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John Hilyard Family ca. 1909

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Life and Murder of Peter Harper

I want to tell you about one of my most colorful relatives. He isn't a direct ancestor of mine. His name was Peter Harper, and I think I'm one of the few people that can tell you his story. Peter didn't live long enough to have a family of his own. He was murdered on this date, two hundred and twenty-five years ago and by my best guess, he was about 27 years old.

(This is not Peter Harper. But this is what he looks like in my mind. 
 Picture borrowed from another family history blogger.)

Peter's brother John was one of my 5th great-grandfathers on my mom's side. Peter and John lived during an exciting time in our country's history, when citizens of the newly-formed United States were spreading into Kentucky.  They lived during the time of Daniel Boone, and even lived at his fort during the hard winter of 1779.

There are several first-hand accounts of these days.  Many of the early settlers and pioneers were interviewed and their stories written down. I have been fortunate enough to find several references to my Harper family in these literary gold mines. This is an area I am still actively researching and I have much more information than is presented here, but I want to focus on Peter for this post.

Just a little background: Peter's mother Betty was kidnapped by Indians after moving from the relative safety of their home in Prince William County, Virginia to the Potomac River valley frontier. I haven't been able to pin the year down exactly, but it was around 1760. While in captivity, she became pregnant with Peter by one of her Indian captors. As you will see from an interview below, Betty and her young son Peter were rescued and returned to the Harper family, which included at least seven brothers and two sisters.

These are some of the recollections about Peter I've been able to track down:

From "Shane's Interview with Pioneer William Clinkenbeard" published in the Filson's "The History Quarterly" April 1928, vol. 2, no. 3, p. 104:

"Peter Harper, a half Indian and Enos Terry were along. Harper shot, at the distance of ten steps, against a tree, and the bullet flew back, flat as a 4-pence, so that he just took one step and picked it up. Hit a buffalo in the forehead and it fell off flattened, it did, never entered the buffalo. The buffalo had been wounded several times and lay in a creek. They stoned it till it set after them. They are very quick in their motion and it bounced up and was after Harper and Terry. Terry caught hold of Harper's sleeveless coat as they run. Had like to have a fight about it. Didn't want it to die there."

From the same interview, pp. 109-110:

"Peter Harper, that half Indian, and the whole family (Mother, Jim Harper, her son, Peter's brother, and two or three of her daughters) lived in the fort {Strode's} awhile. None of them half-Indians but he. I think he was the youngest. Looked as much like an Indian as could be; black hair and straight walk. [His mother was rescued from the captivity, which was the cause of his Indian paternity, by Boquet's Expedition in 1763.] Their feet less in size (Indians) toes turned in. We could tell their tracks. Knew one, Big-foot's; he used to visit us often."

Peter received a land grant of 400 acres. He and two other men surveyed the land on Slate Creek in what was at the time Fayette County, Virginia on January 27, 1784. This would later become part of the commonwealth of Kentucky.  This is the little map that was sketched into the survey record:
Land descriptions of this time and place are very...interesting. We'll leave that for another post.

The next year, Peter returned to his old home in Prince William County and wrote a will on October 10, 1785. He was only about 23 at the time and unmarried, so he willed his possessions to his mother Betty.

Peter was back on his land grant by 1787 where he appeared on the tax list. His land was located fairly near his mother on Howard Creek, and his brother John on Lulbegrud Creek. Peter's nephew George joined him in his little cabin. They planted corn. A story was even told that they 'caught four or five bear cubs and kept them in a low pen covered over with logs and there was fattening them upon his corn. They came for the corn as natural as a parcel of pet pigs would.'

Peter kept dogs that were known to neighbors. William Clinkenbeard, an early pioneer, wrote about chasing after an Indian, "Saw a little dog of Peter Harper's after the Indian that got away, jumping up by his side, three or four times. Thought, if there had been anyone had been near to give him encouragement, he would have taken the Indian. Peter Harper always took this dog with him."

