Narrative of the Captivity of Capt. William Hubbell – Indian Captivities

A Narrative of the desperate encounter and escape of Capt. William Hubbell from the Indians while descending the Ohio River in a boat with others, in the year 1791. Originally set forth in the Western Review, and afterwards republished by Dr. Metcalf, in his “Narratives of Indian Warfare in the West.”

In the year 1791, while the Indians were yet troublesome, especially on the banks of the Ohio, Capt. William Hubbell, who had previously emigrated to Kentucky from the state of Vermont, and who, after having fixed his family in the neighborhood of Frankfort, then a frontier settlement, had been compelled to go to the eastward on business, was now a second time on his way to this country. On one of the tributary streams of the Monongahela, he procured a flat-bottomed boat, and embarked in company with Mr. Daniel Light and Mr. William Plascut and his family, consisting of a wife and eight children, destined for Limestone, Kentucky.

On their passage down the river, and soon after passing Pittsburgh, they saw evident traces of Indians along the banks, and there is every reason to believe that a boat which they overtook, and which, through carelessness, was suffered to run aground on an island, became a prey to these merciless savages. Though Capt. Hubbell and his party stopped some time for it in a lower part of the river, it did not arrive, and it has never, to their knowledge, been heard of.

Before they reached the mouth of the great Kenhawa they had, by several successive additions, increased their number to twenty persons, consisting of nine men, three women, and eight children. The men, besides those mentioned above, were one John Storer, an Irishman and a Dutchman whose names are not recollected, Messrs. Ray and Tucker, and a Mr. Kilpatrick, whose two daughters also were of the party. Information received at Galliopolis confirmed the expectation, which appearances had previously raised, of a serious conflict with a large body of Indians; and as Capt. Hubbell had been regularly appointed commander of the boat, every possible preparation was made for a formidable and successful resistance of the anticipated attack. 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.

The arms on board, which consisted principally of old muskets much out of order, were collected, put in the best possible condition for service, and leaded. At about sunset on that day, the 23d of March, 1791, our party overtook a fleet of six boats descending the river in company, and 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 remonstrance 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. Hubbell 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. One of the boats, however, belonging to the fleet, commanded by a Capt. Greathouse, adopted the same plan, and for a while kept up with Capt. Hubbell, but all its crew at length falling asleep, that boat also ceased to be propelled by the oars, and Capt. Hubbell and his party 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 of the neighborhood and hostile intentions of a formidable party of savages.

It was now agreed that should the attack, as was probable, be deferred till morning, every man 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, and the captain, who had not slept more than one hour since he left Pittsburgh, was too deeply impressed with the imminent danger which surrounded them to obtain any rest at that time.

Just as daylight began to appear in the east, and before the men were up and sit their posts agreeably to arrangement, a voice, at some distance below them, in a plaintive tone, repeatedly solicited them to come on shore, as there were, some white persons who wished to obtain a passage in their boat. This the captain very naturally and correctly concluded to be an Indian artifice, and its only effect was to rouse the men, and place every one on his guard. The voice of entreaty was soon changed into the language of indignation and insult, and the sound of distant paddles announced the savage foe. At length three Indian canoes were seen through the mist of the morning, rapidly advancing. With the utmost coolness the captain and his companions prepared to receive them. The chairs, tables, and other encumbrances were thrown into the river, in order to clear the deck for action. Every man took his position, and was ordered not to fire till the savages had approached so near that, (to use the words of Capt. Hubbell,) “the flash from the guns might singe their eyebrows;” and a special caution was given that the men should fire successively, so that there might be no interval.

