By Tom Clavin
“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it). Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!
If readers will indulge me one more time, I want to offer another excerpt from Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier. Something that Bob Drury and I have experienced during our presentations the last few weeks since the book’s publication is people being surprised that Daniel Boone was involved in the American Revolution. It has been a revelation that not only did he participate in the war against the British but that he played such a pivotal role. In particular, the siege of Boonesborough in Kentucky in 1778 was crucial to the American cause because if it had fallen, a large army of British troops and their Indian allies would have swept in from the west and forced Gen. George Washington into a two-front war – one he could not win. Warning, shameless plug ahead: Blood and Treasure would be an excellent Father’s Day gift!
After six days of fighting the tide began to turn incrementally in favor of the Boonesborough defenders. The previous night a brief but raging rain squall had so soaked the earth that the Indian tunnel collapsed. And though the Kentuckians were unaware of that development, they sensed that the enemy was beginning to flag under the lethal sting of the fort’s marksmen. Examples were myriad.
Some 100 yards above the stockade near the riverbank, for instance, two Indians had found cover behind a large, fallen Sycamore tree. Employing a patience unusual in the heat of a firefight, they had taken fine and special aim at the loopholes cut into the compound’s walls. They had done damage, killing one defender earlier that morning with a direct shot to the forehead – Boonesborough’s first fatality – and injuring a second when a near-miss sent shards of wood shrapnel into the rifleman’s face. (The fatality was a German-born settler named David Bundrin, who took eerie hours to die. Carried into a cabin and, at his insistence, placed on a rocking chair, Bundrin rocked back and forth until most of his brains had oozed from the bullet wound in his forehead onto the dirt floor.)
Moreover, their ingenuity was equal to their skills with a weapon. One had carried with him a life-like wooden mask, and when he thrust it above the log to draw fire, the other would shoot from the far end of the downed tree. This continued for some while – the Indians, decoy and shooter, shifting positions on each pull of the trigger – until someone behind the palisades caught on to the ruse. The next time the “false-face” was thrust aloft, one settler dutifully fired at it while another waited the split second for the second Indian to appear. When he did, he shot him dead.
Not long after, a warrior firing from behind a tree stump in the flats inadvertently exposed his knee. A rifleman promptly exploded it with a ball. When the wounded brave attempted to crawl off, a gut-shot stopped him where he lay. And when an Indian, thinking he was out of rifle range, was observed seated carelessly on a fence beside the staff that held the waving Union Jack, three long hunters overloaded their large-bore muskets with heavy charges, calculated a rough azimuth, and fired simultaneously. The unlucky fighter was blasted backward off the fence and moved no more.
Similarly, a Shawnee – recognizable from his bear-greased top knot – climbed to the fork of a tree atop the ridgeline on the opposite side of the Kentucky River some 260 yards from the fort. He proceeded to repeatedly arc musket balls over the walls. Given the distance and the dwindling gunpowder stores forcing the Indians to undercharge their muskets, his shots were more nuisance than mortal threat. What most riled the defenders, however, was the warrior’s habit of firing off a round and then turning and lifting his breechclout to waggle and pat his bare ass at the pioneers. Boone was summoned.
After surveying the situation from the fort’s rear parapet, Boone sent for a rifle of a slightly larger caliber than his own “widder maker.” He packed it with an extra charge of black powder, and loaded it with a one-ounce, .66-caliber ball, a bit heavier than usual. His shot was sublime and sent the Indian tumbling from his perch and 200 yards down into the river.
A moment later, as Boone scampered across the stockade’s open grounds, he was hit by a ball. His daughter Jemima helped him to his cabin, where as she tended his wound he could hear the chants from beyond the walls. “We killed Boone; We killed Boone.” As soon as his daughter had finished her bandaging he climbed back to the parapets. “I’m here ready for you yellow rascals!” he shouted.
Boone’s brother Squire, dragging himself from his sick bed, also taught the besiegers that it was unwise to gather in packs. When a large party of warriors were spotted conferring near the felled peach trees, the younger Boone unveiled the home-made wooden cannon he had constructed from the hollow trunk of a black gum tree. He angled the contraption’s steel-banded wooden barrel for an arcing shot, and loaded it with scores of spent balls retrieved from the compound’s grounds. The cannon’s barrel cracked into pieces when fired, but it’s only shot blew several Indians into the timber screen.
