"If you don't watch out, Captain Benge will get you"
Chronology of Robert Benge, aka Chief Bench
Copyrighted by Don Chesnut, 1997
Robert Benge was born circa 1760
probably in the Cherokee village Toquo to John Benge and Wurteh, a Cherokee.
Robert grew up to be the most notorious Cherokee in history. He was so feared
in the central Appalachian areas of present-day Kentucky, Virginia, and
Tennessee, that the settlers admonished their children by saying, "if you
don't watch out, Captain Benge will get you."
Toquo was a Cherokee village on the Little Tennessee River in present-day southeastern Tennessee. Robert grew up as a Cherokee, but with his red hair, European look, and his good command of English, he could also pass as a pure Euro-American. He used this double identity to good effect in his raids against the settlers. He was known as Captain Benge, Chief Benge, Chief Bench, or just The Bench. If he had a Cherokee name, it is not known.
Robert's father was John Benge, an Indian trader who lived among the Cherokee, and his mother was Wurteh who was part of an influential Cherokee family. [Robert's pedigree can be found in the genealogy database, "Our Ancestors."] John was previously married to Elizabeth Lewis, daughter of William Terrell Lewis and Sarah Martin, a prominent family originally from Virginia. Elizabeth's sister, Susannah Lewis married John's brother, Thomas Benge. John and Elizabeth had several children at their home in western North Carolina. These were William Lewis, Sarah, and Obadiah Martin. Apparently, John was also living with Wurteh at his home with the Cherokee (probably Toquo) and had several children born there. These were Robert, Utana "the Tail," Lucy, and Tashliske. After Elizabeth and the Lewis family found out about John's Cherokee family, their marriage was dissolved and Elizabeth latter remarried John Fielder and had other children. Wurteh also had a child from a man whose last name was Gist or Guess and their child became known to history as Sequoyah. Robert and Sequoyah were half brothers.
The following is a chronology of events that may help us put together something about the life of Robert Benge. If you have any additional information, please let me know.
Date unknown, circa 1777: John Benge, Wurteh, and their family moved with Dragging Canoe to the south near the southern border of Tennessee [from Evans, 1976].
Date unknown, after 1777: Robert Benge lived at Running Water Town in Tennessee next to the northwestern border of Georgia. Here he was befriended by the Shawnee Chiksika, an older brother of Tecumseh. A small group of Ohio Shawnee were there to assist Dragging Canoe in his efforts against the whites. Robert and several Cherokee joined the Shawnee in their attacks against white settlements especially in the upper Holston River area of northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Robert was thought to be Shawnee by some because of his association with this band. His skills in these raids elevated his rank among certain of the Cherokee and Shawnee [from Evans, 1976].
June 29, 1785: The cabin of Archibald Scott and Fannie Dickenson Scott (of Castle's Woods) on Wallen Creek in present-day Lee County, Virginia was attacked by thirteen Indians coming from Wallen Ridge. At nighttime the Indians broke down the door and shot Archibald who died. The Indians then tomahawked and scalped all four of the children. They carried Mrs. Scott outside, packed their booty and then burned the house. At this time she heard the name Benge spoken several times by some of the Indians. A white man with the Indians told her that he was Hargus [what is his last name?] and had taken up with the Indians (he had committed a crime and joined the Indians to escape punishment). During the night they headed north, crossed Wallen Ridge, and headed up the Powell River valley. By daybreak they entered Big Stone Gap and went up a tributary to the north flowing from Black Mountain near the present-day Kentucky-Virginia line. On the northern side of Black Mountain in present-day Kentucky, the chief divided the booty equally and sent a party of nine to head for the Clinch River settlements in order to steal horses. The other four traveled northward. On the eleventh day of the attack, the four Indians stopped at their rendevous to wait for the other nine. Three went hunting leaving Mrs. Scott with the oldest of the group. She escaped from the lone Indian and traveled through the rugged wilderness for many days traveling along the Big Sandy River, through the gorge at Pine Mountain and finally, on August 11, 1785 she broke through the wilderness at New Garden in the upper part of the Clinch River. [from Addington, 1966, p. 88-96; sources were: Virginia State Papers, vol. IV, p. 40; Freeman's journal, Philadelphia [Dec. 15, 1785]; and Journal of Francis Asbury] [It is unknown whether Robert Benge was a member of this Indian party.]
