It is September of 1791, and a company of a hundred citizens of the western frontier travel north on the Natchez Trace bound for Nashville, Tennessee. A twenty-four-year-old Andrew Jackson – a lawyer, horse trader and, in his youth, sometimes slave dealer – had just married the love of his life, the most beautiful girl in the west, Rachel Donelson. Rachel was also twenty-four. She was the daughter of the late Nashville co-founder John Donelson, and for the western territories, Rachel represented the higher ranks of society. The couple had married in Natchez at the palatial mansion of a wealthy friend, Thomas Marston Green, Jr. They had then honeymooned for a month at Jackson’s log home in Bruinsburg which overlooked the mighty Mississip’ and the Bayou Pierre from the Mississippi Territory.
Rachel, however, was no “city girl.” As a teenager, she was in the pioneer flotilla with her father, her family, and many others as they made their way up the Cumberland River to the spot where they would meet Colonel James Robertson’s overland party, the spot where Nashville was born. Rachel had loaded weapons for her father and brothers as they fought off attacking Cherokee Indians both on the water and from the shore. And she had fired the rifles, too, when she had to. Rachel may have been as beautiful as a flower, but she certainly was not subject to wilting when the heat was on. In fact, she had already survived a short marriage to a brutal Kentuckian, named Lewis Robards, before she and Andrew had eloped to Natchez a month and a half prior to their current trip.
With business concerns calling Andrew back to Nashville, he and his new bride, and possibly a small company of servants, were making their way to their primary home in Tennessee. While she was as robust on a horse, or with a gun, as her husband, Rachel was to Andrew that thing now to be protected at any cost. It is likely his protection of his new spouse that caused Andrew Jackson to run afoul of Major Hugh McGary.
McGary was loud and pushy and twenty years Jackson’s elder. If there was a “leader” of the hundred persons who were walking and riding up the Natchez Trace, it was probably McGary, a position he would likely have claimed through force of will rather than a record of sound frontier decisions.
If McGary is given the benefit of the doubt, he might be considered the kind of brutal man that was required in taming a wild country – fierce, tough, decisive, and bold. But by 1791, McGary’s total body of evidence indicated he also had a strong tendency towards endangering those in his company through his rash actions.
The most famous example of McGary’s untempered bravado came in the last stages of the Revolutionary War, in fact, ten months after Cornwallis had surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. In August of 1782, nine years before McGary’s trip up the Trace with the Jacksons, three hundred mostly Shawnee Indians led by British officers invaded Kentucky and cut a swath through American settlements, burning and killing as they came. Ultimately, the British and Indian force laid siege to Bryan Station, killing all the settlement’s livestock and setting fire to everything outside the community’s central stockade. Upon hearing that a Kentucky militia was on its way, the attackers withdrew into the wilderness. Hugh McGary was a major in the approaching colonial militia serving alongside his fellow pioneer Colonel Daniel Boone and Boone’s son Israel. A decision was made by the group’s highest-ranking commander Colonel John Todd to purse the Indians, despite Boone’s suggestion that they wait on reinforcements before striking out against a force of unknown size. Daniel Boone further pointed out that their targets would have as much as a forty-mile lead as well. He was overruled, and the 180-man militia began its pursuit of the Indians.
Soon, near a salt lick on the Licking River, Boone began to suspect that the obvious trail the militia followed was leading them directly into a trap. And he expressed his concerns to Colonel Todd who, perhaps beginning to sense the same, had requested a council with Boone. Seeing a few Indians watching from a nearby ridge, Hugh McGary, the hothead, urged an immediate attack. No officers listened, which infuriated McGary. He mounted his horse and proclaimed, “Them that ain’t cowards follow me.” The enlisted men quickly fell in behind McGary, and all his bluster, and immediately crossed the river. The militia officers followed the insubordinates, hoping to somehow restore order on the other side. Colonel Boone solemnly remarked, before crossing the river himself, “We are all slaughtered men.”
As Boone had suspected the British and Indian forces waited just across the river hidden in ravines and gullies. As soon as the Kentucky militia reached the top of a rise just north of the river, a fiery and unrelenting ambush was unleashed upon them. Seventy-two soon-to-be Americans were killed on the spot that would come to be known as Blue Licks. The British and Indian attackers lost only seven men.
As most of the Kentuckians fled, or tried to, back down the hill and across the river, Daniel Boone, his son Israel, and a few others fought hand-to-hand with the Shawnee on the left flank of the battle. McGary seeing Boone’s contingent pinned down rode directly into their midst to inform them that all others had retreated. McGary may have been a fool, but he was not a coward. Boone grabbed a riderless horse and held it while his son Israel mounted, but before the boy could ride away, a Shawnee or British mini-ball blew threw his neck killing him instantly. Seeing his son dead, Boone mounted the horse himself and joined McGary in retreat.
Nine years after his ill-fated race into battle at Blue Licks, which clearly led to the death of Israel Boone and seventy-one other Kentuckians, former Major Hugh McGary travelled with Andrew and Rachel Jackson through a new “Indian Country.”
During the fateful return trip to Nashville on the Natchez Trace, the forty-seven-year-old, loud and rash hothead McGary and the twenty-four-year-old, substantially rash but also newly-wed, Jackson would disagree on how to proceed when suspicions of a “meditated Indian attack” were aroused. So, McGary and Jackson came into conflict. Imagine that.
Next week … the aftermath and the Jackson’s marriage problems.