Kentucky in the Eyes of Women: Esther Whitley

The below is the script for Season 5, Episode 2 of our podcast, Dime Stories. Listen to the episode on Anchor, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

In our last episode, we recounted the story of Jemima Boone, among the first young women to help settle Kentucky, which was then considered part of the frontier. But Jemima’s story is one of vulnerability, forming a romanticized notion of what life for Kentucky’s white women was like.

To get a more complex story, we must turn to another pioneer family: William and Esther Whitley. Born in 1755 in Virginia, Esther married William Whitley and – at the age of 20 – went with him along the Wilderness Road into Kentucky. After a thirty-three day journey, the couple settled near a fort. Eventually, the acquired that land and built what is now the Historic Whitley House, one of the first brick homes built west of the Allegheny Mountains. Completed in 1794, nearly 20 years after they had first arrived in Kentucky, the Whitley home was built entirely from materials on the surrounding land, showcasing how settlers had to rely only on what they found in Kentucky – there were no methods to import bulk materials from other colonies. Settlers, no matter how well off, were entirely reliant on their labor and that of their surrounding settlers.

Esther is particularly intriguing for the scant references we have to her. Bearing twelve children, eleven of whom survived, Esther was known to be a true frontier spirit. She is cited as being “independent, spunky, resourceful, and tough” – demonstrated during the Siege of Logan’s Fort in 1777. Attacked by Native Americans, settlers were confined to the fort for thirteen days. Unfortunately, their cows were left outside the fort – and Esther was one of only three women who dared leave the fort to obtain milk for those inside. One day, the settlers were shot at when trying to get milk. While the rest retreated inside, Esther – who had lost her hat to a bullet – calmly stopped and picked up the hat before returning to the fort.

Additionally, according to a 2007 interview with park manager Jack Bailey, Esther was said to be “equally as good with William’s long rifle as he was,” proving that she was as ready to defend their home and provide through hunting as the men. In one known episode, William was challenged to a shooting contest by a group of Cherokees; instead, William told Esther to compete – and she won. She may have even used one surviving artifact that we can identify as hers – a rifle with her initials engraved on it, which is on display at the Whitley House.

Unfortunately, that is all publicly available on Esther’s life. Though often mentioned as helping her husband muster troops, provide for settlers coming along the Wilderness Road, or maintaining the home when her husband went to war, Esther’s life is known more from inference than direct statements.

However, Ester offers a differing view of frontier women from Jemima Boone, whose youth and vulnerability contrasts with Esther’s maturity and independent fighting spirit. Yet are the two truly incompatible? I think not. Jemima likely became as astute a frontierswoman as Esther – she would have known how to protect herself and her family, how to survive through her own strength and skill. Esther’s story showcases what Jemima may have become. Both were always vulnerable – everyone on the frontier was – but they adapted to their surroundings and grew into strong women whose stories hint at much more complexity than we have given frontier women credit for being.

As Brynn Holland wrote earlier this year,

“…as scholars of the American West continue to explore the complex realities of the frontier, two facts become increasingly clear: It was anything but empty when white men from the east went to “discover” it; and few frontiersmen succeeded alone. Women were in the picture much more than traditional histories have told.”

Talking with Virginia Scharff, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, we find that women’s stories do not detract from the romanticized frontier – rather, they make it more real and nuanced, helping us find the humanity in stories that seem almost fictional.

“If we start to think of these individual heroic men as participants in really rich sets of social relations, it makes them come to life in ways that are more than just running around with a rifle in their hand and a knife in their teeth looking for trouble,” says Scharff. “They are people who have to live in a world and survive day-to-day, doing things besides having to rip flesh with their bare hands.”

Kentucky women are part of the lived experience and recognizing their true roles in settling Kentucky is a first step to understanding the real story behind our history – and Kentucky.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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