1788: John Sevier led a group of whites to attack Cherokee towns.
Robert saved many of the Cherokee of Ustalli (Ustally) Town by evacuating
them before and during the attack. Ustalli was located in southwestern North
Carolina on the Hiwassee River very close to present-day Tennessee. Five
of the Cherokee rearguard were killed while trying to bide time for the evacuees,
and the white militia captured one young boy. John Sevier and his men burned
the town and attempted to run down the evacuees. Benge set up an ambush at
the mouth of Valley River which delayed the attackers and allowed the Cherokee
to reach safety. However, at this point, the little boy who had been captured
was "brutally murdered" by Thomas Christian who was quoted as saying "Nits
Circa 1788: Robert Benge was married to a Cherokee woman and settled
at a site still called Benge's Field just south of present-day Trenton, GA.
This was the Cherokee village called Lookout Town [from Evans, 1976].
1789: Earlier, the Cherokee had attacked the ___ Brown family on their flatboat [where?]. Three children had been captured. John Sevier had also captured some Cherokee on Flint Creek. Robert Benge was visiting at the Cherokee village of Nickajack in southernmost Tennessee or in northwestern Georgia when an exchange of prisoners was proposed. The two older white children, Joseph and Polly Brown were in the area and ready to be exchanged, but the little girl (name unknown) was held by a recalcitrant Cherokee at Crow Town, about thirty miles away in present-day northeastern Alabama. The Cherokee who held her refused to give her to a messenger sent to pick her up for the exchange. Robert Benge heard of the trouble, got on his horse with his war axe and said "I will bring the girl, or her owner's head." The next day, Robert appeared at Nickajack with the little girl [from Evans, 1976].
"Sometime in the year 1789, John Wallen built a small cabin at the mouth of Stock Creek where Clinchport is situated now. He located his cabin on the Kentucky Path, and, no doubt, helped to entertain some of the hundreds of settlers who were at that time emigrating to Kentucky over the Wilderness Road. Wallen was not left long in the peacable enjoyment of his new home in the wilderness. Benge and his forest bloodhounds soon found his cabin. One morning just at daybreak, his wife, on opening the door, was shot at by an Indian and slightly wounded. Quickly closing the door, she barred it to prevent its being forced. Wallen, who was yet in bed, then hastily arose and snatching the gun from its rack, shot and killed the Indian nearest the door. The other Indians then rushed upon the house, trying to effect an entrance, nor did they retreat until Wallen had killed three of them. After driving the Indians away, Wallen and his wife went to Carter's Fort, eight miles distant. (Carter's Letter, Draper Manuscripts.) [from Addington, 1977, sent by M. J. Arthur]" [It is unknown whether Robert Benge actually participated in this raid, although it was attributed to him.]
Summer of 1791: At the Cherokee town called Running Water in present-day southernmost Tennessee, Robert Benge announced that he was going to start a raiding campaign against white settlers in southwestern Virginia. Five men joined him and they proceeded northward [from Evans, 1976].
August 23, 1791: Robert Benge's group raided the William McDowell house near Moccasin Gap (Russell Co., VA). Two whites were killed and an 8-year-old boy and woman were captured [from Evans, 1976].
August 26, 1791: Benge's group raided the Elisha Farris house. Four
whites were killed and Nancy Farris, a 19-year-old girl, was captured [from
Spring of 1792: Robert Benge led raids on the upper Holston River in present-day northeastern Tennessee and Virginia [from Evans, 1976].
April 6, 1792: Robert Benge's group attacked the Ratcliff settlement. Four whites were killed [from Evans, 1976].
