Daniel Boone's Daring Rescue

THE OVERLOOK

By Tom Clavin

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          Being published this week is Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier. Reflecting the age and the young, eager country he lived in, Boone had a life full of adventure that resulted in him becoming one of the more famous figures in American history. Here is an excerpt from Blood and Treasure about one of Boone’s signature exploits – the daring rescue of three young girls.

          Daniel Boone heard the piercing shrieks and recognized them as only a parent could. He grabbed his rifle, burst from his cabin, and sprinted toward the Kentucky River without pausing to put on his moccasins. When he reached the south bank, the only clues were the two broken oars and the strip of torn calico belonging to his daughter’s Sabbath-day dress. He was too late to see the Indians carry off the 13-year-old Jemima and the two Callaway girls. But he knew what he had to do to get them back.

Boone, like every man, woman, and child living along the frontier in 18th Century America, was accustomed to the quotidian barbarity of life on the borderlands. Scalpings, mutilations, murdered infants; these were no less the tradeoffs for whites and Indians alike than a random wolf attack or bear mauling. At least a kidnapping offered the possibility of retrieving the abducted. Only weeks earlier the twin sons of Pennsylvania immigrants had been taken by Mingos but a few hundred yards from their cabin near Harrodsburg. The Shawnee chief Cornstalk had intervened, and the boys were turned over to an Indian Agent in Pittsburgh relatively unharmed. Boone did not intend to let it get that far this time.

***

          Sunday, July 14, 1776 had dawned hot and dry as chalk, but the morning’s heavy dew rendered the early hours bearable. Jemima Boone had spent most of the previous afternoon tending the family garden before cutting her instep on a broken cane stalk. Now, returning from religious services and still wearing her Sunday dress and bonnet, she invited her friends Betsy Callaway, 16, and Fanny Callaway, 14, to accompany her to the river where she might dip her wound into the cool waters.

On the south bank of the watercourse they untethered one of the settlement’s dugout canoes and clambered aboard. Neither Callaway girl voiced any concern; Jemima Boone was so at home on the water that her nickname was “Duck.” There was a tiny islet less than a half-mile downstream where wild onions grew, and Jemima hoped to grub some up to make a poultice for her injury while the sisters gathered wild grapes. They pushed off with the Betsy and Fanny manning the oars and Jemima handling the tiller while dragging her foot through the water.

          By this point, ten small American communities, or “stations,” had risen on or near the banks of the Kentucky River. These consisted of anywhere from a dozen to 40 or so cabins, a pointillist belt bookended by the two largest stockade communities – Boonesborough to the east and Harrodsburg to the west. Every child living along the river had been taught that the land to the north was hostile territory and to keep away. But the three girls had drifted less than 100 yards when the current began to draw their canoe toward the north bank.

The Callaway sisters struggled furiously with their paddles to break from the waterflow’s pull, but they were not strong enough. The slender canoe was a few feet from shore when five Indians, three Shawnee and two Cherokee, rose from a canebrake. One of them waded into the shallows, grabbed the buffalo tug rope attached to the bow, and began reeling in the little craft. As Jemima’s screams echoed through Boonesborough, Betsy and Fanny Callaway beat the Indian about the head and shoulders with their oars until the paddles broke.

          Once ashore, the Indians marched the girls north as the three did all they could to slow their progress. Their screaming had stopped – one of the Cherokees who spoke passing English threatened to scalp Betsy Callaway on the spot if it continued. But Jemima found so many opportunities to collapse and complain about the wound to her foot that one Indian made her remove her Sunday shoes, tossed her a pair of moccasins, and brandished his tomahawk until she stood and shuffled on.

When the captives pretended to struggle through the thick, thorny underbrush catching on their clothes, the Indians sliced off their dresses and petticoats at the knees. One noticed Betsy Callaway digging the heavy heels of her shoes into the soft forest undergrowth of clover and pea-vine. He lopped off the heels and thereafter the group kept to the harder ground along ridgelines. While climbing the ridges the girls feigned using the branches of saplings and tall bushes for purchase while making sure to break off as many as they could. And when no one was looking, Betsy Callaway managed to tear bits from her white linen handkerchief and surreptitiously toss them to the side of their path.

          It was coming on twilight and Jemima guessed that they had travelled some six miles when they stopped to rest. Fingering the pocketknife hidden on the folds of her dress, she told the English-speaking Cherokee, a minor war leader known to the Americans as Hanging Maw, that she recalled once seeing him outside her family’s cabin back on the Clinch. He had been talking to her father, Daniel Boone. At the name, Hanging Maw’s lips curled into a speculative half-smile. He asked if the others were her sisters. Sensing things would fare better for Betsy and Fanny if she lied, Jemima nodded yes.

          The Cherokee snorted a laugh. “Then we have done pretty well for old Boone this time,” he said.

