Family Stories

The McAfee Brothers – Early Kentucky Pioneers

We, the descendants of our pioneer ancestors, can only imagine what they went through to move to Kentucky in the early years – some even before it was a state.  This article, written in 1888, is an excellent source for one of the earliest groups to visit our state – the McAfee brothers who settled just north of Harrodsburg in Mercer County.  It tells of the great discoveries of the new land, and also the troubles that came with finding their way through the wilderness.  W. H. Perrin, along with J. H. Battle and G. C. Kniffin, produced the 1880’s county histories that give us much information for today’s research.  Perrin took notes from the writings of Robert Breckenridge McAfee, son of Robert McAfee the pioneer, for this article he wrote in 1888 for The Courier-Journal.

The McAfee brothers are well-known in Mercer County history, and to this day many of their descendants still live where their forefathers brought their families to make a new life.

The Courier Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Sunday, September 9, 1888

Kentucky Pioneers

The McAfees Among the Distinguished Men Who First Settle the State

How They Came to the Dark and Bloody Ground and Their Later Adventures

(Written for the Courier-Journal by W. H. Perrin.)

The McAfee brothers were among the distinguished pioneers of Kentucky.  They were here contemporaneously with Harrod and Bullitt, and soon after Boone’s first visit.  The circumstances which led to their coming were somewhat as follows:  The glowing description given of the country beyond the mountains, by Dr. Walker and other adventurous spirits, inspired the younger members of the family with enthusiasm and a burning desire to visit it and judge of its beauties for themselves.  After discussing the subject thoroughly in their family circle, a company was formed, consisting of James, George and Robert McAfee, James McCoun, Jr., brother-in-law of Robert McAfee, and Samuel Adams, a youth of eighteen, who was a cousin of McCoun, to explore the country of which they had heard such glowing accounts.  Completing preparations for their journey, they set out May 10, 1773, from their homes in Botetourt County, Virginia, and proceeded on horseback to the Kanawha River, which they struck about four miles above the mouth of the Elk.  Here they sent back their horses by John McCoun and James Pawling, two boys who had accompanied them to this point for that purpose.  They constructed two canoes, loaded in their provisions and munitions, and then embarked for the unexplored regions of the great, and then unknown west.  Descending the Kanawha they met by appointment Hancock Taylor and his company of surveyors.  They reached the mouth of the river on the 1st of June, where they found Captain Bullitt and his company, who were on their way to the falls of the Ohio.  The three companies voyaged down the Ohio together, reaching the mouth of Limestone Creek, where Maysville now stands, without incident.  Here Robert McAfee, with a total disregard of danger, left the party for the purpose of exploring the surrounding country.  He passed up Limestone Creek to its source; then crossing the dividing ridge he struck the North Fork of the Licking, proceeded down it some twenty-five miles and then struck across to the Ohio, which he reached in the present county of Bracken.  On reaching the Ohio he ascertained, by what means is not now known, that the party had already passed down the river, it having left the mouth of the Limestone on the 24th of June.  For days he had been ranging through the wilderness alone, where, perhaps, white man’s foot had never before trod, and through the intervention of Providence had escaped all dangers.  He determined to follow his comrades, and to that end cut down a tree with his tomahawk, which at this day would be considered a gigantic undertaking, and skinned the bark off, of which he constructed a canoe, and which he completed before sundown the same day he arrived at the river.  Trusting himself to this frail vessel, he embarked on the Ohio, and at the mouth of the Licking he overtook his comrades.

The McAfees remained in Captain Bullitt’s company until they reached the mouth of the Kentucky River, from whence Bullitt and his company kept on to the falls of the Ohio, the McAfee Company and Hancock Taylor proceeding up the Kentucky.  At the mouth of Drennon’s Creek they landed on the 9th of July, and went over to the ‘lick’ where they found immense numbers of deer, elk, buffalo, etc.  On the 15th they crossed the Kentucky, below where Frankfort now stands, and where Robert McAfee had two surveys made.  They ascended the river to a noted spring, which they called ‘Cave Spring,’ and from there crossed the country to the Salt River, to which they gave the name of Crooked Creek.  They proceeded to survey lands for their party, of four hundred acres each, lying on the Salt River, from the mouth of Hammond’s Creek to about two miles above, where Harrodsburg now stands.  Having completed their surveys they, on the 31st of July, turned their faces homeward.  And now, although they had been in the wilderness nearly two months, it seemed their trials and troubles were just beginning.  Their journey proceeded under many hardships, it being a time of much rain, and when they reached the ‘foot-hills’ of the mountains, their provisions were exhausted, and game seemed all at once, as it were, to have disappeared, until their situation was not dissimilar to that of the Children of Israel in the wilderness.  An early chronicler, writing from the notes of McAfee, says: ‘The 12th of August was a gloomy day to this little band.  They had gained the highest point of the craggy range dividing the headwaters of the Kentucky and Clinch Rivers; a region that seemed the abode of desolation.  Nothing but barren rocks frowned on every side, and silence and solitude reigned uninterrupted.  Not a living animal was to be seen, nor a bird to cheer them with its wild notes.  They were exposed to a broiling sun; their feet were blistered, and their legs were torn and raw from the effect of the briers; add to which, they were literally starving, not having had a mouthful to eat for two days.’

They seemed as much alone in this mountainous wilderness as Robinson Crusoe on his desert island.  Indeed, it seemed but ringing the changes on the story of the ‘Lost Mariner,’ when the poet tells us he was

‘Alone, alone, all, all, alone.  Upon the wide, wide sea.’