Spring and Summer, 1792: A militia company commanded by Captain James Cooper was formed to protect the settlers against Indian attacks and they patrolled the area of Hawkins Co., now in northeastern Tennessee. The presence of the militia company prevented further raids in the area. Robert Benge was reported to have been seen in several areas of eastern Tennessee during this time, but the militia never came in contact with him [from Evans, 1976].
September, 1792: Robert Benge and his brother, Utana ("The Tail") visited Hiwassee Town in southeastern Tennessee. They were heavily armed and traveling north. They announced that they were going to kill John Sevier. They never located him [from Evans, 1976].
October 2 or 3, 1792: Robert and Utana "The Tail" Benge reached Black's Blockhouse at the head of Crooked Creek of Little River [Knox Co., NC (now Blount Co., TN)]. This fort "was commanded by a sergeant from Captain Crawford's Company. The Benge brothers reached the fort about an hour after dark. Part of the garrison was sitting out of doors by a fire, with no thought of danger. Both brothers fired and, changing their position, quickly reloaded and fired again. This procedure was repeated, giving the impression that they were a much larger force. Two of the militia by the fire, George Moss and Robert Sharpe, were killed, and John Shankland was wounded. James Paul was killed inside the blockhouse. During the shooting three of the white's horses were killed, but Benge [Robert] and his brother were able to capture seven of the animals which they took back to the Lower towns with them." [from Evans, 1976; also from "History of Blount County," p. 10 (thanks to Jean Sharp).]
Circa 1792: "On another occasion, Benge [Robert], with a small war-band, ambushed a party of whites traveling from Southwest Point to Nashville. The group consisted of seven men, a boy and four women. One of the Cherokees fired too soon, alerting the whites. At the sound of the shot, the seven men set spurs to their horses and fled at top speed, leaving the women to their fate. The four women were too terrified to move. Benge approached them and, speaking in English, told them they would not be hurt. He shook hands with each of them, assuring them that they were safe. One of their horses had bolted and Benge caught it an tied it to a tree. He then built a fire for their use, and courteously took his departure. Four of the white men did not slow their horses until they reached Nashville. The other three, when they were sure the Cherokees were gone, returned to the women and escorted them the rest of the way in safety." [Evans, 1976].
January 22, 1793: Robert Benge, his two uncles, Doublehead [Taltsuska] and Pumpkin Boy [Iyahuwagiatsutsa] and several other Cherokee, in retaliation for the Cherokee defeat at Buchanan's Station, went into the "barrens" region of southwestern Kentucky. [This was a region with little water because of the large number of sinkholes, i.e. a karstic plain. It was also thought to have been burnt in the past to provide grassland for bison.] They set up an ambush at one of the few watering holes, Dripping Spring, along the Nashville-Kentucky road. Captain Overall and a Mr. Burnett were proceeding south on the road with nine packhorses loaded with provisions (whiskey, salt, etc.) for the settlements along the Cumberland. Both were killed in the ambush and their scalps were taken. " The whiskey they found was regarded as a pleasing bonus for the victory. After making liberal use of it, Doublehead made a suggestion which shocked even his battle hardened companions. He calmly drew his knife and began cutting strips of flesh from the bodies of the two white men, proposing that the Cherokees join him in the ancient Iroquoian ritual of 'eating their enemy.' This type of ceremonial cannibalism was the means by which the northern Iroquois enhanced their reputations as fierce warriors. After several rounds of reciting their own war exploits and consuming the booze, their ferociousness was second to none and Benge and the others followed Doublehead's example by partaking of the hearts and brains of their victims. The deed was done with little sense of ceremony, but rather as a deliberate atrocity, well calculated to strike terror in the hearts of the Cumberland settlements." [Evans, 1976]
After January, 1793: Robert Benge, Doublehead and party returned to the Lower Towns and planned to form larger war parties against the whites along the Cumberland River [Evans, 1976]. Robert and two or three others set out for Virginia in March [from Evans, 1976].
