Late 18th Century West Virginia: Indian Attacks, Daniel Boone, and the Coal River – or is it Cole?

I came across this WVU graduate theses/dissertation, from 2007, by John M. Boback, titled, “Indian warfare, houshold competency, and the settlement of the western Virginia frontier, 1749 to 1794,” and it provides research to back up the fact that West Virginia was one of the last “frontiers” of the 18th century frontier. The theses of the paper is that some of the past “revisionist” history misrepresented that West Virginia’s early settlers only faced living on a rough and dangerous frontier for a short period of time – a year or two – when in reality they had a difficult time pretty much the entire last quarter of the 18th century.

The thesis of this dissertation is that Indian attacks into western Virginia during the second half of the eighteenth century caused such widespread damage, destruction, depopulation, and death that it effectively prolonged the frontier period of “West Virginia” history for forty years. From the mid-1750s through the mid-1790s, Indian- related violence and warfare hindered the development of western Virginia. This in turn caused it to lag behind other Appalachian frontiers where Indian-related violence may not have presented such a serious impediment to European occupation. In the course of exploring the relationship between Indian warfare and the European settlement of western Virginia, several important secondary issues are also discussed including the nature of the pioneer household economy, the myth of pioneer self-sufficiency, and the critical question of how the “West Virginia” frontier should even be conceptualized.

It’s important for us – especially Kentuckians – to remember that Daniel Boone moved to (what is now) West Virginia in the later part of the 18th century, I believe around 1788, from Kentucky, staying there until around 1797, at which point he reluctantly returned to Kentucky, before remembering why he didn’t like Kentucky anymore. And then he moved to Missouri around 1799. West Virginia gets no credit for its period of Boone residence. In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “we get no respect – no respect at all.”

Daniel Boone, sitting on a log. Probably in West Virginia.

In Kentucky, people had flooded in, and were settling all over the place. Literally; they were actually settling on top of each other – fighting over land disputes, claiming the same land as 4 or 5 other guys, etc., etc. Preferring peace and quiet, Boone said the hell with this, and he moved to Virginia with his wife Rebecca. In fact, Boone and his wife moved about a mile away from the home of my great grandfathers, who lived what I’ve been told was a huge cedar log cabin on the north side of the Kanawha river, two miles from Point Pleasant, circa 1780s through 1840.

Crooked Creek, as it appears today.

Boone’s trading post was around the bank of Crooked Creek, which is maybe a mile, or a mile and a quarter, from the Bryan cabin – closer to the actual “point” of Point Pleasant. I have to assume that this location must have had something to do with the fact that Daniel’s wife, Rebecca, was a Bryan – Rebecca Bryan, and that the Boones were almost always living with, and around, members of the Bryan family. His wife Rebecca, as best as I can tell, would have been a niece of my 5th great grandfather, who first moved to Point Pleasant. It would be difficult to imagine that they didn’t spend time together while living so closely, given the Bryan connection.

But family or not, it wasn’t to last for very long. Many of the famous frontiersmen, such as Simon Kenton, George Rogers Clark, as well as Daniel Boone, were lousy businessmen, and running a trading post naturally didn’t work out well for him. He then moved to around modern day Charleston, along the Kanawha River.

The spot on the north bank of the Kanawha river, near Point Pleasant, where my 4th and 5th great grandfathers lived in a large cedar log cabin, lost in 1937 to a flood.

Eventually Daniel and Rebecca moved to Missouri, with most of the rest of the Bryan family, whom Boone had lived with most of his adult life. Indeed, he was originally buried on Bryan property in Missouri, before his body was supposedly stolen by Kentucky, in a state-sponsored grave desecration of a rightful Missouri citizen. Of course, many do believe that they were given the wrong body….

All of my family moved to Missouri as well, around the same time, and then on to Montana from there, where my grandfather and father were born. My 4th great grandfather, Robert Bryan – the last Virginian – would remain a Virginian until 1840 or so, before going to Missouri. The reason for his staying, when most of the family left, is that he was the youngest sibling, and as per his 101 year old father’s will, he got the house and farm. This also required that he take care of his mother, who was entitled to a room in his house, which was common back then. After his mother died in 1840, he skedaddled to Missouri.

Last Will and Testament of James Bryan, my 5th great grandfather, one of the first recorded at the courthouse in Point Pleasant (Mason County). In it, he rails against Col. Andrew Lewis, who was the son of Gen. Andrew Lewis, and also Bryan’s son-in-law.

