Hawken Horse sent me down a sidetrail that should have been run long ago. I have no excuse for failing to tell the tale of the great 18th Century long hunter Kasper Mansker, for he stands among the elite of the Frontier Partisans.
HH posted a picture of what’s called in the trade a “documentary copy” of an original long rifle wielded by one of the frontier’s finest marksmen — a rifle that is now in a private collection. It dates from 1791, right in the heart of of the Golden Age of the American Long Rifle — and it bears the hallmarks of a man of some wealth and stature. By that time, Col. Kasper Mansker was, in fact, one of the leading men of Middle Tennessee.
The documentary copy is the exquisite work of master gunsmith Jud Brennan.
This rifle is a fitting tool for a man regarded as a master hunter and an ace marksman in a country full of good hunters and fine shots. A contemporary named John Carr described him this way:
“He was a great woodsman and a mighty hunter — one of the best marksmen I ever saw shoulder a rifle. He was an excellent soldier; and no man among us understood better than he did how to fight the Indians…”
Kasper Mansker was a Long Hunter, among the cadre of backcountry riflemen who crossed the Appalachians or headed down the Ohio River in the 1760s and early 1770s on epic hunts of months-long (sometimes years) duration. Their prey was mostly whitetail deer, which they took for skins, a hot commodity in the colonial Atlantic trade, valued for everything from breeches to gloves. The hunters also trapped for fur-bearers in season. Without consciously intending it, at least initially, they formed the spearpoint of European-American penetration into the lands of Kaintuckee and Middle Tennessee, the hunting lands of the Shawnee, Mingo, Miami and Cherokee. They lived much like the Mountain Men of the 19th century, and their way of life holds an irresistible attraction to a certain kind of temperament. In the words of their finest historian, Ted Franklin Belue:
“… The spirit of the Long Hunters symbolizes something vastly deep and precious in the human psyche: Long Hunters were rugged, self-reliant individualists who were truly free.”
Kasper Mansker, who launched his longhunting career in 1769 (the same year Daniel Boone first entered Kaintuckee) was among the elite of this remarkable class of men.
My first knowledge of Mansker came was when I was a youngster, avidly consuming biographies of Daniel Boone — including the tale of a chance encounter in the forest when both were on an extended long hunt in Kaintuckee. So the story goes, Mansker was at work in the woods when he heard a strange sound. Cautiously stalking the source of the unusual noise, he came upon “a man bare-headed, stretched flat upon his back on a deerskin, singing at the top of his voice.” Boone had been hunting alone for a long time and he’d apparently picked up some interesting habits…
In my young minds eye, I pictured Mansker as a gruff, middle-aged German feller — but he was a very young man. On his first trek he was just 19 years old.
Mansker was born on an immigrant ship bound from Germany to the colonies in 1750. He married a woman named Elizabeth White and the couple settled on the Holston River in western Virginia — the perfect jumping-off place for extended hunts deep into the interior.
Most of what we know about Mansker was published in Kasper Mansker, Cumberland Frontiersman; Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Volume XXX, Number 2, Summer 1971. Author Walter Durham recounted Mansker’s first long hunt. What an extraordinary trek it was:
In June, 1769, Kasper Mansker was one of “a company of twenty men or more” who assembled with their pack horses on Reedy Creek to cross over into what is now Middle Tennessee on an extensive hunting trip. Among Mansker’s fellow hunters were Abraham Bledsoe, John Rains, John Baker, Joseph Drake, Uriah Stone, Obediah Terril, Ned Cowen, and Henry Smith.
During the second week in June, the hunters set off for the head of the Holston River which they then followed down to what is now Abingdon, Virginia. From Abingdon they went to the north fork of the Holston and from there crossed to Moccasin Gap on the Clinch River. They then came to Powell’s Valley and Cumberland Gap, through which they passed and soon reached the Cumberland River. Before attempting to cross the river they traveled some six miles or so to Flat Lick from which point they followed tributary streams back to the river and crossed in what now the state of Kentucky at “a remarkable fish dam, which had been made in very ancient times.” Near the fish dam they passed the place known as the Brush, its name derived from the intense undergrowth of briers and vines that laced trees and tree limbs together in an almost impenetrable wall of living plants.9
From the Brush, the hunters went in a southerly direction and soon reached the south fork of the Cumberland River which they followed down into the barrens of Kentucky to a place called Price’s Meadow. Here their first base camp was made and they hunted and explored the surrounding country for the next eight or nine months. Some of the hunters returned to he settlements in 1770 but Mansker, along with Stone, Baker, Humphrey Hogan, Cash Brooks, Thomas Gordon, and four others unnamed, built two trapping canoes and two boats and loaded the makeshift craft and a third boat, that had been left by others, with furs and bear meat and pushed off down the Cumberland headed for Natchez where they planned to sell their cargo.
