Copyright November 2000, Robert W. Scott
The story of George Ash is the story that good movies are made ofÂ–a European child kidnaped by Indians, who fought against whites, and who returned to European society after abandoning an Indian wife; a man who built the oldest house that stands on the northern side of the Ohio between Cincinnati and Louisville; a man perhaps alternately reviled and accepted by his neighbors. Depending on some hard-to-document claims, he was the first or second settler of Switzerland County, and he was definitely the first land owner in Jefferson County.
AshÂ’s story comes from two major sources: an interview that was printed in a Cincinnati newspaper in 1829 and has been relayed second hand and another with different details that was published in the Feb. 24, 1830 edition of the Indiana Republican newspaper. The story was also summarizedÂ–with still different details revealedÂ–in a History of Milton Township, written sometime after 1908, probably by William E. Ryker, at one time president of the Jefferson County Historical Society.
Ash gave the following account: His father John Ash settled early near Bardstown, Nelson Co., Ky. Facts condensed from an undated newspaper clipping claim this occurred in 1777. This may be near land the elder Ash later owned on Ash's Creek, purchased on Sept. 10, 1788. (Nelson Co. Deed Book 2 p. 28) In March 1780, ten-year-old Ash, and an unstated number of brothers, and a younger sister were captured by Shawnee Indians. The attack reportedly occurred after Ash, his wife, and infant son Henry, went on a trip to Clarksville, Kentucky (now Louisville), leaving the other children at the stockade. The Indians set fire to the stockade and captured George and a little sister, who had hid under a brush pile.
The size of the family is not known. But it included a brother John Ash Jr., whose will, dated Oct. 29, 1782 in Jefferson County., Kentucky, specifies "if any of my brothers that are now in captivity should return .. they should have an equal part of my estate." (Jefferson Co., Ky., Minute Book A page 56) It has been reported that John was wounded in the attack and died of his wounds, although the will dates do not coincide with the March 1780 capture date. The identities of the Ash captives seem to be given in the August 13,1783 Pennsylvania Gazette, which gives a list of Indian captives as reported by Captain Dalton, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He lists Silvester, George, Henry, Abraham, and Isaac Ash as captives in Canada. (This citation was made available on the Web by Bob Francis in July 1998) The 1829 interview says the Indians carried GeorgeÂ’s sister for two to three days, but they scalped her and left her because she cried and gave them trouble. The other children were transported separately.
After capture, Ash lived on the Big Miami, twenty miles north of Dayton, until General Clark attacked the Indians and burnt the town. The tribe then moved to St. MaryÂ’s and lived there for two years. Ash participated on the Indian side in battles against General St. Clair (November 1791) and Anthony Wayne (1794). His account places Ash at the site of the most critical Indian-United States battles fought in the Northwestern Territory. St. ClairÂ’s defeat was a major one for the Americans because 1,100 Americans died, while there were only 35 Indian casualties. WayneÂ’s victory ended much of the Indian threat in Ohio, and gave the United States its first land claims in Indiana following the Greenville treaty.
Ash returned to the white settlement after Wayne's victory, found his father at an unspecified location, but probably in Nelson County, and in dramatic fashion revealed himself. AshÂ’s father had married again and the stepmother wanted no part of George. So after the meeting, Ash crossed the Ohio and pitched a tent opposite the mouth of the Kentucky River between 1795 and 1800, dates given by the Milton Township history. (But the newspaper interview gives no date.)
He traveled to Philadelphia as a member of an Indian deputation and met the president (name not given). The Indians granted Ash a tract as a reward for his services, which he describes as running opposite the mouth of the Kentucky River, four miles in length, and one mile in back, or four square miles. Another accounts says the land stretched from a point opposite the mouth of the Kentucky River to a point opposite the Little Kentucky. Ash's interview suggests that the Indians gave him this land before the Greenville treaty in 1795. He states that when Indian land was ceded to the United States by that treaty the Indians, Â“neglected to reserve my grant.Â” Historically, the presidential visit occurred before 1800 while the Capitol was in Philadelphia, so it took place either during the administrations of George Washington or John Adams (who took office in 1797).
In the 1829 interview, Ash says that after his capture in March 1780, he spent 17 summers with the Indians. It was at this point that he headed for Fort Pitt and found one of his brothers there, who reported their father was still living in Kentucky. He travelled to Detroit as a guide in the winter (1796?) but before reaching Detroit, he spent the winter with his wife She Bear. In the following spring (1797?), he visited his father and was rejected. The Historical Society account covers much of the same ground. But its style is so appealing, it bears repeating verbatim, starting after Ash met his brother in Pittsburgh.
