Battle of Little Mountain, Kentucky, March 22, 1782

Battle of Little Mountain, Kentucky,
March 22, 1782

By Ted Franklin Belue

After Daniel Boone led a party of woodcutters through the Cumberland Gap and blazed the Wilderness Road in 1775, Kentucky's burgeoning population swelled. Nearly 20 log forts were built, and as the trees were girdled and burned, and as the land was cleared for farming, the great herds - the buffalo, elk, and deer - abruptly diminished and then began to disap pear. The Indians north of the Ohio River, whose survival depended upon Kentucky's abundant game, were outraged.

The fact that Lord Cornwallis had surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781 had little impact in the northwest. The British held Canada, and even worse for the Americans, were secure in their fortress at Detroit. By keeping the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes Indian tribes well armed, clothed, and fed, it was not difficult to maintain Loyalist sympathies among the Indians. Nor was it hard to persuade the warriors - who saw their traditional way of life vanishing - to harass frontier settlements.

During the winter of 1781-1782, at the principal Shawnee town of Old Chillicothe (near present-day Xenia, Ohio), a Tory-incited Indian alliance was formed. Although the leaders were predominantly Shawnee, other tribes - the Wyandot, the British-allied Delaware, Mingo, Potawatomi, and even the eastern Cherokee - pledged themselves to the task of eradicating the white intruders.

Kentuckians called 1782 "The Year of Blood." Strode's, Estill's, Hoy's, and Bryan's stations were attacked. That August, 77 American frontier militiamen were killed by the British and their Indian allies at Blue Licks. George Rogers Clark and 1,050 men retaliated swiftly, and as a result, three Shawnee towns were destroyed and their crops burned.

For the numbers of men involved, the bloodiest skirmish, and probably the least known, occurred at Mount Sterling, Kentucky - Estill's Defeat, or the Battle of Little Mountain.

In March 1782, 25 British-armed Wyandots crossed the Ohio River and attacked Strode's Station, in present-day Clark County, Kentucky. In the siege that followed, two Americans were killed, one was wounded, and the livestock was destroyed. The beleaguered outpost was undermanned, as volunteers from Strode's had gone to buttress Boonesborough's defenses against an anticipated Indian attack that never came. The Wyandots terrorized the tiny outpost for 36 hours and then disappeared.

A raft on the Kentucky River drifted past Boonesborough several days later. The settlers were alarmed - the crude craft was an ominous sign that the "yellow boys," as eighteenth-century Kentuckians called Native Americans, were near. Word was relayed to Colonel Benjamin Logan at St. Asaph's - later called Logan's Fort - near present-day Stanford, Kentucky. Colonel Logan dispatched 15 men to Captain James Estill at Estill's Station (in Madison County) with orders to recruit more men and to reconnoiter the area.

James Estill (Indians called him the "Great Man") was a veteran of frontier warfare. When he was 28, Estill and his slave, Monk, and his brother, Samuel, settled at Boonesborough shortly after the famous siege of September 1778. In 1779, he was appointed captain of John Holder's militia company. The following year, he built Estill's Station (near Richmond, Kentucky). His right arm was shattered by an Indian's bullet during an ambuscade on Muddy Creek in 1781 - a fracture that would prove crucial during the fighting in 1782.

Logan's reinforcements soon reached Estill, and runners hastened to the surrounding outposts. Twenty-five men responded, and on Saturday, March 19, Captain Estill and 40 horse men rode out of Estill's Station. The frontiers-men headed for a shallow ford on the Kentucky River. Here, Estill suspected that they would find the enemy. Not even a token force remained to defend the log fort.

The Wyandots hid that night among some "log heaps" smoldering around Estill's Station. On Sunday morning, James Estill's slave, Monk, opened the palisade gate and left the fort in order to haul in firewood on his sled. The lurking warriors seized the Black man and questioned him, but Monk lied to the braves and convinced them that Estill's, which now housed only a few women and children, some slaves, and one wounded man, was too well garrisoned to be taken.

Meanwhile, a slave named Dick, and Jenny Gass, the 13-year-old daughter of Captain David Gass, an early settler of Boonesborough, went to the woods to tap some sugar maple trees. The Wyandots struck. Dick sprinted to safety, but Jenny was killed and scalped within 60 yards of the fort. A few wildly scattered shots were fired from the stockades as the Indians retreated to the brush piles. The warriors took Monk and left that afternoon, after they had killed all the cattle and sheep and stolen a pair of horses.

Two youths from the fort - Peter Hackett and Samuel South - sped to Captain Estill. Snow began falling, and the young men pushed on through the night. They found Estill and his scouts at dawn near present-day Irving, Kentucky. Five men rushed back to the defense of Estill's Station, and Hackett and South stayed with the search party. Some scouts spotted the trail of the Wyandots in the snow, and Estill's contingent rode on. They tracked the Indians the following day. When Estill and his 35 men stopped near Little Mountain that night - the site of present-day Mount Sterling, in Montgomery County, Kentucky - their foe was camped half a mile away. Neither was aware of the other's presence.

The warriors broke camp before daylight on March 22. Their campfire was still glowing in the predawn darkess when Estill and his band discovered it. The whites quickly prepared for battle. Ten horses, worn out from the grueling three-day chase, were left behind. Estill divided his unit into four single-file lines and rode for ward, his force now reduced to about 25 men.

The whites proceeded at full gallop. As day broke, they saw the main body of Wyandots fording a buffalo crossing on Little Mountain Creek. Captain Estill slowed his horse and fired. His shot was instantly followed by that of Ensign David Cook, whose one bullet killed two Indians sitting side by side. The Indians took cover in a thicket of cane. At Estill's command of "every man to his man and every man to his tree," the Kentuckians dismounted and scattered among the trees.

