During the American Revolution, pioneers from western Pennsylvania southward fought two wars simultaneously. Besides supplying troops to the Continental forces, they fought off Indian attacks as fierce as any by Redcoats in the East. Their grim defense prevented Indian incursions into the interior of the former colonies even as war-weary backcountry riflemen finally witnessed the surrender of the army of Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 17, 1781. But the American victory at Yorktown was no deterrent to the Shawnees, Miamis, Mingos, Wyandots, Ottawas and other hostile tribes in the West. With arms and incitement from the British in Canada, the Indians fought on without letup.
Meanwhile, Americans in the East halted even the scant assistance they had been sending west. With no resources but their own, the new Westerners were left to confront a highly mobile, skilled and dedicated enemy. For 13 years after Yorktown their obscure war dragged on. In thinly settled Kentucky alone, estimates of settlers killed or captured between 1782 and 1790 range up to 1,500. Meanwhile, perhaps an equal number of migrants were slain while boating down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Kentucky. So bloody, in fact, was the first year after Yorktown that the frontier people called 1782 ‘the Year of Sorrow.’
Especially sorrowful for them was the battle fought at the Blue Licks in northeastern Kentucky. The drama enacted there on August 19, 1782, unfolded like a Greek tragedy. In the predawn hours of August 16, 1782, 300 warriors–Shawnees and a few Wyandots–arrived at Bryan’s Station, a stockaded settlement on the Elkhorn River, six miles north of the recently established settlement of Lexington, Ky. They were nominally under the command of British officers William Caldwell, Matthew Elliott and Alexander McKee. The three were tough American woodsmen who had been secret Tories before officially entering the king’s service. All three, moreover, were well respected by Britain’s Indian allies.
Another American Tory and woodsman, the magnetic Simon Girty, was the de facto leader of this Indian force. Girty was accompanied on this expedition by his youngest brother, George. Simon, George and the middle Girty brother, James, were great friends of the Indians. In fact, they were very nearly Indians themselves, having been captured on the Pennsylvania frontier while teenagers and raised by the Senecas, Delawares and Shawnees, respectively. Freed after several years of captivity, the Girtys intimately knew the ways of both races, but finally chose the Indian ways. Early in the Revolutionary War, they defected from American service, resumed their former life among the tribes and became leaders of war parties attacking the Western pioneer settlements. Simon in particular had won a name for himself among the Indians for his skill as a tactician. On more than one occasion he is said to have aided white captives, but his role in leading bloody scalping expeditions assured that, like his brothers, he was universally hated by the settlers.
At Bryan’s Station, Simon Girty intended to surprise the garrison. When the men left the stockade to perform their daily chores, the warriors would catch them unawares. Fortunately for the men at Bryan’s Station, they had no intention of leaving the stockade that morning. A day earlier they had learned that Hoy’s Station, south of them, was under attack, and they were busy inside the stockade with preparations to ride to the aid of Hoy’s. Unknown to the settlers, Girty had arranged the attack on Hoy’s as a diversion to draw off strength from Bryan’s, his main target. Had he arrived at Bryan’s a few hours later, his plan might have worked, for the bulk of its defenders might already have departed, and he could easily have overwhelmed the weakened garrison. August 16 was not Girty’s day, but a better one was fast approaching.
In a second turn of luck, the settlers spotted the Indians beforehand without their knowledge. As a result, couriers from Bryan’s Station galloped at once to fetch reinforcements from nearby stockades. Seeing them ride off, Girty suspected their purpose. Uncertain where they were riding, he acted on the hope that the Indians still would have the advantage of surprise. Accordingly, he kept his warriors under cover and let the horsemen pass. Meanwhile, the garrison stationed concealed riflemen on the walls. If the Indians mounted an assault, the surprise would be on them.
The station’s Achilles’ heel was its spring, located outside the stockade. Now lurking Indians controlled the access to water, and without water in parched August, the settlers had no hope of withstanding a siege. After a parley, the leaders at Bryan’s reluctantly approached the women of the station with a grave proposal. Within minutes the women determined to stake their lives on a desperately risky ruse. Without delay, they gathered within the stockade and said a brief prayer. Then, as they did every morning, by twos and threes they strolled outside the fence, carrying their pails to the spring, then filled them with water and sauntered back into the stockade. Behind a bluff of chattering insouciance the women hid their dread. As they had hoped and prayed, the Indians held their fire and continued to wait for the men to emerge. The women had brought Bryan’s Station a fighting chance to survive.
