Historical Society of Southwest Virginia


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By Luther F. Addington


The Harmans' battle with Indians on the headwaters of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River was a well-known story told around firesides in the pioneer days of settlers on Virginia's last frontier. It found its way into the stories told by Bickley of Tazewell County, Virginia, and into the stories of Connelley. (1)

However, dates and some events were confused by both of these writers, who might have checked reports made by frontier military men to the governor of Virginia.

Both these writers confused the names of Mathias Harman, the elder, with Mathias Harman, the younger, in their relationship with Indians. Perhaps this was because there was a tendency when in doubt to give the elder Mathias Harman credit for adventures really made by the younger Mathias.

The older Mathias, who settled in the upper Clinch Valley with his brothers, Henry and George, perhaps around 1772, proved such a fearless Indian fighter that the Indians called him "The little devil with the big nose." For short they simply said, "Old Skygusty." (2)

In the account of the Tug River fight with Indians, Bickley and Connelley gave credit to Old Skygusty when in reality it was Mathias, the younger, a nephew of Old Skygusty, son of Henry Harman, who was involved. (3)

Bickley dates the skirmish as having taken place 1784; Connelley dates it as having happened merely a few days before the attack on the Thomas Wiley home, when Jenny Wiley, wife of Thomas, was carried into captivity, and stated the Harman battle invited the Indians to an attempt to get revenge on Old Skygusty by attacking his home. But, as proved by the Virginia State Papers, the incident actually took place in the fall of 1788. A report from Lieutenant Walter Crockett to Governor Randolph of Virginia, dated February 16, 1789, stated that Henry Harman and his two sons had a skirmish with the Indians late in the fall and behaved like heroes. (4)

Therefore, the Harman fight at the head of Tug Fiver could not have come immediately before the capture of Jenny Wiley, October 1, 1789; however, there is evidence that the Indians thought Old Skygusty was the leader of the Harman hunting party and that they had killed him in the fight, but nonetheless many months later they made a foray on the upper Clinch Valley settlement with
intention of attacking and destroying Old Skygusty's family, but through error attacked the home of Thomas Wiley instead.

But, as to the incidents in the Harman fight on Tug River, virtually all accounts agree. (5) And that story may be summarized as follows:
Henry Harman, a brother of "Skygusty" Mathias Harman, and his two sons, George and Mathias, together with George Draper, went from Clinch Valley over onto the headwaters of Tug River to hunt that autumn of 1778; they were going particularly for bear and consequently they took along pack horses in addition to their mounts.

They thought it was so late in the season that the Indians would not likely be on the prowl, although they were to hunt in the woods traversed by a well-known Indian trail leading from the Ohio River to the Clinch River settlements.

Upon arriving at the hunting ground late in the afternoon, Henry Harman ordered the party to stop and pitch camp. In the matter of camp building Henry was skilled, and consequently he began building one to suit his own taste.

While Henry worked making camp, George and Mathias took their guns and went out, hoping to kill a deer for their supper. Meanwhile, George Draper was assigned the job of hobbling and caring for the horses.

In a very short time George Harman returned and said he had run upon an Indian encampment. The campsite was deserted; but a fire was still burning, which meant that the Indians were close about, perhaps also hunting.

Henry said, "And they may not be hunting just now. It could be that they are out there somewhere watching us."

George Harman exhibited a pair of leggings which he had found at the Indian campfire. Henry took them and looked them over. He queried his son further and came to the conclusion that the party of savages must number seven or more.

We'd better pack up and hurry back to the settlement," Henry said. "They may be headed that way to attack some family. Maybe we can prevent it and save lives. Yes, we'll start back, although we'll have to travel into the night. Could be, too, we'll run into them and have to put up a fight."

George Harman went into the woods and called Mathias, who, hearing his voice, came to the caller and returned to camp with him. Each man checked his gun and saw that it was ready for action. Meanwhile Henry Harman noticed that Draper who had what was known among hunters as "Buck Ague" was in a state of agitation because of the excitement. Then, Henry said, "Young man, I fear you can't fight."
"I don't feel up to a fight," Draper said. "Well, we'd better start," Henry said. "I'll lead the way. Draper, follow me." They mounted their horses and started out, the pack horses following. Mathias and George rode behind.