I found the same thing in the will of John Byrnside, who’s father built Byrnside’s Fort, and who had been born on the property. He willed the plantation house to one of his sons, with the requirement that the son’s mother have the lifetime right to live there, which she did, up until the 1850s.

Boone also did some surveying work while he lived in Point Pleasant. Here’s a sample of his work, which not surprisingly caused quite a bit of litigation for himself, and others:

JUNE the 14th 1791 Laide of for Willeam Allin ten acres of Land Situate on the South Este Side of Crucked Crick in the County of Conhawway and Bounded as followeth Viz Begining at a rad oke and Hickury thence North 56 West 23 poles to a Stake thence South 56 Este 23 poles to a Stake thence South 34 West 58 poles to the Begining


Daniel Boone, Facts And Incidents Not Hitherto Published, BY DR. JOHN P. HALE, Charleston, W. Va.,

I’ve heard it said that Kentucky was like the closing of the Wild West just after barbed wire had been put up by the cattle ranchers. The days of the frontier adventures and Indian danger was over for much of the Kentucky population pretty quickly. But in Virginia (now West Virginia), it was still basically as wild as it had been, for some reason.

There was no good road coming into the Kanawha Valley from the main part of Virginia. There was a natural barrier of mountains, and no good way in. Hell, there still isn’t. Nowadays people are forced to use the West Virginia turnpike, which now charges a one way set of tolls at the cost of $12.00. Back then, it was what became known as the Midland Trail, approximately the location of US Route 60. It was a high priority to the early settlers to establish this road, and it was the first road built into the West Virginia frontier, connecting the Greenbrier Valley with the Kanawha Valley.

This area of the Virginia frontier was still isolated into the turn of the 19th century, even when my forefathers and Boone moved to Point Pleasant in the 1780s. In practical terms, you still stood a decent chance of being killed by Indian attack during this period, and really only were protected by the Ohio river, which wasn’t much of a defense strategy.

Point Pleasant and the mouth of the Kanawha River, as it appears from the Ohio shore

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Daniel Boone was one of the earliest West Virginia legislators. While he was living in Point Pleasant, Daniel Boone was elected to, and served in, the Virginia House of Delegates in the year 1791, along with Greenbrier Valley native, George Clendenin, who was the founder of Charleston, West Virginia. As a side note, in almost this very spot last year, we found the long lost grave of George Clendenin’s wife, Jemima Clendenin, along with our late friend, who has now passed on, Mr. Glenn Jewell.

After Boone decided to quit the trading post on Crooked Creek, he moved to the area of present day Charleston, West Virginia, which had been founded by his co-legislator, Geroge Clendenin. The exact site of his cabin there was just upriver from the present-day capitol complex of the State of West Virginia. Now there is a small park and boat ramp along the Kanawha river, directly across from where Boone’s cabin stood. Here’s a marker in the park.

They reconstructed an early 19th century log cabin which had to be moved out of Charleston. It gives a rare glimpse of how homes along this river would have appeared. Though they screwed this one up by using cement as chinking, which traps moisture, it looks good with the wooden shutter windows and shingle roof.

This is the view across the river to present day “Kanawha City” where Boone’s cabin once stood:

Interestingly, many stories survived with the old-timers about Boone’s time in the Kanawha Valley:

When I came to Kanawha, in 1840, there were many old persons living who had known the Boones well. One of them, Mr. Paddy Huddlestone, at whose house I spent several days, about forty years ago, interested me greatly, by relating the incidents of their hunting, trapping and camping together.

I do not now remember the details of these incidents with sufficient accuracy to relate them correctly. but I remember that beaver trapping was a favorite sport with Boone and that, together, they found more beaver on Gauley river than any other stream in this region.

Huddlestone had among his few books, a life of Boone, which I read and which led to the discussion of the subject. I remember how surprised I was to learn that I had just slept under the same roof that had often sheltered the old hero, and occupied the same room.

Jared Huddlestone, son of Paddy, still living, remembers well to have often heard his father tell of his first acquaintance with Boone. A stranger with rifle and pack came to his (Paddys) father’s house one evening about dusk, and asked to stay all night; he seemed tired, did not tell who he was, had but little to say, and soon retired to rest. Next morning, when the family got up for the usual early breakfast, the stranger, with his rifle, was out and gone, but his pack remained, indicating that he had not gone far. It was not long until he came in and got his breakfast, remarking that as he was an early riser he had been looking around a little to see if there were any signs of game about, and told them he had discovered fresh beaver sign near the house. He asked if they had any traps, they told him they had no beaver traps, but had a steel trap for catching foxes. Well, said he to Paddy, “Come young man, get your trap and go with me, and I will show you how to catch beaver.” The first day they were out they caught five, and within a few days exterminated the colony, about a dozen in all. The “sign” which Boone had found, was two saplings cut down from a triangle of three; and the third the beavers had commenced on. Catching the beavers saved the third sapling, which, to-day, is a red oak tree about two feet in diameter, standing at the upper end of Long-shoal.

