Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Battle of Little Mountain

 Although not fought in Bath County, the Battle of Little Mountain was an encounter in neighboring Montgomery County that pitted a few brave Kentuckians against an equally strong Native force.  This is an event that is largely ignored outside the Gateway Region, but an important piece of our local history.

The early Kentucky frontier was a place of marvel and promise.  Early Virginian settlers came to the 'dark and bloody land' to establish western colonies, expanding the New World that was quickly overcrowding.  Kentucky was also prime land that provided abundant resources for the early settlers and pioneers who bravely cut trails or followed the Native American and large game trails along the rich waterways and mineral deposits.  Although the frontier was a much desired place to be, it was also very dangerous.
The American Revolutionary War was still raging in the late 1700's; the Natives allied themselves with the British on a premise that they would retain their lands.  The British armed and equipped the Natives with munitions and weapons to assist in their fight against the Americans who were fighting to gain independence from King George III's reign.  The Natives were well acquainted with Kentucky territory and frequently raided settlements and stations.  Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, the fight had spilled into Kentucky as the Natives increased their raids and attacks on the western frontier theater.  A siege at Fort Boonesboro in 1778 conducted by over 400 Natives and a few militiamen fighting under the British flag was the largest insurgence against any Kentucky settlement at the time.  The siege lasted from September 7-18 and ended with the Natives retreating from Boonesboro; dividing up into smaller raiding parties, attacking stations and settlements along the way back to Ohio.

Captain James Estill of the Kentucky County, Virginia Militia, established a blockaded station in present day Madison County, about fifteen miles south of Boonesboro.  On March 19, 1782, an alarm was raised when empty canoes were observed floating past Boonesboro.  Knowing this was a sign of a Native war party in the area, runners were sent to Estill's Station and to Logan's Station near Stanford to gather men in an attempt to protect settlements north of Boonesboro.  Nearby Strode's Station in Clark County had been raided by a fearless Wyandot war party a couple of weeks before; a siege that lasted thirty-six hours, so the settlers knew this was a formidable force to reckon with.  Colonel Benjamin Logan sent fifteen men to Estill's Station with orders to mobilize an additional twenty five for a reconnaissance mission to see where the Natives were gathering.  The following day, Natives began to attack nearby stations, including Captain Estill's.  The attack was swift, catching those outside the confines who had been gathering wood by surprise. Fourteen year old Jennie Glass was killed  and Estill's slave, Monk, was taken prisoner.  The fort had been nearly abandoned of all able men at the time of the Wyandot raid.  In fact, only one man was in station that day, nursing wounds he had suffered during another raid that had also left James Estill with a broken arm; an injury that would prove fatal for the captain. 
During interrogation by the war party chief, Monk gave the impression that the fort was fully manned and armed.  The Wyandots rarely took on a well fortified station or fort, relying only on 'hit and run' tactics, so they retreated with their prisoner only after slaughtering several head of cattle.  Samuel South and Peter Hackett set out to catch up with Captain Estill's force and alert him of the attack.  They caught up with the party near the Red River at the mouth of Drowning Creek in what is now Madison County on March 21st.  About twenty men were sent back to Estill's Station but found that the Wyandots were nowhere to be seen.  Five men stayed back to defend the station while the rest of the party began to track the marauders. 
Estill's party made camp that night near Little Mountain.  The next morning, ten men of the party were forced to stay at camp due to their horses being exhausted from the hard ride.  A light snow had blanketed the ground and soon, tracks were seen heading northeast.  Captain Estill and about twenty five men set out to find the war party, and soon, their efforts paid off.  Along Hinkston Creek, about two miles from the small settlement we know today as Mount Sterling, a group of Natives were cleaning a buffalo carcass near a crossing.  Taking up positions within the thick trees, Estill's men got into position and fired off a volley of shots, killing one Wyandot instantly.  David Cook lined up a Native in his line of fire and struck the flint just as another Native stepped in front.  The musket ball tore through both Natives and they fell from the same bullet.  The fight was divided by Hinkston Creek, or Little Mountain Creek as it was known then, with neither side budging.  Musket balls struck the surrounding trees, sending splinters of wood flying, and one lucky shot hit a Wyandot chief early in the engagement.  The Wyandot Chief lay mortally wounded, but still rallied the Natives into a fighting frenzy. 
Monk, the slave who had been taken captive, bravely shouted the Natives' numbers and movements across the creek to Estill's men. Captain Estill ordered his men into three squads in an attempt to flank the Natives.  Lieutenant William Miller was ordered to take his men to a crossing downstream to protect the party's horses and cut off any advance the Natives may make.  Miller got into position when suddenly a bullet struck his weapon, knocking the flint off the locking mechanism.  Miller and his squad retreated from their position, with Miller reportedly shouting, " it's foolhardy to stay and be shot down".  Estill and other men offered Miller another flint, but the lieutenant and his men fled the battleground, leaving the left flank open.  Casualties were mounting on both sides, but now the Wyandots had the upper hand and decided to make their move. They forded the creek and a brutal hand to hand fight ensued.  Monk, meanwhile took the initiative and secured the horses away from the battle, insuring the surviving Kentuckians would have a means of egress.

