Faithful, rugged, and bold, the character of Simon Kenton is rarely equaled among the pioneers of the Ohio valley. He was by birth a Virginian, born in 1755, the long-remembered year of Braddock's defeat. He was reared an ignorant farm boy. The doors of a school-house were never opened to him, and labor early marked him for her child. Beneath the rough youth's exterior throbbed a warm and affectionate heart.
In the neighborhood of Kenton's home lived a young lady, whose spirited manners, personal charms, and coquettish arts had fascinated many a less susceptible young man than Kenton. The maiden of the frontier, like others of her sex in gentler situations, is full of stratagems. This belle of the border pretended to be interested in Kenton, who was but sixteen years old, and in another young fellow, named Leitchman, some years Kenton's senior. All her ingenuity was exerted to bring about a conflict between these two suitors. She succeeded. Kenton sent a challenge to his rival. He repaired to the appointed spot alone, and was surprised to find Leitchman accompanied by a number of his friends, who at once assailed him with a volley of insults. Kenton, burning with jealousy and wrath, stripped himself of all but his pants and prepared to fight. The combat had proceeded but a few moments when Kenton's superior skill became manifest. Seeing their friend about to be punished severely, Leitchman's companions jumped upon Kenton and pounded, beat, and kicked him until he was nearly dead.
Kenton recovered from his injuries, but not from the insult. In the following spring he went over to Leitchman's house, and announced that he was ready to fight it out. In the combat which followed, Leitchman, more wary than before, succeeded in throwing Kenton to the ground, and at once sprang on him with malignant fury. Kenton lay still, enduring this severe punishment till his eye caught sight of a bush growing near by. He at once conceived a terrible revenge. He managed to lure his rival, who had remarkably long hair, to the spot where the bush grew. Watching his opportunity, he made a sudden and violent effort, sprang to his feet, pushed his foe into the bush, and quickly wrapped his hair around its thick, tangled branches. Leitchman gave an unearthly roar of pain.
In that moment the long-suppressed rage burst forth from Kenton's heart. He took revenge terrible and complete for all his injuries, and leaving Leitchman for dead, he cast a last glance at his gasping foe, and then fled. Fled, he knew not whither, but any place to escape the pursuers with which his imagination peopled the woods through which he sped. Day and night passed, and he paused not.
In time he reached a region where the settlers were talking about the wonderful country of Kantuckee. In their stories it was an earthly paradise, an Eden in the wilderness. He fell in with two explorers, Yager and Strader. Yager had been a captive among the Indians, and claimed to have visited this El Dorado of the west. Fired by his glowing descriptions, his two companions resolved to join him in his search for this wonderful region, where fruits blushed unseen on the branches of trees which the hand of man had never planted; where fields of golden grain sprang spontaneously from the fertile soil and ripened untended beneath the summer sun; where the forests were stocked with supplies of rare and noble game, exhaustless and unequaled.
A boat was built, provisions gathered, and the trio of excited adventurers commenced their journey down the Ohio. Days went by, but the Land of Promise did not appear. For weary weeks they journeyed, but Yager, whose memory of the beauty and luxuriance of the region was so vivid, was unable to locate it. Worn out with searching for a country which was a myth, they turned their attention to hunting and trapping on the great Kanawha. This profitable occupation they followed for two years, exchanging their furs at Fort Pitt for such things as they needed.
One evening in March, 1773, they were lying around their camp-fire in the forest, when a dozen shots were fired at them from the darkness. Strader was shot dead. Kenton and Yager took to flight, leaving behind them guns, ammunition, and all the accumulation of the two year's work. For five days they wondered through the woods, tortured with hunger and benumbed with cold. At sunset on the last day, to their great joy, they fell in with another party of traders.
Kenton soon obtained another rifle, and again began his forest life. He took part in Dunmore's war in 1774, acting as scout. In 1775 he determined to join a party of explorers and again search for the country which Yager had described. By careful exploration of the country for miles on either side of the Ohio, they at length reached a region which indeed afforded some basis for Yager's tales. In the neighborhood of what is now Maysville, Kentucky, the soil was found to be of wonderful fertility, far exceeding any thing in the Ohio valley, a reputation which bears to this day. Here too, the eyes of the hunters brightened at the sight of vast herds of buffalo. Elk of rare size, were found in great numbers. The explorers were beside themselves. On the site of what is now Washington, Mason County, Kentucky, they cleared an acre of ground, and planted it with Indian corn. Here, in comfortable cabins, they made their home. Such fortune in hunting as they had surpassed their wildest dreams.
