Kentucky has a long, rich history – but unfortunately, the stories of individual Kentucky women start in the late 1700s. While humans inhabited the region since as early as 10,000 BCE, archaeological evidence does not lend itself to identifying individuals. While episode one recounts the one story I could find on Native American women in Kentucky, further investigation turns solely to white women – most of which began nearly 100 years after Europeans met the Indigenous peoples of the region.
In 1769, Daniel Boone was shown Kentucky’s flatlands by John Findley – and Boone found the area to be suitable for settlement. Though originally the home of Shawnee and Cherokee tribes, European exploration had forced the tribes from their homeland. In fact, when Boone viewed the flatlands, all he saw were remnants of the last Shawnee villages. However, the Cherokee and Shawnee remained nearby – and their raids to discourage white settlement continued into the early 1800s.
In 1775, Daniel Boone decided to move his family – including his 13-year-old daughter, Jemima – to Kentucky to live at the new settlement of Boonesborough, in what is now Madison County. She and her mother, Rebecca, were part of a new era in the frontier: they marked the shift to families settling Kentucky. Previously thought off-limits, the American Revolution had disregarded all British treaties with tribes – and hence opened up land beyond the Appalachians to settling as white explored, encroached, and stole Native lands. The arrival of families like the Boone’s marked this shift.
Jemima’s story also reveals the dangers girls and women faced in settling new territory. Two years after settling, Jemima was canoeing with two friends – Elizabeth and Frances Callaway – on the Kentucky River. The girls were overtaken by a Cherokee and Shawnee raiding party, captured, and forced to march north towards Shawnee villages. Kidnappings like this were common – it was an indigenous practice of many Eastern tribes to replace dead relatives. It was also used as a tactic to scare white settlers – but primarily, the Shawnee and Cherokee probably intended for the girls to become part of their tribe. This was common throughout the frontier regions.
Between 1675 and 1763, over 1,600 whites in New England were kidnapped by Native Americans for this purpose – and countless more across other regions of the colonies. Since Native Americans warred to gain control over people – not necessarily territory – the capture of new tribal members was integral to enforcing control and repopulating a tribe after warfare. Children – especially young girls – brought cultural value, serving in customs like “mourning wars,” where adoption of captives restored the community after war. These captives were treated like tribal members – though forced to stay with the tribe and carefully monitored, the goal was eventually to assimilate them into the tribe as full members. This was likely the intent for Jemima, Elizabeth, and Frances, since the girls later recounted that, I quote,
“The Indians were kind to us, as much so as they well could have been, or their circumstances permitted.”– Jemima Boone
Though white accounts of the kidnapping prioritized the threat of rape – some so far as claiming the girls were raped – there is no evidence to back this up. In fact, Daniel Boone himself denied it was possible. Known through the prior tale of Nonhelema, Shawnee cultural traditions highly valued women as producers – and women’s deaths during war “disrupted agriculture and food preparation and eliminated voices of peace that occasionally moderated the war cries of grieving fathers, husbands, and sons.” To lose a woman was highly detrimental, so white captive girls were likely seen as a means of replacing this valuable labor and restoring balance to the tribe. Additionally, rape or other violence against women was frowned upon. Notably, in Shawnee tradition, men considered sexual intimacy with any women as ritually impure during wartime and raiding. Thus, the threat of rape was fantastical – a white invention to characterize the Shawnee as savage and discourage white girls and women from being curious about Shawnee life. This helped preserve white settler culture – discouraging whites from learning about, and even joining, Native tribes. (The subject of whites voluntarily joining Native tribes is a story in itself – I suggest reading the account of Mary Jemison as one example.)
Yet, Jemima was not destined to assimilate. Upon being discovered missing, the girls’ fathers and other men of the settlement formed a rescue party. Despite a few days’ journey separating them, the rescue party found the girls with their captors. On the third morning of their ordeal, the rescue party ambushed the Cherokee and Shawnee, wounding two and forcing the others to retreat – leaving the girls behind. Jemima, Elizabeth, and Frances returned to Boonesborough. But how did the rescuers find the girls? Jemima’s own knowledge of frontier ways. Jemima, Elizabeth, and Frances used their knowledge to bend branches, break off twigs, and leave behind leaves and berries – methods used frequently on the frontier and recognized by those who knew it – as a trail to lead the rescuers to them.
Yet her story does not end there. Upon their return, Jemima, Elizabeth and Frances were a sight to see: because now they looked like Shawnee. During their three days, the raiding party had cut their clothes to the knees, removed their shoes and stockings, and given them moccasins to wear. What we might see as small changes were drastic for the Boonesborough settlers. The girls were also traumatized, though the extent of trauma remains unknown.
Jemima’s story of captivity is brief – especially when compared to other white captives such as Mary Jemison (a more famous story for Mary’s decision to remained with her adopted tribal family). Yet the story was immortalized in romanticized notions of frontier life, including inspiring James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and various historical paintings depicting Jemima’s ordeal.
Like many girls of the frontier, that is where Jemima’s fame traditionally ends – within a year, she and the other girls had married. Jemima later relocated to Missouri with her father. Or so the story goes. But Craig Thomspon Friend, writing in Kentucky Women: Their Life and Times, recounts another episode not as widely known. In 1778, two years after her captivity and around the time of her marriage, Jemima participated in protecting Boonesborough from attack. Now sixteen, Jemima joined other women in the forth by donning men’s hats and clothing to help make the fort appear as if it was more protected than it actually was against Native raiders. In September 1778, only the occasional fallen lock of hair or fuller bosom hinted that the settlers within the fort were not just men. The tactic, along with faulty intelligence from the British governor, helped create an illusion of a strong fighting force to oppose Shawnee chief Blackfish and his four hundred men. Legend states that at one point, the Shawnees demanded to see Boone’s daughters, and Jemima went with two other women outside the fort, removing her cap and hair comb to let her hair flow freely. According to settler accounts, the Shawnee laughed and left.
These two episodes are all that is known about Jemima’s life on the frontier – placing girls and women in a romanticized narrative of vulnerability, with only mere hints to their knowledge, strength, and fortitude for braving the Kentucky wilderness – but only as men required it. This narrative, like many others of captured girls, formed the first American literature dominated by women. Although men and women penned captivity narratives, those of Jemima – and more widely known girls like Mary Jemison – became best sellers and achieved the greatest notoriety, offering inside looks at the culture of Native American tribes as they struggled to maintain their cultural complexity and independence amidst growing encroachment from white settlers.