SIXTY YEARS AGO...the story the Robert McMahan Family Indian Massacre
Read to the Troy, Illinois Lyceum in 1855, by the Hon. George Churchill
Published by James T. Hair, 1866

Typed and Donated by ©Susan Cook
©Illinois Trails History and Genealogy

Read in 1855:

Sixty years ago Illinois contained a mere handful of white inhabitants.  No steamboat had ever disturbed the surface of the western waters; no canal was thought of; no railroad was invented; no electric telegraph had been dreamed of.

Yet the venerable author of the "Pioneer History of Illinois," after describing the mode of living in the "American Bottom," adds:  "I do not believe that any happier people existed anywhere than in the American Bottom, for twenty years, from 1790 to 1810.  These were the palmy days of the American Bottom, and such a feast and flow of good feelings, generosity, and most of the virtues that adorn human nature, as were experienced in the American Bottom, rarely exist in any country."

The same write places "the golden age of Illinois" between the years 1732 and 1754, and says "at no subsequent period will the people enjoy the same happiness."

All this merely seems to show that the write felt happier when he was young and ardent and full of bright hopes and anticipations than when he became old and had enjoyed the fame and the honors hoped for in youth, and had discovered that they were "nothing but vanity and vexation of spirit."  "Old men always imagine, as they advance in life, that the morals of the people grow worse, and fraud and dishonesty increase."

The venerable Robert Lemen, in a communication to the "Pioneer" of Jan. 8th, 1830, speaks of the troubles of the same "palmy days." Says he:  "The tomahawk and scalping knife were our continual dread.  To use the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, "We got our bread by the peril of our lives, because of the sword of the wilderness." Thus it was with the greatest difficulty we procured the necessaries of life, laboring with one hand, while in the other we held a weapon of defence; our food and raiment being of the coarsest kind, and scanty withal.  No coffee nor whisky, without which numbers, cannot live in these days of plenty."  "Our currency consisted of deer-skins, three pounds being equal to one dollar in silver; and they were a lawful tender.  Our amusements were the contemplation of better days.  We had no minister of the Gospel; our manner of worship was to assemble on the Sabbath, read the Scriptures, and sing a few psalms or spiritual songs.  We had no schools.

The danger of attacks from the hostile savages was so great that the whites were compelled to build forts, or stations, as they were called, for their mutual defence. Mr. Robert Lemen informs us that his "father with a few others, perhaps not exceeding twelve families, were under the necessity of collecting in a small fort, called Pigott's Fort, about nine miles below Cahokia, at the foot of the bluff adjoining the Mississippi Bottom, as a safeguard against the hostility of the Indian tribes, whose murderous arms were uplifted against us." Afterwards they "removed and forted at New Design, a place selected by the late Capt. Joseph Ogle and others, as suitable for that purpose, being surrounded with excellent timber and water."  (This place is in the present County of Monroe, on elevated land, and commands a view of the Mississippi and Kaskaskia Rivers.)

Sixty years ago an Irish schoolmaster, rejoicing in the name of "half-penny", taught school at the New Design. He was the third who taught school in Illinois, his predecessors being John Seely and Francis Clark.

Sixty years ago the 26th of January last a tragedy was enacted about three miles from New Design Station, in which two persons, for many years resident in the vicinity of Troy, were compelled to endure the keenest sufferings.

The story has several times appeared in print, frequently with some inaccuracies, and always with the omission of some important circumstances.

Robert McMahan, Esq., a native of Virginia, emigrated from that State to Lexington, KY.  At Crab Orchard, KY, he married Miss Margaret Clark.  In 1793 he removed to Illinois and settled near the New Design.

The settlers being apprehensive of attacks from straggling parties of Indians, Mr. McMahan, in 1794, resided in a house of mr. James Lemen's, Sen., near the Station.  In the same vicinity resided Mr. Peter Carterline and Mr. Benjamin Ogle.

But, desiring to improve the land which he had selected for his farm, and hoping to escape an attack, or to repel it if made, he afterwards removed to his improvement in the prairie, about three miles from the station, and out of sight of any other house.

He made preparations to defend himself and family against an attack.  He had a rifle; and only a week before the tragedy, he run two hundred rifle balls.  he also had a blunderbuss charged with six charges of powder and nine balls.  "When you hear the report of my blunderbuss," said he to his friends at the station, "you may be certain that I am attacked."  The door of his house was so constructed that it might be strongly barred, and port holes were made in the walls through which he might shoot any who should attempt to ascend to the roof.  On the fatal 26th of Jan. 1795, Mr. McMahan went out to hunt for his oxen; when he perceived that his horse, which was confined in a pen, appeared to be frightened.  He case his eye over the prairie in every direction, but saw no enemy.

A lone hickory tree, one hundred and fifty yards from his house, had been blown down the year before while in full leaf, thus furnishing a convenient hiding place for an attacking party; but, unfortunately, Mr. McMahan did not think of there being a deadly enemy ensconced within that convenient covert.

