The First Massacre On Powell's River

The First Massacre On Powell's River

By Emory L. Hamilton

From the unpublished manuscript Indian Atrocities Along the Clinch, Powell and Holston Rivers, pages 1-6.

The killing of Captain William Russell's and Daniel Boone's sons, the Drake boy, the Mendenhall brothers, and a colored slave of Russell's on October 10, 1773, is the first recorded Indian massacre on the waters of Powell's River. This massacre occurred near the head of Wallen's Creek, in present day Lee County, and not near Cumberland Gap as some writers claim and where the State Highway Historical marker is erroneously placed.

The route this party probably followed from Russell's place in Castlewood was most likely that followed by the early Long Hunters and known as the "Hunters Trail", crossing Clinch River at Hunter's Ford, now the village of Dungannon, through Hunter's Valley, Rye Cove, and crossing Powell Mountain at Kane's Gap onto the head of Wallen's Creek.

Dr. Lyman C. Draper, who spent years doing research on the frontier events, including interviews with some of the Boone family and others who had knowledge of the occurrence, gives the most accurate account of this massacre in his unpublished "Life of Daniel Boone". (1) Boone on his return from Kentucky in the spring of 1773, met William Russell, then residing at Castlewood on Clinch River, who entered so heartily into Boone's views with reference to settling Kentucky that he agreed to join him in the enterprise. Somewhere in this region the McAfee company on their way home from Kentucky met Boone about the 12th of August then making preparation to migrate to that country.

The Bryan party lived 60 miles eastward of Boone's home on Yadkin agreed to join Boone's company in Powell Valley on a specified day and pass the most dangerous part of the journey together. Boone went home, sold his farm and such other household goods, produce and farming utensils which he could not convey so great a distance. The Bryan party numbering 40 overtook the van as agreed. This reinforcement was not entirely from the South Yadkin for several had joined them in the Fort Chiswell and Holston Valley regions, among whom was Michael Stoner, William Bush, and Edmund Jennings. They had passed Clinch Mountain, Powell's Mountain, and Wallen's Ridge, and had barely entered Powell's Valley.

Here, at, or near the western base of Wallen's Ridge where Powell River flows along a vale, Boone and his party went into camp and awaited the arrival of the rear party. James Boone and two brothers, John and Richard Mendenhall, from Guilford County, North Carolina, had been dispatched from the main company, probably at Wolf Hills, now Abingdon, across country to Captain Russell's at Castlewood for the double purpose of notifying him of the advance of Boone's Kentucky adventurers and procuring a quantity of flour. Pack loads of flour were provided and Captain Russell sent forward his oldest son Henry, a youth of 17, two Negroes named Charles and Adam, together with Isaac Crabtree and a youth named Drake, (2) with several horses laden with farming tools, provisions and other useful articles and a few books. A small drove of cattle was also sent under their charge. Captain Russell himself remained behind to arrange his business, and then with Captain David Gass (3) to hasten forward and overtake the others. His intention was to erect a comfortable domicile and open a plantation during the autumn and winter, put in a crop in the spring, and return for his family. Had these plans succeeded, William Russell would probably have become one of the most distinguished of the primitive settlers of Kentucky.

It was now the 9th of October, and little dreaming of danger the party of young Boone and Russell pushed on cheerfully and as rapidly as possible, endeavoring to reach the advanced party that evening. Night overtaking them and probably not aware that the company in front was only three miles distant, they camped on the northern bank of Wallen's Creek, at the old ford near the head of that stream, a southern tributary of Powell's River.

Unknown to the little band, a party of stealthy Indians had that day tagged them a considerable distance, an during the evening while young Boone and companions were seated around their blazing campfire, they heard the howl of wolves, or a successful imitation on the part of the Indians. When the Mendenhalls, unused to such frontier serenades, dropped some expression of fear, Crabtree, a regular backwoodsman, laughed heartily at their apprehensions and jeeringly told them that they would hear as well the bellowing of buffaloes as the howling of wolves in the tree tops in Kentucky.