In 1792, Daniel Boone and Robert Safford went on a beaver trapping expedition on Raccoon Creek, in now Gallia county, Ohio. They camped first about where the town of Adamsville now stands, and later at Beaver Dam, near Vinton.

They caught over one hundred Beavers. When the hunt was over and Boone returned to Kanawha, he presented to his friend Safford his tomahawk and best Beaver trap, which he called “Old Isaac.” This tomahawk and trap have been preserved and handed down in the Safford family, and are now in the possession of Mr. T. C. Safford, of Gallipolis, Ohio.

The Robert Safford above mentioned was one of the first three men who, in 1790, landed on the site of, and helped to lay out and start, the town of Gallipolis.

George H. Warth remembers hearing his father, John Warth, tell of a hunting and trapping expedition which he, Boone and others made on Mill creek, now Jackson county, West Virginia, in the winter of 1793-4. Boone was suffering very much with rheumatism at that time, and could not get about well; so he attended the beaver traps while the others hunted for larger game. To prevent Boone getting his feet wet, Warth used to carry him on his back across the creeks and branches until they got to the trapping grounds, and back again at night.

Daniel Boone, Facts And Incidents Not Hitherto Published, BY DR. JOHN P. HALE, Charleston, W. Va.,

The Kanawha River, near Charleston, WV

In his book about Boone, Dr. Hale mentions another relative of mine, John Cole, who like Boone, was also intermarried with the Bryan family. John Cole was the neighbor of the Bryans in Salem, Virginia, and they stayed together mostly, even out to Missouri in the Civil War era. In fact, the family genealogy book is titled, the “Bryan-Cole Family”:

On one of Boone’s hunting and beaver trapping expeditions up Gauley river, he penetrated the great Yew Pine forest lying in the present boundaries of Webster and Randolph counties; he was struck with the unusual appearance of the growth, and, selecting a straight young specimen, he cut from the top a piece of suitable length and size for a nice walking stick, trimming off the little limbs to the end, on which he left the whisk or brush of pine needles, and brought it home to show his friends, as a new or unusual variety of white pine. When it had served this purpose, he cut off the whisk at the end, leaving a handsome well proportioned walking stick, which, when he left the valley, he presented to his friend Mathias VanBibber. It has been carefully preserved in that family until some two years ago, when it come into the possession of John L. Cole, Esq., lawyer, surveyor, poet, artist, humorist, antiquarian and with all, a connection of the Boone family; his grandmother was Mary Bryant, first cousin of Rebecca Bryant, wife of Daniel Boone.

Mr. Cole presented this cane to me on the occasion of my writing a former article on the subject of Boone’s residence in this valley. The cane is now preserved in my cabinet of interesting relics, and is, of course, very highly prized.

I will mention here by way of digression, that Samuel Cole, brother of the elder John Cole, cousin-in- law of Boone, was one of the discoverers, and the namer of the river which still bears his name, though of late years the spelling has been changed. Cole was with General (then Major) Andrew Lewis on his Shawnee expedition down Big Sandy in 1756. They started from Fort Frederick at Ingles’ Ferry on New River in February, went by way of Holstein, Clinch, Bear Garden, Burks Garden and down Big Sandy. When fifteen miles below the forks of Sandy they found it impracticable to proceed farther, owing to exhaustion of their supplies, and the dissatisfaction and suffering of the men. They disbanded and separated into small squads so as to be able to find game enough to support them, and made their way, by different routes, to the settlements. One party, among whom was Major Lewis, Cole and others, found their way over on to the stream named by them “Cole,” and followed up it.

Where they camped, on this river, they cut tlieir names on a beech tree and those names have remained legible, as I am told by Surveyor Matthews, until very recently, some vandal cut the tree down to clear the land.

On the older maps of Virginia, and all the old surveys of that region, the river is spelt “C-o-l-e,” but since such vast deposits of mineral coal have been discovered on it, the spelling has gradually, but unauthoritatively, been changed to “C-o-a-l.”

Daniel Boone, Facts And Incidents Not Hitherto Published, BY DR. JOHN P. HALE, Charleston, W. Va.,

I never realized that the Coal River was named after a “Cole.” As I said, the Coles and the Bryans were next door neighbors in Salem, Virginia, both families being early settlers there.

