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Sheltowee, Big Turtle


Dow all the good to my Nighbour and my Self that I Can
and Do as Little harm as I Can help
and trust in gods marcy for the Rest.

-D. Boone

The story of the the turtle symbol begins on New Years Day 1778, when a company of some thirty men set out from forts on the Kentucky River toward the spring at Blue Licks, about 40 miles north. Large iron kettles were strapped to their horses because they planned to make a whole year's supply of salt for the garrisons in Kentucky. Without salt you could not cure skins or preserve meat. And venison was fairly tasteless without it. At the time, it took 840 gallons of Blue Lick spring water to produce a bushel of salt, which was worth about a cow and a calf. So they had lots of boiling to do, and this required lots of wood, so they kept fairly busy. But since ancient times, the watering hole or salt lick has always been a dangerous place for prey.

On February 7th, the leader of the party was hunting a few miles away from the salt works when he was captured by Indian scouts and led back to their camp in the woods. He was brought into the midst of a large Shawnee war party, over one hundred well-armed men painted for a campaign, led by Chief Blackfish.  A few white mercenaries working for the Brits accompanied them. Everyone seemed to have plenty of ammunition. The captive hunter knew this fierce band could easily wipe out the handful of little forts in Kentucky, especially with all of the men away making salt. How to divert the Indians from the forts until the settlers could be warned? He did not have much time to think.

Blackfish had only recently become war chief. Just a year previous, the former head of the Shawnee, Chief Cornstalk, warned whites that he was losing influence over his warriors. Emotional young men have never been easy to control.  Cornstalk had travelled to Fort Randolph accompanied by his son to warn the Americans that his men were siding with the British. At the time, the British were supplying arms to the tribes and paid bounties for American scalps without regard to sex or age. Rather than being grateful for this information, the soldiers were suspicious, interpreted the message as a threat and took the chief and his son hostage.  Redneck militiamen soon murdered both of them to avenge the killing of a white man. Neither had anything to do with the crime and their murder in cold blood enraged the Shawnee. Cornstalk's successor was Blackfish. A bitter enemy of the Americans, the new war chief retaliated with raids throughout Kentucky and western Pennsylvania.

A year and a half previous to this encounter at the salt lick, three young white girls had been kidnapped from a settlement on the Kentucky River by a Shawnee-Cherokee war party. In hot pursuit, a crew of men rescued them after a three-day chase. Among the raiders was Blackfish's own son, who was killed in the course of the rescue. The situation between the natives and settlers in Kentucky was deteriorating rapidly into personal hatreds and reprisals.

The warriors conferred. The white hunter was well known by some of them. He'd been with the group of white men who had pursued those girls. One of the children rescued was his daughter. When the captive man began to speak slowly and thoughtfully, the indians were surprised at his words. He proposed a deal involving the capture of his whole salt making crew which so far, the Indians had known nothing about. Chief Blackfish accepted the deal. The warriors called their helpful prisoner Wide Mouth. Wide Mouth would willingly surrender his entire group of Kentuckians, they would be well treated and exchanged as prisoners of war. The capture of such a large group would occupy the warriors as the men would be marched north, and so divert an attack on the forts for the time being.  Blackfish explained that if there was any treachery, Wide Mouth would be the first to die. So except for a few men that had already began hauling salt back to the settlements, the Indians took the entire crew prisoner without anyone firing a shot.

They were marched north for another eleven days, as comfortably as could be expected given such miserable weather. It was not pleasant having to spend the nights tied up. They trekked across the frozen Ohio to the British outpost at Fort Detroit. Here they spoke with British Governor Hamilton. This was the man offering to buy American scalps. He was impressed with their catch and expressed a special interest in this fellow Wide Mouth.  Blackfish refused to turn over his prized prisoner.  He liked Wide Mouth and wanted to bring him back to his camp, and so he did. Wide Mouth was a fine trophy and both Blackfish and his warriors hoped to transform him into one of their own. The salt brigade leader ended up living for four months in the main Shawnee camp, and more or less enjoyed his time there. The Chief adopted him into his own family, giving him the name Sheltowee, or Big Turtle.  The two men developed a profound respect for each other.  Wide Mouth was an excellent shot and often hunted together with Blackfish. His white friends knew Sheltowee by the name of Daniel Boone.

Marching the salt makers into Shawnee villages north of the Ohio was probably one of the worst things Blackfish could have done. Once there, a few escaped back to the forts in Kentucky and began to lead raiding parties into Shawnee territory. Up until then, this had not happened.  Previously, the Shawnee could attack and disappear back into the woods of southern Ohio. Once they were across the river, they had no fear of pursuit. Now they were being ambushed, scalped and having horses stolen right on the edges of their own villages, just like they had been doing to the settlers.

In May of 1778, Blackfish and Half King led 300 Shawnee and Wyandot warriors in an attack on Fort Randolph to avenge the murder of Cornstalk. The fort's commander, however, refused to allow his men outside to fight, and frustrated after a week-long siege, the war party left and moved up the Kanawha River to attack settlements near Greenbrier. Not having found any satisfaction, they came back into camp ready for a real campaign; it was time to move on Boonesborough.

Big Turtle knew it was time to make his move if he was going to save the settlers. After living for four months in the Shawnee camp as the adopted son of Blackfish, Sheltowee escaped in June to warn Fort Boonesborough of the impending attack.  He separated from a hunting party near the end of the day when they were in pursuit of Wild Turkey. After an all night ride, his horse went lame, and he abandoned it at sunup. Altogether, it only took him four days to cover 160 miles, including a swim across the Ohio River. His family, believing him long dead, had moved back to the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina months previous, but Boone stayed on in Kentucky to defend the fort and those who were not willing to run. The settlers bolstered their defenses. Eventually a huge Shawnee war party arrived at Boonesborough in September. After a few days of an uneasy peace and some talk of a treaty, the braves besieged the fort for nine-days, while Blackfish stood outside the walls and cursed Boone's ingratitude and betrayal.

With the help of British officers, the Shawnee tried to tunnel under the walls of the fort and planned to set off an explosive charge to blow the place wide open. They repeatedly attempted to burn it to the ground. The settlers were running low on both water and ammunition. Boone had taken a non-fatal blow from a tomahawk on the back of the neck days previous and was confined to bed for much of this time. Ultimately, it was the blessing of heavy rains which saved the settlers by collapsing the tunnel, and soaking the fires. Disgusted and frustrated with events, Blackfish and his four hundred warriors withdrew.

Sheltowee, Big Turtle

        Mkahday-wah-may-quah, Blackfish

            the story is as old as the hills
            two men obviously capable of a friendship of sorts
            both men passionate with their people's interests at heart
            a mutual appreciation for the humanity of the other
            but the ways of each band are in basic conflict
            and these men cannot remain friends
            because they love their people

            while red folk
            depend on an abundance of game
            white ones
            settle the hunting grounds
            chasing away the animals

            red and white
            life ways clash
            now all live in fear
            all fight for survival
            all listen for strange sounds in the woods
            makes it hard to sleep easy
            in this tangled wilderness of Kentucky

            echoes of life
            in a very difficult time.