When the fur-laden craft reached the present site of Nashville, the hunters saw at the French Lick the largest number of buffalo and wild game that they had ever seen at any one place. They stopped and killed a few of the animals from which they obtained hides to cover their open boats. Then they resumed their downstream journey and presently reached the mouth of the Cumberland River. With their meat beginning to spoil, it was decided to convert it into oil for the market. While they were thus engaged, an Indian chief called John Brown and twenty-five braves robbed them of two guns, some ammunition, salt, and tobacco. Passing French traders however, were more friendly, trading in exchange for fresh meat, salt, flour, tobacco, and some liquor, the first spirits they had tasted for several months.
Mansker and his associates continued their travels by entering the Ohio River, following it to the Mississippi, and floating down the great river to Fort Natchez. Finding no sale for their cargo at the fort, the tiny flotilla proceeded farther downstream to Spanish Natchez. Here they sold the furs and oil that they brought from the middle Cumberland. Before they had disposed of all the goods, one of the boats broke loose from its moorings and floated down the Mississippi. Mansker and Baker pursued it and finally overtook it at Fort Kaspel, from which place they were able to return it to Natchez and sell its cargo.
After completing their business at Natchez, Mansker’s party split up. Some returned homeward while others seem to have remained. Mansker was one of those who chose to stay behind, his decision apparently dictated by an illness which was upon him from May until November. After recovering his strength, Kasper and John Baker set out by boat upriver. At Ozinck, Mansker and Baker joined a party bound overland to Georgia with a herd of horses. From the north Georgia the long hunters turned northward and followed through the valleys of East Tennessee to New River, from whence they had departed a year and half earlier.
You might think that after such an arduous adventure, a man might settle down with his wife. Not Kasper Mansker. Less than a year later, he was off again, on a hunt that would last from the fall of 1771 through 1772. Hunting in the Cumberland River country of Middle Tennessee, Mansker discovered several salt licks, where he killed 19 deer in one go. Not only were salt licks game magnets, they were an essential feature of viable land for settlement.
Mansker’s party had their station camp raided by Indians, with some 500 deerskins destroyed. However, they were able to make good on their losses. The major mishap of the expedition was the disappearance of two men. They were never found and may have run afoul of the Cherokee.
Mansker was home for a bit in 1773, but by 1775 he was back on the hunt in Middle Tennessee. Here he had a violent encounter with Indians. Durham:
Most of the hunters soon became dissatisfied and returned to the settlements, but Mansker and three companions remained to hunt and explore for some time. It was not long before the four hunters were hunting and trapping in the Red River country, a few miles northwest of Mansker’s Lick, where they discovered evidence of the presence of Indian hunters in the area. Mansker was selected by his companions to seek out the Indians’ camp and to determine their number. He soon found an Indian encampment among a stand of sycamore trees on the banks of Red River. In fact, he was within seventy or eighty yards of the camp when it first came into view. Haywood takes up the account:
He instantly placed himself behind a tree, with design, if possible, to ascertain the number of Indians who were at it. He could see only two of them; the rest he supposed to be hunting at a distance. At the moment when he was about to retire, one of the two took up a tomahawk, crossed the river, and went upon the other side; the other picked up his gun, put in on his shoulder, and came directly toward the place where Mansker stood. Mansker lay close, hoping the advancing Indian would pass some other way; but he continued to advance in a straight line toward the spot where Mansker was, and at length came to within fifteen steps of him. Then being no alternative but to shoot him, Mansker cocked and presented his gun. Aiming at the most vital part of the body, he pulled the trigger, and the gun fired. The Indian screamed, threw down his gun and made for the camp, but he passed it, and pitched headlong down the bluff, dead, into the river. The other ran to the camp, but Mansker outran him, and getting there first, picked up an old gun, but could not fire it, and the Indian escaped.
The following day, Mansker and his party visited the site of the Indian camp where they found nearby the body of the slain Indian. The second Indian, who escaped Mansker, had apparently returned and removed all the camp supplies and equipment, including the Indians’ horses and their collection of furs. It is said that Mansker and his associates pursued the escaped Indian all that day and all night, using in the darkness torches of dry cane to light their way. They were unsuccessful in their pursuit.
