Estill’s Defeat

A Kentucky Battle In 1782

By Charles Aubrey Buser

It is difficult now to appreciate the significance of a small battle fought in the depth of the Kentucky wilderness a bit more than two centuries ago. For the first time equal numbers of white frontiersmen and Indians had faced each other in an open, sustained battle and the Indians had been the victors. One historian likened the effect to “a shudder passing along the frontier.”

The year was 1782 and it was a time of sparsely populated white settlements, usually along small streams where fertile, relatively easy to till land could be found. The population was made up of brave, rugged, mostly poor refugees from the eastern seaboard or Europe. Opposing them was a people fighting for the very basis of their lifestyle. The tribes of the Midwest had already suffered at the hands of the growing white population and few doubted that the aim of the whites was the annihilation of the red man.

There had been battles and skirmishes and raids before. The year of the terrible sevens, 1777, had been marked by suffering and hardship on both sides. Every white settlement and every tribe in the region had horror stories to tell. Why was that particular battle different in March, 1782? The difference was that the Indian war party that day was composed entirely of Wyandots, picked warriors from villages in Michigan and Ohio.

The Wyandots had already gained a reputation as the finest warriors in the mid-continent but only in recent years had they been at all well armed. Until a few decades before, they had been dependent on the French for guns. The quality of the French musket was quite poor and had, in fact, led directly to defeat of the Wyandots by their cousins and often foes, the Iroquois. The Iroquois of present day New York State had been armed by the English and the Dutch with muskets and rifles manufactured in England, Holland and Germany. It was no contest.

Following the French and Indian War, the Wyandots joined forces with the English and the Iroquois, considering them less a threat than the ever-increasing menace of the American white settlements. The new alliance paid instant dividends. For twenty beaver skins a Wyandot could purchase a Hudson’s Bay “fusil”, a smoothbore musket that was serviceable yet light enough in weight as to be carried great distances. Of course it was still necessary to carry a pound or so of gunpowder and a quantity of lead shot and a spare flint or two. To keep the powder dry it is now known that some warriors carried it in glass bottles inside a deerskin pouch.

Even with the better arms, the white frontiersman who could afford a Kentucky long rifle felt more than a match for an Indian brave armed with a fusil. The long rifle had a decided edge in range and accuracy. It is a myth, however, that every frontiersman owned a long rifle. It is not known how the twenty-five Kentuckians and the twenty-five Wyandots were armed March 22, 1782 but chances are they were about on a par.

Estill’s Station was one of several forts built to protect residents of family farms clustered in a given area. Estill’s was located about fifteen miles from its more famous neighbor, Boonesborough. Raids by war parties originating to the north were not at all unusual. Shawnees, Mingoes, Delawares, Potawatomi and Wyandots knew the area well. Kentucky had long been a favorite hunting ground. There were even raids by some of the tribes to the south.

Nearly always the war parties traveled on foot. Horses were scarce in the Indian community and the Ohio River was quite a barrier. The Wyandots had no horses at all until they captured a quantity in 1755 when they helped defeat General Braddock. Whenever possible, rude rafts were built to take advantage of any favorable flow of water. The first the settlers knew of a war party in the area was when an empty Indian raft floated past Boonesborough on the Kentucky River. Immediately an alarm was sounded and runners were sent to nearby stations. That occurred March 19th. It confirmed fears that a Wyandot war party that hit another fort, Strode’s Station, March 1st was still in the general area.

At Strode’s the attackers had killed two men and a number of livestock but, after a thirty-six hour siege, had faded away into the forest leaving the settlers with the uneasy hope that they had returned to their villages north of the Ohio.

Instead of heading home, the Wyandots worked their way eastward and crossed the Kentucky River several miles upstream from Boonesborough. By the 19th of the month, they were in position to hit any of a number of stations or any farm or cabin in the area.

Captain James Estill put together a force of roughly forty men and set out on a search of the area. The Wyandots waited only long enough for Estill and his men to clear the area and then approached the fort which was then almost without men to defend it. They chose not to attack the fort itself but did succeed in killing a woman and in capturing a slave owned by Captain Estill. The slave, whose name was Monk, convinced the Wyandots that the fort was not without defenders so the leader of the war party decided to withdraw for a time.

Two boys left the fort and caught up with Estill’s search party. Estill chose twenty-four of his best men to accompany him and sent the remainder back to the fort for protection of those gathered there. Then Estill and his party set out on horseback in the direction he thought the Indians were headed.

At approximately 10 O’clock in the morning, March 22nd, Estill located the Wyandots as they were crossing a small stream called Hinkston Creek, sometimes also known as Small Mountain Creek or Little Mountain Creek. The location is near present day Mount Sterling and is about one and one-half miles northeast of Little Mountain. In fact, the battle is often referred to as the Battle of Little Mountain.

The Wyandots on one side of the creek and the white men on the other side spotted their enemy about the same time. All took cover as there were plentiful trees in that location. The entire battle area occupied about eight or ten acres and the battle lasted just under two hours. Near the end of the first hour, with neither side giving an inch, Estill decided to divide his forces. He sent a Lt. Miller down stream with six men. They were to head for a ravine that would take them to a small hill that would flank the Wyandot position. It was a reasonable ploy but the Wyandots picked up on it immediately and decided on a frontal assault on the main body. They charged across the river and carried the day.

There are all sorts of versions of the battle and a great difference in claims of dead and wounded on both sides. At the very minimum, Captain Estill and seven of his men were killed on the spot. More were wounded and no doubt some died of those wounds. Some Wyandots were killed and some were wounded. Exaggerated claims of Wyandot dead seem put aside because the Wyandots did not head for home but continued in Kentucky for a time and conducted a series of minor raids.

What is accepted by all is that it was a notable Wyandot victory. Estill’s men fled the scene taking only their wounded and none of their dead.

What of the Wyandots? The name of the leader of the war party is not known but he was one of those who did not survive the battle. The only warrior whose name is known is Splitlog, one of the foremost warriors of his day. He was the brother of Roundhead, another famous warrior, who may also have been in the battle but it is unlikely we will ever know.

Today there is a roadside marker at the battle site. It reads as follows:

“ESTILL’S DEFEAT here on March 22, 1782, in Battle of Little Mountain. Captain James Estill and 7 of his force of 25 pioneers were killed in desperate hand-to-hand fighting with a band of 25 marauding Wyandots.”

A writer named Cotterill later wrote in HISTORY OF PIONEER KENTUCKY, (p. 181):

“The effect of this battle was indescribable. Kentucky had never before been invaded by Indians capable of fighting so determinedly. The Kentuckians had tried the mettle of the Wyandots and had to acknowledge defeat. Henceforth the very name spread terror over the land. The white dead had been left with the Indians, and Kentucky felt keenly the disgrace of this. Previously they had despised the Indians; henceforward they were compelled to dread.”

In the Indian community, word of the battle served only to confirm and enhance the reputation of that small but valiant people known as Wyandot.

C. A. Buser

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