Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Close Call: Downing & Yates' Escape From Natives

John McClung published a book in 1832 entitled "Sketches of Western Adventure" that offered a glimpse into the settlement of the Western United States.  This book tells the stories of Kentucky's earliest settlers and the struggles with the Native Americans who inhabited the area.  One local recollection can be found in the book and tells the story of two young men and their close encounter with Natives. 
It was August, 1786, and two young men, Francis Downing and one only known as Yates, were living in the blockhouse fortification adjoining the Bourbon Furnace.  A horse belonging to Yates had wandered off from the settlement and, with the help of Downing, a search commenced.  By evening, the pair found themselves some seven miles from the ironworks overlooking a valley.  Downing halted and hushed Yates, advising him to listen closely as he heard what sounded like sticks being broken behind them.  Concerned that the pair were being followed, Downing urged caution.  Yates, who was a bit older than Downing, was an avid hunter and warded off the concern as nothing more than the usual sounds associated with the forest.  Downing voiced his concern again, noting that the sounds seemed to have been following them for some distance before they stopped.  Again, Yates passed it off as paranoia and continued onward into the valley.  Downing followed at a cautious pace, fearing they were being tailed by hostile Natives.  Eventually, Yates had walked several paces ahead and down a hillside.  Downing took the opportunity and ducked into some tall brush nearby, waiting to see if his fears would be verified.  Sure enough, two Natives appeared out of a cane thicket and were observing Yates' movements.  Downing brought his rifle to bear and misfired the shot before he could get the Natives in sight.  The Natives were startled and before they could gather their senses, Downing headed in Yates' direction in a full run.  Yates had heard the shot and was running back to meet his friend, seeing the Natives hurriedly pursuing the pair.  The young men bolted across the field, while the Natives took another path to cut the distance.  The Natives gained on the pair as they tried to outrun them, and soon, a deep trench ahead proved to be the deciding factor in the fight or flight response.  Seeing that retreating back toward the Natives could spell certain disaster, Yates took a bounding leap across the ravine.  Downing attempted to follow suit, but fell short and landed into the deep trench.  The Natives crossed the ravine down from the fallen settler, but either failed to see him or assumed he was too far gone to try and fight.  Downing regained his senses and began to follow the trench until it crested, coming into view of a Native returning to his location.  During his haste, Downing failed to reload his rifle and threw it at the advancing Native as he retreated away.  Fatigue began to set in with Downing as he ran for his life and the Native rapidly gained ground.  The pair ran along a large downed tree, and just as they approached the roots, fate intervened on Downing's behalf.
The Native arrived at the base of the fallen tree, and as he made the turn to meet Downing, a large mother bear with a cub was there.  The bear jumped up at the Native and pounced on him; both Native and animal interlocked in a fight.
The Native managed to brandish his knife and stab the bear, who was viciously defending her cub.  Downing watched this event very briefly and took the opportunity to flee back toward the Bourbon Furnace stockade.  The young man ran at full speed and finally reached the stockade without further incident.  Yates was already back, having escaped his pursuers who had given up the chase some two hours before Downing's arrival.  The pair told their harrowing tale of survival and were thankful they had been spared.  The next day, a party of men returned to the tree's location, but found no sign of the bear, the cub, or the Native. 
Although few, clashes between settlers and Natives weren't uncommon in Bath County.  Two more incidents near the Bourbon Iron Furnace are noted in John Richards' A History of Bath County;  John Ely was attacked and killed by Natives a short distance from the furnace in 1787 along what is now called Ely's Branch, and John McGuire was shot and injured by Natives in the same vicinity in 1792.  Several more widely known, and very bloody, fights occurred in surrounding counties; Little Mountain and Morgan's Station in Montgomery County, Battle Run in Fleming County, and Blue Licks in Robertson County.  Eventually, Native attacks in Kentucky subsided and settlers began taking over the once 'dark and bloody ground' the Natives used for hunting.  While these tales have been handed down through many generations, the early days of Kentucky were surely a fascinating, and dangerous time; painting an adventurous scene in the minds of those who followed.

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