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 River
     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.

Return to Wise
Return to Articles

Copyright Notice
All files on this site are copyrighted by their creator. They may not be reproduced on another site without specific permission from Vickie Sturgill Stevens . Although public information is not in and of itself copyrightable, the format in which they are presented, the notes and comments, etc., are.