While Mansker was noted as a rifleman, Belue reports that he also favored a smoothbore for its versatility, including the ability to fire buck-and-ball.
It’s likely that Mansker returned to Middle Tennessee yet again in 1776-77. The country drew him the way Kaintuckee drew Daniel Boone, the way the land beyond the Limpopo River drew Frederick Courteney Selous. And, like those legendary hunters, Mansker would be drawn irresistibly to attempt to settle in the land that had been his hunting ground.
Mansker’s elusive tracks are picked up again in the spring of 1779 when he, with others whom we do not know, came to Cumberland at French Lick, where Nashville now stands, and found Captain James Robertson’s company making preparations to establish a settlement the following autumn. It is likely that Mansker knew of Robertson’s plans for settling in middle Tennessee before he arrived at French Lick in 1779. It is not unlikely that the coincidental arrival of both parties was planned well in advance and that it was their purpose to make preliminary arrangements for their later return with settlers for the middle Cumberland.
In the fall of 1779, Mansker in company with Amos Eaton, Daniel Frazier, and “a number of other immigrants” followed the Kentucky trail and arrived on the frozen middle Cumberland close on the heels of the party guided by Captain James Robertson, probably in January, 1780. Mansker, assisted by William Neely, Daniel Frazier, James Franklin, and others, built a fort on the west side of Mansker’s Creek, located three or four hundred yards downstream from the later site of Walton’s Campground. It was known as Mansker’s Fort and was situated on or near land that he would soon claim under his presumption right as one of “the immortal seventy.”
A recreation of a Mansker’s Station is regarded as one of the most accurate depictions of a frontier station in the country.
The German hunter was a signatory of the Cumberland Compact in early 1780. This was founding document for the first government in the new settlements.
Throughout this period, a militant faction of the Cherokee known as the Chickamaugas, led by the great War Captain Dragging Canoe, augmented by Creek and Chickasaw warriors and some Delaware and Shawnee down from the north, conducted a campaign of raid and siege, to drive the occupiers out of Middle Tennessees. The campaign included an attack on Fort Nashbourough.
Mansker’s first station had to be abandoned in the face of the constant raiding, and was burned by the Chickamaugas. In 1783, Mansker founded a new settlement just to the north of the original fort, and this one stuck. Mansker provided armed escort for immigrants into the country, and engaged in numerous skirmishes with the native militants. The hunter became an effective warrior.
Curiously, like other legendary Frontier Partisans like Lewis Wetzel and Jesse Hughes, there is a “gobbler story” attached to Mansker folklore, recounted by a historian named A. W. Putnam:
Old Mr. Mansker was once “gobbled up” by an Indian. Before he was in shooting distance, he was certain is was an Indian’s simulation. He thought two could play at that game, but that his was the more dangerous part, being the “moving object.” He had “eyes which could see and ears which could hear,” he could see almost entirely around himself with his particularly keen eyes. He approached so cautiously that he designated the tree behind which was his adversary. The human gobbler was there, certain. Art was now to make him “uncover.” So, keeping his left eye upon that tree, and the muzzle of “Nancy” in the same direction, he moved along… The distance was greater than an Indian would be likely to fire, but just right for “Nancy.” And “she wished to speak to him.” He was sure the Indian had seen him, therefore, he feigned to pass to the right. His device was successful. The Indian began to “slip slyly along” to another tree somewhat in advance of Mansker. Though moving slow and low, that left eye was on him through the bushes and wild grass. “Nancy” spoke to him, “bang!” The fellow fell upon his face with a “yah!”
“I took his old gun, and there she is,” pointing to the rack for guns…
By the 1790s, Mansker was a prosperous man — an innkeeper, a landholder and cattleman, a colonel of militia, and a slaveholder.
The low-intensity warfare in Tennessee burned on for 15 years. Dragging Canoe and the Chickamauga drew to their towns near Lookout Mountain militants from many tribes, eager to raise their tomahawks against white invaders. In 1790, a Shawnee War Captain named Cheeseekau and his little brother ventured south to join the Chickamaugas in their raids. The little brother was named Tecumseh.
In 1792, Cheeseekau was shot through the forehead in an unsuccessful assault on Buchanan’s Station near Nashville. He died instantly.
Also in 1792, the mighty Dragging Canoe died at Running Water Town — and the Cumberland settlers gained intel that would enable them to go after the militants on their own turf.
