Tragedy on the Ohio...in which Uncle Duke traces the path of his Ancestors


Most of my people came into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap. The rest, mostly on my mother’s side, came down the Ohio River from the North, from Fort Henry in the Colony of Virginia, which later became Wheeling, West Virginia. Both passages were perilous, but from my family’s history, at least what I know of it, the Ohio River side was the more treacherous of the two. Many of those who came by that route suffered greatly.

In the 17th and early 18th Centuries, all up and down the Ohio River, there were misfortunes and death and possible torture awaiting the unwary and the vigilant alike. This New World was changing rapidly, and both the Native population and the interlopers from Europe and elsewhere were determined and ruthless and often cruel. Life was tenuous, and some days, altogether cheap. And there were none who were considered non-combatants.

I endeavor here to relate a story that I heard often growing up. It is a story that concerns some of my ancestors, those who, in their eagerness to obtain a new and unencumbered life, as well as ‘free’ land which was farmable, forged their way into new and contested territories. It is a story of trials and tribulations and things worse than that. It is a story that we cannot much today fathom.

This particular story begins in the Spring of 1791, on the Youghiogheny River, upstream from Pittsburgh. A Capt. William Hubbell, a Kentuckian on his way back to his frontier home in Frankfort in the territory called Kentucky, procured a flat-bottomed boat and embarked on a journey down river to the outpost of Limestone, which later became Maysville, Kentucky. The original company consisted of Capt. Hubbell, Mr. Daniel Light, and a Mr. Plascut and his wife and eight children.

Several days later, now on the Ohio River and somewhere above the mouth of the Little Kanawha River, the boat stopped and took aboard a Mr. Stoner and his wife, Mr. Ray, a Mr. Tucker, and an Irishman and a Dutchman (whose names were not recollected). Additionally, they picked up Frank Kilpatrick and his two daughters, Isabelle and Mary, aged respectively 10 and 12. There were now 22 passengers on the boat—nine men, three women and ten children. Also aboard were five horses.

Allow me to fill in some details on Mr. Kilpatrick for reasons which will become pertinent later. He had been born in Ireland in about 1760, came to America as a young man and settled for a time in the East, probably Maryland. We know nothing of his wife. Not her name, not her people, not her origin. We make an assumption that she was married, bore two children and subsequently buried-all in Maryland.

Additionally, we know nothing of Frank’s plan, how he came to be in those then-hostile lands or where he was going with his young daughters. Or for that matter what he intended to do when he got there. We only know that he boarded that flatboat with those two little girls and all their earthly belongings and headed off into the wilderness that was the land surrounding the Ohio River.

We know now, by the way, that the story I was told way back then and tell now is true. The accounts and details of this perilous adventure are verified in Collin’s History of Kentucky and also in The Western Review. The story was afterwards republished by a Dr. Metcalf in his Narratives of Indian Warfare in the West. It is plainly the report of one of the survivors. Some of this story and the accounts of that day will now be drawn from that article. The rest from memory.

“The Indians were yet troublesome, especially on the banks of the Ohio. Information received at Galliopolis confirmed the expectation, which appearances had previously raised, of a serious conflict with a large body of Indians. And every possible preparation was made for a formidable and successful resistance of the anticipated attack.

“At about sunset of that day, our party overtook a fleet of six boats descending the river in company, and we intended to have continued with them. But as their passengers seemed to be more disposed to dancing than fighting; and as, soon after dark, notwithstanding the remonstrances of Capt. Hubbell, they commenced fiddling and drinking, instead of preparing their arms and taking the necessary rest preparatory to battle, it was wisely considered by Capt. Hubble and his company far more hazardous to have such companions than to proceed alone. Hence it was determined to press rapidly forward by aid of the oars and to leave those thoughtless fellow travelers behind.”

There was however one boat of the five, commanded by a Capt. Greathouse, that chose to accompany Capt. Hubble’s boat. And for a while they kept up. But all its crew eventually ceased rowing and fell asleep. Thus, the boat which carried Frank Kilpatrick and his daughters proceeded steadily forward alone.

“Early in the night, a canoe was dimly seen floating down the river, in which were probably Indians reconnoitering. And other evident indications were observed in the neighborhood and hostile intentions of a formidable War Party.

“The arms on board, consisting principally of old muskets much out of order, were collected, put in the best possible condition for service and loaded. The nine men were divided into three watches for the night, which were alternately to continue awake, and be on the lookout for two hours at a time.

“It was now agreed that should the attack, as was probable, be deferred till morning, everyman should be up before the dawn, in order to make as great a show as possible of numbers and of strength; and that, whenever the action should take place, the women and children should lie down on the cabin floor, and be protected as well as they could by the trunks and other baggage, which might be placed around them. In this perilous situation they continued during the night.”

