Scouts Patrolled the Sandy Passes to Guard Virginia's Frontier Cabins

By Henry P. Scalf

Published in Floyd County, Kentucky times, April 26, 1956. Contained in the unpublished manuscript, Indian Atrocities Along the Clinch, Powell and Holston Rivers, pages 1-8.

"The Indians are coming up Sandy," was the first cry of many a Virginia border spy in the last quarter of the eighteenth century when he rushed into one of the frontier forts. The report would being hurried preparation for defense, and fleet runners would rush off to warn the scattered pioneers to seek the security of the forts.

Low gaps through the Cumberlands were ingresses into Virginia for the dreaded Shawnee from the Scioto and other Ohio points. When the heavy snows of their midcontinent climate melted and the first signs of spring appeared the redskins stirred from the lethargy of long inaction and turned toward the Sandy Passes. Beyond the gaps of the mountain wall were pioneer settlements and scattered cabin homes. There were plunder and many scalps. Virginians called the gaps the Sandy Passes, kept scouts patrolling beyond them into a wilderness known as the Scouting Ground. Some came through the gap at the head of Dry Fork of Tug River, others through the passes at the head of the Tug.

Many guarded the upper area of the Louisa or, as it is now corrupted, the Levisa Fork, as that entrance to Virginia was one of the favorite ways for the savages. Many, especially during the Revolution, went out from Rye Cove, crossed Sandy Ridge, came through Pound Gap, patrolled down the Kentucky or Big Sandy rivers.

Scouts or spies as many called them, were selected from volunteers. They were rugged, self-reliant, courageous, dreaded little the loneliness of days on the march deep down Big Sandy, Tug Fork or the Kentucky. They went in two's or four's, carried food for the duration of their journeys. They were forbidden to use their guns except in the direst emergencies, were forbidden even to build a fire. Skulking Indians might hear or see and ambush them. Many a frontier settlement went up in flames and its inhabitants carried off or massacreed because its protecting scouts were killed.

Between 1772 and 1774 the county of Fincastle covered all of Southwest Virginia and the present state of Kentucky, its seat being at the Lead Mines. Colonel William Preston was county Lieutenant of the military forces; Major Arthur Campbell, his subordinate, was in direct command west of the New River.

Preston lived at Smithfield, near the present Blacksburg, Campbell was located at Royal Oak, near the present Marion. Upon them developed the duty of establishing a line of defense against the savages who were using the Sandy Passes to enter Virginia and plunder. The thinly guarded line they set up extended from New River down through the Clinch and Holston valleys to Cumberland Gap and from there on to the North Carolina border. Three forts stood sentinel over the headwaters of the Clinch, each jutted against the Western Woods, their portholes towards the Sandy Passes. They were Thomas Witten's fort at Crab Orchard, the Rees Bowen Fort at Maiden Springs and the stockade built at Locust Hill by William Wynne. Farther down the Clinch and Holston were others, many of them rude log houses the pioneers had built.

The year 1774, pioneers were seeking to enter Kentucky. Harrod founded the town named for him but, warned by Daniel Boone and Michael Stoner, he and his 30 men retreated for awhile to Virginia. Others, too, like John Floyd and his surveyors left Kentucky for a season, the Indian danger was so great. Now that the advance guard of white civilization that had entered Kentucky had been retrieved from certain extinction by Boone's warning, the pioneers awaited, this year before the Revolution, the breaking of the storm.

June 25, 1774, the Fincastle military leaders met at the Lead Mines, ordered Colonel William Christian to lead several militia companies to the Clinch and send out ranging parties to search out and attack any Indians coming through the Sandy Passes. Christian organized three companies of fifty men each besides the officers and assembled them at Town House (Chilhowie) and moved from there toward the Clinch. His orders were to march with all his men "to the Clinch and from there over the Cumberland Mountains...to the head branches of the Kentucky." We learn from a letter written by Christian from near the present Abingdon to Col. William Preston that he had elected not to specifically follow orders:

On Thursday last Mr. Doack's letter to Crockett (Capt. Walter Crockett, commanding one of the companies) was shown to me at Cedar Creek about 9 miles ont his side of Stalnakers. I thought it best to send Crockett off with 40 men to the head of Sandy Creek, that the Reed Creek and head of Holston people might know where to send to him in case any attack should be made, that he might waylay or follow the enemy. Yesterday I heard a rumor that 50 Indians were seen at Sandy Creek but as it came through several hands it may not be true."