Joe Guy writes in The Last Battle of the Cherokee:
[A] young man named Joseph Brown arrived in the Cumberland settlements around present day Nashville. He told stories of his life as a child, how in 1788 his family’s flatboat had been overtaken by the Chickamaugas at Running Water Town, and how his father and brothers had been killed. He and his sisters had been spared and were adopted into the tribe, and there he had lived for a few years before being exchanged. He shared with the Cumberland residents his knowledge of the Chickamauga towns, especially the hidden paths. James Robertson, leader of the Cumberland settlements and “father of Tennessee,” realized the usefulness of Joseph Brown’s knowledge, and quickly formed a plan to attack the Chickamaugas and destroy their hidden valley towns once and for all.
Mansker signed on for what would become known as The Nickajack Expedition. Durham:
In 1794, General Robertson, after careful consultations with the leadership of the Cumberland settlements, decided to attack the southern Indian towns at Nickajack on the Tennessee River near present Chattanooga. It was the belief of the Cumberlanders, shared by their friends the Chickasaws, that most of the Indian harassment came from a group of renegade Cherokees and Creeks who lived at Nickajack.
When the volunteers for the Nickajack expedition gathered at Nashville, Kasper Mansker was one of their number. However, when officers were elected by the troops, militia Colonel Mansker was not elected. The awkwardness of the moment was readily relieved by the veteran frontiersman when he observed to those standing nearby, “Well, I reckon if Colonel Mansker can’t go, Kasper can. He can kill as many Indians as the Colonel can.”
And to Nickajack he went. There he came forward to build the boats on which ammunition and arms were floated across the Tennessee River before the attack on Nickajack. These he made by constructing a framework of saplings and light-weight poles and covering the whole with animal hides. The hide boats successfully ferried their cargoes of arms, powder, and flints to the other side of the river without water damage.
The task of boat building was not enough to occupy Kasper but, happily for him, there was action enough for everybody. In recalling the fighting at Nickajack, William Pillow, years later, wrote: “Colonel Mansker took some men that night up the river opposite the town until some of the Indians that escaped from the town landed, and killed them in landing. I saw but one make his escape, he by diving was out of gunshot from our side and when Mansker’s men fired on the daring Indian he turned down the river and went ashore between the mouth of a creek which Mansker’s men could not cross without getting their guns wet.”
The Nickajack Campaign effectively brought an end to the conflict with the Chickamaugas, and Mansker turned his attentions to the works of peace. Mansker’s Station was a traveler’s waystation, and Mansker served as innkeeper there.
Carr recalls that:
“He never had any children. He possessed a handsome property, was fond of raising stock, and loved his gun as long as he was able to hunt. In his old age, he would attend shooting matches, and frequently took prizes when they shot for beef.”
When war came again in 1813, Mansker joined up with the Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Gunmen, and he fought under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.
We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t as many as there was a while ago
Fired once more and the commenced a-runnin’
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
Kaspar Mansker died at the age of 70 in 1820. His wife, Elizabeth, lived on another 16 years. At the end of her life, she had the family’s slaves transported north of the Ohio and emancipated.
In his multivolume history, The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt identified Mansker as an avatar of a particularly admirable type of frontier war captain:
“Old Kasper Mansker, one of the most successful, may be taken as a type of the rest. He was ultimately made a Colonel and shared in many expeditions; but he always acted as his own scout, and never would let any of his men ride ahead or abreast of him, preferring to trust to his own eyes and ears and knowledge of forest warfare.”
The City of Goodlettsville produced a worthy short video on Historic Mansker’s Station:
Kasper Mansker has to be considered among the greatest of the Long Hunters. He spent most of a decade engaged in extended, arduous hunts into country that seems to have captured his soul. He became an important pioneer of that country, and prospered there, unlike many frontier hunters, who never realized much personal wealth from their endeavors. He perhaps wasn’t quite on the level of a Simon Kenton or a Captain Sam Brady as a Ranger, but he was certainly a highly capable wilderness warrior, and, like Selous, he was still soldiering in his 60s.
By any measure, Kasper Mansker must be considered a Tier One Frontier Partisan.
Frankie Sharpe says
Great write up. Love reading your stuff.
Thank you Frankie.
Aaron Yetter says
Great article reminds me of my time spent in the woods playing longhunter in my 30s. Other pursuits and interests but still have my longrifle. Wish I had kept my copy of Mark bakers Sons of a Trackless Forest.
That book is worth BIG $$ these days.