By considering different accounts of Peter's last days, I was able to pinpoint his death date.  In the book, "In Search of Morgan's Station" by Harry G. Enoch, p. 46: "Several misfortunes occurred in Bath County during the winter of 1789-90. On a cold December morning, Peter Harper went out hunting on Salt Lick Creek about ten miles east of Morgan's Station. He killed a deer and carried it home. The next day Harper went back to Salt Lick and never returned. On the morning of his disappearance, Harper stopped at Morgan's Station. He told James Wade that he was going out to gather some large pine knots, which he had promised to take his mother for her neighbors. They used rosin from pine knots to make wax. Wade later recalled, 'There was a little spit of snow that day. Harper had gotten to his destination and was ready to start back at the time that, we suppose, the Indians killed him. For the horse came in with the pine knots and leather apron across his back and the pommel of the saddle was all bloody.  George Harper [Peter's nephew] came and told us of it."  ...The Wades spread the alarm...and went to tell Harper's mother on Howard Creek.  A company of militia was sent out, but Harper's body was never found."

On p. 48 Enoch continues: "On Sunday morning, December 12, Benjamin Allen killed a turkey with his father's shotgun." In the next paragraph, he states: "The Allens had reached the mouth of Mud Lick Creek Sunday afternoon with about an hour of daylight left. Peter Harper, hunting for his two dogs, came along while they were waiting. He said the dogs had run off chasing a bear, and he was going to look for them at the beaver pond, about two miles north on the Licking River. This was the same day Harper was killed."

So, combining these testimonies, Peter Harper left his home on Saturday, December 11, 1789, to go hunting on Salt Lick Creek. He got a deer and came home. The next day, he went out again. He stopped at Morgan's Station, and talked with James Wade. He let Wade know of his plans to gather pine knots. He was accompanied only by his dogs.

Late in the afternoon, the dogs took off after a bear.  Peter came upon a party of men, including the above Benjamin Allen, who was 16 at the time. These men were hunting at the salt licks, coming from the Clark settlements. The party had split up, and Benjamin's part of the group was waiting for the rest. Peter said he was going to look for his dogs. The Allens decided to build a fire against the cold and snow. The rest of their party didn't return, and neither did Peter. The next morning, they were attacked by a party of four Indians. Benjamin's dad was shot, and Benjamin was taken captive. This is what led some to believe Peter might have been killed by Indians, as this Shawnee party was active in the area. At this same time, also according to Benjamin Allen, James McMillan was hunting in the same woods as Peter Harper. McMillan later boasted about killing an Indian that same day.

William Clinkenbeard recalled: "Harper built a little cabin tother side of the Little Mountain [Mount Sterling]. We passed by there going after horses once, following Indians. He had jerked meat hung up in the cabin. Harper got killed and we never knew how, whether by the whites or Indians. His horse was found with saddle and blanket and a pine knot tied on it behind him. Supposed it was on the waters of Lulbegrud Creek where McMullen said he shot an Indian (James McMillan). Everybody said it was Harper from the description given by McMullen, an Indian on a horse. Harper was never found that I heard tell of. McMullen said he killed an Indian on a sorrel horse with a bald face, coming up through a canebrake on the waters of Lulbegrud.  McMillan was a fine soldier. Would fight like a horse. Never seemed to do well after this. Everybody believed he thought it was an Indian, but if it was a white man through mistake, he ought to have told it. McMullen and Harper, too, were quiet, peaceable, harmless sort of men. Nobody believed McMullen would have done it intentionally."

So, on December 12, 1789, in Bath County (then Virginia) Peter Harper met his demise, either at the hands of a Shawnee party, or being mistakenly shot by James McMillan.

This is as close as I can get to Peter Harper, photographically:

Martha Tillery Moore (1853-1932)
Great-grandniece of Peter Harper
My great-great grandmother


  1. Very interesting read! Thank you for sharing! :) (You've done great research!)

  2. What a great story and so well researched. You have a unique family memory to share with the generations.

  3. Vonda,

    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  4. Very interesting story, and well researched!