He entered his house, but had not been there more than two or three minutes when four Indians, frightfully painted black and red, entered the house, two by two, saying "Bon jour! bon jour!" (Good day, good day).  They stood motionless a few seconds, when one of them attempted to take down mr. McMahan's rifle from the hook, and Mr. McMahan took down his blunderbuss; but his wife took hold of it, and begged her husband not to resist, as she hoped their lives might be spared if they submitted peaceably, but otherwise they would be killed. The Indians then seized the blunderbuss, and wrenched it from his hands.  Every one then made for the door. Mrs. McMahan ran half way around the house, when she was shot in the left breast, and scalped.  Mr. McMahan was then pulled back into the house, thrown on the floor, and his hands pinioned close behind him, with deer sinews. Sally McMahan, his eldest daughter, then less than nine years old, remained in the house, and saw one of the Indians knock her brother and two of her sisters on the head with the poll of his tomahawk.  It was a light blow, only sufficient to stun them.  This Indian was proceeding to open the cradle where lay a female infant, only one month old, when Sally ran out of the house, and once around it, when she was also seized by him.

The Indian who committed the murders was supposed to be of the Miami tribe.  The other three were Pu-tw-wahs, as they call themselves, or as they are commonly called by the whites. Pottowatomies.

Three of the children were scalped.  It was said that the infant was not scalped, but my informant stated that the Indians displayed five scalps when they camped at night, and she supposed they took two scalps from the head of one of the murdered children, and left the infant unscalped.  It has also been stated that the infant was unhurt, and died of starvation: but my informant learned from a woman who was present at the burial, that there was a gash in its cheek.

The Indians took from the house such articles as they wanted, packed a part of them upon Mr. McMahan, on of whose hands was untied, so that he might carry his load; and with their captives, left in haste for their home in the north-east part of Illinois. Mr. McMahan meditated an escape, but did not make known his intention to his daughter.  The first night of the journey he saw no chance of escape, as the Indians had tied him very securely, and had taken away his shoes and hat, and part of his clothes.  But during the second night, he quietly slipped off the cords from his limbs and body, and was about to rise, when he perceived that one of the Indians was awake.  Waiting till the Indian was again asleep, he made his escape, after trying in vain to get possession of his shoes.  In the dead of the winter, without shoes, without food, and with scanty clothing, he left his daughter with her captors, and endeavored to make his way to the new Design. He lay out one cold night, making his bed of leaves under a large fallen tree, which was held up from the ground by its branches. Here he was partially frozen, but the next morning resumed his journey.  He now had the pleasure of meeting a friend in the person of Col. Samuel Judy, who gave him the necessary directions, which he pursued, and reached his home just after his wife and four children had been committed by their sympathizing neighbors, to one common grave.  He prostrated himself upon the grave, exclaiming, "They were lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided."

The massacre took place on Monday, and the burial on the succeeding Friday.  A small dog belonging to Mr. McMahan, daily visited the residence of mr. James Lemen, Sen., and endeavored, by whining, to inform the people of what had happened to his master's family.  But for several days they did not comprehend the dog's message; one authority says not until old Mr. Judy had discovered the dead bodies and reported the fact at the Station.

Let us now return to the Indians and their remaining captive. They pursued their course and reached the home of the Pu-taw-wahs, south-west of Lake Michigan.  Sally McMahan was here transferred to an Ot-taw-wah Indian, who had become a chief of the Pu-taw-wahs, and whose wife was a sister of the three Pu-taw-wahs, who had been concerned in the massacre.  The name of this chief was Suk-ko-nok, which being translated means Blackbird; but among the whites he went by the name of Leturneau. Here the Indian women cultivated their gardens and "truck patches" with a neatness worthy of commendation and imitation, not permitting a solitary weed to grown therein.

In 1795, General Anthony Wayne, sometimes called "Mad Anthony," obtained a great victory over the Indians in Ohio. This was followed by the Treaty of Greeneville, by which the Indians engaged to bring into the white settlements all the captives in their possession.  In accordance with the stipulation, in April, 1796, Suk-ko-nok took Sally McMahan down the Illinois and Mississippi, in a canoe, and landed at Cahokia, and delivered her to the white people.  It being court time, a great many people were present.  Suk-ko-nok made a speech to them in which he said that he had no hand in the massacre; had paid a considerable sum for the captive, and had brought her a great distance into the white settlements.  He therefore appealed to the liberality and sense of justice of the white people to make him just compensation. A subscription paper was drawn up, and circulated, and one hundred and sixty-four dollars subscribed, and that amount, in goods was advanced to Suk-ko-nok by Mr. Ar-un-del, a merchant of Cahokia.  "Bill," a slave of Mr. Marney, of the American Bottom, was a few weeks after the massacre of Mr. McMahan's family, carried away captive by two of the Indians engaged in that transaction together with two other Indians.  Bill was never restored to his friends; but it was reported that he was poisoned by his misstress, to prevent his restoration according to the Treaty of Greeneville.

Robert McMahan married a second wife, and raised a large family. He resided many years in Ridge Prairie, south-west of Troy, and died in the year 1822, aged sixty-three years.

Sally McMahan was born march 9th, 1785; was married to Mr. David Gaskill, and raised a large family.  She lived in Ridge Prairie, during the greater portion of her life.  Towards the close of her life, she removed to the city of Alton, where she died on the 23d of January, 1850, in the sixty-fourth year of her age.  To her I am indebted for such of the facts stated in this memoir, as occurred in her presence.

In Gov. Reynold's account of the above transaction it is stated that two daughters of Mr. McMahan were led away captive; and no mention is made of Mr. M.'s preparations for defence.  It is evident, however, that if he had seen the Indians before they entered his house, he could have defended himself successfully until the report of his blunderbuss would have brought him assistance from the Station.

G. C.
{George Churchill}

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