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Our Rich History: Revolutionary War forces suffered defeat in NKy thanks to Simon Girty’s war party

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

On October 4, 1779, the American Revolutionary forces suffered a defeat in Northern Kentucky. Patriot Colonel David Rogers was working his way upstream on the Ohio River with much-needed gunpowder and other military supplies provided by the Spanish in New Orleans. With a force of about 70 men, the little group was polling two keelboats upstream to Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh).

Only managing about 20 miles a day fighting the current, they were near the mouth of the Licking River when they observed a canoe overloaded with warriors crossing the Ohio River. Thinking this to be a raiding party, Rogers ordered the boats to beach on a nearby sandbar.

Hoping to catch up to them, Rogers’ men pursued the warriors along the banks of present-day Newport, Bellevue and Dayton. What they didn’t know was that this was a ruse. Rogers’ force quickly came under fire by a war party more than twice their size. The war party, led by Simon Girty, quickly killed or took prisoner all but 13 soldiers.

Simon Girty

Simon Girty

Two of the more interesting figures involved in this conflict were Robert Benham (1750-1809) and Basil Brown. In the ensuing ambush, Benham was shot in the hip. He fell into a hole and was hidden by brush. He lay there unable to move while Indians killed and scalped the wounded. A day later, after shooting a raccoon for food, he heard a whistle. Private Brown, wounded in both arms, had also survived the carnage and escaped to the woods. When he returned to look for survivors, Benham whistled back and Brown found him stuck in the hole. Benham was able to get out by holding onto one of Brown’s legs.

For nearly three weeks, they survived by working as a team. Benham’s arms and Brown’s legs, when used together, made one functioning person. First, Brown dragged Benham by a rope around his waist back to the mouth of the Licking River. Brown would chase turkeys into range for Benham to shoot. They would then enjoy a cooked meal over a fire that was made by Brown kicking wood to Benham who would start a fire. This nineteen-day fight for survival played out in what is now James Taylor Park in Newport, the so-called “Point” of the Licking where they were rescued and taken to Louisville.

Robert Benham returned to the area as a military contractor in 1789. First living in Cincinnati, he later relocated at Newport. He built his family home next to James Taylor’s home on Second Street. For a time, Benham was a ferry operator, a land agent, justice of the peace, and later, upon relocating again to Cincinnati in 1799, a member of the Ohio Legislature. One could argue that their prolonged stranding on the site of what is now Newport could make them the first to live there, even pre-dating the later settler Jacob Fowler. Benham Street in Newport is named for him.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He is a graduate of the MA in Public History program at NKU.

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  1. Buck Seibert says:

    This took place at was then called the 4 mile bar. Meaning sand bar of course. So that leads me to believe it happened upstream of the mouth of the Licking. I have read several accounts of the incident and they all have minor differences. I’m sure that depended on who was reporting about it at the time.

  2. Jim Williams says:

    I am writing a 400+ page biography of Benham which I hope to finish this year. It was Basil Brown, not John Knox who helped Robert. I am including in my book a copy of a post card of the Manhatten Bathing Beach where the group landed that morning before heading over to the mainland.

  3. Jason McDaniel says:

    Very interesting. I recently read Allan Eckert’s “The Frontiersmen”, a fictional narrative based around actual historical events of Simon Kenton and other early Kentucky pioneers. It was one of the best books I’ve ever read. Jim, I’ll be sure to look for your book when finished.

    My 5th great grandfather was among those captured by Girty and Henry Bird in the summer of 1780 at the seige of Ruddle’s Station, near Cynthiana, KY. They were forced to march to Detroit, then on to Montreal, where they were held captive until the war ended two years later.

  4. Shawn Roberts says:

    My first historical novel Redskins and Lobsterbacks covers this incident .Col Rogers, Simon Girty, Robert Benham and Basil Brown are all in the book.

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