Sometime in March, 1793: "In the month of March, 1793, a considerable
band of Indians were seen on the headwaters of the Clinch river attempting
to steal horses. The Indians finally succeeded in stealing eight horses,
and made off toward the Ohio. In the meantime Major Robert Crockett proceeded
to gather a company to pursue the Indians, and while engaged in gathering
them in he directed Joseph Gilbert and Samuel Lusk, two scouts, to follow
the Indians, and, in case they found them, to give him information.
Circa March 15, 1793: "..several emigrants were killed on the Kentucky road. Captain Andrew Lewis, to appease the settlers who were about to break up, placed a sergeant and twelve men at Dump's creek." [Summers, 1903, p. 434-435]
March 20, 1793: " a party of Indians numbering twenty-three appeared upon the frontiers of Wythe and Montgomery, frequently showing themselves, to the terror of the inhabitants. John Davidson was murdered by them and a number of horses were stolen from Wolf creek, Bluestone and Island creek. The Indians made their escape, except a small party entrusted with the care of about eighty horses, from Island creek. This company was pursued by a large party from Bluestone and another from the head of Clinch, and were overtaken the next day, at the mouth of Little Cole, at what is called the Island of Guyandotte, where they were attacked by the whites. Three of their number were killed and scalped, all the horses retaken, with the arms and blankets of a part of their warriors. The number of Indians concerned in the murder of John Davidson at the Laurel fork of Wolf creek was about twelve. This party of Indians carried off a number of horses from that neighborhood and passed with them in daylight through the heart of the Bluestone settlement."" [Summers, 1903, p. 435]
March 31, 1793: The small Benge group set up an ambush along a road
near the top of Powell Mountain in present-day Lee County, Virginia. Three
white men were leading a pack train down the mountain. "
As the whites
drew closer Benge [Robert] recognized their leader as Moses Cockrell. Cockrell
was a loud mouthed ruffian, whose reputation as an 'Indian Fighter' in the
Holston area was similar to that which Overall had formerly enjoyed on the
Cumberland. Cockrell was a large man, and very vain of his size and strength.
He had frequently boasted that he would relish an encounter with the notorious
'Captain' Benge in personal combat, and had in profane terms predicted the
outcome for the amusement of many tavern audiences. Benge had heard of his
boasts, and grimly determined to give Cockrell an opportunity to make good
his words. He instructed his men to shoot Cockrell's companions, but to leave
the big man for him. The ambush was successful, and Cockrell's friends fell
at the first fire.
First week in April?, 1793: "During the same week [as the attack on Cockrell], fourteen persons were killed on the Kentucky road, near the Hazel Patch. The whites discovered the Indians and attempted to secure the first fire, but failed, and only two of the whites made their escape. The Indians lost five dead, and one white man with them killed. Both parties broke and ran at the same time in opposite directions." [Summers, 1903, p. 434]
April 1793: " the same chief ['Captain Bench'] with a party of Indians, attacked and murdered the family of Harper Ratcliffe, six in number, about eight miles west of the above-mentioned gap [Mockison Gap, sic]. [Bledsoe et al, in Summers, 1903, p. 438]
April 20, 1793: "Colonel Isaac Bledsoe was killed on Cumberland in the month of April, and on the 20th of the month, a skirmish took place between twenty Indians and eight white men at Laurel river, in Kentucky, in which skirmish the white people were all killed, except McFarland, who escaped, and a number who were wounded." [Campbell in Summers, 1903, p. 436]
June 12, 1793: Cherokee chiefs and delegates appointed by President George Washington were holding a meeting to discuss peace prospects at the Cherokee town, Coyatee (at the mouth of the Holston, southwest of Knoxville, TN). A renegade white militia, led by Captain John Beard, charged into town firing upon Indian and white alike. Major Thomas King was sleeping with Chief Hanging Maw's daughter and had to jump out of a back window of their cabin to avoid death. Other government agents, James Ore and Daniel Carmichael were fired upon but they escaped harm. The Cherokee Fool Charlie, Betty Kitegista, and four others were killed. Chief Hanging Maw, his wife, and the daughter of Nancy Ward were wounded in the attack. The remaining government delegation were finally able to convince Beard and his men to halt their attack, spare the rest of the Indians, and to not burn their town. Beard was later arrested and was brought to a military court, but was acquitted, probably because of his friendship with John Sevier [from Evans, 1976].
