A couple of weeks ago I told you about Henry Crist, one of the early pioneers of the Kentucky Territory and a sort of left handed relative of mine. From the age of around 15, Henry, along with members of his family and mine, made several trips into the Kentucky Territory. At a very early age Henry began working with a man named Jacob Myers, locating and laying claim to large tracts in the wilderness.
The most valuable commodity in this new land, besides the game, was the land itself…and salt. Salt deposits near the streams drew herds of deer and buffalo which drew hunters. The hunters required large quantities of salt to preserve their meat. But salt was expensive and difficult to transport over the mountains from the east.
The discovery that the area contained salt laden clay which leached into the waters, made this a prime area for the first industry in Kentucky…salt making.
Entrepreneurs found they could produce large quantities of salt by boiling away the water in huge kettles over a trench of fire.
In 1788, Henry Crist, with a friend named Solomon Spears, obtained interest in a production site called Long Lick. In the spring of that year, the two men purchased a quantity of large kettles in Louisville and hired a flatboat with crew to transport them by river to their claim.
Crew and passengers, totaling twelve men and one woman, boarded the boat to travel along the Ohio to the Salt River, then up that river to a place called Mud Garrison, located near where modern-day Shepherdsville, Kentucky now stands.
You need to understand that in the late 1700’s, rivers were the interstates the pioneers used to move goods. On the map, the area of the salt licks was almost directly south of Louisville and not that far by land, but to move the heavy cargo of huge 100-pound kettles, the river was the route of choice.
The spring levels of the Ohio and Salt rivers made the journey somewhat easier. The water flowed above the sand banks and by May, the current was fairly slow and dependable. The broad Ohio was safe and easy. Traveling down the center of the river, boats and their passengers were out of reach of any sudden attacks from the ever-present Indians on shore, but upon entering the much narrower Salt River, the boats were in range of rifles and arrows from both shores. For this reason, the men sent out scouts on foot to watch for danger.
On the evening of their first day on the Salt River, Henry and a man named Floyd went ashore as scouts. While they did see some sort of trail, they found no recent evidence of Indians. Early in the morning they returned and around eight o’clock the crew took the boat ashore to cook and eat breakfast.
As they chained their boat to a tree, the party could hear what sounded like the gobbling of many turkeys and two of the crew, anxious to acquire fresh game, headed into the brush with their rifles. As they disappeared over the riverbank, gunfire and yelling erupted.
Horrified, the men on the boat watched as the two hunters reappeared, running for their lives, pursued by several Indians.
Henry Crist was standing in the bow of the boat with his rifle and he was able to fire at the pursuers causing them to drop back and seek cover. As the two hunters reached the water’s edge and climbed into the boat, others were able to retrieve their rifles and return fire. One of the would-be hunters was hit by a bullet which broke his arm, but he managed to get into the river and around to the back side of the boat to be hauled in by his companions.
The huge salt kettles had been loaded in rows down either side of the boat forming a long corridor in the center. Unfortunately, the boat, chained to a tree, was bow to the shore, allowing the Indians to shoot down the length of the boat, providing no cover for the defenders.
Desperate to loosen the chain that bound them to shore, the men needed to free the boat to gain cover and some mobility. Fossett, the injured hunter, could no longer use his rifle, so he grabbed a pole and with covering fire from the others began trying to dislodge the hook on the chain. Eventually, he was able to loosen the chain and the boat began drifting into the river, slowly turning so that the sides faced the bank, finally giving some cover from the Indians’ rifle fire.
With this short respite, the survivors took inventory of the damage. Five men lay dead. Spears, Floyd, Fossett and Boyce were injured, Spears so seriously that it was evident he would not survive. Only three men, Crepps, Moore and Henry Crist were uninjured.
Spears as he lay dying, urged the men to run the boat up on the opposite shore and run for their lives leaving him to his fate, but his companions refused to abandon him.
Ahead of the boat, the men could see a group of Indians crossing the river. They were now under fire from either side making a river escape impossible. As Spears breathed his last, the others saw they must do as he had advised: run the boat aground, separate and hide in the woods.
As the men clambered out of the boat, Crepps and Crist reached out to help the woman disembark, but she was frozen with fear and refused to move. No amount of coaxing would get her to budge and finally, the men had to use their rifles to cover their own escape into the woods.
Hopeless and desperate, the men charged the Indians that attempted to block their escape and managed to get past them, but as they slipped into the covering brush, the Indians fired a last volley. One shot ricocheted off a rock and struck Crepps in the side. Another bullet struck Crist in the heel, breaking several bones in his foot.
Looking back from their cover, the men saw the Indians turn and converge on the boat to take their woman companion captive. While the Indians were thus distracted, Crepps and Crist escaped into the woods where they became separated.
Next week, I’ll tell you of Crist’s desperate fight for survival.