them, and by his account, they lodged that night in a cave, where he escaped from them and got home.

In the meantime a party of hardy mountaineers from Russell collected and proceeded in haste to waylay a noted Indian crossing-place high upon the Kentucky river. When they got there they found some Indians had just passed. They immediately drew the same conclusion that Hobbs had done, and hastened back to the river for fear those behind should discover their sign. Shortly after they had stationed themselves, the other three made their appearance; the men fired upon them, two fell and the other fled, but left a trail of blood behind him, which readily conducted his pursuers to where he had taken refuge in a thick canebrake. It was thought imprudent to follow him any further, as he might be concealed and kill some of them before they could discover him. Thus eight of the party were killed and the other perhaps mortally wounded. (Manuscript letter of Benjamin Sharpe, quoted in Summers, Annals of Southwest Virginia.)

The following letters relating to Benge's raid on the Livingstons are to be found in the Calender of Virginia State Papers, Vol. VII.

Andrew Lewis to the Governor:
April 17, 1794.
Sir: Since I wrote you on yesterday I have received the particulars of the mischief done at Mr. Livingstons within fifteen miles of Abingdon.

The Indians murdered one white woman (3) and one Negro child, prisoners, two white women, one Negro woman and man; they were also in possession of a number of children. After setting the house on fire, they set the children at liberty. They were immediately pursued on their trail; two other parties pushed on to take possession of certain gaps, that in all probability they would pass. One of these parties last mentioned fell in with them and fired on them, killed the white man that conducted the Indians in, and one of the Indians. At the time fire was made, both other parties of the whites were in hearing of the guns. By their passing through the Stone Gap, in Powell's Mountain, expect they were the Southern Indians.

P. S. The prisoners were retaken, all but the Negro man who ran off with the Indians. (The Negro man didn't run off, but was captured and escaped from the Indians and returned.)

Under the date of April 19, 1794, Andrew Lewis again writes to the Governor:

The inhabitants in pursuit of the Indians retook the prisoners and killed two of them (Bench and Indian). The rest run off. Captain William Dorton, one of my scouts, who was with a party endeavoring to catch them, fell in with them that ran off, being three in number, two of which he killed on the ground; the other run off mortally wounded. One only escaped without a wound.

Col. Arthur Campbell, in a letter to the Governor, dated April 19, 1794:

I now send the scalp of Captain Bench that noted murderer, as requested by Lieutenant Hobbs, to your Excellency, as proof that he is no more, and of the activity and good conduct of Lieutenant Hobbs, in killing him and relieving the prisoners. Could it be spared from our treasury. I would beg leave to hint that a present of a neat rifle to Mr. Hobbs would be accepted as a reward for his late services, and the Executive may rest assured that it would serve as a stimulus for future exertions against the enemy.

In accordance with Col. Campbell's recommendations, the General Assembly voted Lieutenant Hobbs a beautiful silver mounted rifle.

At another time, Col. Campbell in a letter to the Governor, expressed solicitude for the safety of Lt. Hobbs, and his men. He says: By intelligence from Knoxville, the Uncle of Captain Bench is out with thirty warriors to take revenge in Virginia. The necessity of having some men on duty near Moccasin Gap, the former place of his haunts, and now we suppose of his avengers, seems urgent. Were Captain (Andrew) Lewis' company so arranged to cover that settlement, and he be active in ranging the woods, it might, in a degree, appease the fears of the inhabitants. That part of Lee Co. Which turned out so cleverly under Lieutenant Hobbs in pursuit of Bench is altogether exposed; that is they have no part of the guard on duty, nearer than forty miles. My own conjecture is, that Hobbs and his friends may be the sufferers. All late accounts say that all the lower Cherokees are for war.

The following account of the killing of Benge, related by Dr. James Huff, the last surviving member of Hobb's party, differs in some minor details from the account given above, though, probably, not more than a perfectly credible witness speaking fifty-two years later might be expected to vary. The story was printed in the "Jacksonian", a paper published at Abingdon, VA, in 1846:

Mr. Editor: Having recently had an interview with the venerable Dr. James Huff of Kentucky, the last of the brave party that defeated the celebrated Indian Benge and party, who gave me the following account of that affair. That sometime in the month of April 1794 just before daylight, a man by the name of John Henderson rode up to Yokums Station in Powell's Valley, now Lee County, and informed the station that the Indians had taken the wives of Peter and Henry Livingston and two servants of the former and also a black man from Edward Callahan, and that the men of the station desired to fall in ahead of the retiring party, as they were all well acquainted with their route, and as was common in those times the cry of Indians was sufficient to call to arms, they very soon mustered the following brave little band of mountain soldiers: Vincent Hobbs, John Benbever, Stephen Jones, James Huff, James Benbever, Peter Benbever, Job Hobbs, Abraham Hobbs, Adam Ely, Samuel Livingston, George Yokum and ______ Dotson, (4) who were all soon equipped and on their march to a pass in Cumberland Mountain, where they soon arrived, but seeing no sign in the trace of the recent passage of Indians they divided their company into small parties, to examine the small streams, which were thickly lined with laurel and ivy to the Kentucky side, where a short distance from the base of the mountain, one of the party, discovered a small stream of smoke rise from the edge of the laurel, and upon nearer approach, he perceived through he dusk of the evening, that it proceeded from the camp of an Indian, who at the moment was stooped down kindling his fire, whereupon he deliberately raised his deadly rifle, at the sharp crack of which the Indian received a mortal wound, and his comrades the signal that the foe was found. They soon gathered and after examination, pronounced their victim a forerunner or hunter sent forward to prepare provisions, so they camped by the dead Indian during the night, at early dawn next morning recrossed the mountain, ascended the valley, marching rapidly to gain a position in a deep hollow in the mountain, that they supposed Benge and his party would pass, the writer has seen this spot, it is one of those dark, deep mountain passes where the ridge on each side seemed to reach the clouds, and the center of the deep gloomy valley below is covered with large masses of unshaken rocks, filled everywhere with laurel and ivy, with a wild furious stream, tumbling and rolling in the midst.