July 17, 1793: " Bench with two other warriors traversed the settlement, on the north fork of Holston for upwards of twenty miles, probably with the intention of making discoveries where were negro property. In this rout they fired at one Williams, and took prisoner a negro woman, the property of Paul Livingston, who after two days captivity made her escape." [Bledsoe et al, in Summers, 1903, p. 438]
Summer, 1793: Beard's attack and subsequent acquittal caused the Cherokees to elevate their attacks on white settlements. Chief John Watts called for warriors to gather and the largest Cherokee war party in history. Robert Benge was one of the first among them to volunteer. Also joining were Shawnees from Running Water in southern Tennessee and a large group of Creek enlisted by Chief Doublehead [from Evans, 1976].
Summer?, 1793: As the war party moved north, Nettle Carrier [Talotiskee] and his brother, Pumpkin Boy went ahead to scout. The scouts approached the blockhouse at Ish's Station which was commanded by John Sevier. The two were spotted by sentries and Pumpkin Boy was shot and killed [from Evans, 1976] [Pumpkin Boy was Robert Benge's uncle].
Summer?, 1793: John Watts wanted to target Knoxville, Tennessee because it was the largest white town in Cherokee territory. Chief Doublehead attacked and burned every white cabin along the way, announcing their approach to Knoxville and defeating Watts' plan to make a surprise attack there [from Evans, 1976].
Summer?, 1793: John Watts attacked the fort at Cavett's Station instead. The owner, Alexander Cavett was killed while fighting. During the course of the battle, Watts decided to offer clemency and asked Robert Benge, because of his excellent English, to arrange the cease fire. Robert talked to the settlers and told them that they would be not be killed, but would be traded for Cherokee held captive by the whites. The surviving settlers agreed to the terms. Doublehead, whose brother Pumpkin Boy had recently been killed by Beard's attack, didn't want any whites to survive. He and some of his Creek friends charged the fort as soon as the gates were opened and proceeded to attack the defenseless captives. Robert Benge and Cherokee James Vann tried to save the captives, but they were outnumbered. "James Vann pushed his horse into the surging mob and pulled a small child up behind his saddle. Doublehead immediately rushed forward and smashed the boy's skull. Raising his voice, Vann taunted Doublehead with the name 'Baby-killer,' a parody of the honorable war title, 'Man-killer.' The enraged Doublehead swung his axe at Vann, who was able to turn his horse in time to avoid the blow. John Watts attempted to save another child. He gave young Alexander Cavett, Jr., to three of the Creeks, instructing them to take the boy to a safe place. His efforts, noble though they were, were useless, because the Creeks murdered the boy." [Evans, 1976]
Fall, 1793 [reported as July 17 above]: "In the fall of 1793, a party of eight Indians passed through the thinly-settled parts of Russell county, and captured a negro woman, the property of Paul Livingston, near Big Moccasin Gap, but before they could carry her beyond the settlements she made her escape and reached her home." [Campbell, in Summers, 1903, p. 437]
October 3, 1793: " On the third day of this month [October] a party of Indians attacked two families who had lately settled on the road through the wilderness, on the Kentucky side of the Cumberland mountain, within three miles of Hawkins' Station. They killed one man and wounded two children, but were driven off by a man who occupied an adjoining house." [Campbell, in Summers, 1903, p. 437]
Fall and Winter 1793-1794: Robert went home to be with his family for the winter and never again allied with John Watts or Doublhead [from Evans, 1976].
Spring, 1794: When the weather started to warm, Robert Benge went to Willstown in northeastern Alabama to get his brother "The Tail" [Utana]. Together they went to Running Water Town in southern Tennessee and met up with several other Cherokee warriors. This small group then proceeded northward to southern Virginia to make raids on whites in that area, as they had before [from Evans, 1976].
