The Earliest Printed Version
of David Morgan and the Two Indians
By Jack B. Moore
One of the most exciting and enduring stories of pioneer adventure in West Virginia concerns the battle between David Morgan and the two Indians he fought on his farm in Rivesville, near Fairmont. Morgan's heroism has been amply recorded by many retellings of his struggle,1 and by a plaque in Rivesville. His experience has become, in fact, a sort of legend, and like most legends a certain flexibility of outline has become part of the story as it is handed down to us, over 180 years after the celebrated event. By this time, possibly some people doubt certain features of the legend, and a few skeptics may even question whether or not anything of the sort ever did happen.
I would like, in this paper, to note the general shape of Morgan's story, including a few divergencies which seem important. My major purpose, however, is to bring to light a contemporaneous report, and to evaluate the significance this report may have to the story as we know it today. The document I shall discuss, first published in 1779, is not known, I believe, to most contemporary historians.
The major portion of David Morgan's story does not vary greatly from one version to another. Generally, here is what happened many years ago, when West Virginia was still Virginia, and the United States more a hope than a reality.
In April, 1779, when Indians were rumored to be in the area, David Morgan, almost sixty years old, retired along with many of his neighbors to Prickett's fort, which was about a mile from Morgan's home. While in the fort, Morgan decided some necessary farming had to be done back at his lands, and he sent his children Stephen and Sarah to perform the tasks. After a while, Morgan grew apprehensive and went after them. When he reached his farm he saw two Indians on it, and he hurriedly sent his children back to the fort. Morgan then became involved in the struggle against the two Indians. In this protracted battle, he shot the first Indian, and after a strenuous hand to hand fight stabbed the other. Morgan then returned to the fort.
These are the events generally given, retold as cursorily as possible. Even such an unadorned repetition of detail suggests the dramatic and heroic nature of Morgan's struggle alone against two marauding savages. Depending upon literary technique, upon source, and upon the amount of space given the story, in the lengthier versions other events are described. Starting with Withers, most stories say that Morgan retired to the fort because he was unwell. The WPA report, however, says that Morgan "arose from a sickbed in his cabin" in "1794" (391).2 Withers also said that while in the fort, Morgan dreamed once that he "saw Sarah and Stephen walking about the fort yard, scalped" (276). Most other versions relate this also, with some small variation. The Morgan Morgan Report, for example, told by French Morgan and based upon written report and family legend apparently handed down from Stephen Morgan's children, says that Morgan dreamed twice that he saw his children "running around the fort yard scalped" (72).
Withers and French Morgan specifically state that the first Indian after he was shot stabbed himself twice. Other small details vary or are omitted from account to account,3 but all agree that Morgan stabbed the second Indian with the Indian's own knife, after a fierce struggle in which Morgan lost one finger, and triumphed partly by biting and holding on tenaciously to one finger of the Indian.
After Morgan returned to the fort, Withers says he came back to the now blood-soaked land and traced the still live Indian to the branches of a fallen tree. The Indian had bound up his wound with an apron previously stolen. Upon seeing the white men the Indian says "How do broder, how do broder." The frontiersmen were in no mood for conversation: the men tomahawked and scalped the Indian, and in fact flayed both dead Indians, making "saddle seats, shot pouches, and belts" from their skins (278).
French Morgan objected to this, and said that the ill Morgan was too exhausted from his deadly struggle to return with the men, and was at Prickett's fort when the flaying took place (77). Conley gives French Morgan's version, and Ambler, Withers'. Ambler also says that the skins were made into "a shot pouch and saddle skirt" and a "book now reposing in the library" of a theological seminary in Colorado (158).4
The version I would now like to reprint is from an early American periodical, the United States Magazine. This magazine was printed and sold in Philadelphia by Francis Bailey, and was edited by the novelist and Judge Hugh Henry Brackenridge. The item appeared in the May, 1779 issue, on pages 210-212. It is headed "Remarkable encounter of a white man with two Indians. In a letter to a gentleman of Philadelphia." The letter is marked "Westmoreland, Apr. 26, 1779." Neither the sender nor the receiver is given. We may conjecture that either Bailey or Brackenridge was the letter's recipient, but there is no internal proof to support this view. The letter is especially interesting because it seems to be contemporaneous to the "encounter," and because it was printed in a reputable early American magazine. Furthermore, the version seems more direct and vivid than many of those printed since. The complete text of the letter follows.
