The Clinch Scouts
The Clinch Scouts,
sometimes called "Indian Spies," are known to a few local research historians,
but the general public never heard of them. When the settlements along
the Clinch and Powell Rivers in Southwest Virginia were the extreme western
frontier, these scouts patrolled 150 miles of rugged mountainous wilderness.
They ranged from the headwaters of the Clinch and Bluestone Rivers to Cumberland
Gap in Lee County. From 1772 to 1794 the frontier was terrorized and plagued
by constant and sudden attacks from the Shawnee and Cherokee Indians, bent
on murdering, pillaging, burning and horse stealing. This was guerilla
warfare in its earliest form. Small raiding parties would suddenly swoop
in, murder their victims and fade quickly into the dense
To protect themselves
the settlers had built a string of forts strategically located along the
frontier. At the headwaters of the Clinch and Bluestone rivers were Witten's
and Wynn's and Davidson's Forts, at Elk Garden and New Garden, on Indian
Creek at Daniel Smith's, Glade Hollow between Lebanon and Castlewood. Russell's
Fort in Upper Castlewood and Moore's in Lower Castlewood, Ritchie's at
Gray's Island, Fort Blackmore, Rye Cove Fort, Scott's on Wallen's Creek,
Rocky Station on Powell River in Lee County, and Martin's Station ten miles
from Cumberland Gap.
These forts were
defended by volunteer militia and every man and boy above the age of 15
were required to serve. Among this volunteer militia were those who volunteered
or were chosen as Indian spies. The spies volunteered for tours of duty
of three, four and nine months duration, the latter period so arranged
that they could serve for nine months or one year, or be discharged at
the end of nine months, which would fall upon the first of January. Thus
the enlistment date was from the first of April preceding.
The spy groups were
organized much like other militia groups with a certain number of men composing
a Captain's command and down the scale to that of a Sergeant's command.
All of course were under command of a field officer who held rank up to
that of a General.
Scouts or spies
were divided out into groups of twos and fours - usually in pairs. Each
pair was allotted a certain section of the frontier where the war paths
of the Indians were watched for approaching Indians, and other signs looked
for. The scouts were not an attack force, but exactly what they were called
"spies". When the spies saw approaching Indians, or signs where they had
been, they hid away to warn the settlers so they could prepare for defense.
Had not these scouts
faithfully performed their duties, it is hard to imagine what dreadful
massacres would have been perpetrated against the frontiers, especially
the Clinch and Powell River settlements with nothing between them and the
Cherokees to the south and the Shawnee to the north, but countless miles
of forested wilderness. The Clinch and Powell River line of forts were
in a measure a buffer defense for the Holston settlements and many more
atrocities were committed on the Clinch and Powell River than on the Holston
April through September
was the most dangerous time for Indian attacks. During these months the
weather was nice for travel and the leaves of the forest were a screen
for their approach. It was a profitable time for attack also, as the settlers
were apt to be in their fields trying to cultivate or harvest their grains
for winter's bread, and were often surprised and massacred before they
could fly to the forts. The Indian spies were always out during these months,
but despite their vigilance the Indians often slipped through. Another
time that was dreaded by the pioneers was the balmy, hazy days of late
October and early November, when the Shawnee often ventured down for a
foray and has left us the popular phrase "Indian Summer."
I can think of no
group on the frontier who underwent more privation and hardship than the
Clinch scouts. They carried their supplies on their backs, slept on the
ground, and foraged for their food and could build no fires. Unless Indians
or Indian signs were spotted they lived in the wilderness for weeks at
a time before returning to the forts for supplies.
James Fraley, who
was one of the Clinch spies, chosen because of his skill as a hunter and
dexterous use of the rifle, says: "The spies had particular sections allotted
to them, where the war paths of the Indians crossed, and sometimes we would
not return, unless Indian signs were seen for a month. The spies, be it
remembered, were to fund themselves. We lived on venison and bear meat."
Often the spies
would separate and spy in opposite directions during the day, meet at a
pre-arranged place at night, where they would sleep on the ground until
it was time to resume the next day's march. The distances some of these
spies covered is almost unbelievable. James Fraley tells of spying on the
headwaters of the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers, and ranged as far as
what is now Harlan and Perry Counties in Kentucky. Richard Wells, another
of the Clinch rangers, tells of spying in this same territory as far as
Perry and Elliott Counties.
Many of the spies,
in their pension claims, allude to the terrible hardships they underwent
and speak of the terribly cold winter of 1779-1780. James Fraley states
that in that year all the leaves were down by August.
We would be horrified
today if our country sent young boys to war, but let's listen to the statement
of Alexander Ritchie, another of the Indian spies. In his pension claim
filed in Claiborne County, Tennessee in 1839, he states: "I was born in
Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1764, and moved to the Clinch with my
father when it was yet Botetourt County (prior to 1773). I was called out
as a volunteer at Blackmore's Fort under Captain Joseph Martin in the spring
of 1776, while I was yet a boy, but well grown." perhaps a 12-year-old
may be "well grown," but he is still a child in age. Nevertheless, despite
his tender age, Alexander Ritchie served from the time he was 12-years-old
in 1776, through 1782 when he was an 18-year-old boy, the draft age in
our country today. He
continued to serve on through 1786. It might
be interesting today for many to check the pension statements of many Indian
fighters and Revolutionary War soldiers, especially a roster of King's
Mountain men where it can easily be ascertained that twelve, fourteen and
sixteen year old boys were often in the forefront of many battles.
Often the Clinch
scouts would join other militia groups in pursuing Indian parties who had
killed or captured their neighbors. Some were killed, others captured,
and still others continued to spy and fight the red man for twenty long
years, from 1774 through 1794, when the killing of the notorious half-breed,
Chief Benge, finally brought lasting peace to the western waters of Virginia.