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What happened when Jemima Boone wandered away from the fort?

Ned Jilton II • Oct 9, 2019 at 7:15 PM

The recent story in the Kingsport Times News about a 4-year-old girl who walked away from Lincoln Elementary School reminded me of a story I heard this spring.

While doing a “Walking in the Footsteps of Daniel Boone” tour as part of the American Battlefield Trust’s annual conference in Kentucky, the historian leading the group had the bus en route to Fort Boonesborough stop along the Kentucky River. It was there he told us the story about Boone’s daughter and her two friends who wandered away from the fort.

In early July, 1776, tensions between the settlers and the natives (Cherokee and Shawnee) were running high. Raiding parties, many led by Dragging Canoe, were hitting settlements along the river in an effort to drive the settlers back across the mountains.

On either July 5 or 14, accounts vary, Boone’s daughter, Jemima, and her two friends, Fanny and Elizabeth Callaway, wanted to go down to the river to gather grapes and pick flowers. Boone expressly told the three that they were to stay close to the fort, but as soon as he went inside and nobody was looking, the three girls slipped off to the river.

The girls got in the fort’s only canoe. They had planned just to float along the bank of the river nearest the fort, but they got to talking and passing the time without paying attention to where they were going. The canoe drifted away from the bank and out into the main current and across to the other side.

On the opposite side of the river was a Cherokee-Shawnee raiding party, led by Hanging Maw, watching the fort and the girls. Just as the three realized where they were and began to row back to the other side, the natives leaped into the water, capturing the girls and dragging them and the canoe up the bank on their side of the river.

The girls’ screams alerted the fort. Col. Richard Callaway and some mounted men forded the river and rode off toward Lower Blue Licks in the hope of catching the raiders. In the meantime, Boone organized more of the men into a tracking party to follow the Indians from where they were last seen. At the same time, 11-year-old John Gass swam across the river to retrieve the valuable canoe.

Boone and his party tracked the natives until dark and then camped. The next day, Boone continued to follow the trail until it reached a thick stand of river cane in which the raiders hoped to lose the mounted pursuers as well as Boone’s tracking party.

The girls in their long dresses were slowing down the Indians’ escape. To speed things along, one of the natives cut off the girls’ dresses above the knee so they could run through the underbrush faster.

It was a fashion statement almost 200 years ahead of its time.

Boone, facing the wall of river cane, decided to gamble. He knew the location of a buffalo path some distance on the other side of the cane, so he left his track and went around the cane. Two days later his gamble was rewarded.

The men picked up the trail again along the buffalo path and soon smelled smoke and the scent of roasting bison. Following the smell, they soon located the raiders’ camp.

Slowly Boone’s party approached the camp. He had instructed the men to hold their fire until everyone was in place. But the tension of waiting was too much for one of the men and he opened fire. Boone quickly jumped up and opened fire, and the rest of the party joined in.

Two of the raiders went down in the opening volley. When Boone’s rifle fired, Jemima reportedly said “That’s Daddy’s!” and the three girls ran in that direction. One of the natives threw a tomahawk as they ran, but he missed as the girls reached safety.

Hanging Maw, who had been leading the raiding party, had gone to a nearby stream to collect water and was not in camp when the shooting started. He escaped along with the survivors who fled when the shooting started. Two natives in the camp later died from their wounds.

Boone, the girls and the rest of their rescuers returned to Fort Boonesborough without any more trouble. When they reached the fort, the people there said they feared that the Indians might do something bad to the girls. Jemima replied, “The Indians were kind to us, as much so as they well could have been, or their circumstances permitted.”

The kidnapping put the whole Kentucky frontier on alert and no one would stray from from the fort, especially three girls who went for a canoe ride and got more than they bargained for.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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