Not an animal was to be seen that could serve them for food; night was drawing on; the last rays of the setting sun were gilding the mountain top, and, to add to their distress, they had gained a region destitute of water.  In this extremity George McAfee and Samuel Adams threw themselves upon the ground, declaring their inability for any further exertion.  But Robert McAfee determined to make one last desperate effort to find game, and, leaving the others, he struck out to skirt the ridge, and proceeded but a short distance when he had the good luck to shoot a young buck, which crossed his path.  The report of his gun was heard by his companions, who, at once forgetting their fatigue, ran to the spot, and, scarcely waiting to cook the meal thus provided, they devoured it with ravenous appetites and slaked their thirst at a brook they discovered nearby.  After a short rest, they pursued their journey and reached their homes without further difficulties.

This visit of the McAfee Company, as we have seen, was made in 1773, and it was their intention to return to the claims they had surveyed and settle upon them permanently.  But the Indian wars disturbing the frontiers of Virginia and the battle of the Kanawha prevented their immediate return to the west, and it was not until 1775 that they were enabled to carry out their intention to do so.  Robert, Samuel and William McAfee were inveigled into Col. Richard Henderson’s scheme of the Transylvania Company against the advice of their elder brother, but the other members of the company refused the offers of Henderson.  Robert, Samuel and William accordingly went to Boonesboro and entered land, but, as is known in history, the Transylvania Company did prove a bubble and burst as suddenly as it was formed, and in the fall the McAfee Company was reunited.  It now consisted of George, William and Robert McAfee, George McGee, David Adams, John McCoun and a few others.  Protected by Harrod’s station, which had just been planted by Capt. Harrod, they cleared fifteen acres below the mouth of Armstrong’s Branch, in the present county of Mercer, and planted it in corn.  Part of the company wintered here, while the remainder returned to Virginia to make preparations for removing their families to Kentucky in the spring, calculating that the corn and cattle (having left forty head of the latter here to winter on the luxuriant cane) would by that time be sufficient to support them.  In the following May they packed up their earthly all, consisting of clothing, provisions, farming implements, etc., and started for Kentucky, but the excitement consequent upon the opening of the Revolution delayed them several months, and in September they made another effort, but again they were delayed.  By an accident they lost most of their property, and the Revolutionary War having now commenced in earnest, the men of the company joined the patriot army, and hence it was not until 1779 that their darling project of settling in Kentucky was accomplished.  This year found them permanently located on their claims on the Salt River, about six miles from Harrodstown, with their families.  They fortified their settlement and called it McAfee’s Station.  It became a noted pioneer station, and in time received due attention from the savages in the way of attacks and petty annoyances.

The following melancholy incident of the McAfee Company, and their settlement, has been preserved in the pioneer annals of the state:  ‘In the spring following the settlement (1780), Joseph McCoun, a promising lad, and the youngest son of John McCoun, Sr., and a favorite with the entire settlement, was surprised and carried off by a band of Shawanese Indians, while looking after some cattle in an adjoining glade.  His companion escaped and gave the alarm, but pursuit was made in vain.  The savages carried their unhappy victim to a little town on the headwaters of the Mad River, about six miles from the present town of Springfield, Ohio, where they burned him at the stake, after having inflicted on him all the excruciating tortures their devilish ingenuity could devise.  After this heartrending event, the families, seven in number, abandoned the farms they had been cultivating and took refuge in the station.’

This period was, perhaps, the most unsettled in Kentucky, yet known to the few adventurers who were endeavoring to effect settlements.  The Indians were prowling about in every direction, killing and scalping every white that was found outside of the station, stealing horses, and attacking the weaker stations and settlements.  No one dared to spend a night outside of the stations, and hence they cultivated their crops with a hoe in one hand and a gun in the other, and the occasions were frequent that the latter came in play.  There were no communications between the different stations, except by armed companies, and these were often ambushed and attacked, sometimes suffering severely.

The McAFee station survived and today the small area is still known as McAfee.  New Providence Presbyterian Church, begun by those early pioneers, houses the earthly remains of these brave men and women in its cemetery.

12 replies »

  1. Phyllis, once again, I am so thankful for your sharing of your life’s work with we, Kentucky Cousins. Thank you for sharing this piece on the McAfees. Our Dutch families settled along the Salt River in Mercer Co. Several family members listed their birthplace as “McAfee.” You are so correct in saying this adds so much to the story of our ancestors. Thanks, again Charlotte

  2. Thank you for posting this, I am a descendent of both Jane and Margaret Mc Michael

    • Good morning, Teresa! I am Dianna Rose and I have just found your post from last May regarding Margaret McMichael. I am a descendant of Jane and have little to no information regarding Margaret. I would like to share information if you are interested. I am back to going through “old” information in this time.

      • Hi, I just found this site. I am reaching out to a few people who have posted recently:

        This is quite random, but have you ever heard stories or legends of small, hairy creatures (humanoid in form) called “Little’uns”? Nocturnal and mischievous, but not necessarily dangerous. I heard stories from a Kentuckian co-worker of mine years ago. I have been fascinated ever since, and want to know more.

  3. This is quite random, but have you ever heard stories or legends of small, hairy creatures (humanoid in form) called “Little’uns”? Nocturnal and mischievous, but not necessarily dangerous. I heard stories from a Kentuckian co-worker of mine years ago. I have been fascinated ever since, and want to know more.

  4. Easy to find information on our family lineage. Thanks for making it so accessible.
    Stephen McAfee Jones

  5. I’m trying to find a copy of the book “Robert McAfee: The Pioneer and the First Commodore on Three Principal Rivers of the West”. Could anyone point me in the right direction? A google search has pulled little. Perhaps someone knows of a digital copy? Thank you!

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