“There are Homeric men in every age… men whose every action attracts the attention of their fellow men… Simon Kenton was such a man… he was an individualistic embodiment of the expanding spirit of the American border… Follow Kenton down the Ohio, and one follows the settlement of the West in its wildest extent. His life epitomizes his time and his people; he was the arch-type.”
— Orton G. Rust
“More than most Kentuckians, Simon Kenton invited apotheosis, as he embodied those special traits which heroic societies prize and wrought as impressively as a hero ought. From the year of the first settlement until the elimination of the Indian threat, Kenton continually engaged the Ohio tribes both as an individual and as a member of expeditions, and he achieved unequaled renown as a scout and spy. No other looms so large in (the) frontier pantheon.”
— Arthur K. Moore
Simon Kenton is the reason there is a Frontier Partisans blog. The Revolutionary War-era frontiersman was the embodiment of the partisan warrior, the man who turned the fieldcraft he developed as a hunter and woodsrunner to the deadly business of freelance partisan warfare.
Last Saturday evening, I scrolled through some new pieces by the excellent frontier artist Steve White. Kenton is a frequent subject and I was reminded yet again how central the Kentucky frontiersman is in my pantheon and mythology. One of his recent works, depicting Kenton and his friend Daniel Boone in their old age (see below), hit me right in the brisket. I’m gonna have to own that one…
Kenton acted as an independent scout for the fledgling Kentucky settlements in the 1770s, and once they became established he led Kenton’s Boys — not a militia, but his own handpicked paramilitary outfit that patrolled along the Ohio River and conducted punitive raids against Shawnee fighters and horse thieves. And they, in turn, stole Shawnee horses on a wholesale basis.
His contemporary Captain Sam Brady, who led Rangers in Western Pennsylvania was certainly his equal in skill — but nobody did the dangerous work of spying, scouting and ranging better than the Kentucky frontiersman. And he did it all “on his own hook,” without state support or direction of any kind. His was a truly independent ranging force and one of the most effective of its kind in history. He was never a soldier and would have made a bad one, since it seems he could never stand to be told what to do or how to do it. But as an “operator,” there was none to surpass him.
He survived a brutal captivity ordeal that should have killed him several times over, and he lost many friends under native scalping knives. Yet he never degenerated into the monomaniacal Indian hating that characterized such men as his contemporary, Lewis Wetzel. Wetzel was an Indian killer. Legitimate combat or out-and-out murder made no difference to him. It did to Kenton. In old age, he expressed regret over killing an Indian warrior whom he had pinned down and tomahawked.
“He was in my power and I need not have done it.”
My frontier horizons have widened since I first discovered Kenton’s story in Allan W. Eckert’s The Frontiersmen. But he’s always been the hub of the wheel; and part of the thrill of discovery in my studies has been in finding men like P.J. Pretorius and Frederick Russell Burnham of a later time and different territory, men worthy to stand beside him in Frontier Partisans Valhalla.
Simon Kenton is the lead biography in my book Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans, available online through Paulina Springs Books.