The day before Christian wrote Preston, Captain Dan Smith, who was stationed at Elk Garden with a force and charged with the defense of the upper Clinch, wrote a letter also to his superior, Russell. Smith was a little scared, and was inclined to blame the inhabitants for "running away". He wrote that the men had said they would return as soon as they had carried their wives and children to safety. "They alleged as their excuse that there was no Scout down Sandy Creek."

There was no scout down Sandy at the time but Smith had tried to put one there. He had entrusted the scouting to James Maxwell but he, fearing for his wife and children, had delegated the matter to his brother, Thomas Maxwell, and went down to Botetourt to see his family. Thomas Maxwell wrote Smith of the arrangement and Smith seemed to be satisfied with it.

Smith detailed many things in his report to Col. William Preston, dated as said, the day before Col. William Christian reported from near Abingdon. As he (James Maxwell) lived most convenient to the head of Sandy Creek I consulted him in regard to scouts that should go down that water course. His brother Thomas was the one pitched upon. On their return from the first trip although they brought no accounts of Indians, as your letter of the 20th ult. Came to hand about that time I sent two scouts down a river called Louisa, and at the recommendation of Mr. Th. Maxwell appointed one Israel Harmon to act with him down Sandy Creek...(and) instead of going down Sandy Creek as I strictly charged him to do he went to the head of the river, reported the danger they were in, and assisted Jacob Harmon to move into the New River settlement.

Smith all but called Maxwell a coward, wanted to court martial him. What Smith didn't know was that Maxwell found the settlements in such dire danger from Indian attacks that he felt obliged to aid in moving them out instead of going scouting down Sandy. He proved his courage at the Battle of King's Mountain six years later and in 1781 (1782), while pursuing the Indians who had captured the wife and children of Thomas Ingles, fought a battle with the savages on the Tug. He was the only white man killed in the fight. Today the place is known as Maxwell's Gap. Four days after Smith reported and three days after Christian wrote, Captain Robert Doack wrote a letter to his superior. It is from these letters, now in the possession of the Wisconsin Historical Society, that we gather some idea of the confusion existing upon the Virginia border and the great fear of Indians who were using the Sandy Passes.

Sir - Agreeable to your order I drafted men and was in readiness to march to the heads of Sandy Creek and Clinch, when some tracks were seen in this neighborhood supposed to be Indians which Col. Christian hearing sent Capt. Crockett to where I was. Ordered and Directed me to range near the inhabitants. We were informed that sixteen Indians were seen on Walkers Creek which I went down with 25 men but not finding any Signs & hearing the news contradicted discharged them. The people were all in garrison from Fort Chiswell to the head of Holston & in great confusion. They are fled from the Rich and Walkers Creek. Some are building forts. They have begun to build at my father's, James Davis' and Gasper Kinders. I think they are not strong enough for three forts but might do for two."

(NOTE: This was Capt. Thomas Maxwell, the brother of James who was killed. See Washington Co., VA for his will. Capt. James Maxwell moved away from the upper Clinch in 1784.)

Col. Christian, in compliance with orders, marched with 90 men to Russell's Fort, on the Clinch. In explanation of his diversion from his original orders he wrote Preston that he thought it was his duty to send Capt. Walter Crockett and his men to "cover the inhabitants that lie exposed to Sandy Creek Pass." In the same letter he advanced the suggestion that about 200 men should be sent to the mouth of the Scioto on the Ohio and up this stream, destroying the Shawnee towns.

On the very day that Christian wrote Col. Preston, Lord Dunmore directed Col. Andrew Lewis to assemble forces from the area to go on an expedition on the Ohio against the Indians. While Lewis was marching toward the Ohio with his frontier troops, leaving the Clinch and Holston valleys almost unguarded, bands of Mingos and Shawnees emerged through the Sandy Passes, brought massacre and captivity to the isolated cabins. September 8, 1774, these Indians killed John Henry, wife and three children. Traveling to the North Fork of the Holston the savages captured Samuel Lammey. Turning toward the mountains through which they had come, they passed through Roark's Gap, went down the Dry Fork of the Tug and out onto the Ohio.