"I wrote you a note a few days ago, in which I promised the particulars of an affair between a white man of this county, and two indians: now I mean to relate the whole story, and it is as follows:
"The white man is upwards of sixty years of age, his name is David Morgan, a kinsman to col. Morgan, of the rifle battalion. This man had through fear of the Indians, fled to a fort about twenty miles above the province line, and near the east side of the Monongahela river. From thence he sent some of his younger children to his plantation, which was about a mile distant, there to do some business in the field. He afterwards thought fit to follow, and see how they fared. Getting to his field and seating himself upon the fence, within view of his children, where they were at work, he espied two Indians making towards them: on which he called to his children to make their escape, for there were Indians. The Indians immediately bent their course towards him. He made the best haste to escape away, that his age and consequent infirmity would permit: but soon found he would be overtaken, which made him think of defense. Being armed with a good rifle, he faced about and found himself under the necessity of running four or five perches towards the Indians, in order to obtain shelter behind a tree of sufficient size.
"This unexpected manoeuvre obliged the Indians, who were close by, to stop where they had but small timber to shelter behind, which gave mr. Morgan an opportunity of shooting one of them dead upon the spot. The other, taking advantage of Morgan's empty gun, advanced upon him and put him to flight a second time, and being lighter of foot than the old man, soon came up within a few paces when he fired at him, but fortunately missed him. On this mr. Morgan faced about again, to try his fortune, and clubbed his firelock. The Indian by this time had got his tomahawk in order for a throw, at which they are very dexterous. Morgan made the blow, and the Indian the throw, almost at the same instant, by which the little finger was cut off Morgan's left hand, and the one next to it almost off, and his gun broke off by the lock. Now they came to close grips. Morgan put the Indian down, but soon found himself overturned, and the Indian upon him, feeling for his knife, and yelling most hideously, as their manner is when they look upon victory to be certain. However, a woman's apron which the Indians had plundered out of a house in the neighborhood, and tied on him, above his knife, was now in his way, and so hindered him getting at it quickly, that Morgan got one of his fingers fast in his mouth and deprived him of the use of that hand, by holding it; and disconcerting him by chewing it; all the while observing how he would come on with his knife. At length the Indian had got hold of his knife but so far towards the blade that Morgan got a small hold of the hinder end; and as the Indian pulled it out of the scabbard, Morgan giving his finger a severe screw with his teeth, twitched it out through his hand, cutting it most grievously. By this time they had both got partly on their feet, and the Indian was endeavouring to disengage himself; but Morgan held fast by the finger, and quickly applied the point of the knife to the side of its savage owner; a bone happening in the way, preventing its penetrating any great depth, but a second blow directed more towards the belly, found free passage into his bowels. The old man turned the point upwards, made a large wound, burying the knife therein, as so took his departure instantly to the fort, with news of his adventure.
"On the report of mr. Morgan, a party went out from the fort, and found the first Indian where he fell; the second they found not yet dead, at one hundred yards distance from the scene of action, hid in the top of a fallen tree, where he had picked the knife out of his body, after which had come out parched corn, &c. and had bound up his wound with the apron aforementioned; and on first sight he saluted them with, How do do broder, how do do, broder? but alas! poor savage, their brotherhood to him extended only to tomahawking, scalping, and to gratify some peculiar feelings of their own, skinning them both; and they have their skins now in preparation for drum heads."
