I was privileged to be invited to speak at the Rotary Club meeting in London earlier this week. Although my talk was not about the McNitt Defeat (also known as “Defeated Camp”), one of the members who spoke with me after the meeting had questions about the incident.
Unfortunately, I did not have the answers to his questions, but I told him I would research the event and write about it on my blog in the near future.
So, to keep my promise, I am beginning a new series on “defeats” (massacres) which took place in Laurel County.
First, some of my readers might not be familiar with the term “defeat” in the context of the McNitt Defeat and other similar incidents.
The origin of the term “defeat” for what some today refer to as a “massacre” is rooted in the frontier vocabulary, which is itself rooted in Middle English of the 12th century.
At that time “defeat” meant “destruction, ruin, undoing,” and could apply to one person or to many, unlike the word “massacre,” which means “deliberately and violently killing a large number of people.”
In addition, to be “defeated” did not necessarily mean to be “killed.”
I have at least one first person account from March 30, 1858 by Rev. Joseph Brown of Fort Nashboro (Nashville, TN) that says, “the next Tuesday after I was defeated. . .”
The good Reverend is undoubtedly still alive when telling his story, so in this context “defeated” cannot mean either “massacred” or “killed.”
It simply means he lost the fight but lived to tell the tale.
So “defeat” or “defeated” is more accurate than “massacre” or “massacred” when it was used for certain events during the settlement of the frontier in the 18th century.
OK. Now to the McNitt Defeat.
When the McNitt Defeat took place, Laurel County was not yet a county. In fact, Kentucky was not yet a state—it was still part of Virginia.
But the McNitt Defeat occurred in what is now Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park in Laurel County.
This is a well-known story to many Laurel Countians, as well as to visitors at the park, but history is taught so little in schools nowadays, and local history is often so little-known that the basics of the tale bear repeating here.
There are several different accounts of the incident, some of which were told by descendants of members of the rescue party and may be considered to be as factual as any oral history account of any incident can be.
Others have been told and retold by so many different people through the years that it is difficult to sort out the facts from the fantasy.
The basic story is this:
A group of fourteen families, led by a man named McNitt [or possibly McNutt] were on their way from Virginia to Central Kentucky to relocate there.
The group made camp near the creek in what is now Levi Jackson State Park on October 3, 1786.
Some reports say they failed to post a guard because they had traveled this far without attack and they thought they could relax.
Other reports say they did post a guard but he was surprised and overwhelmed by his attackers.
Some reports say the families danced and drank until late that evening. Other reports don’t mention that aspect of the story.
In any case, the party was surprised some time during the night by a group of Native Americans (some reports say they were Chickamauga), who killed and scalped men, women and children.
Some accounts say 21 people were killed; others say 24 were killed.
Most reports say some few escaped the massacre and hid out in the surrounding woodland until the attackers left. Other reports say some of the McNitt party, usually women and sometimes children, were taken prisoner.
One aspect of the story pertains to the question I was asked after my talk at the Rotary Club meeting. It concerns the report that after fleeing the ravaged camp, one of the women hid in a hollow tree, where she gave birth to a baby during the night.
The questions posed to me were: what was the name of the woman, and did she and the child survive?
While I did find several different accounts of a woman giving birth in a hollow tree following the “defeat,” I was unable to find her name.
The surnames of several families in the ill-fated party were McNitt, Ford and Barnes, so it is possible she was a member of one of those families.
Two account I read say that both the mother and baby survived and were taken to safety the following day when a rescue party arrived from Crab Orchard. Neither narrative gives the woman’s name.
I have attached a document to this blog post which gives several different accounts of the McNitt Defeat so you can read about it in more detail than I have space for in a blog post.
[Click on the link contained in the phrase mcnitt-for-blog in this sentence for access to the document.]
See you next week, when I will write about the Moore Defeat, which took place two years before the McNitt incident.
Danna C. Estridge, Guest Blogger