by Tom Clavin
One of the more important figures in the Revolutionary War was Simon Kenton. What, you’ve never heard of him? He happens to be one of the especially intriguing characters in Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, by Bob Drury and yours truly. But his real importance lies with not what happened but what did not happen.
Kenton was a legendary frontiersman in Ohio and the Midwest. He was born on April 3, 1755, in Fauquier County, Virginia. He grew up helping his father on the family farm and had little time for schooling. At the age of 16, Kenton became involved in a fight over a woman. Believing he had killed his rival, he fled to the Ohio Country where he changed his name (temporarily) to Simon Butler. Kenton spent the next two years hunting along the Ohio River. In 1774, he served as a scout during Lord Dunmore’s War. By 1775, Kenton had moved to Boonesborough, Kentucky, and served as a scout for the settlement.
Boonesborough was not just any settlement. As its name indicates, the fort was founded by Daniel Boone and the farmers and other settlers who had accompanied him west. By 1777, it had become the de facto main outpost of American colonists on the western frontier, and as such, it was the target of British forces and their Indian allies. If Boonesborough fell, that would open the door to those forces to sweep over the mountains and attack the Continental Army from the west, putting Gen. George Washington into an unwinnable two-front war.
Daniel Boone, being the leader of the fort and its beleaguered inhabitants, was pretty much an indispensable man. So what did not happen? Boone didn’t die—and that is where Simon Kenton comes in.
On the morning of April 24, 1777, two of Boonesborough’s occupants left the stockade to round up a small remuda of horses grazing just past a cornfield some 70 yards away. They had nearly reached the animals when a half-dozen Shawnee leapt from a sycamore hollow and fired. As the balls whistled past their ears and kicked up gravel at their feet, the Kentuckians raced back to the fort while two of Boone’s scouts, including Kenton, stood near the open gate urging them on. Only one man was fast enough; two of the Indians overtook the other. A warrior split the latter’s skull with a tomahawk and took his scalp. As he stood over the dead man waving the bloody trophy, Kenton shot him dead.
Kenton reloaded on the run as he and his fellow scout pursued the remaining Indians down the dirt lane that bisected the cornfields. They were nearly to the edge of the woods when the big frontiersman sensed something amiss. Turning back toward the fort, he saw Boone and a dozen men racing up the path. Before Kenton could warn them to turn back, half a hundred Shawnee poured from the cornfields and blocked their path of retreat.
Boone yelled to his company, “Boys, we are gone—let us sell our lives as dearly as we can.” With that the Kentuckians fired off a volley and, wielding their rifles as war clubs, charged into the scrum of Indians.
The fight must have seemed a blur to those watching from Boonesborough’s parapets. In what many attributed to divine providence, no more Kentuckians were killed that day, although several received wounds that required them to be assisted on the dash back to safety. Boone was one of the last in the field when, pausing to re-load, a musket ball penetrated the heel of his foot and shattered his ankle like spun glass. He had barely hit the ground when he looked up to see his assailant looming over him, tomahawk raised.
Dazed and losing consciousness, Boone was still fumbling for his hunting knife when the Indian’s heart appeared to burst from his chest, propelled by a ball from Simon Kenton’s long rifle. Another Indian lunged toward Boone with a knife, but Kenton, quick as a panther, bashed in his skull with the butt of his gun. With that, the big man threw Boone over his shoulders and lumbered for the log walls. As they neared the gate, Jemima Boone raced out to help Kenton carry her father.
Boone recovered and went on to lead the successful defense of Fort Boonesborough, arguably saving the American Revolution.
This was far from the last action Simon Kenton saw in the war, and beyond. The following year, he was captured by Indians. He survived many days of running the gauntlet and various other ritual tortures that usually caused death. He was later taken about 50 miles for more torture at Upper Sandusky. There he was saved by Pierre Drouillard, an interpreter for the British Indian department and father of explorer George Drouillard. The Shawnee respected Kenton for his endurance and named him Cut-ta-ho-tha (the condemned man) and adopted him into the tribe.
Kenton served as a scout on the 1778 George Rogers Clark expedition to capture Fort Sackville. Independence did not mean an end to warfare; in 1793-94 Kenton fought in the Northwest Indian War with Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne.
Kenton had begun exploring the area of the Mad River Valley of Ohio and making claims as early as 1788. He had first seen the area a decade earlier while he was held prisoner by the Shawnee and vowed that if he survived, he would return. In April 1799, Kenton and Col. William Ward led a group of families from Kentucky to an area between present-day Springfield and Urbana, Ohio.
In 1810, Kenton achieved the rank of brigadier general of the Ohio state militia. He served in the War of 1812 as both a scout and as leader of a militia group in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. This was the battle in which the Indian chief Tecumseh was killed. Kenton was chosen to identify Tecumseh’s body but, recognizing both Tecumseh and another fallen warrior named Roundhead, and seeing soldiers gleefully eager to carve up Tecumseh’s body into souvenirs, he identified Roundhead as the chief.
On the domestic front, Kenton married Martha Dowden and they had four children together. After she died in a house fire, the widower married Elizabeth Jarboe and he had six children with her. Let’s make it 11 children: Prior to his first marriage, Kenton’s first son (Simon Ruth Kenton) was born to Christina Ruth in 1773.
Kenton died at 81 in 1836 and was initially buried at New Jerusalem in Logan County, Ohio. His body was later moved to Urbana. He had lived an extraordinary life, and in saving Daniel Boone’s life he was one of the heroes who helped win the American Revolution.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.Tags: American Revolution, Blood and Treasure, Bob Drury, Daniel Boone, simon kenton, Tom Clavin