The Defeat of Thomas Ross

On Feb. 20, 1792, an Act of the United States directed that on and after June 1, 1792, a postal route “from Richmond [Virginia] . . . to Danville in Kentucky.”

U.S. Post Office Department records indicate that the first mail service to Kentucky was scheduled for October 18, 1792, but existing records do not show whether or not mail was delivered in Kentucky at that time.

Official records do show that on August 20, 1792, Thomas Barbee was granted a commission as postmaster at Danville, Kentucky, but the date the post office opened there is uncertain.

However, on March 21, 1793, “postrider” Thomas Ross, the first known mail carrier to travel the postal route established in the fall of 1792, was on his way from Holston, Tennessee, to Danville, Kentucky, accompanied by two other men, the Rev. Joseph Brown and a Colonel Friley.

An account of the fateful events of that journey were detailed in a narrative by the Rev. Joseph Brown on March 30, 1858. Brown’s account was printed in the Banner of Peace newspaper, published on August 5, 1858 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Rev. Brown tells how he went to East Tennessee on business in the winter of 1793 and on his return joined a company with Colonel Robert Hayne, a brother-in-law of Gen. Jackson, and others.

When they reached Knoxville, Tennessee, a Cherokee trader informed them that a large body of Indians was planning to waylay the company going to Nashville and advised Brown and Hayne to go through Kentucky to avoid the ambush, which they did.

Two days into the journey, Brown’s horse came up lame and Brown was compelled to return to Knoxville for a week in order to allow the horse to recover.

At that time the postrider, Thomas Ross, and a Colonel Friley came along, Brown said, “and as they lived in Kentucky concluded if they could go safe I could.” So the next morning the three men set out for Kentucky.

Everything went fine until two o’clock the second afternoon, when on the east side of Little Laurel River they were fired on by a party of Indians. Luckily, the three men escaped unharmed and made a mad dash for the river.

Ross’s horse was faster than Brown’s horse, and Ross was about sixteen feet ahead of Brown when an Indian from behind a tree fired at Ross and shot his horse through the ear.

“She wheeled back and as they fired on Ross and me, Friley said there was twenty or thirty guns fired at us too,” Brown said. “Friley was forty yards behind, but our horse was scared at the screaming of the Indians and the guns and dodging they missed us both.”

Ross and Brown “dashed back and met Friley and we all came in abreast to [a] large fallen tree,” Brown said. “I was on the left and Ross in the middle and as Ross’s mare charged the log her four feet went into the ground so she fell on her breast and then on her side and he went over her head and his gun fell out of his hand.” That was the last Brown saw of Ross.

“Friley hollered to me that he was wounded and for me to charge my horse down the [river] bank or they would have us,” Brown said. “I answered him that I was wounded also and turned my horse toward the river.”

Brown and his horse plunged down the steep bank and into the water. They made it across the river and halfway up the slate bank on the other side, but Brown’s horse fell and Brown jumped off and started to run when he saw Ross’s mare approaching the riverbank. Brown observed that “She had the mail on and his blanket just as he [Ross] left her.”

Brown caught the mare and leaped onto her back. He saw Friley going over the hill more than a hundred yards ahead and Brown rode after him, catching up with him within a quarter of a mile.

Brown and Friley rode about twelve miles to the home of an unnamed Dutchman who took the men in, dressed their wounds and cared for their horses.

A few days later Brown left the Dutchman’s house, determined to get medical aid for his shoulder wound. About a quarter of a mile along the trail, Brown came across Ross’s mare, who had lost the mail and her saddle. Brown put his own saddle on the mare and rode her the forty miles to Crab Orchard, home of William Whitley, where he found a doctor—who happened to be a brother-in-law of Ross.

The doctor “treated me with a great deal of kindness and tenderness for six weeks before I felt able to start home,” Brown said.

A nephew of Colonel Whitley later give Brown “information of judgment of heaven on the very Indians that wounded me.”

Simon Kenton and a company of men tracked the Indians and ambushed them. The men retrieved the mail that Brown left on Ross’ mare and rescued the prisoners that were taken when McFarland was defeated the Tuesday after Brown, Ross and Friley were attacked.

Newspaper accounts reported the attack and Ross’s death, though not in the detail supplied by Brown:

“On the 21st of last month, Thomas Ross (post rider) and two other men on their way from Hawkins court house, in this Territory, to Kentucky, were fired on, near Laurel river by a party of Indians, supposed to be Cherokees, and the white man Ross was killed, the other two men were wounded, but made their escape. These wretches carried their brutality so far as to cut off his head and the flesh from his bones.” March 23, 1793, Knoxville, Tennessee.

“About 3 weeks ago, Thomas Ross, Postrider fell sacrifice to the Indians in the wilderness.” Bowen’s Centinel and Gazette, April 15, 1793, Winchester, Virginia.

You can read Rev. Brown’s entire narrative HERE: Rev Joseph Brown narrative

Next week: McFarland’s Defeat.

Thanks for stopping by!

Danna Estridge, Guest Blogger

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