One day Kenton, while roaming along the banks of the Licking River, heard moans from the direction of some bushes. Curious and alarmed, the trapper made his way with caution to the spot. He was astonished to find two white men lying on the ground, almost destitute of clothing and emaciated by starvation. The hunter hurriedly prepared them some food, and then started to conduct them to his cabin. The journey proved too much for the exhausted men, and a camp had to be pitched in the woods.
The unfortunate strangers related their story. Some time previous they had been descending the Ohio, when their boat capsized. All their supplies were lost. They saved their lives by swimming. But the hardships of the wilderness, finding them without food, cover, or arms, "o'ercame them quite." They had given up all hope when found by Kenton. The hunter informed them of his station, and invited them to join him and his companions there. One of the men accepted the invitation, but the other declared his intention to abandon the forest life forever.
Leaving Hendricks in the camp at the Blue Licks, without a gun, but well equipped with provisions, Kenton and his two companions, who had been with him on the hunt, courteously accompanied Fitzpatrick, who was eager to commence his homeward journey, as far as the "Point," by which name the site of Maysville was known. Bidding him farewell, they retraced their steps to the camp to rejoin Hendricks. To their great concern it was found deserted. The tent was thrown down and its contents scattered about. A number of bullets were found lodged in the neighboring trees. At a little distance was a ravine. A cloud of thick, white smoke, as if from a newly kindled fire, hovered over it.
That Hendricks had been captured by Indians was plain. That they themselves were in danger was no less so, and a hasty retreat was at once began. There were halted at a distance of a few miles by some stinging rebukes from Kenton, who declared that common humanity demanded that an effort be made to save Hendricks. Caution compelled them to wait till nightfall. Under Kenton's lead they then made their way back to the camp. The fire was still dimly glowing. No Indians were near.
As the men proceeded to reconnoiter the locality, one of them kicked a round object on the ground. It rolled nearer the fire. He stooped to pick it up. He saw what the object was. It was Hendricks's skull! The poor fellow had been roasted and eaten. Sadly enough Kenton and his companions made their way to the cabin at Washington. Not for several months did they behold the face of a human being. One lazy September day, Kenton was startled to discover a man at some distance. The stranger came nearer. His complexion was white. He informed Kenton that there were other white men in Kentucky besides himself and his companions. Daniel Boone had already founded a settlement in the interior. Tired of solitude, Kenton and his companions broke up the settlement at Washington, and repaired to Boonsborough.
In 1778 Kenton met with a remarkable adventure. He was with an expedition led by Daniel Boone against an Indian town on Paint Creek. While scouting some distance ahead of the main force, he was startled by a loud laugh. To conceal himself in a thicket was the work of a moment. Two large Indians mounted on one small pony rode along the path, laughing and joking in high glee. Kenton fired at short range, killing not only the first, Indian, through whose body the ball passed, but wounding the second.
The scout sprang forward to scalp the wounded Indian, when a noise from a thicket attracted his attention. He turned to find two guns aimed at him by a couple of stalwart savages. Kenton jumped to one side just in time to miss the deadly balls. Without delay he sought the best shelter the place offered. Before his gun was reloaded a dozen Indians were on a dead run toward him. The result would in all probability have been fatal to Kenton, had not Boone's party, alarmed by the sight of the riderless pony, which galloped toward them when relieved of its riders, hurried to the rescue. Several Indians fell dead at the first fire.
Knowing that his approach was now discovered at the Indian town, Boone resolved an instant retreat. He and a friend named Montgomery left the party, and proceeded alone to a neighborhood of the village. All day they lay in ambush in a corn-field, hoping that some Indian would come out to gather roasting ears. Disappointed in this expectation, they entered the town after night, captured four good horses, made a rapid night ride to the Ohio, which they swam in safety, and on the second day reached Logan's Fort with their booty.
No sooner was the restless Kenton through with this adventure than he set out on a scout with Montgomery and a young man named Clark to an Indian town on the Little Maumee River, against which an expedition was contemplated by the whites. Under cover of night a thorough investigation of the place and the number of its warriors was made. Having accomplished this, the scouts might have returned in safety. But the temptation to steal some horses, was too strong to be resisted. In their greed they determined to take every horse in the village. Unfortunately they had attempted too much, and were discovered. The scouts saw their peril and rode for their lives, but were unwilling to abandon a single horse. Two rode in front and led the horses, while the third plied his whip from behind.