It was the 24th day of March, 1791 and just as daylight began to appear in the East, three canoes were seen rapidly advancing through the morning mist.

“The Captain and his companions took their positions and prepared to receive them. The chairs, tables and other encumbrances were thrown into the river in order to clear the deck for action. All were ordered to not fire till the attackers had approached so near that (to use the words of Capt. Hubbell) ‘the flash from the guns might singe their eyebrows’.

“On the arrival of the canoes, they were found to contain about twenty-five or thirty Indians each. As soon as they had approached within the reach of musket shot, a general fire was given from one of the canoes, which wounded Mr. Tucker through the hip so severely that his leg hung by the flesh, and shot Mr. Light just below his ribs.

“The three canoes placed themselves at the bow, stern and port side of the boat, so that they had an opportunity of raking us in every direction. The return fire now commenced from our boat and had a powerful effect in checking the confidence and fury of the Indians. A very regular and constant fire was now kept up on both sides.

“The Captain, after firing his own gun, took up that of one of the wounded men, raised it to his shoulder and was about to discharge it when a ball passed through his right arm, and for a moment disabled him. But as he observed the Indians in one of the canoes just about to board the boat in the bow, he caught up a pair of horsemen’s pistols and rushed to repel the attack. So near had they approached that some of them had actually seized with their hands the side of the boat. He discharged both of the pistols with effect, and with a yell the attackers fell back.”

At this point the Native canoes temporarily discontinued the contest and directed their course to Capt. Greathouse’s boat which had now come in sight. Instead of responding to the attack, the passengers of that boat “retired to their cabins in dismay”. The marauding party boarded it without opposition and immediately rowed it to shore. There, they instantly killed the captain and a lad of about fourteen years of age. “The women they placed in the center of their canoes, and manning them with fresh hands again pursued Capt. Hubbell’s boat.

“There were now but four men left on board our boat capable of defending it. Nevertheless the second attack was resisted with almost incredible firmness and vigor. Whenever the Indians would rise to fire, the defenders would take the first shot, generally with great success.

“During this incredible exposure to fire, which continued about twenty minutes, Mr. Kilpatrick observed a particular Indian whom he deemed a favorable mark for his rifle. As he rose to fire, Frank immediately received a ball in his mouth, which passed out at the back of his head. He was also, almost at the same instant, shot through the heart. He fell down among the horses that were at about the same time likewise shot down. And thus was presented to his afflicted daughters, who witnessed this awful occurrence, a spectacle of horror which we need not further attempt to describe.”

At this point the boat was suddenly and providentially carried out to the middle of the river and taken by the current beyond the reach of enemy balls, and the enemy did not pursue them. Throughout that day, the boat floated down river, and by the grace of its persistent and powerful flow landed in Limestone at about midnight that night of the 24th.

And thus ended this awful conflict in which, out of nine men, only two escaped unhurt. Tucker and Kilpatrick were killed on the spot. Storer was mortally wounded and died on his arrival in Limestone, and all the rest, excepting Ray and Plascut, were severely wounded. None of the women and children were wounded. Four of the five horses died in the barrage of bullets.

Likewise, the bodies of Capt. Whitehouse and all his passengers were later found on the shore near the spot at which their boat had been over-taken and boarded. Suffice it to say that their deaths had been violent and unpleasant.

I tell this story because most all stories, good and bad, happy and sad, should be told and retold. All History is important, and there is something to know in all of it. I tell this story because tales of terror and courage are valuable to all of us. Because the terrorist and the courageous switch roles indiscriminately in turbulent times—often from day to day.

I tell this particular story because Frank Kilpatrick, who died that day in 1791, was my 4th Great-grandfather. His daughters, Jane and Isabelle, were taken off the boat by some settlers and soon enough witnessed the burial of their father. Helpless as they were, they were then taken in by a fine family led by a man named Richard Applegate who raised them to womanhood not far from Maysville, Kentucky. Thereafter, Isabelle married James Stephenson. They had two daughters, one of whom (Louisa) married Owen Kendall, from whom I received my middle name, Kendall.

I tell this story because all of our bloodlines back through time are soaked with the sorrows and the suffering of our Ancestors. Our DNA is saturated with the ordeals and encoded horrors of our predecessors. I tell this story because trauma, regardless of who we are, is somewhere in our lineage.

So I tell this story out of respect for the toughness and the endurance of our Ancestors. To bring their hardy natures and their resilience into the 21st Century for our review. Without all of that, there would be no Story.