Chapter IX
Fatal Voyage of David Rodgers


An attempt was made, in 1778, to repeat the feat of Gibson and Linn, in bringing powder from New Orleans by river. The store of ammunition conveyed to Fort Pitt by Lieutenant Linn, in the spring of 1777, had been almost exhausted. A large part of it had been taken to Kentucky, Vincennes and Kaskaskia by George Rogers Clark, and much of it had been used for the defense of the immediate frontier.

The second undertaking was, like the first, ordered and directed by the government of Virginia. In this instance the powder was bought in advance, by correspondence with Oliver Pollock, and was transported by the Spaniards from New Orleans to the little post of St. Louis, where the Spaniards had established their authority in 1768. It seems that the removal of the powder to St. Louis was not understood in Virginia, and the expedition which went after it lost much time in going down the Mississippi to find it.

To organize and command the second expedition, Governor Patrick Henry chose Captain David Rodgers, of Redstone. This gentleman was a native of Old Virginia, and had been engaged with distinction in the frontier conflicts of that colony. He settled on a farm near the present site of Brownsville, Pa., about 1773, and in March, 1775, was appointed a Virginia justice of the peace for the district of West Augusta, which included Southwestern Pennsylvania. He sat in court at Pittsburg and at Andrew Heath's house, near Monongahela. When the news of Lexington and Concord reached the frontier, in May, 1775, David Rodgers took part in the patriotic meeting held at Pittsburg and was elected a member of the revolutionary committee of West Augusta. He entered the Virginia service and became a captain. Before proceeding on his Louisiana adventure he sent his wife and children to Oldtown, Md., for safety. They never saw him again.

When he received his orders from Governor .Henry, in the spring of 1778, to bring the powder from New Orleans, he raised a special company of men in what was then known as the Redstone settlement. The band numbered about 40. Most of its members were hardy young farmers, but not many of them were experienced in military service. Isaac Collie was commissioned lieutenant, Patrick McElroy ensign, and Robert Benham commissary.

Two large flatboats, partially covered, were built at Pittsburg. These were operated by long sweeps and a steering pole. One of them was taken up the Monongahela to Redstone and there received a stock of provisions and the men who were to make the expedition. Among those who embarked was Basil Brown, younger brother of Thomas Brown. These brothers were the sons of Thomas Brown, and were the founders of Brownsville.

The expedition of Captain Rodgers left Fort Pitt in June, 1778. For some days it was accompanied by two family boats, carrying settlers to Kentucky. The voyage down the Mississippi, as far as the mouth of the Arkansas river, passed without special incident. Rodgers entered the Arkansas and ascended it a few miles to a small Spanish fort. There he learned that the powder had been sent up the Mississippi to St. Louis.

Having had no communication with the Spanish commander at St. Louis, Captain Rodgers considered it necessary to go to New Orleans, and there procure, from the governor, an order on the St. Louis officer for the powder. He left his boats and most of his men at the post on the

Arkansas, embarked with six companions in a large canoe, and floated down to the Spanish capital of Louisiana. There he obtained the paper which he desired, and set out on his return.

Not wishing to take a second risk, especially on an up-stream, by passing the British fort at Natchez, Rodgers and his comrades returned overland from New Orleans to the Arkansas. This was a toilsome and dangerous tramp through the swamps and forests along the western shore of the great river. Doubtless the little party had a guide, for, after many wearisome days, it came safely to the place where the flatboats lay in the Arkansas. The voyage thence to St. Louis was made successfully, and the powder was procured. At that time St. Louis had a population of about Soo persons, mostly French refugees from the Illinois. The Spanish garrison, of too soldiers, was under the command of Don Francisco de Leyba. The sale by the Spaniards of this powder to the Americans was a violation of international law, but its actual delivery to Rodgers probably did not take place until after Spain had declared war against Great Britain in May, 1779.(1)

The slow and laborious voyage up the Ohio, with the heavily laden flatboats, was made during the summer and autumn, and all went well until the expedition reached the Licking river, opposite the site of Cincinnati. That region then was unbroken wilderness, nearly the whole course of the Ohio being bordered by great forests, with dense undergrowth.

At the mouth of the Licking, the great Indian warpath from the Maumee and the valleys of the two Miamis, struck the Ohio valley, on the way to Kentucky and the land of the Cherokees. As Indian bands were frequently crossing there, it was a point of danger for boats passing up and down the Ohio.

On an October afternoon, as the craft of Rodgers approached the mouth of the Licking, keeping rather close to the Kentucky shore, a few Indian warriors, in three or four canoes, were discovered crossing the Ohio to the southern shore, nearly a mile up stream. The savages gave no sign that they had seen the Americans, and Rodgers believed that his boats, close to the heavy foliage of the bank, had not been observed. He had no doubt that the Indians were on their way to attack some Kentucky settlement. He decided, therefore, to land his party and attempt to surprise and destroy the savages in the woods.

