British General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Continental Army Commander General George Washington at Yorktown in October 1781. With the surrender that turned the world upside down, major combat operations in the eastern theater of the American Revolution were over.
In the west, the war continued unabated. The year 1782 would bring the most intense spasm of violence yet seen in the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky. So terrible was the carnage that 1782 would go down in frontier annals as The Year of Blood.
The bloody year kicked off with a savage scrape, now little remembered, that left a prominent Frontier Partisan captain dead and resulted in the freedom of a heroic black slave — the first slave freed in Kentucky.
The Battle of Little Mountain was the culmination of a raid by 25 British-allied Wyandot who had crossed the Ohio River and infiltrated the central bluegrass region of Kentucky. The Wyandot formed from remnants of the once-mighty Huron Confederacy, which had been pummeled for a century in wars with the Iroquois and had allied themselves on the losing side in the French and Indian War of 1754-63. The Wyandot had migrated into the mixed tribal lands of Ohio, from whence Shawnee, Mingo (Ohio Seneca) and Delaware militants staged raids in force against the American settlements south and east of the Ohio River.
In March, the Wyandot hit a small frontier fort known as Strode’s Station and killed two Americans. They engaged in a desultory siege for a day and a half and then melted away into the forest.
The alarm went out and a 40-man contingent rode out of Estill’s Station to hunt for the raiders. Their leader Captain James Estill, was a highly-esteemed Frontier Partisan, whom the Delaware had dubbed ”Great Man.” Estill, his brother Samuel, and his Black slave Monk Estill had settled at Boonesborough in September 1778, shortly after the legendary siege of that frontier fort by a large force of Shawnee under their chieftain Black Fish. The fort had held out against enormous odds.
Estill shortly after established his own station about 15 miles to the south of Boonesborough, and he swiftly gained a reputation as a leader. He was ambushed and badly wounded by Indians in 1781, his right arm shattered by a musketball. That broken right arm had scarcely healed when he led his militia out in pursuit of the Wyandots. Estill headed toward a ford on the Kentucky River, where Estill hoped to catch the raiders.
The Frontier Partisan captain had stripped his station of defenders, which almost proved disastrous, for the Wyandot were not on the Kentucky; they descended on Estill’s Station, hiding among smoldering slash piles where settlers were clearing the land.
James Estill’s slave Monk left the palisaded fort to collect firewood and was jumped by the Wyandots.
Monk Estill was a remarkable man, a skilled craftsman and horticulturist who knew how to manufacture black powder — an essential skill that was strangely uncommon on the frontier. He was short, stocky and powerfully built — and he was quick-witted in a crisis. Interrogated by his captors, he convinced them that the nearly-defenseless station was fully garrisoned by 40 men.
The raiders, deceived and shaken in their confidence, hesitated to attack the fortified station. They remained concealed among the slash piles and the forest trees. A 13-year-old girl named Jenny Gass and another Black slave named Dick left the palisade to collect some maple sugar. The raiders swooped in. Dick managed to escape, but the Wyandots shot Jenny down in sight of the fort and scalped her, then taunted her family, waving her long, flowing and bloody scalp.
The Wyandots slaughtered whatever livestock they could and headed out, their captive, Monk Estill, in tow.
Two teenaged boys were armed and mounted and sent out from Estill’s to locate their captain and Jenny Gass’ father Dave to tell them of the slaughter of the girl and the capture of Monk.
The boys caught up with Estill’s militia during a spring snowstorm. Estill immediately detailed half his force to return with the boys to defend his station. With 25 men, Estill set out to find, fix and destroy the Wyandot raiding party.
On the morning of March 22, Estill’s force located the Wyandots as they were crossing Hinkston Creek, near present-day Mount Sterling, Kentucky. Estill and another militiaman immediately opened fire from horseback. The Wyandot leader, identified by historian Ted Franklin Belue as Sourehoowah seems to have been hit in the first fire, and dived into a canebrake, mortally wounded.
Estill’s force dismounted and moved on the creek, with their leader calling out the classic Frontier Partisan tactical doctrine: “Every man to his man and every man to his tree!”