April 6-9, 1794: The story in Elizabeth Livingston's own words [from interview of Mrs. Livingston by A. Campbell in Summers, 1903, p. 439-441]:
April 6, 1794 "About 10 o'clock
in the morning, as I was sitting in my house, the fierceness of the dog's
barking alarmed me. I looked out and saw seven Indians approaching the house,
armed and painted in a frightful manner. No person was then within, but a
child of ten years old, and another of two, and my sucking infant. My husband
and his brother Henry had just before walked out to a barn at some distance
in the field. My sister-in-law, Susanna, was with the remaining children
in an out-house. Old Mrs. Livingston was in the garden. I immediately shut
and fastened the door; they (the Indians) came furiously up, and tried to
burst it open, demanding of me several times to open the door, which I refused.
They then fired two guns; one ball pierced through the door, but did me no
damage. I then thought of my husband's rifle, took it down but it being double
triggered, I was at a loss; at length I fired through the door, but it not
being well aimed I did no execution; however the Indians retired from that
place and soon after that an old adjoining house was on fire, and I and my
children suffering much from the smoke. I opened the door and an Indian
immediately advanced and took me prisoner, together with the two children.
I then discovered that they had my remaining children in their possession,
my sister Sukey, a wench with her young child, a negro man of Edward Callihan's
and a negro boy of our own about eight years old. They were fearful of going
into the house I left, to plunder, supposing that it had been a man that
shot at them, and was yet within. So our whole clothing and household furniture
were consumed in the flames, which I was then pleased to see, rather than
that it should be of use to the savages.
On the subject of the militia's
pursuit of Benge, Summers states (1903, p. 441-442): "Vincent Hobbs was a
lieutenant in the militia of Lee county, and, at the time in question, he
was attending the court of that county which was in session. Upon the arrival
of the express with the news of the Indian invasion, the court immediately
adjourned and a party was organized upon the spot, under the command of Hobbs,
to waylay a gap in Cumberland mountain called the Stone gap, through which,
it was supposed, the Indians were mostly to pass. [In this party, besides
Vincent Hobbs, were: John Van Bever, Job Hobbs, Stephen Jones, James Huff,
James Van Bever, Peter Van Bever, Abraham Hobbs, Adam Ely, Samuel Livingston,
George Yokum and ___ Dotson. Also probably present was Capt. William Dorton.]
On his arrival at the gap, Hobbs discovered that the Indians had just passed
through before him; he therefore pursued with eagerness and soon discovered
two Indians kindling a fire; these, they instantly dispatched, and finding
some plunder with them, which they knew must have been taken out of Livingston's
house, they at once came to the conclusion that these two had been sent forward
to hunt for provisions and that the others were yet behind with the prisoners.
April 29, 1794: Senior militia officer, Col. Arthur Campbell, sent
Benge's scalp to Virginia's governor, along with the letter, quoted in Summers
(1903, p. 443):
Addington, L.F., 1966, Indian stories of Virginia's last frontier. Historical Society of Southwest Virginia, No. III, 135 p.
Addington, R. M., 1977, A history of Scott County, Virginia. Publisher unknown, p. 125, 126.
Evans, E.R., 1976, Notable persons in Cherokee history: Bob Benge. Journal of Cherokee Studies, v. 1, no. 2, p. 98-106.
Summers, L.P., 1903, History of southwest Virginia 1746-1786, Washington County 1777-1870. Richmond, Virginia, J.L. Hill Printing Co., 921 p.
Folklore--Misinformation and untrue legends
Perhaps the most misinformation that I ever saw in one publication regarding Robert Benge can be found in the publication cited below. Mary Brewer has done a wonderful job of collecting untrue legends about Robert Benge [She even called him Chief John Benge]. The best that can be said is that the stories in that publication (p. 9-11) owe their origin to the fear that Robert Benge instilled in the settlers of that period:
Brewer, M.T., 1978, Rugged trail to Appalachia. Graphics Arts Press, Viper, Kentucky, 139 p.