Other than a few racy details not found elsewhere - the parched corn spilling out, for example - several points should be noted in the letter. First, Morgan's illness is not mentioned. He is in the fort "through fear of the Indians." This does not necessarily mean that he was afraid of Indians (the Morgan family Bible says that "he killed seven in his time"), but that out of natural prudence Morgan was in the fort when Indians were rumored (and the rumor was true) about. He does not dream of Indians, but naturally "thought fit to follow" and see how "his children fared." The first Indian does not stab himself: it was no disgrace for an Indian to be killed in battle, only to be scalped, and this would not have been prevented by suicide. The first Indian then dies of gunshot wounds. After returning to the fort, Morgan does not appear to have gone back to the farm nor to have helped flay the Indians. Finally, the report is the only one to mention the possibility of the Indians' skins being made into drum heads.
How close to the facts this contemporaneous report is, we will never know for sure. It has the value of having been written, apparently by someone who knew Morgan, soon after the events occurred. The letter, incidentally, states that "this affair happened about the first of April instant." On the other hand, we have probably all had the experience of seeing something in the papers which we know is erroneous. We all know how garbled in detail eye-witness or near eye-witness reports can be. Yet, the report may have escaped a certain amount of subsequent distortion, since it was close in time to the events described.
The report was apparently written by a disinterested correspondent in a magazine of high quality for its time, and one of general repute. The article appeared in the lifetime of Morgan and his contemporaries, and was never refuted in the pages of the magazine. In addition, the complete text of the letter was printed in another highly esteemed magazine, the American Museum, in July, 1787, on pages 79-80. The American Museum was also edited by a reputable man, Mathew Carey, the famous publisher, and the magazine was also published in Philadelphia: the letter also was never refuted in the pages of the magazine. Thus the letter was published in two sound periodicals in the same city within eight years, and its factuality was never questioned.
There yet remains the problem of whether or not this letter was used by later historians who realized the context of its original publication. There is some surface similarity between the United States Magazine's account and Withers'. Both say Morgan was "upwards of sixty years of age" and both repeat the words "How do do broder" of the Indian. The main differences between the two accounts have already been noted; for example we have pointed out their disagreement on whether or not Morgan was of the flaying party. We know little of Withers' sources, for as Reuben Gold Thwaites says in his introduction to the Chronicles, "he had access, however, to few contemporary documents. He does not appear to have searched for them" (v). Withers would most probably not have read the account in either the United States Magazine or The American Museum. He may, however, have read a later source based upon the letter, but not indicating its claims to validity. He may also have interviewed someone who repeated the facts as the facts were known, and this may have led to some similarity. Of the three alternatives, the second seems most logical in light of Withers' methods and in light of the similarities and disparities of the two versions. But this is only an (I hope) educated guess. There is nothing to indicate that any of the other historians of David Morgan read the letter in the form it appears in the United States Magazine.
A study such as this is necessarily inconclusive. We will probably never know exactly what is fact and what is fancy in Morgan's story. Today, it would be impossible to claim that the early printed version of David Morgan's heroic encounter with the two Indians is any more correct than any of the other printed or oral versions. But where the historian cannot conclusively evaluate, where he cannot offer the ultimate truth of a matter, it is his duty at least to bring forth all the evidence he can marshal, so that others may decide their own, informed, opinions.
1 The following have some form of Morgan's story. Alexander Scott Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare (Cincinnati, 1895). This is the new edition, the original having been published in 1831; Wills De Hass, History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia (Wheeling, 1851); Colonel Morgan Morgan Monument Commission, Report (Charleston, 1924); Sylvester Myers, Myers' History of West Virginia, II (Wheeling, 1915); Phil Conley, Beacon Lights of West Virginia History, I (Charleston, 1939); Charles Henry Ambler, West Virginia, the Mountain State (New York, 1940); Workers of the Writer's Program of the WPA, West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State (New York, 1941).
2 Numbers in parenthesis refer to the books noted in footnote one.
3 It must be repeated that omissions may be affected by the space considerations of various works.
4 Ambler seems a bit doubtful of the flaying, as may others. Merely relating the story does not necessarily imply complete belief in it.
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