What ensued was a rarity in Frontier Partisan warfare: a sustained, two-hour firefight between evenly-matched forces.
The Wyandot and Kentucky forces were deployed on opposite sides of the wooded creek, engaged from good cover and concealment at a range of about 40 yards. The armament of both sides was likely a mix of rifles and smoothbore fusils. At that range, the quicker-loading smoothbores, loaded with buck-and-ball would have been at least as effective as the classic frontier rifle.
Sourehoowah lay in the cane, shouting encouragement to his warriors. Monk Estill was heard to shout:
“Don’t give up Captain Jim! There are 25 of them! You can whip them!”
At some point during the exchange of fire, Monk broke free of his captors and splashed across the creek to join his owners and the militia force. Captain Estill sent Monk to the rear to hold the company’s horses.
Each force tried to maneuver to flank the enemy. Sourehoowah lurched to his feet to lead a charge, joined by a 17-year-old warrior named Split Log, who was noted through the battlesmoke due to his scarlet leggings. A militiaman named Irving shot Split Log down and was, in turn, taken center-mass by a load of buck-and-ball and fell dead.
Captain Estill detailed Lt. William Miller to his left to counter the Wyandots’ maneuver. Miller led a handful of men out into the stream, where a shot smacked into the lock of his rifle, shattering the flint and rendering the gun useless. This seems to have panicked Miller, who turned and fled to the rear — past Monk Estill, who urged him to stand and fight.
With his left flank collapsed and abandoned, Estill was isolated, and the Wyandots closed in. Estill, who had taken three gunshot wounds, ordered his men to pull back. At that moment, militiaman Adam Caperton took a gunshot to the face that unhinged his jaw. The gruesomely wounded man held his mangled jaw together with his hands and tried to flee with Estill, crying out unintelligibly in a frenzy of pain, horror and terror.
Estill had paused in his retreat to try to aid Caperton and was jumped by a knife-wielding Wyandot. Militia officer Joseph Proctor maneuvered for a shot, but couldn’t fire for fear of hitting his commander. Estill’s damaged arm failed him and he could not deflect the Wyandot warrior’s plunging knife. The warrior slew the frontiersman, but as soon as he rose to take the scalp, Proctor shot him down.
Estill’s command was in full retreat, with eight dead left in the cane and most of the rest of the command wounded. They scattered and made for whatever stations or frontier habitation they might stumble upon. James Berry had taken a load of buck-and-ball in the thigh and could not walk. Monk Estill hoisted him onto his back and carried him from the field. He would carry the wounded frontiersman 25 miles to safety.
The Wyandot raiders did not pursue. They, too, had been badly mauled in the fight. It is not known for certain how many casualties they took. White captives repatriated from Indian villages north of the Ohio in an expedition under Gen. George Rogers Clark would later report that the raiders had suffered 20 casualties. Charles Aubrey Buser, writing at Wyandotte-Nation.com dismisses such claims:
“Exaggerated claims of Wyandot dead seem put aside because the Wyandots did not head for home but continued in Kentucky for a time and conducted a series of minor raids.”
That’s at odds with Belue’s account, which says that the raiders crossed the Ohio and returned to their towns at Wapatomica and Upper Sandusky.
What is certain is that the Wyandots had torn up a company of militia and killed a prominent and well-respected Frontier Partisan leader in a standup slugging match. The firefight at Little Mountain — which would come to be called Estill’s Defeat — rattled the Kentucky settlers. And their trauma would only be intensified as summer rolled around, when a force of British and Indians would rub out more than 70 militiamen in 15 minutes in an ambush at Blue Licks.
In recognition of his exceptional courage and steadfastness, Estill’s family granted Monk Estill his freedom. He would continue to live in Kentucky. He was married three times and sired 30 children.
A statue of James Estill stands — for now — in the Richmond, Kentucky, cemetery. There is no monument to the Wyandot warriors who proved themselves to be formidable wilderness warriors of the Dark and Bloody Ground.
An article on the battle by Ted Franklin Belue may be found here. He included a vivid account in his excellent book The Hunters of Kentucky, which belongs in every Frontier Partisans library.