***

          By now more than dozen armed men had joined Boone racing down the south bank of the river in pursuit of the empty canoe. These included a mounted troop led by Betsy and Fanny’s father, Richard Callaway. Callaway was naturally anxious to ride after his daughters, and after a 12-year-old boy plunged into the fast-flowing water and retrieved the craft, Callaway paused only long enough to inspect it for bloodstains. Finding none, he led his troop to a ford a mile or so downstream while Boone and five others swam the deep watercourse. These latter included Betsy Callaway’s fiancé Samuel Henderson, the 30-year-old nephew of Richard Henderson.

          By the time Boone and his companions picked up the Indians’ trail running up the steep bluff on the north side of the Kentucky, Callaway’s party was galloping hard toward them. There were perhaps 90 minutes of daylight remaining. Boone, still barefoot, his Sunday pantaloons dripping, cautioned Callaway that at the first hint of hoofbeats the Indians would surely kill the girls. Given the raider’s route, he suspected that they would keep to a northerly course and cross the Licking River near the spreading salt spring known as the Blue Licks. He ordered Callaway to lead his horsemen on a wide berth to the Licking and form a loose circle out ahead of the kidnappers. Boone and his party would pursue on foot and drive the Indians into Callaway’s net.

          Callaway bristled, visibly chuffed. He was used to giving orders, not receiving them. His resentment of Boone’s growing notoriety had only increased in the months since they’d reached Kentucky. He was also aware, as common gossip had it, that Boone was not even the father of the girl with his name who had gone missing. But he recognized that this was neither the place nor time for prolonged argument. He nodded his ascent. His revenge on Boone would wait.

Boone and his party silently disappeared into the forest afoot, at first following the deep imprints left by the heel of Betsy Callaway’s shoe and, later, the clumps of broken branches and snippets of handkerchief dropped as trail markers. They had made some five miles when it became too dark to continue. They camped that night with a company of nine Virginians they stumbled across erecting a cabin on staked land. Boone sent his best swimmer back to Boonesborough to retrieve extra powder and ball, his breechclout, and his moccasins. It is not recorded how well he slept that night.          

***

          The Indians slumbered in a loose circle around their captives. Each girl, kept out of reach from the others, was pinioned at the elbows with rawhide tugs, with the loose end of the makeshift ropes fastened to an Indian’s breechclout. Seated with their backs to a large hemlock, Jemima, Betsy, and Fanny spent the night straining to hear rescuers’ footfalls above the chirping of insects and the occasional hoot of an owl.

          They broke camp at dawn on Monday, with the Indians proffering small hunks of unsalted, smoked buffalo tongue that made the girls retch. The captives continued their ruse of breaking off small branches, twigs, and vines to guide any pursuers, but by this time the Indians had grown wise and positioned one of their party as a trailer to clean up any sign. Sometime around noon one of the Shawnees ran down an aging white nag that had likely strayed too far from a hunting camp. Thinking it would quicken their pace, they placed first Jemima and then Fanny and sometimes all three on the horse’s back. Though the girls were expert horsewomen, they feigned fright, and by surreptitiously pinching and jabbing their heels into the poor beast’s underbelly they managed to turn it into a bucking bronco from which they were thrown again and again. Vexed, the Indians abandoned the horse and doubled their wariness.

          The girls were quick to notice that anytime they came across a stream running north, the Indians would plunge into the middle and follow it for some distance. If it was too deep for their captives, they would throw them over their shoulders. Similarly, the abductors went out of their way to split up and snake through the thickest canebrakes in their path, often doubling back to break separate courses through the same obstruction. It may have slowed their escape, but if Daniel Boone was indeed dogging them, they would not make it easy for him.

          The Indians prodded the girls along at a hard pace, and after traveling close to 30 miles with only intermittent breaks the party stopped at dusk to camp on a fork of two tributaries flowing into the Licking. Here the suddenly talkative Hanging Maw told Jemima that they were heading for the Shawnee towns on the Scioto, still some 100 miles away. He boasted that he had been among a war party of Cherokees scouting an ambush around Boonesborough for a week or so when he and his two companions fell in with the Northern Indians just as they spotted the girls in the canoe. That night they again tied their captives with tugs in a sitting position, but this time allowed them to huddle together. Jemima and Fanny took turns laying down their heads and dozing on Betsy’s lap.

***

          Three of the cabin builders had joined Boone’s pursuit, bringing his party to eight. By early Monday morning they had tracked the Indians to their previous night’s encampment, but from there the trail went cold. More specifically, the several trails went cold. No longer were Betsy’s heel marks acting a beacon, and the bent and broken shrubbery seemed to be more scattered with no sign of the shredded handkerchief bits.

