The 1779 migration to Kentucky was the largest to date and one of the largest ever on Boone’s Trace over the Cumberland Gap. “We began our journey all afoot, except the women and small children”, one man wrote, but many people, men, women, and children alike, walked the entire way. The husband of one poor young couple walked barefoot, his wife beside him with a baby at her breast, leading a single mule loaded with their meager possessions. The Boones and Bryans were considerably better off. Billy Bryan packed his property on twenty-eight horses, led by slaves; Boone had about a half dozen packhorses, on which he had strapped kettles, tools, and even a butter churn. His wealthy kinsman James Carter, a colonel in the Rowan militia, gave Boone two small swivel guns for the defense of the new settlement he planned, and these were packed on a strong horse. But after struggling over the gap the horse died of the strain. “This misfortune put the wits of Boone to work to devise a way to proceed with his burdens,” remembered one friend along with the party, and he built a device he called a “truckle,” something like an Indian travois, with which he attempted to haul the swivels, but they proved too heavy and he was forced to cache them along the trace. Boone was never able to retrieve these cannon, but he never forgot them, and as late as 1817 he and his son Jesse were still trying to retrieve them.
At one river crossing the company found the waters running high and fast, and Boone directed them to wait. The next day the women remained anxious about crossing, but impatient with the delay, Jemima cried out that she would lead them across. Riding double with a young girl, she plunged into the water. Her horse had nearly reached the opposite bank when, frightened by some floating drifting wood, it threw its two riders. “A loud scream went up from the women,” an emigrant later wrote, “but immediately they came to the surface and we seized them and bore them to the shore. The little girl was badly strangled, but Jemima seemed to enjoy the misfortune.” She laughed as the men carried her ashore. “A ducking is very disagreeable this chilly day,” she declared, “but much less so than capture by the Indians.”
The party arrived at Boonesborough in late October of 1779. Little of the damage inflicted during the siege had been repaired and the settlement remained a small, disorderly cluster of stockaded cabins. It was “a dirty place, like every other Station,” one settler wrote, and another British traveler that summer compared its stench with the one that arose from the gutters of Edinburgh. The Bryans immediately went on to resettle Bryan’s Station on the Elkhorn River. Boone had no intention of remaining at Boonesborough, where he felt scorned, but he had to await the proceedings of the land commission, which arrived there in December. After it had approved his claim, on Christmas Day, Boone and a number of kindred families led their packhorses and dogs across the frozen Kentucky to a site where he had previously raised a cabin and made a crop of corn in anticipation of claiming the land for himself. The watercourse had become known as Boone’s Creek, and here at the intersection of several buffalo traces, six miles northwest of Boonesborough, he planted his new settlement of Boone’s Station.
They constructed “half-faced camps made of boards and forked sticks” in which to dwell during the first winter. There was already more than a foot of snow on the ground when they arrived, and the weather, in the words of one of the land commissioners, was as “severely cold as ever I felt it in America.” It was the beginning of what was known afterward as the Hard Winter. Livestock froze to death and game starved; wild turkeys, too weak to move, died on their perches and tumbled into the snow, but according to Daniel Trabue, they “weaare too poore to eat.” Hunting was difficult, for the cold made it “impossible to load our Guns.” Many settlers, “like to have starved to death,” one settler remembered, and Trabue reported that a number of people” did actuly Die for the want of solid Food.” It was certainly a hard winter for the families in their huts at Boone’s Station, but Boone had brought an ample supply of corn from North Carolina, which he “divided even to his last pone with the newcomers,” and brought in an adequate supply of game. There was a sugar grove nearby, and with the coming of spring the women and children hastened to make maple sugar to augment the meager diet. “The poor miserable buffalo would come to drink the sugar water,” one of Boone’s nieces remembered, and they “could hardly drive them off, they were so poor. “Meanwhile, the men “erected cabins and stockaded them, with port holes,” as protection from Indian attack. Boone and Rebecca may have lived for a time at the fort, but according to descendants, they soon moved to a cabin several miles southwest on Marble Creek.
His departure from Boonesborough and his relocation in the woods fueled talk that had begun in North Carolina about Boone’s antisocial behavior. Years later one old man told a tale of a visit he had made to Boone’s Marble Creek farm when he was a boy in the early 1780’s. As he and his father ride up to Boone’s “hut,” they see the “old backwoods hunter” sitting on his porch, “dressed all in leather,” and surrounded by his dogs. He hails them to come on, and while the boy plays with Boone’s two young sons, the men chat about “how many deer, buffalo, and bear Boone had killed that day.” Boone asks the distance to their place. About seventy miles, the man replies. “Old woman, “ Boone calls to Rebecca, “we must move, they are crowding us.” This folk image of the “old backwoods hunter,” however, had little in common with the real-life Boone of the early 1780’s, the head of a growing and influential clan, an aspiring landowner and businessman, and a respected leader of frontier society.
Those interested in participating in the July event at Boones Station can call the fort at 859-527-3131 ext 216, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information and registration. We hope to have an interesting and informative event to introduce the site to reenactors and to the general public as well.