Having experienced the futility of their bold charges against the fort’s sturdy walls, the attackers at length resorted to long-range attempts to burn out the Kentuckians. Flaming arrows, some with small pouches of gunpowder attached to the shafts, fell on Boonesborough like orange rain. The brittle shingles that roofed the compound’s cabins were particularly vulnerable to spreading sparks, but Squire Boone had also anticipated this. Before the Indians had even arrived, he had unbreeched several old muskets from their locks and fitted them with hand-pumped pistons that, when attached to a water bucket, could splash out close to a quart of liquid with each “shot.” Moreover, the cabin roofs had purposely been constructed to slope inward from the stockade walls on an oblique angle, with the rows of shingles held in place by a single large pin at their apex. A rawhide tug was tied to the pin, and if the water guns could not douse a shingle fire, a woman inside a cabin would yank the tug, the pin would disengage, and the burning mass would fall harmlessly onto the dirt.
The settlers also faced a more insidious type of incendiary device when the Indians wrapped tufts of flax around thick strips of flammable hickory bark several feet in length and coated the contrivance with moistened gunpowder. These ur-hand grenades were then affixed to a stick which served as a throwing handle. They would light the flax fiber and, darting from behind the cover of trees or up from below the riverbank, lob the firebombs over the walls in hopes of sparking a flame. Most fell harmlessly onto the fort’s grounds; the rest were easily extinguished.
Finally, on the night of September 17, scores of warriors made a final rush toward the stockade wielding these blazing faggots. The deafening series of discharges that cut them down made the Kentuckians’ gun barrels so hot that their dampened wiping patches sizzled in the rifle bores. Though most of the attackers lay dead or dying before they could reach the walls, enough made it through that several cabins burst into flames. Water-bucket brigades were finally able to douse the fires, but not before a long-hunter returning to Boonesborough and watching the conflagration from a distant knoll hied off to Logan’s Station to report the fort fallen. He was mistaken.
The next morning, after eight days of fighting, birdsong was the only sound emanating from the heights and fields surrounding Boonesborough. The Indians were gone.
During the siege, the Boonesborough garrison suffered two men dead with another half-dozen wounded, including Boone, his brother, and his daughter. When Boone led a squad of riflemen through the front gate to inspect the battleground, the only corpse they found was Pompey’s. Superstition forbade an Indian from touching a dead black man, or “bearskin,” and the big-voiced translator’s remains had been left where he had fallen, splayed near the collapsed tunnel shaft. When Boone examined its mouth he found a plethora of 10-foot poles wrapped with scaly hickory bark held in place by tugs of dry flax. The Indian objective, he then understood, was to tunnel up to the walls of the stockade, pop up from the underground passageway, and jam the mega-torches between the logs of the fort’s walls. He thought it might have worked, particularly if some sort of gunpowder mines had been employed in tandem.
Following blood trails large and small – and discovering the bullet-riddled wooden mask behind the fallen sycamore – Boone estimated that between 35 and 40 of the enemy had been killed, with untold wounded. Most of the dead had likely been collected, weighted with rocks, and slipped into the Kentucky River. A fat flock of vultures circling the stony outcroppings on the far side of the river indicated that the rest may have been buried in the deep crevasses that laced the jagged ridges. The British and Canadians, he knew, would have carried off their slain, either back to Detroit or to be buried on the trail north.
Trudging back to the fort, the Kentuckians were astonished by the sheer firepower the enemy had let loose. One-hundred- and twenty-five-pounds of lead balls were retrieved, most from the ground beneath the gun loopholes. Boone also estimated that another 100 pounds of lead was embedded in the façade of the stockade facing the river.
Two days later Boone’s good friend Simon Kenton and his partner returned to Boonesborough atop stolen Shawnee ponies; not far behind them was a detachment of 100 or so mounted Virginia militia volunteers finally answering Boone’s and Callaway’s pleas for help. At Boone’s suggestion the Virginians rode for Logan’s Station to ensure that no war parties circled back to attack the smaller blockhouse.
Across the ensuing days scattered reports from Harrodsburg and Logan’s Station brought news of small Indian raiding parties, likely Cherokee traveling to their homelands in the south, stealing cattle and sniping at lone settlers and hunters along the way. But, for now, the pivotal moment for both Kentucky and, in a sense, the American Revolution had passed.
Had Blackfish’s host managed to destroy Boonesborough, there was little doubt they would have similarly overrun Harrodsburg and Logan’s Station. Emboldened by the fall of the rebellion’s western front, the British leader Henry Hamilton would have faced little opposition to raising a combined Redcoat-Native American army to flank the coastal revolutionaries from the rear, forcing Washington’s Continental Army to defend two fronts. Gen. Cornwallis was already planning to open a southern theater and it is easy to imagine he and Hamilton crushing the southern states in a vise. Moreover, how far the psychological blow would have reverberated had the fabled Daniel Boone been killed or captured at Boonesborough is unknowable.
As it was, the threat was now over for the settlers of Kentucky and, perhaps, for the United States. Not so for Boone.
Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and theFight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.