They were checked in their furious career by a swamp, in an attempt to avoid which they occupied the whole night. On the morning of the second day they had reached the Ohio. The wind was high, the river rough, the crossing dangerous. Kenton resolved to swim the horses across, while his companions hurriedly framed a raft on which to transport their guns and baggage. Again and again Kenton forced the horses into the water, but as often the animals, frightened by the boisterous waves, turned about, and swam back to shore.
No time was to be lost. The Indians were in hot pursuit. Instead of abandoning the horses, which could not be made to cross the river, the trio still clung to their plunder and started down the banks of the Ohio. When the setting sun flung his red radiance over the stormy river, tipping the waves with crimson splendor, the horse-thieves encamped for the night. At dawn they awoke, rejoiced to find the river as placid as the blue morning sky which arched above them. But horses have memories, and the captive equines, mindful of their former experience, stubbornly refused to enter the water. Blows and curses were unavailing. For the white men but one course remained. Each mounted a horse, determined to ride to a point opposite Louisville, where they could obtain transportation.
It was too late. Scarcely had they ridden a hundred yards when the furious pursuers were heard in their rear. The fortunes of the scouts were widely different. Clark escaped. Montgomery was killed. Kenton was taken prisoner. Among the stolen horses was a wild colt, a vicious and powerful animal. Kenton was placed astride this animal, his hands tied behind him, and his feet bound together under the horse's belly. The animal was then turned loose without rein or bridle. A terrible cut from a whip caused it to dash furiously into the forest. On, on it went, its defenseless rider being scratched, bruised, and torn by the overhanging limbs of the trees.
Though blinded by the blood which flowed down his lacerated face, Kenton escaped without fatal injury. He was taken to the famous Indian town of Old Chillicothe. For amusement his guards beat his naked back and shoulders with hickory switches. Of all the borderers of the time no one was better known, more greatly feared, and so bitterly hated as Simon Kenton.
At his appearance the inhabitants of the town were beside themselves with rage. Their fury found no words adequate to give it utterance. Foaming at the mouth, they gave it vent in inarticulate and blood-curdling howls and curses. A stake was driven in the ground. To this the captive was tied, with his hands extended above him and fastened to the top of the stake. He was painted black. Instead of the torture fires being applied at once, the savages, choked with speechless rage, danced and howled around him until midnight, pelting him with stones, lacerating him with switches, and searing his body with red-hot irons.
The rare pleasure of the occasion was prolonged by his grim captors. In the morning he was ordered to run the gauntlet. At the beat of a drum he started down the line of warriors, armed with clubs, hoe handles, tomahawks, and butcher knives. Again and again he was felled to the ground by his ferocious assailants. When the race was over, and he lay bloody and unconscious in the corner of a cabin, a council was held in the village. The assembled warriors were unanimous in their opinion that such fun had not been enjoyed for many a year. They generously resolved to share the sport with the other villages. Kenton was accordingly dragged about from town to town. Once the poor man attempted to escape. The pursuit was instant and keen.
Kenton put forth all his powers. At every step he remembered that he was flying from the stake and the red-hot irons. But he was retaken and carried back--back to beatings and bruising, back to searing irons and the cruel gauntlet, back to the dreadful stake and the torturing flames.
He was taken to Wapputomica, where his execution was to end his sufferings. He arrived there just as Simon Girty, the notorious renegade, returned from an unsuccessful expedition. When the angry monster saw Kenton, he saluted him by knocking him down with his brutal fist. Too weak to rise, Kenton called to Girty for protection. For once in his life a prayer for mercy was not unheard by Girty. He paused. He scanned the emaciated stranger closely. He asked his name. As the word, "Kenton" was feebly murmured, Girty, with a start of surprise, seized the fallen man in his arms and lifted him to a couch. The savages looked on in wonder. Such a thing had never been known before. Bloodier than the bloodiest, crueler than the cruelest, had ever been Simon Girty, a savage born amid a civilization, an Indian who was the child of white parents.
The white chief sent forth a summons for a council. The dark audience assembled. On the rows of faces ranged round the room, rigid as if carved in ebony, not a trace of curiosity could be seen. But beneath every blanket beat a heart filled with fierce and cynical wonder. For some moments there was silence in the council hall.