In this dismal place the little band of soldiers took their stand, determined to dispute the passage of Benge to the last; and to rescue the prisoners or forfeit their life in the attempt. For the purpose of attacking the enemy, they divided into two companies, and took their stations near each other in the edge of the laurel, adopting the following as the mode of attack. The first company was not to fire until the rear of the enemy had passed them and thus attack in front and rear, while the mountain upon either side afforded no possible passage for the coward or the conquered. Having thus secreted themselves along the gloomy gulf, which has terrors enough in itself to chill the blood of the timid, without the excpectation of a deadly foe, these twelve brave backswoodsmen who were accustomed to the scream of the panther and the growls of the bear, sat but a short time calmly and unterrified in their hiding places, until two of them highest up the precipe (V. Hobbs and J. Benbever), saw an Indian and the wife of Peter Livingston, marching down the passage, but none of the rest of the party in sight, the prisoner in front of the dark rough savage, the two soldier's iron nerves grew stronger when they saw the fair lady driven over the logs, brush, and stones by an unfeeling savage, and each man cocked his gun an crouched behind a large rock, and waited with breathless silence the approach of the Indian, which must pass within a few yards of them, bu being desirous to know whether the rest of the party was yet in sight. Benbever cautiously raised his head above the rocks to make the discovery and the keen eyed savage saw him at the distance of forty yards, the rest not yet being in sight, at the sight of the white man's head he stooped forward and threw off a pack and made the dark deep hollow rang with a terrific Indian yell, at the same time making a blow with his tomahawk, struck the woman on the head and she fell dead at his feet; he wheeled and bounded off the way he had come, the two heroes seeing their plan was all frustrated, rose from their hiding place and Benbever fired at the fleeing savage without effect; Hobbs a celebrated marksman leveled his piece an dheld her steadily upon a spot until the Indian passed before his sight, when with that quickness, with which the backwoods riflemen are so wonderfully gifted he fired and the Indian fell shot through the brains, and this was the celebrated Benge. All the party then left their hiding places and rushed foward to rescue the rest of the prisoners when they found the Indians striving to make their escape into the laurel, and as they rushed upon the enemy who were striving to get into the laurel with their prisoners, my informant says he ran up very near the Indian, who had the other white woman, and raised his rifle to shoot him, at that instant he raised his tomahawk to strike the woman, who caught his arm and held it until my informant made several attempts to shoot the Indian as he was dragging her by the arm, but at every attempt, one of his comrades would seize his gun telling him not to shoot he would kill the woman, he then threw down his gun, drew his butcher knife and rushed toward the Indian, at that instant the Indian having crossed a log, jerked the female against it and extricated his arm and as quick as lightning entered the thicket, but as he entered he received the contents of another man's rifle, which sent him bleeding to death in the laurel. The party then collected all their prisoners and returned to the tomahawked woman and to their great joy found she was yet alive, and was shortly afterwards with the other prisoners delivered to her friends to the great joy of all.

I would pursue this narrative further, but fearing this unvarnished relation would not be worthy of a place in your excellent paper, I for the present say no more. (5)

(1) McClain's Fish Trap was just below Dungannon, near what today is known as Gray's Island. Scott Co. Deed Book 3, page 300, dated 20 August, 1821, Simon Cockrell and wife Polly of Estill Co., KY, deed 75 acres to James Fullen ont he north side of Clinch River adjoining William McClain and Jeremiah Herral, land including an island in said river and a "fish trap", etc.
(2) From the description of travel of Mrs. Livingston, after leaving Stony Creek the party must have traveled through Rye Cove, crossing Powell Mountain at Maple Gap, descending down to Cracker's Neck, with Benge and party being killed in the gap between Big Stone Gap and Appalachia. Her description of travel will not take the party across High Knob to the present Benge's Gap near Norton, and, too, if Benge was, as she stated making for the Cherokee towns the latter route would have been away from instead of toward the Cherokee Towns.
NOTE: There is no doubt that the Lee County Court was in session at the time of Benge's raid, as April is usually a court month, but it is the belief of this writer, and, evidence points to the fact that Hobbs organized his party at Yokum's Station near the present village of Dryden in Lee County. Hobbs had settled in Turkey Cove a short ways from Yokum's Station in the year 1780, and the list of men in his party are all men from upper Lee County. Unless Hobbs had received word of the raid almost immediately, and this is doubtful, the distance from Jonesville to the spot where Benge was killed would hardly have given them time to make ready and head the Indians off, Jonesville being some 25 or 30 miles away down Powell Valley.
(3) The white woman was old Mrs. Livingston, wife of William Todd Livingston, and mother of Peter and Henry Livingston.
(4) All this party except Peter Benbever, Job and Abraham Hobbs and Dotson were members of Capt. Andrew Lewis' militia of Powell Valley in 1792.
(5) Draper MSS 26 CC 60.
NOTE: The name Benbever is a variant spelling of the name Van Bever or Van Bibber.

This file contributed by: Rhonda Robertson

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