Locked in the sweet embrace of balmy sleep, all unconscious of danger, the little band of emigrants were attacked about daybreak the next morning by the Indians, who creeping close to camp, fired upon their unsuspecting victims, killing some and wounding others. A heart rending scene ensued. Young Russell was shot through both hips and was unable to attempt escape. As the Indians would run up with their knives to stab him he would seize the naked blades with his hands and thus had them badly mangled and was finally tortured in a most barbaric manner. Young Boone was also shot through his hips, breaking them both and rendering him helpless. He recognized among the Indians Big Jim, a Shawnee warrior, who had often shared the hospitality of his father's house. His unusually high cheek bones and broad face, with a singularly peculiar chin, rendered it almost impossible for anyone who had ever known him to fail instantly to recognize his remarkable features. James Boone implored him by name to spare his life, but former friendship, past favors, nor present misfortunes made any sensible impressions on the adamantine heart of the blood thirsty warrior. The Indians tortured young Boone by pulling out his toe and finger nails when he besought Jim at once to put him out of his misery. At the same time young Russell was suffering similar tortures, when Boone remarked to him that he presumed his parents, brothers and sisters were all killed by the Indians. At length both young sufferers were severely stabbed and probably tomahawked when death like an angel of mercy came to their relief. Both the Mendenhalls and young Drake were among the slain, one of whom, at the time ran off and was neither found nor heard of at that period, but many years after some of the family of Mr. John Thorpe, residing nearby, found the bones of a man between two high ledges of rocks about an eighth of a mile above the defeated camp, which was supposed to have been those of the missing man, who had probably been mortally wounded in the attack, fled as far as he could, and crawled between the ledges and died. The Negro Adam fortunately escaped unhurt, hid himself in some driftwood on the bank of the creek close at hand and was an unwilling spectator of the painful scene enacted at the camp. Crabtree although wounded, also effected his escape and first reached the settlement, while Adam, getting lost, was eleven days making his way to the frontier inhabitants. The other Negro Charles, older and less active than Adam was taken prisoner by the Indians who carried him off with the horses and every other article they esteemed of value. When they had gone about 40 miles, getting into a dispute about the ownership of the Negro, the leader of the party put an end to the quarrel by tomahawking the poor captive.

In the advance camp was a young fellow who had been detected in pilfering from his commander and had become the butt of contempt and ridicule of the camp to such an extent that he resolved secretly to abandon the party and return to the settlements. He took his silent departure a while before day on the 10th of October an don the way stole some deer skins with Daniel Boone had left hung up beside the trail for the rear to bring along. Reaching the ford at Wallen's Creek when the Indians could have but a few moments before decamped, he came upon the mangled remains of the unfortunate slain; dropping the skins he hurried back to the main camp where he arrived about sunrise with the unhappy intelligence. Fear, sorrow, and confusion, more or less, agitated every heart beat and could be seen depicted on almost every countenance. While a small party under Squire Boone was sent back to bury the dead, recovering whatsoever property the Indians may not have carried off and ascertain their strength by their sign. Daniel Boone remained with most of the men ready to repel any attack that might be made on the main camp; and as they at first had no means of knowing the strength of the Indians who had made the fatal onslaught on the rear, they set themselves about making a rude fortification.

When Squire Boone's burial party reached the defeated camp, they found Captain Russell and Captain Gass already arrived there. In young Russell's body, which was mangled in an inhuman manner, was left sticking a dart of arrows, and beside the bodies were left several painted hatchets and war clubs, a sort of Indian declaration of war. Mrs. Daniel Boone had sent sheets for shrouds and young Boone and Russell were wrapped in the same winding sheet and buried together...the other slain were also decently interred. The bodies of all were ripped open, but none of them were scalped, as the Indians would not venture to take white scalps to their towns in a time of professed peace. The Indians had taken all the plunder and the cattle were much scattered. Squire Boone and party with Captains Russell and Gass returned to the main camp where a general council was held, though it was Daniel's wish to continue the journey, most of the emigrants were too disheartened by the check they had received and thought that only repetition of Indian cruelty could be expected should they persevere in their attempt. That it was best to abandon the attempt and return. By this time the cattle had become much dispersed and when collected and the emigrants satisfied that the Indians who had done the mischief were only a small party and had departed, they commenced retracing their footsteps. While others winnowed their way back to their farming settlements in Virginia and Carolina, Boone accepted the invitation of Captain Gass to take up his temporary abode in a cabin on his farm, about seven or eight miles below Captain Russell's at Castlewood and a little south of Clinch River. (4)

(1) Draper Mss 3 B, Chapter 9, pages 92-117.
(2) Perhaps the son of Joseph Drake who moved from Clinch to Boonesboro and was killed there by Indians in 1778.
(3) Capt. Gass moved from Albemarle Co., VA to Castlewood in 1769. Was born in Pennsylvania about 1729, and died in Madison Co., KY, in 1805, or 1807. Made eleven trips from Castlewood to Boonesboro before settling there permanently in December, 1777.
(4) Boone lived on the Clinch from this time until 1775 when he led his second and successful party to Kentucky to found Boonesborough. While living at Castlewood, a son named William, was born to Daniel and Rebecca Boone who died in infancy and was buried in the Moore's Fort graveyard. An old log house still standing in Castlewood on the lands he owned may very well be the house in which Gass lived when he gave shelter to the Boone family in a nearby cabin.

This file contributed by: Rhonda Robertson

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