The Natives bore their tomahawks on Estill's men, clubbing them as they were interlocked in hand to hand combat.  The Kentuckians fought for their lives, swinging their rifle butts in self defense.  Other men fell back into the trees for cover in an attempt to regroup, striking down several Wyandots with their musket fire.  Knowing they were outnumbered and outgunned, Estill ordered the militiamen to retreat as the Natives pounced on them.  One Wyandot warrior tackled Captain Estill and quickly gained the advantage on him.  Both men struggled and rolled across the ground, locking arms as the Native attempted to stab the captain.  Joseph Proctor watched with his rifle at the ready, waiting to get a clear shot of the Wyandot, but couldn't due to the intense fight.  Meanwhile, Estill's other men were being attacked just as fierce and six fell where they fought.  The Native who was wrestling with Captain Estill was described as a large warrior, weighing approximately 200 pounds, and was showing no signs of relenting.  While the two were arm locked, the captain's previously injured arm began to fail and gave out, giving the Native the final blow.  With a yell of triumph, the warrior plunged his knife deep into Captain Estill's chest, killing him.  At almost the same moment, a shot rang out from Joseph Proctor's rifle and the warrior fell across the slain captain's body.  The battle lost momentum after this, while the Kentuckians retreated back with their wounded, the Natives fell back across Hinkston Creek and disappeared into the thick woods.  The battle was brutal and mostly non stop, lasting about two hours.  The entire battlefield was concentrated to only a couple hundred yards deep; unlike conventional battles we know today as being over large spans of ground. 
Captain Estill's grave marker in Richmond Cemetery depicting his final battle with a Wyandot Warrior
The surviving men of Estill's party were bloodied and exhausted, but knew they had to make haste back to the protection of the station some forty miles away.  Joseph Proctor reportedly strapped a gravely injured man named Irving to himself and carried the man all the way back to Estill's Station.  Monk, who had secured the horses, joined the party and assisted another seriously injured man all the way back to the fort.  Seven Kentuckians, including Captain James Estill, were killed; Monk counted as many as seventeen Natives killed.  One of Estill's party was taken prisoner, but escaped soon afterward and confirmed the number of Native casualties. 
Three days after the battle, a party of about 40-50 men from Estill's and surrounding stations returned to the battlefield to bury the dead.  In the haste of retreat, the bodies were left where they fell; the Natives had either taken their dead with them or had returned after the battle.  According to witness statements taken at a deposition regarding a land dispute in 1803, the bodies of Captain Estill and his men were buried where they fell using the rocks, brush and logs from the battlefield to cover them.  They had not been desecrated by the Natives, either as a sign of respect, or a sign of an equal hasty retreat by the Wyandots.  In the same depositions, it is said that for years after the battle, bullet marks on the trees could still be seen and the bones of some of the dead were exposed from their resting site.  No markers were placed at the battlefield marking the dead or who was placed where.  Today, the Battle of Little Mountain site is on private property, and Interstate 64 runs right through the middle of the battlefield. 
The battle was considered a defeat in the eyes of the early Kentuckians, as the Estill militia did not hold the ground and repel the Natives.  Lieutenant Miller nor his men never returned to the station and all were considered cowards, which would have resulted in death by hanging.  David Cook, a survivor of the battle, vowed for twenty years that he would personally kill Miller should he ever show his face again.  Miller reportedly lived until the age of 95, forever shamed by his actions that March day.  Captain Estill's slave, Monk, would receive great accolades for his actions before and during the battle, gaining the distinction of being the first freed slave in the state of Kentucky.  He later went on to become a Baptist minister, married twice and had thirty children.  Monk died in Madison County in 1835.  Joseph Proctor was the last surviving member of the Battle of Little Mountain, passing away in 1844 with full military honors and fanfare. 
Captain James Estill is forever immortalized by the Kentucky county that bears his name.  A bronze plaque was placed on a millstone on the site of the Battle of Little Mountain, but moved when the interstate was built.  Today, that millstone is at the entrance to a Mount Sterling Factory near Midland Trail Industrial Park.  A historical marker was placed at the corner of North Maysville Street and Hinkston Pike in Mount Sterling that gives a brief account of the battle, although the battlefield is some mile and a half away.  This wouldn't be the last fight between the Kentuckians and the Natives; five months later, the Battle of Blue Licks took place not far from where Captain Estill fell.  In 1793, a Shawnee and Cherokee war party raided Morgan's Station along Slate Creek in present day Montgomery County, the last known organized Native American raid in Kentucky.  Although the Battle of Little Mountain is regarded as Estill's Defeat, it was a courageous and hard fought battle by a group of brave men who helped shape the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Millstone marker depicting the Battle of Little Mountain, along US 60 in Mount Sterling.


  1. Rob ~ I lived in Owingsville from 1950 to 1957 and graduated from Bath County High School. Somewhere along the way I came up with a check written by Ruth Owings and I'm pretty sure it was written to someone who worked at the Cannon Ball Iron Works. It was written on a scrap piece of paper in the 1800's. Was she the wife of Thomas Deye Owings? You can reach me at CelebrateLove@cox.net.

  2. Interesting,Owings had a wife early in his years who died around 1801, but I can't find her name anywhere. His second wife was Maria and they had several children. Do you still have the document?