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A Bloody Ohio River Episode

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 10:24 p.m.

Amid the final months of 1777, reports were reaching Fort Pitt that a substantial force of Loyalist army rangers and their Native American allies from western New York would be mounting an invasion of the region west of the Allegheny Mountains.

And other Indian raiders already had been undertaking comparable attacks from Ohio. Unfortunately, though, the available local militia lacked the necessary military supplies, notable gun powder.

Several Virginia expatriates, therefore, sought aid by writing to Gov. Patrick Henry in distant Williamsburg. To solve this problem the governor looked to Capt. David Rogers of Redstone Creek, a Monongahela River settlement. Some years earlier the two men had served together within the Virginia Colonial Assembly.

Initially, Henry was uncertain whether to intervene, since Virginia and Pennsylvania both claimed ownership over the region surrounding the forks of the Ohio River.

He knew that Pennsylvania partisans would be highly critical of his intervention. Nonetheless, he felt that it was vital to purchase a large store of gun powder from Spanish colonial officials within the Louisiana Territory. This was the closest available source for such a procurement in North America.

Many observers probably were surprised by Henry's choice of Rogers to lead the mission. A native of Henrico County, Rogers had emigrated to the “Monongahela Country” in 1768.

He had settled initially at Stewart's Crossing (Connellsville) upon the Youghiogheny River. He subsequently was Major William Crawford's partner in several trading ventures.

Throughout the next decade Rogers also purchased land tracts along both the Youghiogheny and Monongahela. By 1772, he had settled permanently upon a farm nearby to the confluence of the Monongahela and Redstone Creek. He apparently worked as a land agent for a prominent Virginia speculator, Colonel Adam Stephen.

Although he had once been a Virginia legislator, Rogers did not support the state's claim to the western region. On June 28, 1776, a large public meeting convened in Pittsburgh which was presided over by Rogers.

The sovereignty issue was discussed by the participants who voted to reject the claims of both Virginia and Pennsylvania. Instead, they proposed that the citizenry of the Upper Ohio Valley settlements should create a new state of Westsylvania.

Rogers also presided over a follow-up conclave at Becket's Fort (in Forward Township, Allegheny County) in early July. They dispatched two delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with a mass petition calling for Westsylvania to be created as “the 14th link in the American Chain.”

Not surprisingly, the both the Pennsylvania and Virginia congressional delegations effectively forestalled this statehood movement.

Rogers subsequently supported the case of “independency” during the American Revolutionary War. Henry apparently chose him largely upon the recommendation of Maj. Gen. Adam Stephen (Continental Army), who was in Williamsburg at the time. He probably pointed out that, Rogers already was familiar with the Ohio River, due to regular trading junkets.

By April 1778, Rogers was ready to commence his important mission. He had assembled a detachment of 40 men at William Crawford's plantation of New Haven Farm.

They rode northward to Pittsburgh, where two large flatboats were purchased. Among Roger's party was Basil Brown, a member of the family which founded the town of Brownsville.

The expedition departed Pittsburgh May 20. Within six weeks they had reached the Mississippi River, as well as Spanish territory.

At the river town of Natchez, he informed local officials about the reason for his visit. They confirmed that a sizeable amount of gunpowder was stored within a supply depot upriver in St. Louis. The military commandant, though, added that the necessary purchase documents had to be obtained in New Orleans. Accordingly, Rogers and six companions headed down river.

The return up the Ohio, with their valuable cargo, was uneventful until reaching the mouth of Licking Creek (Kentucky) upon the river's southern bank.

Because the northern shore in Ohio commonly was regarded as hostile “Indian Country,” the sojourners made camp upon the Kentucky side.

But the British and their Indian allies were well-aware of Roger's mission. Consequently, Native American spies had been monitoring their progress for many days. A large Anglo-Indian war party, therefore, decided to stage an ambush at Licking Creek.

About dawn, on Oct. 10, one of Rogers' entries spotted a small group of Shawnee warriors crossing over the Ohio River into Kentucky, evidently unaware of the Americans' presence. Rogers made the fateful decision to attack them, not realizing that they were decoys.

A formidable force was waiting in ambush within the surround forest. Among their commanders were two notorious Loyalists, Simon Girty and Mathew Elliott.

In any case, the attack caught the Americans completely by surprise. Only 13 of them ultimately survived the resulting massacre. One survivor later reported that the majority of the enemy were either Shawnee or Miami warriors.

By all accounts, Rogers received a fatal head wound early in the fight. Despite a diligent search made two months later his remains never were found.

Various observers surmised that the corpse had been devoured by wolves. His chief deputy, John Knotts managed to escape by dodging into the forest. Several weeks later he managed to reach the safety of Fort Pitt. Word of the massacre subsequently circulated throughout the region.

Although another survivor, Robert Benham, had escaped the carnage by scaling a tall tree, severe wounds in each leg precluded that he could walk away.

Upon shooting a raccoon, he heard someone approach through the rush. He was relieved to discover Basil Brown, who was shot in the right arm, as well as he left shoulder. With both arms useless, he kicked the dead “critter” toward an open fire.

Throughout the next two weeks, Brown successfully drove similarly small game toward Benham, waiting nearby with a loaded musket. The two men remained at that locale for more than a fortnight.

On several occasions they observed Native American hunters walking along the opposite shore. A passing flatboat finally rescued the pair and transported them down river to Fort Nelson (Louisville), Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the enemy had transported all of the gun powder to Fort Detroit. The two empty flatboats were found floating aimlessly in the Ohio. Oscar Brown eventually returned to his farm nearby to Redstone Creek.

Interestedly, Benham relocated to Kentucky after the war. He established a home nearby to the town of Newport. In essence, he resided approximately five miles from the massacre. He probably recalled the horrific episode every time when passing that spot.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The author holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.