Then Girty rose. He strode forward to the center of the room. He recounted the story of his own life; of how he had renounced the cause of the white man, and became an Indian of Indians; of his enormous services to the Wyandots, and of the rows of white men's scalps which decorated his cabin. He asked if he had ever been accused of mercy to the race from which he sprang. Yet, for this single time, he had a favor to ask. That favor was the life of a friend. That friend was Simon Kenton, the wretched captive lying there on that blanket. Many years before, said the orator, in rugged and convulsive eloquence, he and that captive had been brothers. They had slept under the same blanket. They had hunted through the same forests. They had dwelt in the same wigwam. For his own sake he asked that the life of the captive be spared.
Girty's influence was great. But the Wyandots regarded Kenton as their arch-enemy. The debate raged long and loud. At length the vote was taken. The captive was saved. Girty took Kenton to his own wigwam. For three weeks he remained there, recovering from his injuries.
At the end of twenty-one days a new war party returned. Many of their number had been slain. The families of the dead demanded vengeance. A cry rang through the village for the life of Kenton. A council was called. Speaker after speaker arose, and with vehement gesture and heavy emphases, argued that Kenton must be put to death. Girty again put forth all his powers to save his friend. But he was overwhelmed. The sentence of death was passed.
Kenton was bound and marched away to another village. An old Indian was sitting by the roadside. As he caught sight of Kenton a spasm of passionate hate convulsed his sullen features. He sprang forward, and with a blow from his tomahawk cut open Kenton's shoulder, breaking the bone, and almost severing the arm from the body. In this condition he was driven on to Sandusky, arriving there in the evening. Arrangements were at once made to burn him alive on the following morning.
By strange coincidence a British Indian agent was in the town. Learning of Kenton's arrival, he at once demanded the captive, in order that the commandant at Detroit might obtain from him information of the enemy. The Indians consented to give him up only on condition that he be returned to them. That condition was never kept. He remained at Detroit, under mild restraint, from October, 1777, to June, 1778, In the latter month he resolved to escape, taking into his confidence two young Kentuckians, captives like himself. By great adroitness Kenton managed to get possession of three guns and some ammunition. After a journey of thirty days through a wilderness infested by Indian war parties, the three refugees arrived at Louisville.
"Thus," says a writer, "terminated one of the most remarkable series of adventure in the whole realm of western history. Kenton was eight times exposed to the gauntlet, and three times tied to the stake for execution. For three weeks he vibrated between life and death. Yet, amid the changes of fickle fortune, he remained perfectly passive. No wisdom, foresight, or exertion could have saved him. Fortune, and fortune alone, fought his battle from first to last."
For many years, Kenton continued to be one of the most formidable Indian fighters of the valley. Through the details of his eventful career we may not follow him. One incident is worth mentioning. While at Detroit, an English officer observing his fondness for smoking, and the difficulty of lighting his pipe, presented him with a fine burning glass or lens, by which the tobacco could easily be kindled from the rays of the sun. Two or three years afterward Kenton was again taken prisoner. He was bound hand and foot, preparatory to an immediate execution. As his last request to his captors, he asked the privilege of smoking his pipe. He placed the long, wooden stem in his mouth. The chief handed him the customary flint, steel, and tinder for lighting the tobacco.
With a gesture of indifference, Kenton refused the implements, to the great astonishment of the savage. Extending his hand toward the midday sun, cleverly grasping the burning-glass, he adroitly focused the rays in the pipe bowl and was quickly puffing clouds of smoke from his lips. The Indians were dumbfounded. Not having noticed the glass, they supposed he had lighted his pipe by letting the sunlight pass through the circle formed by his thumb and forefinger. Awe-stricken and amazed, they grouped together at a little distance, with mutterings and grunts of wonder.
In a little while, Kenton refilled his pipe, and repeated the trick, accompanying it with three or four cries, mysterious and startling to the Indians. No one understood better than Kenton the superstition of their minds. Seizing his advantage, he made a sweeping gesture, clasping his hands above his head, and transferring the glass to his left hand. In a moment he had kindled some dry leaves at his side into a flame.
