Allen County Indiana Revolutionary Soldiers
Allen County Indiana Cemetery Project

John McMurtrey

Revolutionary Soldiers

John McMurtrey

One authority on the meanings of surnames describes the name “Murtrie” (of which McMurtrey” is a variation) as being derived from an old anglo-saxon word meaning “courage”. This is particularly appropriate to John McMurtrey in the light of his active military career.

Joseph McMurtrey, of Scotch extraction, emigrated to Pennsylvania from Wales in the early 1700s, locating in Philadelphia where he was a manufacturer of Morocco leather. Of his family of four sons and a daughter, Joseph, Jr., became the father of Samuel who, in turn, was the father of Captain John McMurtery of Kentucky. Samuel, married to a Miss Hutton, moved, first, to North Carolina and then to Rockbridge County, Virginia, where he died.

John McMurtrey was born in 1740 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It is known that he married his first cousin, Mary Hutton, daughter of James Hutton and his wife, Mary Todd, about the year 1761. However, the details of his private life are sketchy.

Military records in the Pannsylvania Archives show him to have been a private in Captain James Chambers’s Company of the First Pennsylvania Regiment in 1776. On July 1 of that year he was promoted to Corporal, and on October 1, 1779, he was raised to the rank of Ensign. However, he resigned on August 1, 1780.

Samuel McMurtrey is said to have secured for his son, John, a patent of land near Harrodsburg, now Shakertown, from the state of Virginia. Apparently it was about this time that John McMurtrey made the decision to move with his family to this property which is now located in Mercer County, Kentucky. Cumberland Gap, the passage through the Appalachian Mountains at the junction of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, had been discovered by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750, but it wasn’t until 1775 that Daniel Boone had blazed a trail through the pass. This Wilderness Road encouraged settlement of the new lands in the West, and thousands of pioneers made their way into Kentucky. John McMurtrey appears to have prospered in his new environment, and by 1782 he owned and was operating the first gristmill driven by waterpower in the state. Too, his military background proved to be an asset because a record of the first court held at Harrodsburg on August 1, 1876, details appointments made by the court and, along with a number of others, John McMurtrey was commissioned. He eventually attained the rank of Captain in the Militia.

It was on August 19, 1782, at the disastrous Battle of Blue Licks that Captain McMurtrey achieved his claim to fame. The Kentucky settlements were being threatened with destruction at the hands of the Indians. In August of 1782, after an Indian raid which was repulsed at Bryan’s Station in Fayette County, the settlers in the area attempted to follow the retreating Indians but were badly defeated. Captain McMurtrey was one of those captured, and Collins’s History of Kentucky gives a graphic description of his treatment:

of the seven prisoners four were killed by the Indians . . and the other three Jesse Yocum, Lewis Rose and Captain John McMurtrey, were packed to the extent of their strength with the spoils of the day . . .on the route they were several times compelled to run the gauntlet in Indian towns through which they passed. At one of them Captain McMurtrey was\ knocked down and fell senseless; the Indians jumped upon and stamped him, breaking several of his ribs. . .

At one point the prisoners were condemned to be burned at the stake when a providential thunderstorm broke and the superstitious Indians, believing this to be a sign from the Great Spirit, reconsidered, and their treatment of the prisoners thereafter improved. They were first taken to Montreal where they were turned over to the British who sent them to Mont du Lac Island. They were imprisoned there until July of 1783 when they were released, sent to Ticonderoga, and finally reached home on August 28.

Captain McMurtrey participated in several engagements in the following seven years. On October 22, 1790, while serving with a Kentucky cavalry unit attached to the First U.S. Regiment, he was killed while attempting to disperse hostile Indians at the Miami Towns, now the site of Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was probably buried in a trench along the Maumee River. He was survived by his wife, Mary, five sons, James, Alexander, William, John and Joseph and one daughter, Mary.

Captain John McMurtrey’s name heads the list of the honored dead of Kentucky engraved on the Battle Monument in the State cemetery at Frankfurt.

Collins, Lewis. History of Kentucky. Covington, Kentucky: Collins & Co.,1874, Vol. II.

Encyclopedia Americana. International Edition. New York: Americana Corporation, c 1971, Vol. 8.

Ferguson, Robert. Surnames as a science. New York: Heraldic Publishing Co., 1967.

McAdams, Mrs. Henry Kennett. Kentucky pioneer and court records… Lexington, Ky.: The Keystone Printery, 1929.

O’Byrne, Mrs. Roscoe C., comp. & ed. Roster of soldiers and patriots Of the American Revolution buried in Indiana. n.p., Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution, 1938.

Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society. Frankfort, Kentucky. 1906, Vol. 5.

Scott, Hattie Marshall: Hardin, Bayless, ed. Scott’s Papers. Kentucky Court and other records. Frankfort, Ky.: The Kentucky Historical Society. 1953.

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