My 5th great grandfather, James Bryan, was a Virginia militia ranger under Col. Preston during much of the French and Indian War, and, like John Cole, was also on the Sandy Creek expedition, along with a sizable number of Cherokee allies. As previously noted, Dr. Hale wrote that the Coal River was discovered and named after John Cole during this expedition. The entire expedition force very nearly starved to death in 1756 while in the rugged coalfields of modern day West Virginia. But that’s an interesting story for an entirely different post.

The Coal River as it appears today, probably not much different, on one of my exploring missions.
Dr. William Fleming’s powder horn, on display at MESDA, who was on the Sandy Creek Expedition in 1756, and also the Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774.

I wonder what ever happened to the walking stick, the tomahawk, and the beaver trap… But turning back to the dissertation, this was the author’s beef with the revisionist historians:

I found it interesting how some revisionist scholars writing in the 1970s and using quantitative methodologies had challenged the traditional notion that Appalachian people had experienced the frontier as a protracted period of crude living conditions. In his well-received study of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, historical geographer Robert Mitchell concluded that frontiers seldom reduced settlers “to a raw state of economic evolution distinguished by geographical isolation, complete self-sufficiency, and marginal living standards.” He went on to explain that such crude living conditions tended to be “a temporary feature of the first year or two of initial permanent settlement.”

He points out that the West Virginia frontier was wild through a very late date:

Not until 1794 following the demoralizing defeat of the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near present Toledo, Ohio did the “Indian threat” abate and the frontier period of West Virginia history come to a close. Throughout this extended period of violence, hundreds of pioneer families fought, struggled, lived, and died while attempting to settle within the forested hills of western Virginia. From their collective perspective, the frontier experience can hardly be characterized as having lasted but a “year or two.”

And why did the revisionist authors have this agenda?

Contrary to popular belief, Appalachia does not exist as a distinct cultural region of the United States. Shortly after the Civil War, local color authors in need of an exciting backdrop for their novels and short stories “created” Appalachia in the minds of their readers through the use of characters with exaggerated personality traits and a physical landscape foreign to urban middle class readers. A central element in their writings is the notion that the rugged mountains physically isolated its inhabitants from the “outside world.” Allegedly, this isolation was so complete that it left the people of Appalachia frozen in time, thus preserving eighteenth-century American frontier life. Few people seem to have questioned the validity of these characterizations, and over time, this mythical image became widely accepted as fact . . . .

Immediately following the Civil War, perceptions of Appalachia began to change as fiction writers of the local color genre began using the mountains as an exciting setting for their short stories and travel sketches. Immensely popular among the emerging urban middle class, magazines such as Harper’s and Lippincott’s featured dozens of stories that presented Appalachia as a quaint, if not somewhat peculiar, place where people still lived much as they had during the days of the pioneers. Some writers even went so far as to imply that visiting the Appalachian Mountains permitted travelers to step backwards in time and glimpse what life had been like on England’s eighteenth century colonial frontier. As one author put it, when you journey to the mountains “you detach yourself from all that you have experienced, and take up the history of English speaking men and women at the point it had reached a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago.”13 In essence, a relatively small group of late nineteenth century fiction writers fabricated the mental image of Appalachia as a place where the frontier still existed . . . .

A worthy cause…. Outside authors and journalists are still misrepresenting the proud and independent Scots-Irish inhabitants of West Virginia as backward hillbillies. This most recently happened with the movie, Dark Waters…. I didn’t watch it, because I don’t watch any movies with lawyers in them, if I can help it. Oh, and by the way, Deliverance was filmed in Georgia. So there.

2 thoughts on “Late 18th Century West Virginia: Indian Attacks, Daniel Boone, and the Coal River – or is it Cole?

  1. Very good read on Boone and Western Va!! If I was still teaching WV History I would loved to have used your article!
    Looking for ward to reading about
    James Bryan, and his unit almost starving in the Southern Counties!

  2. I enjoyed reading this! I discovered that I am descended from the VanBibber family, who also has ties with Daniel Boone (two VanBibber boys married two of Daniel Boone\’s daughters – one being my 4th great-grandaunt who married Nathan). There is a fascinating story about how the Boones saved the live of my 5th-greatuncle John VanBibber in Kentucky. I keep imagining what that reunion may have been like when the Boones moved to Point Pleasant, where he Vanbibbers lived at the time as well. So I thank-you for sharing this. And I agree, it is odd how historians tend to leave out Boone\’s time in West Virginia. Weird..

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