Tom Eblen: Archaeologist in search of 'messy' history at Fort Boonesborough

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 15, 2012 

When I read in June that a University of Kentucky archaeologist was doing the first major exploration of Fort Boonesborough in 25 years, I had to know what she found.

Nancy O'Malley wasn't just looking for 18th century artifacts, although she found some: a hoe, a skillet, buttons, buckles, bullets, hand-wrought nails, forks, bits of English ceramic and a blue glass trade bead.

O'Malley, an expert on Kentucky pioneer settlements who first confirmed Fort Boonesborough's location in 1987, was trying to figure out exactly how much of the fort still exists. She was specifically searching for evidence of the most famous event that occurred there: a nine-day siege 234 years ago this week in which Daniel Boone and a small group of pioneers repelled an attack by several hundred Native Americans.

"This siege is just completely out of the ordinary in terms of what was happening in Kentucky during the Revolutionary War," O'Malley said. "On the face of it, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense — some of the things that happened and, more to the point, some of the things that didn't happen."

While East Coast colonists were fighting the British for independence, settlers were streaming across the mountains into Kentucky. Shawnees and other northern tribes were alarmed and tried to run them out. The British took advantage of the situation, offering bounties for settlers' scalps.

Boone, an explorer, hunter and surveyor working for the Transylvania Co., established Boonesborough in 1775. As Native American attacks escalated, the fort became an important shelter.

Shawnees captured Boone in February 1778 while he was with men who had gone to Blue Licks in what is now Nicholas County to make salt. Boone convinced them not to kill him and the 30 salt-makers, but to take them back to their villages as captives. Boone also made vague promises about arranging for Boonesborough's surrender.

Blackfish, the Shawnee chief, grew fond of Boone and adopted him as a son, giving him the name Shel-tow-ee, which meant "big turtle." But when Boone heard tribe members plotting to attack Boonesborough, he escaped and returned to warn the settlers and strengthen the fort.

Warriors from five tribes arrived at Boonesborough with a dozen French Canadians working for the British. Boone estimated the force at nearly 450, although O'Malley suspects it was smaller. Still, they greatly outnumbered the approximately 40 men and 95 women and children inside the fort.

After chastising his "son" for running away, Blackfish asked Boone to surrender the fort. During two days of negotiations, the chief promised settlers wouldn't be harmed if they became captives. Boone made excuses and stalled for time.

"Of course, everybody was lying through their teeth," O'Malley said. "Once it was clear the settlers were not going to give up, it was pretty much no holds barred."

For nine days — Sept. 9-17, 1778 — settlers and warriors waged a battle of constant rifle shots. The attackers sent torches and flaming arrows into the fort, but settlers, helped by steady rain, extinguished the flames.

"There was a lot of trash talk going on," O'Malley said. "And inside the fort there's all this subterfuge." Women dressed as men and hats were put on sticks along the stockade fence to make the garrison appear bigger.

"You have this huge force against this very limited number of people who are holed up in a pretty rickety fort," O'Malley said. "I still don't understand why the Indians didn't figure this out."

The Canadians convinced the warriors to try to dig a tunnel more than 100 feet from the Kentucky River bank into the fort, but, after days of work, the rain-soaked ground collapsed. Why didn't they just storm the place? That probably would have worked, O'Malley said, "but that wasn't a typical Indian tactic."

After losing about 35 warriors while killing only two settlers, including a black slave, the attackers gave up and left. "All of these things could have gone differently," O'Malley said. "There was a lot of luck involved."

With a $27,000 grant from the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program, O'Malley hopes to use historical archaeology to learn more about what happened and where.

She fully excavated a stone foundation and hearth she found in 1987 and now believes was Squire Boone's gunsmith shop in the center of the fort. Evidence she found, compared with a survivor's crude map, have led her to conclude that the tribes camp was about where the state park's miniature golf course is now.

Using ground-penetrating radar, O'Malley hoped to find evidence of the tunnel, but she didn't. "Unfortunately, with bank erosion, I'm pretty sure this tunnel is downstream," she said.

The biggest challenge has been figuring out all of the dramatic changes in Boonesborough's landscape over the past two centuries: later structures, massive silting and erosion, rechanneling of creeks and construction of park facilities.

O'Malley plans to keep looking at physical evidence and historical records to try to clarify the often conflicting accounts of siege survivors, whose memories were colored by the passage of time and other versions they later heard and read.

"There were just so many things about the siege that were very strange, and so many funny stories, that after a while you wonder what to believe," O'Malley said. "History is a messy business."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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