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 them, which wounded Mr. Tucker through the hip so severely that his leg hung only by the flesh, and shot Mr. Light just below his ribs. The three canoes placed themselves at the bow, stern and on the right side of the boat, so that they had an opportunity of raking in every direction. The fire now commenced from the boat, and had a powerful effect in checking the confidence and fury of the Indians. 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 came and took away the lock of it. He coolly turned around, seized a brand of fire from the kettle which had served for a caboose, and applying it to the pan, discharged the piece with effect. A very regular and constant fire was now kept up on both sides. The captain was just in the act of raising his gun a third time, when a ball passed through his right arm, and for a moment disabled him. Scarcely had he recovered from the shock, and re-acquired the use of his hand, which had been suddenly drawn up by the wound, when he observed the Indians in one of the canoes just about to board the boat in the bow, where the horses were placed belonging to the company. So near had they approached, that some of them had actually seized with their hands the side of the boat. Severely wounded as he was, he caught up a pair of horseman’s pistols and rushed forward to repel the attempt at boarding. On his approach the Indians fell back, and he discharged one of the pistols with effect at the foremost man. After firing the second pistol, he found himself with useless arms, and was compelled to retreat; but stepping back upon a pile of small wood which had been prepared for burning in the kettle, the thought struck him that it might be made use of in repelling the foe, and he continued for some time to strike with it so forcibly and actively that they were unable to enter the boat, and at length he wounded one of them so severely that with a yell they suddenly gave way.

All the canoes instantly discontinued the contest, and directed their course to Capt. Greathouse’s boat, which was then in sight. Here a striking contrast was exhibited to the firmness and intrepidity which had just been displayed. Instead of resisting the attack, the people on board of that boat retired to the cabin in dismay. The Indians entered it without opposition, and rowed it to the shore, where they instantly killed the captain and a lad of about fourteen years of age. The women they placed in the centre of their canoes, and manning them with fresh hands, again pursued Capt. Hubbell. A melancholy alternative now presented itself to these brave but almost desponding men, either to fall a prey to the savages themselves, or to run the risk of shooting the women who had been placed in the canoes in the hope of deriving protection from their presence. But “self-preservation is the first law of nature” and the captain very justly remarked “that there would not be much humanity in preserving their lives at such a sacrifice, merely that they might become victims of savage cruelty at some subsequent period.”

There were now but four men left on board of Capt. Hubbell’s boat capable of defending it, and the captain himself was severely wounded in two places. The second attack, nevertheless, was resisted with almost incredible firmness and vigor. Whenever the Indians would rise to fire, their opponents would commonly give them the first shot, which, in almost every instance, would prove fatal. Notwithstanding the disparity of numbers, and the exhausted condition of the defenders of the boat, the Indians at length appeared to despair of success, and the canoes successively returned to the shore. Just as the last one was departing, Capt. Hubbell called to the Indian who was standing in the stern, and, on his turning round, discharged his piece at him. When the smoke, which for a moment obscured their vision, was dissipated, he was seen lying on his back, and appeared to be severely wounded, perhaps mortally.

Unfortunately, the boat now drifted near to the shore, where the Indians had collected, and a large concourse, probably between four and five hundred, were seen running down on the bank. Ray and Plascut, the only men remaining unhurt, were placed at the oars; and as the boat was not more than twenty yards from the shore, it was deemed prudent for all to lie down in as safe a position as possible, and attempt to push forward with the utmost practicable rapidity. While they continued in this situation, nine balls were shot into one oar, and ten into another, without wounding the rowers, who were hid from view and protected by the side of the boat and blankets in the stern. During this dreadful exposure to the fire of the savages, which continued about twenty minutes, Mr. Kilpatrick observed a particular Indian, whom he thought a favorable mark for his rifle, and, notwithstanding the solemn warning of Capt. Hubbell, rose up to shoot him. He immediately received a ball in his mouth, which passed out at the back part of his head, and was also, almost at the same instant, shot through the heart. He fell down among the horses that were about the same time shot down likewise; and thus was presented to his afflicted daughters and fellow travelers, who were witnesses of the awful occurrence, a spectacle of horror which we need not further attempt to describe.

The boat was now providentially and suddenly carried out into the middle of the stream, and taken by the current beyond the reach of the enemy’s balls. Our little band, reduced as they were in numbers, wounded, afflicted, and almost exhausted by fatigue, were still unsubdued in spirit, and being assembled in all their strength, men, women, and children, with an appearance of triumph, gave three hearty cheers, calling the Indians to come on again if they were fond of sport.