A short time later, Girty’s patience wore thin, and he ordered an assault–but true to type, he employed a cunning ruse. At his signal, a few loudly whooping warriors designated as decoys raced toward one wall of the stockade. Meanwhile, he held his main force under cover but deployed to assault the opposite wall. When the decoys fled at the first sound of gunfire from the wall, the militiamen–dubbed ‘Long Knives’ by the Indians–sallied to pursue them. Girty assumed that his plan was working and that the entire garrison was chasing the decoys. Now he threw his main force against the presumably undefended opposite wall. But the seasoned Long Knives had been wise to his ruse and had stealthily moved some 30 riflemen to the wall facing the main attack. When the massed braves charged blindly into range, the Long Knives poured rifle balls into them. As the stunned warriors turned tail, the women of Bryan’s Station passed loaded rifles to the sharpshooters, then reloaded the empties and handed them back. Until the braves passed beyond range, the militiamen continued to mow them down.
A quick tally told Girty that the stockade’s defense numbered 44 riflemen. Hours later, 16 pioneer reinforcements galloped into Bryan’s through a hail of Indian musket balls. Now 60 rifles guarded the stockade. Girty was disappointed but not nonplussed. Again he resorted to craft. From a safe distance, he yelled to the garrison that artillery would reach him that night, after which he would smash the palisades. Surrender now and live, or die later was his offer to the garrison. No artillery was actually en route, yet Girty’s threat seemed real enough to the beleaguered settlers. The defenders bitterly remembered how British cannons had smashed the walls of nearby Ruddle’s Station two years earlier. Yet they also recalled how the Indian allies of the British had massacred the settlers as soon as they had laid down their arms on the promise that their lives would be spared. That stark truth gave the lie to Girty’s promise to spare the garrison at Bryan’s.
After a nervous silence, a young militiaman, Aaron Reynolds, took it upon himself to call Girty’s bluff. With a volley of fluent profanity, Reynolds declared that the garrison would fight.
Bryan’s Station was proving tougher than Girty had reckoned. Could still more reinforcements be approaching? A change of plans seemed in order. Girty directed the warriors to destroy the crops around the stockade, burn outlying buildings and slaughter the livestock. That done, he led the warriors slowly off to the northeast.
The next day, substantial reinforcements reached Bryan’s. Their commanding officers were Colonel Stephen Trigg and Major Hugh McGary, both of Harrodsburg, at the head of the Lincoln County militia, together with Colonel John Todd of Lexington and Lt. Col. Daniel Boone, leading Long Knives from Fayette County.
The 50 men immediately under Boone came from around Boonesborough and from Boone’s Station, near the frontier legend’s homestead on Marble Creek. Suggesting the clanlike makeup of units common in frontier armies, Boone’s command included three nephews, three cousins and Israel, his 23-year-old son. Israel happened to be sick when the men mustered to ride to Bryan’s, and a family tradition has it that young Boone dragged himself from bed and accompanied the army only after his father had sternly reminded him of his duty.
Word had come that Colonel Benjamin Logan was en route from Logan’s Station (present-day Standford, Ky.) with 400 more Long Knives. Even in Logan’s absence, upon finding the enemy gone, Todd and the other officers began laying a plan of pursuit. During their conference, Major McGary suggested that they remain at Bryan’s until Logan came up. McGary was known to be unstable and hotheaded, but he was an intrepid Indian fighter. Cautious advice from him may have struck Colonel Todd as being out of character. In any case, Todd called McGary’s suggestion ‘timid’ and proposed that the force set out at once, lest the Indian raiders escape. It was not the militia’s habit to permit raiders to escape unharried, Todd reminded the officers. The reinforcements on hand, together with men from Bryan’s, rode in pursuit. In all, they numbered fewer than 200. No one seems to have noticed that Todd’s mild rebuke had stuck in McGary’s craw, and as the pursuit advanced, the major’s mercurial temper continued to rise.
