In the summer of 1780, Captain Henry Bird crossed the Ohio River with some 800 Native Americans from various British-allied tribes and two companies of soldiers from Detroit (roughly 50 Canadians and Tories and a mixed group of regulars from the 8th and 47th regiments) to invade Kentucky. More importantly, he brought two pieces of artillery, a three pounder and a six pounder. It was one of the largest and most substantial attacks into Kentucky during the American Revolution.
Bird’s goal was the Falls of the Ohio (today’s Louisville), which was critical to the American war effort on the frontier due to its critical position on the Ohio River. Bird rendezvoused with the great bulk of the Native Americans at the confluence of the Great Miami and Ohio Rivers, (west of today’s Cincinnati) to discover that they had other plans. Attacking fortified areas was less appealing than raiding small settlements and isolated farms, where the Indians might secure booty and terrorize the locals into abandoning Kentucky. Constituting the vast majority of the army, the Native Americans won out.
Following rivers and inland trails, Bird’s army reached Ruddell’s Fort on June 24 (near Cynthiana, KY, northeast of Lexington). The fort wasn’t really a fort, but a collection of buildings arranged in a parallelogram, their entrances opening toward the middle and their rear walls connected by a palisaded wall. Families would gather there in times of trouble. So, when Bird’s force arrived, he largely faced a fortified village populated by some 250 women and children and 50 armed men. While such a “fort” might provide a place of refuge against a typical raid, it could not withstand an artillery siege. Bird’s guns made all the difference and Ruddell’s Fort surrendered that day. The terms were simple enough; settlers would surrender to, and be protected by, the British while the Native Americans would plunder and loot their property, including slaves. Unfortunately, the Indians had apparently not be included in the negotiations. When the gates opened, they rushed in to claim prizes, which included those people surrendering. Several were killed; families were torn apart; and, settlers were claimed as property before the British could act. A few miles away, Martin’s Station, where roughly 150 people lived, surrendered for the same reasons on June 26. Bird, however, took extra precautions to prevent the same kind of pell-mell Indian killings and seizures of settlers and largely succeeded in taking the residents under his control.
Burdened by roughly 400 prisoners, Bird and his Native American allies decided to retreat. He would control those taken at Martin’s Station; his allies those from Ruddell’s Fort. Detroit was a long way away. The march back was a nightmare of privation, terror, and death, whether from illness or murder. By the time Martin’s Station fell, the British were already on short rations and had little to spare. Native Americans likely had less and were often inclined to kill those prisoners who became burdens. Those who straggled into Detroit at the beginning of August were in sad shape. While Bird delivered the bulk of his charge, several dozen held by the Indians died or disappeared along the way.
Russell Mahan has tracked down likely every scrap of paper in existence to tell this story. His book, The Kentucky Kidnappings and Death March: The Revolutionary War at Ruddell’s Fort and Martin’s Station, is an excellent microhistory of the entire episode. He follows the story through the eyes of the Mahan family, building on the genealogical work of other family members. He does not offer a family history, however. Rather, the family’s story provides a rough framework around which to explore the frontier war in greater detail.
One of the challenges in writing frontier history is the scarcity of source material. The number of people involved in events was modest and a fair number were likely illiterate. Contemporaneous records are usually limited to correspondence and reports. In this case, Mahan benefits from accounts by Bird and some of those British officials accompanying him as well as occasional letters and reports written by the prisoners years later. Other first-hand accounts come from pension applications, but they were not often made until decades after the war. Oral traditions and family stories, which may have been written down at some point, exist, but often “evolve” over time and retelling, becoming less reliable with each generation. Third person histories were written in the first half of the 19th century, often by people who had first- or second-hand access to participants, but suffer from a variety of biases. Mahan sorts through all of it, identifying shortfalls, contradictions, and uncertainties before offering a reasoned judgment about the most likely course of events based on the varying degrees of his source material’s reliability. Kentucky Kidnappings aptly incorporates both British and American perspectives. What’s missing is a Native American viewpoint. That’s no failure on Mahan’s part. Many Native American perspectives were completely lost; those that survive were often recorded by whites and suffer from the recorder’s biases, which could be religious, political, cultural, racial, economic, and/or all of the above.
The war in the trans-Appalachian frontier could not decide the matter of independence for the thirteen colonies. But, it heavily influenced the future of the new United States by defining the new nation’s borders after the war. The Kentucky Kidnappings and Death March makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of how those American settlers experienced the American Revolution.