Simply living life on the Kentucky frontier in the late 1700s was an act of bravery. This principle is exemplified in the story of the women of Bryan Station Fort.
On a day-to-day basis, women at the fort were tasked with tending crops and livestock, cooking, making clothes, and bearing and raising children.
“We’re looking at women as workers as well as warriors in the 1780s,” explains Randolph Hollingsworth, Ph.D., Historian at the University of Kentucky. “Later on, those roles are pulled back, but in the 1780s we see women as industrial workers. Bryan Station is a really good example of the kind of enterprising woman that’s coming into Kentucky at that time.”
Near the end of the American Revolution, Bryan Station was the target of an attack of American Indians British loyalists led by British Canadian Captain William Caldwell. With only 44 gun-bearing men at the Fort, the pioneers were severely outmanned. But even when they learned that they were surrounded, they intentionally went about their lives as usual.
“They created a plan for the women to come down to the well and get water just like they normally would,” says Carol Bailey, Regent, Bryan Station Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “They agreed to come down to the well and pretend like everything was OK. But they were scared to death. They didn’t really know if they would make it back.”
When the attack did finally occur, the fighting lasted two days. Caldwell’s forces retreated when they heard that reinforcements were on the way.
“The Native Americans who had burned most of the surroundings buildings, killed all the livestock, started making their way north,” says Dr. Richard Taylor, Kenan Visiting Writer at Transylvania University. “They moved at a fairly leisurely pace. It’s not as though they were being pursued. It’s almost as though they wanted to be pursued. In fact, some of the accounts that I’ve read said they blazed the trees, cut chunks out of the trees so the trail would be unmistakable.”
The pioneers were advised by Daniel Boone to stay put, but they ignored that advice. That led to the Battle of Blue Licks, about 60 miles away from the fort, a few days later.
“The battle lasted less than 15 minutes,” says Taylor. “There were 182 Kentuckians there; 70-odd were killed. Many made it back across the river where some of them managed to find their horses and escape to Lexington.”
“It was three or four days before a relief party came and they found the mutilated bodies of these 70-odd individuals,” Taylor continues. “It was a truly great defeat not only in terms of men but probably in terms of bravado. It was thought that Euro-Americans were superior to Native Americans in every measurable way. That was not true, as evidenced by this battle in which some of the cream of Kentucky leadership as well as a lot of ordinary militiamen were killed.”
In 1896, the Daughters of the American Revolution built a monument to the women of Bryan Station Fort, recognizing their bravery on the Kentucky frontier during the Revolutionary War. The memorial is inscribed with a quote by historian George Rank:
The women of ancient Sparta pointed out the heroic way. The women of pioneer Kentucky trod it.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2017, which originally aired on May 9, 2015. Watch the full episode.