There were other Indian atrocities while Col. Andrew Lewis was away with the guardians of the cabin thresholds but the Battle of Point Pleasant, October 10, 1774, brought an uneasy peace for a short while. The Revolution erupted in Massachusetts, spread to the Western Woods where it was fought with the redskins ont he side of the British.

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, in 1794, in which Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne finally broke the power of the Ohio Indians, made safe for all time the Virginia frontier. It had been 20 yeas since the military leaders met at the Lead Mines and discussed the protection of the western settlements. In that 20 years scores of Southwest Virginians had either died under savage guns or tomahawks or were carried into captivity through the Sandy Passes.

After Fallen Timbers the head stream passes became high roads to the Big Sandy valley. Coming now, not as spies or scouts, but as settlers were the families of men who had guarded the frontier forts through two decades of Indian attrition. Many families had been broken by redskin atrocities, many carried the scars of tomahawks. One of the families, almost destroyed by savage attack, kneaded together now by new members and the stamina of the frontier, was that of Thomas Wiley. His wife, Jenny, rode horseback through Pound Gap, carrying her baby son, Adam, upon the pommel of the saddle. Twelve years before she had been dragged westward into captivity and slavery.

For 65 years after Fallen Timbers the Sandy Passes held no terror for the inhabitants on either side of the Cumberlands. West bound immigrants used them, east bound drovers from the Big Sandy herded livestock over them toward Lynchburg and other Virginia cities. The passes were highroads of peace.

In 1861 war came again to the Sandy Passes. Through them were dragged long wagon trains of war paraphernalia - guns, provisions and military equipment. There was Marshall, the Confederate who used them repeatedly in his forays into Eastern Kentucky; there was Morgan, the rebel raider who rode through them, struck deep into the state. Col. James A. Garfield marched up to Pound Gap, struck a blow at Marshall's troops at early dawn one day. Gen. Stephen Burbridge, Unionist general, marched up Levisa fork entered Virginia through its head stream pass, marched back again after his defeat at the Salt Works, dragging his weary troops this time homeward up the Pound and through its gap.

During most of the Civil War the North occupied most of the Big Sandy, the Confederates held east of the Cumberlands. At the June term of the Scott Co., VA court in 1861, that body appointed two men to "act as picket guard in the direction of the Big Sandy River with a view of ascertaining whether any forces were making preparations or are coming in this direction with a view to invading this county or state."

This Scott Co. Court order sounds like one on the Tazewell or early Southwest Virginia county orders, put on the books three quarters of a century before. But it was Indians the Fincastle and Tazewell pioneers feared. It was Federal troops who dashed through the Pound Gap, July 7, 1863, and captured Gladeville, now Wise. They carried many prisoners back down the Big Sandy, three of them being Rev. Morgan Lipps, Captain Anderson Hays, and Col. Jessee Caudill. Down this same road decades before the Indians had carried Mary and Ann Bush, and at another time Jane Whittaker and Polly alley. The Indians intended to torture their victims or make them slaves of the camp; the Federals calculated to incarcerate Hays and Caudill until the end of the war and keep the Wise Co. Minister to preach.

Rescuers saved the Bush girls after a desperate battle at Jenny's Creek. Jane Whittaker and Polly Alley escaped. The Sandy Passes were high roads to terror then. But in 1863 there was less of terror, often a bit of humor leavened the struggle. Captain Anderson Hays got friendly with his enemies at Asland, Ohio, and when they were relaxed, dug his way out of prison and the Rev. Morgan Lipps refused to preach for his captors at Louisa, although Col. Johnathan Cranor all but threatened to shoot him. But war, either fierce and deadly , or interspersed with humor and gallantry as it was sometimes, is still war in which men bleed and die.

The Sandy Passes facilitated the movements of struggles, may never, of course, be important in another. They will stand forever, though, silent and sphinx-like, and only time and tide will tell.



This file contributed by: Rhonda Robertson


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