Boone deduced that the Indians were not only sporadically splitting up, but also deliberately laying false sign. All the paths, in any case, led in one general direction – almost due north toward the Licking and then into Indian country. Boone drew his little troop together and told them that instead of running in circles they would be better off plowing ahead toward the Ohio. On several occasions they re-crossed the Indian trail almost by accident. Stifling the few mild protests to follow it, Boone kept his company together at a steady jog.

***  

          By Tuesday midmorning the Indians felt confident enough in their distance from any pursuers to discharge a rifle, shooting and killing a buffalo calf. They sliced out the animal’s tongue, cut off a portion of its hump, and continued moving north to find a stream to gather water with which to boil the meat. As they butchered the beast, two of the Shawnee made grunting noises toward the girls. Hanging Maw translated their words as “Pretty squaws.”He then asked Jemima, described by a contemporary as “real handsome,” to remove the combs from her hair.She complied, and her long black tresses fell to her knees. Indians rarely raped their captives, and Jemima later told her family that she never once felt in danger of being sexually assaulted. This did not stop her from remembering the pocketknife in the folds of her dress.  

***

          At close to 10 o’clock Tuesday morning Boone’s troop again picked up the Indians’ trail on an old buffalo trace running parallel to the Warrior’s Path. This time they followed it, with Boone supposing that by now the raiders had let down their guard. He set a faster pace, and the group had made eight or nine miles when they came across the slaughtered buffalo, the blood still trickling from its severed hump. Boone guessed that the Indians would halt at the nearest water to cook their meal. About midday they reached the next stream, where the sign seemed to end. Boone, sensing that their quarry was near, used hand signals to divide his troop; half the men cautiously slipping downstream while he led the others up the far bank.

The pursuers were separated by no more than a few hundred yards when the northernmost point man was drawn to the smell of smoke and roasting buffalo. Peering down from a small knoll, he signaled to the others that the Indians were but some 30 yards below him. They had made camp in a secluded glen surrounded by thick canebrake. One brave was lounging supine near the captives huddled together on a fallen tree, another was gathering wood. The third was kindling the cookfire, while a fourth squatted beside him lighting his pipe. All were barefoot, their wet moccasins ringing the fire to dry. There was no sign of the fifth kidnapper – Hanging Maw, as it turned out – who had returned to the stream with his kettle to scoop more water.

          As the remaining seven rescuers belly-crawled toward the rise, Boone ostentatiously removed his finger from the trigger of his rifle as a silent warning that no one should shoot without his go-ahead. But before he and the others could reach the small ridge, the point-man he lifted his gun to his shoulder and fired. He missed.

The Indian camp was pandemonium in an instant. One of the Shawnees lunged at the girls with his war club. It narrowly missed Jemima’s head. As he drew it back a second time he fell, shot through the chest by either Boone or the long hunter at his side. Another Shawnee was hit and toppled backward into the flames, but somehow recovered and lurched into the thick brush. By now Boone’s entire party was descending on the camp shouting their terrible war cries. The two remaining Indians scattered into the bush.

***

          At the crack of the first rifle Jemima had leapt to her feet and cried, “That’s daddy!” The more composed Betsy Callaway, ducking the swinging war club, jerked her back close. Betsy wrapped her arms around both younger girls and pulled them backward off the log. When Boone reached the camp all three leapt to their feet, but he barked at them to get back down behind the dead tree. He needed to make certain that the three escaped foes or even the fourth Indian fetching water were not lurking in the wood with a primed rifle. He needn’t have worried. The Indians had left behind all their weapons and ammunition, including their knives, tomahawks, and war clubs. Their moccasins were still drying by the fire.

          Years later Jemima Boone told her granddaughter that when the finality of their rescue set in, all three girls collapsed in a weeping cluster. They were joined by Betsy’s fiancé Samuel Henderson and Boone himself, who sunk to his knees and bawled like an infant. Jemima had never before seen her father cry.

***    

          By some good fortune, on their trek home the party happened upon the aged white horse the Indians had captured and released. This time, with no pinching or pounding on its shanks, the animal proved gentler and provided much-needed respite for the exhausted Jemima and Fanny Callaway. Betsy Callaway, who had slept least during the ordeal, was carried home on Samuel Henderson’s back.

          When they reached the rise on the north bank of the Kentucky overlooking Boonesborough they were met by Col. Callaway and his mounted patrol. Callaway’s troop had made the Licking and, finding no Indian sign, doubled back along a buffalo trace. They had come upon the Indian camp in the glade only to find it empty except for the dead Shawnee. Callaway realized from the tracks leading south that the girls were safe, and he and his men followed Indian sign north for a short while – including a blood trail left by the wounded Shawnee who, as it turned out, was later reported to have died from the gunshot. But they had not been able to run down any of the abductors, and Callaway called off the pursuit.

His paternal reward came a month later, when Betsy Callaway and Samuel Henderson became the first couple to be officially married in the Kentucky territory.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including his latest collaboration with Bob Drury, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier,” published this week by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Amazon/bn.com to purchase a copy.