Hawken Horse says
This is great. I live right next door and I honestly learned a ton. Thanks!!
Thank you. And thanks for tipping me down the rabbit hole.
Ugly Hombre says
Very nice- great post!, recent was talking to Jim Martin told me that when his leg got bashed up from rail road work while healing for about a year he built a Kentucky rifle from scratch. one of the things he told me that they would apply a twist Tabaco and Ammonia solution to the maple stocks of the long rifles in the old days to camouflage the wood and give it a pleasing appearance. Jim learned long rifle building and Colt smithing from Bob Howard old west gunsmith to W.S.Hart and cowboy pard of Elmer. That type of work takes deep skill..
Never shot a flint lock only a Hawken percussion rifle once- sure would like too, we might be back down to that some day. lol
A fast flintlock is a joy to shoot. I recently read something similar about the use of tobacco. Can’t remember where though…
Yep and I just gave it away when I was done with it. Just found and downloaded a free copy.
Excellent write-up of a Long-Hunter… very informative…
Thanks. It was a fun trail to go down.
lane batot says
Splendid post! The Southern Frontier should give you subject material for many more! I’m reading a SUPERB biography of none other than Sam Houston at the moment……I always wondered about that story of Dan’l out singing in the wilderness–maybe he was drunk? It’s just that singing aloud, in possibly hostile Injun territory, wasn’t pertickyoulerly sensible! And back when I lived in Tennessee, I used to get my livestock feed at a mill where an old pioneer blockhouse used as refuge from raiding Cherokee, had been restored nearby, which I thoroughly checked out, you can be sure! A rather cramped affair, it was–I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be cooped up in such for any great length of time. But it was better than the alternative, I suppose!
Ugly Hombre says
Here’s the original “Battle Of N.O.” quite good! “Jimmy Driftwood” Used the tune to teach kids history.
I remember riding in the back seat of a old Chevy as a small kid when the Horton version came up on the radio- #1 on the charts in 1959!
“it was very popular with teenagers in the late 1950s/early 1960s in an era mostly dominated by rock and roll music.” lol!
It would cause a mass media flip out if it was #1 with a bullet today-
Squirrel rifles! 🙁
The horror the horror! ha ha!
I think Johnny Horton’s version was the first I heard. He had a bunch of very successful history songs. Like yo say, couldn’t happen now. Man, I love that stuff.
Big Sam left Seattle in the year of 92…
Ugly Hombre says
Yeah its super just ordered Jimmy Driftwood CD-
A sure good cure for the woke virus- would be to lock um in a outhouse and pipe in Jimmy Driftwood
Damn Yankees! ha ha ha!
Whao dats dark! Scare!
the real hillbilly chit! !
Westley Wu says
Great post. I’ve never heard of Kasper Mansker and he has a really interesting story. Very informative!
Thanks Wesley. Glad it hit the target.
Great stuff !……..zoom out and you are at “A Terrible Reckoning” –
as you have stated, pivotal event(s) on so many levels.
Just “ran” into Alexander McGillivray – Creek leader……!
Reckon you and HH should do Pancho and Lefty.
Pancho & Lefty: great idea.
Jim Latimer says
The story of Kaspar Mansker is a fascinating one. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the recreation of his station many times. The Tennessee frontier of that era could be quite dangerous. Your hair could be at risk in an instant. I’m sure my immediate ancestor knew the Colonel, as his group arrived in the area around 1790. The ancestor, Colonel Jonathan Latimer, travelled from Connecticut to the frontier after the war of independence. I think some of his sons might have arrived in advance to scout the area.
Aside from the long trip, I often wonder what it must have been like to travel from the civilized east to the western frontier. The old gentleman had plenty of sand, as he had served in the French and Indian War and American Revolution. His most notable battle being Saratoga. Once here, his sons took part in the local militia when attacks happened. His youngest son, Nathaniel, was killed at the Battle of Rock Island. Another son, Thomas, was one of the men who held Buchannan’s Station.
Other branches of the family relate an attack on men harvesting in a peach orchard. They were saved when the women threw scalding water on the attackers. The area was unsettled for a long time, and remains rich in history.
Outstanding. Thank you for sharing this.
Jim Latimer says
Jim, John Wilson, another descendant, wrote a book about Jonathan a few years back. The title is, “Colonel Jonathan, An American Story.” Based on historical fact, it is written similarly to the Allan Eckert books. Even without the family connection, I found it a very interesting read. The man led a very event packed life.
Ron Thompson says
Really good piece Jim! Thank you.