The battleground spread over several acres. Little Mountain Creek divided the two sides, and the range of the gunfire, within 40 yards, made the fighting fierce. The combatants were nearly equal in number, and as each singled out his man, the skirmish became a series of deadly individual sorties. The Wyandot's leader, mortally wounded in the first minutes of the attack, hid in some underbrush and exhorted his warriors, and over the din of rifle volleys, Monk cheered Estill on.

About one third of both forces were dead or wounded after the first hour. Then the Wyandots rallied. Because their war chief was bleeding to death, two other tribesmen prepared to lead the warriors back across Little Mountain Creek to outflank the whites and to force their retreat.

James Estill immediately grasped the intent of the Indians' strategy and divided his force into three roughly equal units: Estill's unit guarded the right wing, and Lieutenant William Miller's protected the left. An "Ensign" - possibly David Cook, John South, or _____ Forbes, first name unknown - defended the center. Although this was the usual frontier tactical response to Indian flanking maneuvers, later depositions reveal Estill was dissatisfied with his three-pronged defense. The Indians, determining that Estill had split his forces, moved in.

Monk escaped during the chaos and, after rejoining the whites, was dispatched to the left rear of the battle line to guard the horses. As the Wyandots started crossing the stream to gain the Kentuckian's left flank, Estill ordered Miller to ford the channel and counter-flank them. Lieutenant Miller and six or seven men began wading Little Mountain Creek, when a stray bullet hit the flintlock firing mechanism on Miller's gun and knocked the fling from the hammer's jaws. His gun useless, Miller panicked. He and his men fled without firing a shot.

Miller sprinted for his life-running pastJo seph and Reuben Proctor, both of whom tried to stop him and give him a replacement flint. As he raced past the horses, Monk urged him to stand and fight. But Miller ran on, shouting "it was foolhardy to stay and be shot down."

Possibly Miller, unable to communicate with Estill and not knowing his fate, and seeing that his own division could be cut off and slaughtered, did the best he could in the terrifying dilemma. But only two of the veterans of the bloody episode did not later condemn Miller's retreat. No one excused his actions. For 20 years after the Battle of Little Mountain, David Cook said he would kill him, given the chance. William Miller - who lived to be 95 years old - never attempted to vindicate himself. Nor did he ever return to Richmond, Kentucky.

The desertion by Miller and his men sealed Estill's fate. With Estill's wing defenseless, the main body of the Wyandots crossed Little Mountain Creek and attacked. Ensign David Cook took three men and rushed to hold the ground that Miller had quit; but the fighting grew so intense that they too had no choice but to retire. Cook fired, and as he ran to hide in the top of a fallen tree, he became tangled in its branches and was shot through the upper back. However, he later recovered.

The final stages of the two-hour battle did not last long, with about two thirds of Estill's forces being shot down and Estill himself wounded three times. Joseph Proctor reported to the captain that nearly half of his men were either dead or wounded. As the Kentuckians began a steady retreat, Adam Caperton, a close friend of James Estill's, was shot through the mouth and head. Caperton went mad, holding his bloody jaws together and running through the battlefield screaming.

Estill went to the aid of his friend, but an Indian brandishing a long-bladed knife pounced on him and the two men locked arm in arm. Proctor dared not risk a shot for fear of hitting his commander. It was an unequal match; Estill, weak from loss of blood, fought hard to keep his attacker at bay. The Wyandot stabbed at Estill's chest while the white man struggled to fend the knife off, when his right arm, barely mended from the fracture suffered a few seasons before, snapped, and the blade cut into Estill's heart. Instantly Proctor fired, and the Indian fell dead across Estill's corpse. They were the last men killed at the Battle of Little Mountain.

Their commanding officer dead, the remnants of Estill's band retreated. Seven men were left dead on the battlefield - a frontier acknowledgment of defeat. Four men - some accounts say six - were severely wounded. James Berry was shot through the upper thigh and would have died were it not for Monk, who carried him 25 miles on his back to the nearest white settlement. The others returned to their stations the best way they could.

The warriors did not mutilate the bodies of their slain foes and returned to their lodges across the Ohio River. No one knows how many Indians were killed. Two white prisoners, Margaret Polly and a Mrs. Gatliff, both later rescued during George Rogers Clark's campaign in the Ohio Valley, heard the Wyandot's version of the battle from the returning braves and believed their loses were high - nearly 20 casualties.

Kentuckians were stunned by the news of the battle. It demonstrated that an Indian force - un assisted by their British allies - could penetrate deeply into the central Bluegrass region and attack with staggering results. The antagonists were nearly equal in number, yet the Wyandots out maneuvered the frontiersmen, killing their leader and nearly decimating their ranks.

There was a bright moment, however; Monk, the fierce Indian-fighting Black man - one of the few men on the Kentucky border who knew the ancient art of making gunpowder and who often made it for Boonesborough and the surrounding stations - was given his freedom for his valor at Little Mountain. He became the first freed slave in the Commonwealth's history. But for the settlers in Kentucky, the defeat of Captain James Estill and his men was a bloody portent of an even more horrible humuan carnage that would occur that August at the Blue Licks on the Licking River.

J.H. Batde, Kentucky: A History of the State (1885);
Lewis Collins, History of Kentucky (1882);
Bessie Taul Conicright, "Estill's Defeat or the Battle of Lick Mountain," The Filson Club Historical Quarterly, 22(1924):311-322;
Robert Spencer Cotterill, History of Pioneer Kentucky (1917);
Humphrey Marshall, The History of Kentucky (1812);
Z.F. Smith, The History of Kentucky (1895).