- Forgotten Frontiersman of the Ohio ValleySimon Kenton's Early Years
America's frontier period continues to fascinate historians, and the historiography is evolving. Few figures from that period hold such allure as the frontiersman who pushed west into the borderlands. In the Ohio Valley, frontiersman Simon Kenton deserves much credit for its settlement, even though he is often forgotten alongside his friend Daniel Boone and colleague George Rogers Clark. Kenton explored, settled, and fought for the borderlands of Kentucky and Ohio, living from 1755 to 1836. He played a key role as a scout and militia leader throughout the many years of border conflict with Native Americans from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812. Kenton spent the first part of his adult life in Kentucky, and then moved north in 1798 to Ohio, where he lived the rest of his life. During his life, the Ohio Valley transformed from a wild territory peopled with often hostile Native Americans to a region composed of new states and growing communities. When Kenton died, the conquest of the Ohio Valley borderlands was complete, Native Americans had tragically been forced west, and men like him had become an anachronism.
Research into Kenton's life reveals a lack of scholarly writing on the topic, despite the existence of ample primary sources such as the Lyman Copeland Draper Manuscripts, housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Although early historians wrote about Kenton, they exaggerated and mixed history with folklore within a framework of the heroic conquest of the frontier. One respectable biography was written in 1930, but was overshadowed by a later historical [End Page 28] novel on Kenton's life. However, a thorough study of the Draper Manuscripts and other primary sources argue for renewed attention on Kenton's life.
In July 1755, the French and Indian War raged and saw the decisive French and Native American defeat of British General Braddock's forces near Fort Pitt, modern-day Pittsburgh. Part of the larger Seven Years War, the French and Indian War was one phase of the long-term border wars between Native Americans and Europeans that continued for decades in North America. The border wars affected the entire Ohio Valley, encompassing Kentucky, Ohio, and parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In the midst of this conflict, frontiersman Simon Kenton was born on or about April 3, 1755, in Fauquier County, Virginia. Later, Kenton recalled that "my mother always told me that I was born in the April before Braddock's defeat." Ironically, Kenton's birthday tied him symbolically to the border wars he would be involved in throughout his life.1
Simon Kenton grew up in a poor Scots-Irish farming family in northern Virginia, son of Mark Kenton Sr. of Ireland, and Mary Miller of Scottish descent. The seventh of nine children, Simon experienced the typical childhood growing up in a subsistence-farming family. They farmed corn to feed themselves and livestock and farmed tobacco to pay rent and purchase supplies. In the beginning, Mark Kenton Sr. farmed with only a hoe and mattock until he saved enough to purchase a plow and horses. Each year, he traveled two days to the market in Dumfries, Virginia, transporting large tobacco rolls called hogsheads, the proceeds of which could purchase enough supplies to last the family for a year. Mark Kenton farmed a tract of land in the Bull Run Mountain settlement "two miles north of the little hamlet of Hopewell in the northeastern part of Fauquier County, forty miles from Dumfries." Despite being raised on a farm, Simon Kenton disliked farming and work in general. Although his parents tried to send him to school, Simon refused to go, so he never learned to read and write, a deficiency that later hindered his business dealings. Without the fateful events that would soon shape the course of his life, his prospects were few.2
In the spring of 1771, at the age of sixteen, Simon Kenton's life took a dramatic turn. He and neighbor William Leachman, older and stronger than [End Page 29] Kenton, were courting the same young woman. Consequently, when Kenton learned of the pending wedding...