Robert Benham

Robert Benham


Robert Benham was born in 1750 in Monmouth County, New Jersey, but his family had settled on the frontier in Washington County, Pennsylvania.

During the Revolutionary War, the British turned the Ohio Valley into a vicious war zone by enlisting every Indian tribe north of the Ohio to attack the pioneer communities of Kentucky, modern West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.  Fighting began at the future site of Newport in August of 1779 with troops under Colonel David Rogers.  Among these troops was Robert Benham.  They had secured a shipment of gunpowder and other military stores from the Spanish at St. Louis for transport by keelboat to Fort Pitt.  On reaching Louisville, Rogers acquired a reinforcement of thirty militia under Colonel John Campbell, the future county's namesake, that were guarding a cargo of flour for Fort Pitt.  The 65 men poled boats up the Ohio at a rate of 20 miles for each duty day of ten hours, and covered the distance from Louisville to modern Newport in about a week.

On October 4, several guards spied Indians crossing the Ohio above the mouth of the Licking.  Because the crews could only pole their keelboats upstream by hewing close to shore, they would be sitting ducks for these warriors if they proceeded further. Rogers ordered the boats beached on the Licking at Newport and led all but a few of his men to disperse the enemy before they could spring an ambush.  When Rogers reached present day Bellevue, however, his men came under fire from a force more than twice their size led by Simon Girty.  About 40 of his men died in the initial hail of bullets and hand to hand combat that began; a dozen were captured, including Campbell and Rogers.

Of the 13 troops who lived through the massacre and escaped being taken, one was Robert Benham, who had tumbled into a sand crevice hidden by brush immediately after a bullet had shattered his hip.  He grimaced silently while Girty's Indians hacked his fallen comrades to death and took their scalps.  Benham stayed in his pit until the Indians left and lay there in pain over a day until he heard a human whistle.  The whistle belonged to Private Basil Brown, a Maryland native, who had taken one bullet in his right arm and another in his left shoulder, but had managed to hide in the woods.  Benham whistled back to Brown, who stumbled awkwardly over the corpses of his former friends until he located the disabled officer. 

Over the next three weeks, they stayed alive by pooling their available limbs.  Benham could not move his legs, and Brown's arms were useless.  Benham clutched Brown's leg and hung on as the private tugged him out of his hole and toward a papaw tree.  After Benham had made a bark rope from the tree, Brown dragged him a mile and a half to the Licking River's mouth, where they stood the best chance of intercepting military convoys.  Brown kicked wood to Benham who kindled it into a fire.  He also obtained drinking water by gripping a hat brim in his teeth and dipping it into the Ohio.  After finding an abandoned musket, Brown would chase turkeys into range for Benham to shoot.  They subsisted on the edge of starvation at the present site of Newport's James Taylor Park for 19 days until they flagged a passing boat which took them to Louisville.

After this Benham became a contractor supplying military garrisons in the West and accompanied troops on the Army's ill-fated campaigns against Little Turtle in 1789 and 1791.  Benham owned two enslaved black men and decided to relocate his family from Ft. Washington in Cincinnati to Kentucky.  Even though slavery enjoyed no legal protections in the Northwest Territory, he felt nervous about taking them into Ohio.  The captain's arrival marked the start of the African-American community in 1791.

Benham bought two inlots and two outlots.  He built his home next to the lots of Hubbard and James Taylor, on the south side of Second Street, between Central-then Cabot Avenue and Isabella Street.  The Taylors considered Benham the sort of man whose stature would entice others to the town, for they allowed him to operate a ferry, which commenced runs to Cincinnati on February 13, 1792.  Benham repaid them by acting as the Taylors' local land agent after Hubbard returned home to Clark County, Kentucky.

When Campbell County was formed on December 17, 1794, Governor Shelby appointed Robert Benham as one of the justices of the peace and the first court session met June 1, 1795 at Wilmington, the county seat at the time.  He voted with the others to move the county court seat to Newport.

In 1796 he had a son, Joseph Shaler Benham born in Newport.

In 1798 his wife, Elisabeth is listed as the responsible property owner.  In 1799 Captain Robert and Elisabeth Benham moved to Cincinnati, when he won election to Ohio's territorial legislature.

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