They had gone but a little way when Draper said, "Henry, I can see better than you. Let me ride in front, and I'll keep a sharp watch out."
So, Draper was allowed to take the lead. They had gone but a short distance when Draper probably trying to be jocular, said, "I see 'em! I see' em!" Henry made an investigation and found no Indians. "It's no time to tell lies or make jokes," Henry said.
The men rode on, peering to right and left, listening the best they could above the steady clop of the horses' hoofs.
Again Draper, halting his horse, called a warning. "There they are! They're just ahead. Behind a big log!"

The whole party halted. The men listened and tried to look ahead. They neither heard nor saw anything. A big dog which they had with them ran ahead to the log, reared up on it, but did not bark. This convinced Henry that no Indians were out there. But, Henry and his sons dismounted and ventured a little way toward the log. They still saw nothing.

Henry remarked to Draper, "Son, a man who'll joke once, or lie once, will do the same again. I tell you it's no time for either."
This time Draper was neither lying nor joking for in a moment a burst of flames came from the vicinity of the log. Draper, who was still mounted, dug his heels to his mount's flanks and made the animal dash on by the log.

Henry was still in front of the packhorses and his two sons. The Indians rushed upon him, now letting arrows fly. One thunked into his chest. He fell back to where his sons were. The horses nickered and showed signs of stampeding.

The Indians soon drew nearer the three Harmans, carrying tomahawks, knives and bows, as well as guns. Henry could see that there were seven of them. "Mathias," Henry called, "hold your fire. Me and George will shoot." So, Henry and George fired. They soon saw they had hit two of the attackers but failed to bring them down.

George Harman was lame as a result of having had "white swelling" in his childhood. He limped, and the Indians evidently observed it. His gun was now empty, as the Indians knew, so they rushed him with raised tomahawks.

Seeing the danger, George swung his gun barrel in order to defend himself against the attack. He succeeded in getting in a counting blow, bringing the nearest Indian to his knees. But he was down for only a moment; he leaped forward, half bent, at George. George swung the gun barrel again and brought the attacker to his knees once more.

George then fumbled for his hunting knife. He couldn't get it from its sheath, but he did get hold of a knife which the Indian was carrying and whammed it deep into the attacker's side. Mathias, who managed to get hold of a tomahawk, pounded the same savage with it and finished him.

While this fight was going on the rest of the Indians were shooting arrows into Henry's chest. They kept maneuvering him, hoping, it seemed, to get a clear shot at his left breast. Meantime Henry was trying to load his gun again. He had the job almost done when an arrow point struck his elbow near the joint. It hit a vein or an artery and blood spurted. Then, presently another arrow flew and struck him again in the chest.

The gun loaded, he raised the muzzle, aimed at an Indian and pulled the trigger; but the gun failed to fire. He found that blood from his arm had got into the frizzin pan and wet the powder.

But the mere raising of the gun, which the Indians knew had just been loaded, caused them to retreat to a place where others stood with empty guns. Mathias, whom Henry had told to reserve his fire, now asked if he might shoot.
"Yes," Henry said. "Quick, too.

Mathias singled out an Indian who appeared to be dressed as a chief, standing at a beech tree. He fired and the Indian fell away from the tree, throwing his tomahawk into the air.

Now, two Indians lay dead. Seeing that they were perhaps defeated or believing they could not win, the others started running up the hill.

After they had gone, Henry fell upon the ground, exhausted, and fainted from the loss of blood. Mathias and George got water from a brook nearby, washed his wounds an bound his arm to stop the flow of blood. Soon he rallied, sat up and said, "Boys, we've whipped 'em. Give me my pipe."

One of the sons got his pipe, filled and lighted it; and he began to smoke. As soon as he felt able to mount a horse, the three Harmans reloaded their guns and started on their way.

A little way out they found that Draper had ridden his horse off the trail, dismounted and hid behind a log. But, knowing he must not stay behind, he mounted his horse again and continued on with the Harmans.

(1) Connelley, Harman's Station;
(2) Scalf, Henry P., Floyd County, Kentucky, Sesquicentennial, p. 18;
(3) Harman History, p. 244;
(4) Virginia State Papers, Vol. 4, p. 564;
(5) Floyd County, Op. Cit. P. 17.
SOURCES: Bickley; Virginia State Papers; Scalf, Henry
P., Floyd County, Kentucky and Connelley, Harman's Statio





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