Thus ended this awful conflict, in which, out of nine men, two only escaped unhurt. Tucker and Kilpatrick were killed on the spot, Storer was mortally wounded, and died on his arrival at Limestone, and all the rest, excepting Ray and Plascut, were severely wounded. The women and children were all uninjured, except a little son of Mr. Plascut, who, after the battle was over, came to the captain, and with great coolness requested him to take a ball out of his head. On examination it appeared that a bullet, which had passed through the side of the boat, had penetrated the forehead of this little hero, and remained under the skin. The captain took it out, and supposing this was all, as in good reason he might, was about to bestow his attention on some other momentous affair, when the little boy observed, “That is not all, captain,” and raising his arm, exhibited a piece of bone at the point of his elbow, which had been shot off and hung only by the skin. His mother, to whom the whole affair seems before to have been unknown, but being now present, exclaimed, “Why did you not tell me of this?” “Because,” replied the son, “the captain ordered us to be silent during the fight, and I thought you would make a noise if I told you of it.”

The boat made the best of its way down the river, and the object was to reach Limestone that night. The captain’s arm had bled profusely, and he was compelled to close the sleeve of his coat in order to retain the blood and stop its effusion.

In this situation, tormented by excruciating pain, and faint through loss of blood, he was under the necessity of steering the boat with his left arm till about ten o’clock that night, when he was relieved by Mr. William Brooks, who resided on the bank of the river, and who was induced by the calls of the suffering party to come out to their assistance. By his aid, and that of some other persons who were in the same manner brought to their relief, they were enabled to reach Limestone about twelve o’clock that night.

Immediately on the arrival of Mr. Brooks, Capt. Hubbell, relieved from labor and responsibility, sunk under the weight of pain and fatigue, and become for a while totally insensible. When the boat reached Limestone, he found himself unable to walk, and was obliged to be carried up to the tavern. Here he had his wound dressed, and continued several days, until he acquired sufficient strength to proceed homewards.

On the arrival of our party at Limestone, they found a considerable force of armed men about to march against the same Indians, from whose attacks they had so severely suffered. They now learned that, the Sunday preceding, the same party of savages had cut off a detachment of men ascending the Ohio from fort Washington, at the mouth of Licking River, and had killed with their tomahawks, without firing a gun, twenty-one out of twenty-two men, of which the detachment consisted.

Crowds of people, as might be expected, came to witness the boat which had been the scene of so much heroism, suffering, and horrid carnage, and to visit the resolute little band by whom it had been so gallantly and successfully defended. On examination it was found that the sides of the boat were literally filled with bullets and with bullet-holes. There was scarcely a space of two feet square, in the part above water, which had not either a ball remaining in it or a hole through which a ball had passed. Some persons, who had the curiosity to count the number of holes in the blankets which were hung up as curtains in the stern of the boat, affirmed that in the space of five feet square there were one hundred and twenty-two. Four horses out of five were killed, and the escape of the fifth amidst such a shower of balls appears almost miraculous.

The day after the arrival of Capt. Hubbell and his companions, the five remaining boats, which they had passed on the night preceding the battle, reached Limestone. Those on board remarked that during the action they distinctly saw the flashes, but could not hear the reports of the guns. The Indians, it appears, had met with too formidable a resistance from a single boat to attack a fleet, and suffered them to pass unmolested: and since that time it is believed that no boat has been assailed by Indians on the Ohio.

The force which marched out to disperse this formidable body of savages discovered several Indians dead on the shore near the scene of action. They also found the bodies of Capt Greathouse and several others, men, women, and children, who had been on board of his boat. Most of them appeared to have been whipped to death, as they were found stripped, tied to trees, and marked with the appearance of lashes, and large rods which seemed to have been worn with use were observed lying near them.

Such is the plain narrative of a transaction that may serve as a specimen of the difficulties and dangers to which, but a few years since, the inhabitants of this now flourishing and beautiful country were constantly exposed.

Collection: Indian Captivity Narratives. A collection of first hand Indian captivity narratives from a variety of sources. For a list of sources, please see title page.

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