As I have mentioned, I am descended from three sisters: Cynthia, Susannah, and Esther Stephenson (sometimes spelled Stinson), who were the daughters of Elizabeth Whitley and Robert Stephenson. Elizabeth was the eldest of the 11 children of William Whitley and his wife Esther Gill Fullen.
|William Whitley portrait|
William Whitley was born in 1749 in what is now Rockbridge County, Virginia, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants, Solomon and Elizabeth (Barnett) Whitley. William married Esther in 1771 and soon began talking about moving west. Like my other ancestor, Jacob Castle, William Whitley explored Kentucky as a longhunter. As related in the Draper manuscripts, William returned from one of these trips and told Esther, “…we could get our living there with less hard work than we have here.” The intrepid Esther answered, “Then Billy, if I were you I’d go and see.” In November of 1775 they headed for the land that William had staked in Kentucky. Esther rode a horse with her 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth tied to her back and her 1-year-old daughter Isabella riding in her lap.
Longhunter's camp at Fort Boonesborough
Many of the early years in Kentucky were spent fighting Indians. In fact, the Whitley family spent much of that time living within stockades and forts with other settlers. In the late 1770s William fought with George Rogers Clark’s forces against Indians in the Northwest Territories. According to some reports, a scalping he saw in these early years incited a sense of outrage against Indian brutality in Whitley that remained for the rest of his life.
|Reconstructed Fort Boonesborough|
Esther also did her part to defend her family and friends against the natives. She is mentioned several times in the Draper manuscripts regarding the siege of Logan’s Fort by Shawnees in 1777. She and another woman, Jane Menifee, took their turns with the men shooting from the stockade wall. On another day, caught outside the fort by attackers, Esther calmly stopped to pick up her hat before hightailing it back to safety. In August 1777, after attacks had begun to wane, the men of the fort were having a friendly shooting match. William encouraged Esther to take her shot—which was dead center—and the men continued to compete well after dark, trying to best her effort. (Which they did not.)
|Stockade at Fort Boonesborough|
In the 1780s the Whitleys finally began to build their home in Kentucky that would become known as the “Guardian of the Wilderness Road.” It was the first brick home built in Kentucky and included William’s initials (WW) and Esther’s initials (EW) built into the brickwork on the front and back of the house. The estate was called “Sportsman’s Hill,” and included a circular clay horseracing track. In opposition to the British racing rules, races at Sportsman’s Hill were run counterclockwise. Sportsman’s Hill became a centerpiece of Kentucky society; for example, the Whitleys hosted a celebration on the 4th of July in 1812 that fed and entertained 1000 visitors. While not a fort, as such, the house was definitely secure against attack and included a secret hiding place in the upper story. The house still stands near Crab Orchard, Kentucky, as the William Whitley House State Historic Site. I have visited the house twice, and upon one occasion was shown William Whitley’s famous longrifle that will figure into…the rest of the story. A wonderful video of the house’s interior is available for viewing at the Pioneer Times USA website.
William Whitley House
In 1813, when he was 63 years old, William volunteered for the War of 1812 with the Kentucky Mounted Infantry. When I read this for the first time, my thought was, “Boy, I bet his wife was mad when her 63-year-old husband ran off to fight Indians!” That was before I knew Esther. Not only did she encourage William to join up, she sent him with a special long-barreled rifle that she had commissioned to be built for him, carved with both of their initials. William carried that rifle into the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada, against forces led by the famous Shawnee leader, Tecumseh. When the smoke cleared, both Whitley and Tecumseh were dead. Credit for killing Tecumseh was given to Richard Johnson, who later became Vice President of the U.S., but others gave the kill to William Whitley (and some to his rifle, wielded by another.) The rifle and William’s powder horn were returned to Esther.
|Depiction of the Battle of the Thames|
from the collection of the Library of Congress
Membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution has been given the descendants of William Whitley, including myself, based on his service under Benjamin Logan at Logan’s Fort. Here’s the great thing, though: Female descendants of the Whitleys may also enter the DAR based on the service of Esther Whitley! Esther’s contribution to the fight for independence was “molding bullets.” Not many females have been accepted as patriot ancestors for membership in the DAR; I would love to one day have matching certificates on my wall, the one for William that I now have and another for Esther.
|Quilt celebrating famous women of Kentucky|
at the Kentucky Historical Society Museum
One can’t help but have feelings about one’s ancestors, even when those ancestors were never known personally. I have mixed feelings about William Whitley. Of course, I grew up in Oklahoma, where most of us are sympathetic to the plight of native Americans--pushed off the land that was coveted by the settlers. I’m an admirer of Tecumseh. By all accounts, he was a brave and intelligent man who saw the great advantage of the tribes working together to repel the invaders of their homelands. I like William, too. In a time when women were often treated as inferior to men, William Whitley considered his wife an equal, and she obviously loved and admired him.
What I really think is interesting is the comparison between my two ancestors, one on my father’s and one on my mother’s side of the family: Jacob Castle and William Whitley. (See my post, “Jacob Castle the Longhunter.”) Both of the men were explorers who loved the virgin land of Kentucky. For Jacob that included an admiration for the ways of the native Americans, and a love of Cherokee and Shawnee maidens. In fact, some have even said that Jacob’s first wife, Sowege or Gliding Swan, was a Shawnee of the same clan as Tecumseh. You couldn’t make this stuff up!