Who were the women of the frontier?

Published 10:59 am Friday, December 16, 2016

Fort Boonesborough Foundation holds an annual event at the fort called “Women on the Frontier.” It was conceived as a way to honor those pioneers who seldom get recognized for their contribution to the settlement of Kentucky.

In the male-dominated society of the time, it was rare for a woman’s name to make it into the written records, so sources of information about women are sparse. Several years ago, Dr. Randolph Hollingsworth of the University of Kentucky History Department spoke at the Women on the Frontier celebration. In her talk, she referred to the 1787 Fayette County tax list. The roll had the names of 31 women listed as the head of a household. They were almost all widows who had lost husbands on the frontier and had not remarried. Knowing that a woman’s lot in the Kentucky wilderness called for a large measure of courage and unending hard work, imagine how much more challenging that role would have been for a single woman raising a family on her own.

My interest in the 1787 tax roll was peaked because I knew the names of seven of the women — they were living in what would become Clark County. Anyone with an interest in the beginnings of our county should know a little about these exceptional individuals.

Email newsletter signup

Sarah Bush

Sarah (possibly Lewis) married Josiah Bush, the eldest brother of Capt. Billy Bush. Sarah and Josiah resided in Albemarle County until 1781, when they departed for Kentucky. They joined a group of Bush family members on the Holston River near present-day Abingdon, Virginia, where Josiah took sick and died. Sarah continued on to Kentucky with the Bush colony and settled on Twomile Creek in Clark County.

Like many other family members in the Bush Settlement, she belonged to Providence Baptist Church.

In 1794 “Sary Bush” gave consent for her daughter Frankey to marry John Hooton, and in 1797, she gave consent for daughter Sally to marry John Duncan. The latter is the last positive record we have for Sarah.

She did have several adult children living nearby. Son Philip was mentioned in his grandfather’s will, and there is circumstantial evidence for sons Lewis, James, Joseph, Joshua, John and William.

Elizabeth Clements

We know very little about Elizabeth. She was married to John Clements, and the couple resided at McGee’s Station on Jouett Creek. John was killed at the Battle of Upper Blue Licks, or “Holder’s Defeat,” on Aug. 14, 1782. According to accounts of the battle, Clements was one of four killed and “left on the ground,” while two others later died from their wounds. Elizabeth received 26 pounds in compensation for the loss of “a Rone mare, a Bay Mare, one Saddle & Blanket.”

She was listed on the tax rolls as a single woman until 1792; after that date, no further record could be found.

Margaret Drake

Margaret was a daughter of John Buchanan, a wealthy landowner of Botetourt County, Virginia.

She married an adventurer, Joseph Drake, one of the Long Hunters of Kentucky. Joseph and Margaret came to Boonesborough with their two young children in the spring of 1778.

That August, Joseph was killed by Indians near the fort. Margaret remained at the fort, unmarried, and had a liaison with Capt. John Holder that resulted in a daughter, Rhoda Drake.

When Holder moved across the river and established Holder’s Station, Margaret came too. Holder married Fanny Callaway and took Rhoda Drake into his household to raise. Evidence indicates that Margaret had two more children by Holder — Sabrina and Euphemia — but since he was married at that time, he did not acknowledge these daughters. Margaret remained single until at least 1791, and sometime after married William Jones. They later moved to Franklin County, Tennessee, and Margaret died there in 1827.

Rebecca Hunter

Rebecca was a daughter of Michael Dumford, who came to Kentucky from North Carolina. Michael patented 400 acres of land on the Kentucky River between Boone Creek and Jouett Creek. Rebecca was married to Charles Hunter, also of North Carolina.

In August 1782, an army of Shawnee laid siege to Bryan’s Station. Hearing the news, William Hays, son-in-law of Daniel Boone, raised a company of 12 men who rode to the aid of the besieged inhabitants. When nearing the station, the company came down a lane where Indians had set an ambush. According to one account, “Charles Hunter was wounded through the body & died that night.”

In 1791, the widowed Rebecca purchased a 100-acre tract of land adjoining her father’s near Boone Creek. Rebecca remained single and the head of her own household until 1795, when she married Daniel Burch.

Margaret McGuire

Margaret and her husband James McGuire came to Kentucky in 1779, first to Boonesborough then to McGee’s Station. On Aug. 19, 1782, James, a lieutenant in the Fayette County militia, was killed at the Battle of Blue Licks. Margaret was still single and the head of her own household on the 1787 tax roll. Her son John was listed as a tithable (between age 16 and 20). What happened to Margaret after that is not known.

Mary Sphar

Mary was married to Matthais Sphar, the son of a German immigrant, Hans Ulrich Sphar. They resided in Berkeley County, Virginia, until Mary and her husband came to Kentucky. They occupied one of the cabins at Strode’s Station in 1779. In 1784, Matthais went out on a hunting trip with Michael Cassidy and Joshua Bennett.

While they were camped a little west of present-day North Middletown, Indians crept up and shot Sphar and Bennett; Cassidy escaped. William Clinkenbeard stated, “Cassidy lived with Spohr. Expected him to marry the widow Spohr but he didn’t. Wells took her.”

According to Matthais’ son, Daniel, “September 1784 my father was killed, about the 20th. Cassidy staid till 1786 or 1787 with my mother, then formed the station [Cassidy’s Station in Fleming County].”

Nothing further has been learned of Mary and her presumed second husband, Wells. Her son Daniel left a line of prominent descendants in Clark County, including Asa Rogers Sphar (1851-1929), William R. Sphar Sr. (1880-1963) and William R. Sphar Jr. (1914-2005).

Jane Wilson

We have little information about Jane. Her husband, John Wilson, was killed at the Battle of Blue Licks, August 19, 1782.

Jane was listed on the tax roll of 1787 (Fayette County) and continued to be listed until 1794 (Clark County). On the latter she appears as the head of a household with seven males over 21; she was taxed for two horses, seven cattle and no land or slaves.

Her son James claimed the land of his father in an 1803 lawsuit against David McGee, but the suit was eventually dismissed.