When retreating, the Indians usually broke up into small parties and took measures to hide their trails. Yet this group was traveling together and leaving a clear trail. They were, however, trying to conceal their numbers by walking in each other’s footprints–indications that should have alarmed seasoned Indian fighters. As it happened, only Boone caught on. He warned the rest of the group that they were being lured into a trap. Boone, who was then 48, had earned a reputation as a keen woodsman and an uncannily accurate forecaster of Indian intentions. Unfortunately, this was one of those unaccountable times when experience and good sense–even the instinct for self-preservation–counted for naught in the heat of the moment. In any case, Boone’s warning was disregarded by his comrades.
As the march progressed, the trail grew fresher. Early on August 19, two days after they had set out, the militiamen approached the salt deposits in northeastern Kentucky known as the Upper Blue Licks, in present-day Robertson County, some 48 miles northeast of Lexington (via U.S. 68). On a hilltop a half-mile beyond a ford over the Licking River, the pioneers spotted two warriors lounging in the open. The officers dismounted and conferred. Some concluded that the braves were stragglers lagging in the wake of the fleeing warriors, but Boone thought they were decoys. He was closely acquainted with the tangled landscape and knew danger lay ahead. The crest of the hill was, he warned, cut by gullies large enough to conceal the host of braves that was no doubt lurking there. The pursuers would do well to wait for Logan, he advised. Failing that, he added, they should at least send half their force upriver and take the Indians in a pincers movement.
Colonel Todd agreed with Boone. So did some of the junior officers, but not Major McGary, who truculently called Boone’s courage into question. While Boone was angrily protesting, ‘I guess I can go as far in an Indian fight as any man,’ McGary remounted, brandished his rifle and spurred his horse into the water. ‘Them that ain’t cowards follow me,’ he yelled, ‘and I’ll show where the yellow dogs are!’
In a regular army McGary would immediately have been placed under arrest. But the Long Knives were irregulars, militiamen typically short on discipline and long on impulse and dash. This, together with the high worth the militia set on their reputation for valor, may explain why McGary’s challenge overpowered the irregulars’ good sense. First the men at large, then the officers–including Boone–fell in behind the insubordinate major.
On the far bank the officers succeeded in forming the men into columns under Trigg, Todd and Boone. Then, except for a few officers who remained mounted, they left their horses at the river and pressed quickly up the hill on foot. The moment McGary and a score of Harrodsburg men in the van reached the crest, the ‘yellow dogs’ sprang the trap. Braves concealed behind rocks and trees on both flanks and in their front raised the war cry and opened fire. Of the entire van, only three men escaped the sudden fusillade.
By then, the three columns following had separated and lost sight of each other. The left-hand column was Boone’s. As he pushed forward, a brave leapt from cover to get a clear shot a him. Boone snapped off a round, and the warrior fell. At this point, Boone later recounted, he experienced a surge of confidence. The feeling was only momentary. Just then Hugh McGary galloped up, having been left miraculously untouched by the volleys that had cut down the van. He brought a stunning report: The columns under Todd and Trigg had been routed. They were racing back toward the ford and their horses.
Boone looked back and saw that warriors had moved into the militiamen’s rear to seize the mounts and cut off escape. They already lined the riverbank. In a frantic effort to break through to safety, the thinned units of Trigg and Todd crashed into them. As he watched the melee–a desperate contest between tomahawk-wielding Indians and militiamen swinging clubbed rifles–Boone realized that the battle was hopelessly lost. Forty men were already down, and more were falling.
Without the initiative of militiaman Benjamin Netherland, still more Long Knives would have died. Even in defeat, Netherland stood his ground. After fighting through the braves and crossing the Licking River, he could have continued his flight. Instead, he organized a dozen or so riflemen who had likewise reached the south bank. Their determined defense felled enough warriors to break up the huggermugger on the opposite shore and enable some of their companions to cross to safety.