The flatboats were guided into the mouth of the Licking and pulled up on a sandy beach at the southeastern point between the two rivers. The scene of the ensuing conflict is now occupied by the town of Newport, Ky.

Being confident of overcoming easily the small party of savages, the Americans advanced into the woods with some eagerness. They had not penetrated far when they rushed into an ambush. They had been cleverly entrapped. The few warriors crossing the river in the canoes were but decoys. A strong force of savages, led by Simon Girty and Matthew Elliott, lay hidden in the dense forest. They outnumbered the white men two to one. On every side they sprang up amid the underbrush, shrieking their terrifying warwhoops, pouring a deadly fire into the astonished borderers.

Many of the Americans fell at the first discharge, and panic seized the remainder. They were almost instantly overwhelmed and scattered. With tomahawk and knife, the savages rushed in upon them, and the only hope of escape for any one was by rapid flight through the forest. Many of the frontiersmen were slain and scalped on the spot, and others were overtaken and killed in the woods as they ran. It was only because of the denseness of the undergrowth and the quick approach of night that any escaped. Of the company of 4o men, only 13 got away with their lives. Some of these were sorely wounded and endured great agony in the wilderness. Those who were unscathed made their way to the little settlements in the interior of Kentucky.

Captain Rodgers received a bullet wound in the abdomen, but managed by the help of John Knotts to get away from the scene of conflict and hide in a dark ravine. Fortunately for the hunted Americans, nightfall soon put an end to the pursuit. The scattered savages called to one another with weird cries, soon assembled, and after plundering the flatboats on the Licking beach, went entirely away. Their trophies were enough to satisfy them, and they probably crossed to the north side of the Ohio that night.

All through the darkness Captain Rodgers lay in great torment. Knotts could do nothing for him save to make his resting place soft and to bring water from a neighboring brook. In the morning the wounded man was delirious and evidently near death. Knotts felt it to be his duty to save himself, if he could. He screened the form of the dying Captain with bushes and set out through the wilderness. After great hardship he reached his home on the Monongahela. Afterward search was made for the body of Captain Rodgers, but it could not be found. It had probably been torn to pieces by wolves.

Robert Benham, the commissary of the expedition, was wounded through both legs, but was able to conceal himself in the top of a fallen tree. He had clung to his rifle, but for a long time feared to fire it or to make other alarm, lest the Indians might still be in the neighborhood. It was not until the afternoon of the second day after the battle that hunger persuaded him to shoot a raccoon which ventured within his range. The sound of his gun had scarcely died away when he heard the call of a human voice. He suspected that it was the shout of a savage, and hurriedly reloaded his rifle; but footsteps were soon heard in the thicket, and a haggard and ragged white man, covered with blood, pushed his way through. It was Basil Brown. He was wounded in the right arm and the left shoulder, so that both hands hung helpless at his sides. He, like Benham, had been in hiding until he heard the sound of the rifle shot.

Here, in the wilderness woods, were two wounded Americans, having between them only one pair of good arms and one pair of good legs! It was a singular situation, and it was a queer partnership of mutual aid which they formed for their preservation. Benham pointed out the dead raccoon. Brown kicked it to the place where Benham reclined. The latter built a fire, dressed and cooked the animal and fed his companion as well as himself.

To procure water, Benham placed a folded hat between Brown's teeth and Brown then waded into the Licking river, dipped the hat into the water and carried it full to his thirsty comrade. Thus these two men in distress supplemented the actions of one another for many days. Brown made wide circuits in the woods, shouting and kicking the underbrush, driving rabbits, squirrels and wild turkeys within the range of Benham's accurate rifle. When the game had been brought down, Brown kicked it to the fire and Benham did the rest.

Every day Brown spent much of his time on the bank of the Ohio, watching for a passing boat. It was not until 19 days after the disaster that a flatboat descending the river was attracted by Brown's cries. The wounded men were rescued and taken to the new settlement at the falls of the Ohio (Louisville). After their wounds were healed they returned to their homes at Redstone, and both lived for many years afterward. Basil Brown died about 1835, at the age of 75. He never married, but lived at Brownsville with his crippled sister, Sally. Robert Benham, when the war was over, bought and settled on the land where Rodgers met his disaster and death, and was one of the pioneers of Newport.(2)

1 Annals of the West, pp. 812. 818.

2 Annals of the West, p. 306; Affidavit of Basil Brown, in Notes and Queries. Third Series, vol. iii., p. 423; Howe's Hist. Coll. of Ohio, vol. If., p. 741; winning of the West, Roosevelt, vol. ii., p. 136; The ,Girtys, p. 110.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 54-59: Old Westmoreland, A History of Western Pennsylvania During the Revolution by Edgar W. Hassler, J.R. Weldon & Co, Pittsburgh, 1900

Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (

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