Struggling to his feet, tied though they were, and giving a terrific leap, such as Kenton alone could make, he brought himself to the pile of fagots which had been gathered for his torture. In a moment a flame blazed up around the stake as if the victim were already fastened to it. Kenton the beckoned the chief to unbind his ankles. The mystified Indian durst not disobey such a man. While fumbling at the thongs, Kenton raised his burning-glass, and in a moment raised a blister on the red man's wrist. He jerked his hand away with a howl of pain only to feel a spot of fire on his head. This was too much. The chief and his companions hurriedly got behind the nearest trees. Kenton then unbound his own ankles. Waving his arms towards the sun, he withdrew the stopple from a powder-horn, dropped by the Indians, focused the sunbeams upon the powder within, and shook his fist at his foes. In an instant the powder-horn exploded with a flash and roar. Not only had the powder-horn disappeared. The Indians left at the same instant. Kenton was free.
The later career of Kenton is a strange illustration of the reverses in the fortunes of men. When the Indian wars were over, the brave and generous Kenton found himself without an occupation. The lands which he had bought were lost to him through technical flaws in the title. He had braved the tomahawk, the gauntlet, and the stake in vain. The people who now came in to occupy and possess the fair region, to redeem which from the savages he had devoted the best years of his life, found no use for the old scout. His very body was taken for debt. He was imprisoned for a year on the very spot where he had built the first cabin, planted the first corn, and fought the savages in a hundred fierce encounters.
Beggared by losses and law-suits, he moved to Ohio about the beginning of this century. He was elected brigadier-general of the State militia, and was a soldier of the war of 1812. In 1810 he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, and ever after lived a consistent Christian life. After the was of 1812 he returned to his lonely cabin in the woods, near Urbana, Ohio. In 1820 he moved to Mad River, in sight of the old Indian town of Wappatomica, where he had once been tied to the stake. Even here he was pursued by judgements and executions from the courts of Kentucky. He still had some large tracts of mountain lands in Kentucky which were forfeited for taxes. He tried boring for salt in Kentucky on them, but failed. His last resource was an appeal to the Kentucky Legislature to release the forfeiture.
"So," says McClung, "in 1824, when about seventy years old, he mounted his sorry old horse, and, in his tattered garments, commenced his weary pilgrimage. The second night he stopped at the house of James Galloway, of Xenia, Ohio, an old friend and pioneer.
"Kenton at last reached Frankfort, now become a thrifty and flourishing city. Here he was utterly unknown. All his old friends had departed. His dilapidated appearance and the sorry condition of his horse and its wretched equipment only provoked mirth. The grizzled old pioneer was like Rip Van Winkle appearing after his long sleep. He wandered up and down the streets, 'the observed of all observers.' The very boys followed him. At length, the scarred old warrior was recognized by General Fletcher, an old companion-in-arms. He grasped him by the hand, led him to a tailor-shop, bought him a suit of clothes and hat, and, after he was dressed, took him to the State capitol.
"Here he was placed in the speaker's chair, and introduced to a crowded assembly of judges, citizens, and legislators, as the second pioneer of Kentucky. The simple-minded veteran used to say afterwards that 'it was the very proudest day of his life,' and ten years subsequently, his friend Hinde asserted, he was wearing the self-same hat and clothes. His lands were at once released, and shortly after, by the warm exertion of some of his friends, a pension from Congress of two hundred and fifty dollars was obtained, securing his old age from absolute want.
"Without any further marked notice, Kenton lived in his humble cabin until 1836, when, at the venerable old age of eighty-one, he breathed his last, surrounded by his family and neighbors, and supported by the consolations of the Gospel. He died in sight of the very spot where the savages, nearly sixty years previous, proposed to torture him to death.
"General Kenton was of fair complexion, six feet one inch in height. He stood and walked very erect, and, in the prime of life, weighed about a hundred and ninety pounds. He never was inclined to be corpulent, although of sufficient fullness to form a graceful person. He had a soft, tremulous voice, very pleasing to the hearer; auburn hair, and laughing gray eyes, which appeared to fascinate the beholder. He was a pleasant, good-humored, and obliging companion. When excited, or provoked to anger, which was seldom the case, the fiery glance of his eye would almost curdle the blood of those whom he came in contact. His wrath, when aroused, was a tornado. In his dealings he was perfectly honest. His confidence in man and his credulity were such, that the same man might cheat him twenty times--and, if he professed friendship, might still continue to cheat him."
Such was the man after whom was named the county of Kenton, Kentucky.
Retyped and reformatted by Ray and Kathy Leigh