There are few descriptions of frontier life in this area.

But an unfinished autobiography by former U.S. Sen. John Rowan, 1773-1843, gives a glimpse into that era.

Rowan is the man who built Federal Hill, the Bardstown house now known as “My Old Kentucky Home.”

It was spring 1784.

Five families led by William Rowan, a former Pennsylvania sheriff, were moving down the Ohio River in two flatboats — one for people, one for cattle — from the Falls of the Ohio (Louisville) to the Yellow Banks (Owensboro).

It was between 9 and 10 p.m. on a clear night with stars hanging bright in the sky.

The boats sailed on, hoping to reach the Yellow Banks the following day.

Then, on the “Indian shore,” somewhere in what is now either Perry or Spencer County, Indiana, the travelers spotted a fire.

And another. And another.

Campfires lit the shore for at least a half mile.

And it could only be Indians.

John Rowan would have been 10 years old that spring.

His family had left York County, Pennsylvania, by flatboat on Oct. 10, 1782, Rowan wrote, with five other families headed for what is now Louisville.

The boats, Rowan said, were built with sides “higher than a man’s head, of plank too thick to be perforated by a rifle ball, and with post holes for defensive operations in case of attack.”

They expected the journey to last about a week and took little food with them, he said.

That was a mistake.

Near modern Point Pleasant, West Virginia, they found the river frozen solid — and had to camp until spring.

“We suffered greatly from hunger,” John Rowan said, “having been two months without bread and frequently experiencing intervals of some length with very little meat.”

It was March before they could move on.

The party reached what is now Louisville on March 10, 1783.

The Rowans stayed there about a year.

But by mid-April 1784, William Rowan was ready to move again — this time to the Long Falls of Green River.

He took five families with him to establish a fort — Fort Vienna, where Calhoun is today.

They planned to stop at the Yellow Banks and send the families and cattle overland about 25 miles to the Green River.

The boats, which would be broken down for lumber for houses, would go on down the Ohio and back up the Green.

But the night before they reached the Yellow Banks, they found themselves staring across the water into the campfires of the Indians — probably Shawnee.

William Rowan ordered the boats lashed together.

The seven men and two older boys grabbed their guns. And the boats moved as close to the Kentucky shore as possible.

The travelers held their breath, hoping to pass by unnoticed.

They had passed two or three camps “when suddenly the war whoop was raised and the most hideous yells were uttered and answered from fires along their range of camps,” John Rowan said.

Indian canoes were soon in pursuit of the flatboats.

Elizabeth Rowan silently laid an ax beside each man — to be used when the gunpowder was gone. And she kept one for herself.

But the flatboats managed to outmaneuver the canoes. And early the next morning, they reached Yellow Banks.

They traveled overland to the Long Falls of the Green, arriving there on May 11, 1784.

On their second night there, Indians stole all their horses.

Despite the adversity, the settlers built cabins and a stockade and planted gardens.

But John Rowan said, “We had to depend entirely upon the game of the forest for subsistence.”

Bears, he said, “were much fatter than hogs from the pen” and made good bacon and oil for frying.

Fish were also abundant.

Rowan didn’t stay long at the new fort.

He moved to Bardstown in 1790.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com.

(1) comment

Neal Van Milligen

Great story

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