Netherland’s timely show of fortitude mitigated the disaster, but at that juncture nothing could have reversed it. By now, warriors were heavily pressing Boone’s own column, and men all around him were beginning to fall. The prudent thing was to get them out of harm’s way. He sent them into dense woods to the left, with orders to recross the Licking downstream, beyond range of the warriors’ muskets. To cover their escape, Boone stayed behind, with Israel beside him. Daniel ordered his son to run for it, but out of love, Israel disobeyed. ‘Father, I won’t leave you,’ he insisted. A moment later, a musket ball caught him in the neck. He groaned and fell, then started convulsing, blood gushing from his mouth. Daniel stooped over him and watched the light fade from his eyes. He must have recalled that his son was at the Blue Licks only at his insistence. Later, Boone would call Israel’s death the hardest blow he ever felt.
Too busy for remorse, Daniel Boone followed his unit leftward into the woods and cautiously made his way back to the river. Once safely across, he rejoined his men–what was left of them. As it happened, the Indians, after scalping the dead (together with the wounded and prisoners, whom they then finished off by slow degrees), grew sated with blood and triumph, and made no effort to run down the survivors. All the same, the surviving officers led a helter-skelter retreat back south. On the march they met Logan’s force advancing toward them and reported their bad news. Logan pushed on as far as the Licking River. By now the Indians had cleared out, and his pursuit fizzled there. He feared a second ambush at the Blue Licks.
Among the Long Knives who reached home was young Squire Boone, son of Daniel’s brother Samuel. Squire, who had been shot in the hip and would be permanently lame, was luckier than his brother Thomas, who lay dead at the Blue Licks. Among the other dead were Colonels Todd and Trigg, together with 14 fellow officers. Death might have redeemed, or partly redeemed, Major McGary. But he came out of the Blue Licks unscathed and unchastened and would live to perpetrate still more mischief. Although a mighty Indian fighter, he was the bane of the Long Knives. Chiefly through his rash attempt to counter earlier charges of timidity, 77 men had died at the Blue Licks. In all, August 19, 1782, was the bloodiest day the militiamen ever endured. Indian casualties, on the other hand, were light.
Through a long war punctuated with grim sieges and lightning punitive expeditions, the Long Knives were sustained by their courage, audacity and individual initiative. They also had plenty of faults, including vainglory, rashness and impatience with prudent restraint. As an early historian put it, they were ‘fool-brave.’ At the Blue Licks the fool in them clearly got the upper hand and led them into folly.
For the tiny communities represented in the expedition, the loss of 77 men was a calamity. At the stations and in remote, scattered cabins there was bitter grief. Five days after the disaster Boone returned with a burial party. The group chased off glutting buzzards and interred the torn, scalped, bloated, blackened, stinking bodies in a mass grave. A monument was later erected to commemorate those who died.
Of all the places that figured in Boone’s lifelong wanderings, the Blue Licks was surely filled with the most poignant memories. In peaceful times, he had often hunted there. In 1774, during an interlude on his perilous mission to warn the Kentucky surveyors of the onset of Lord Dunmore’s war with the Shawnees, it was at the Licks that Boone had laughed at the antics of his fellow ranger Michael Stoner as Stoner tried to evade an enraged buffalo. Two years later, Boone had returned to the Blue Licks as a rescuer and had taken his daughter Jemima and the Callaway sisters from their Indian captors.
After that, it must surely have seemed to Boone that the Blue Licks had turned against him. In early 1778, the Licks witnessed his capture by the Shawnees, together with the capture of 26 fellow Long Knives. After his escape, while Boone and his brother Edward were returning from a hunt there in October 1780, Indians killed Edward. Now the site would forever hold Israel and Thomas Boone.
For Boone and the new Kentuckians fighting to hold onto their settlements, the Blue Licks had became a place of abiding painful and dark memories. During the 38 years that remained to him, mention of the fight at Blue Licks brought tears to Daniel Boone’s eyes.
As for Simon Girty, he alone of the Girty brothers eventually returned to civilized life, though he remained infamous. Like Boone, he has lent his name to numerous locations around the region, mostly for some form of treachery or violence. Near the Ohio River at Short Creek, there is a ridge known as Girty’s Point, from which he often launched scalping raids. The path there, first traveled by Indians centuries ago, is still used by the locals, most of whom are unaware they tread in the footsteps of villains and patriots, players in the saga of dark and bloody ground that was once Kentucky.
This article was written by James Graves and originally published in Military History Magazine in August 2002. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!