Â“A few months later he proceeded thence, arriving at the home at midnight, and despite his Indian apparel and his very broken English, he was admitted & made welcome by the unsuspecting brother [sic, must mean father], who affirmed that he had yet to refuse lodging to any man. The two sat before a log fire for some time in silence, when the visitor finally drew the old gentleman into conversation, asking vaguely if he had a son George who had been taken by the Indians many years previously. Dazed by the inquiry, the old man replied Â‘Yes, and he was killed in St. Clair's defeat,Â’ whereupon the son revealed himself to his aged father and daylight dawned before the latter could be convinced of the truth of the circumstances, to further prove which he conceived of the idea of going for his elder son, Henry in the distant neighborhood, first asking George if he would know his brother Henry if he should see him. George with tearful eyes and trembling voice admitted that he probably would not after the lapse of so many years. His father had accumulated a small fortune & was in possession of several negroes, some fine horses and a wife, George's step-mother, which latter however valuable to the father, proved a stumbling block to the son, whose exit followed upon the heels of his arrival.Â”
The newspaper account says Ash then crossed river near the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers and made camp. That summer, he traveled to Washington and met the president. Upon his return, he set up his camp near what is now Lamb and proceeded to build a brick home with the aid of Mr. Lamb and an Indian friend.
If you add the 17 years he spent with the Indians to his 1780 capture, you come up with a 1798 construction date for his house. Was the house built in 1798? Possibly, although dates of this area are always tricky and AshÂ’s age is uncertain. There is no doubt that the house is the oldest on the north shore of the Ohio in Southern Indiana between Louisville and Cincinnati. According to its current owner, the houseÂ’s federal style is similar to the Masterson house across the river in Carrollton. If it was built in 1798, he built it before he married Hannah Combs, because George and HannahÂ’s marriage is recorded in Nelson County, Kentucky, on December. 20, 1800. (This may be the bond date, not the marriage date. Other researchers have placed the marriage date in January 1801.)
An independent source verifies the buildingÂ’s existence in 1820. According to the Historical SocietyÂ’s History of Milton Township, J.H.B. Nowland, the chronicler of early Indianapolis, whose family emigrated from Kentucky in 1820, crossed the Ohio via Ash's ferry and says of the ferryman that "he could scarcely speak a word of English, wore rings in his ears and nose, and dressed in Indian style. 'Although he had a very good house, he had not a chair or bedstead in it, and lived in every way like a savage.Â’"
This history further describes Ash as having a mutilated nose and ears to accommodate ornaments such as silver crosses and "half Moons" with which he lavishly adorned himself.
Two stories reflect the reported hostility against Ash. The History of Milton Township (which does not site its source) continues that, Â“There existed among the settlers a strong prejudice against Ash and a prevailing suspicion that he had participated in the activities against the whites, some believing that he had been indirectly concerned in the Pigeon Roost Massacre. Â“A story is told of a fight in which he was surprised and gotten the better of by a much older man. He, with a Mr. Mount and another man were passing the mouth of a certain creek, which empties into the Ohio Â‘This is where I called a boat in for the Indians by pretending to be in distress.Â’ Â‘What became of them, asked Mount. Â‘All went to hell, for all I know,' said Ash, whereupon Mount sprang upon him, bellowing Â‘IÂ’ll send you after themÂ’ and beat him until his companion interceded and saved his life.Â’Â”
Another account is equally dramatic and is attributed to a Jane Foster, who lived 1823 to 1916. A family was crossing AshÂ’s Ferry to Kentucky when suddenly the wife screamed, Â“This is the man who scalped me.Â” The husband grabbed a boat hook and rushed George, who jumped overboard and laid low until his passengers had gone on their way.
Whatever his Indian habits, Ash acted like a European. For all the Indian adornment that has been reported, he took a very civilized step in petitioning Congress to get the land the Indians had granted him. Congress denied the petition, first reported in 1802, but said Ash deserved payment for his captivity and granted him a preemption right for 640 acres in 1807. That meant he had the right to stake a claim to the land and pay for it at the prevailing rate. The preemption right basically meant he got the right of first refusal on any unpatented plot he wanted.
He patented 435.62 acres in Section 17 Twp. 3N Range 12E and Section 16, along with fractional section 21 on April 1808. Robert McKay patented the same fractional Section 17 later that year. Since Ash sold land in the section, it seems perhaps he and McKay reached an accommodation (or the reports of the patents are wrong). It is sometimes reported that Congress did not grant his request. However, a deed from Ash and wife Hannah cites the Act of Congress when they sold 200 acres to Isaac Miles on July 19, 1814. (Jefferson Co. Deed Book A p. 41) Another deed shows the AshesÂ’ land spanned the county lines. They sold 190.5 acres to Levi Craig on Dec. 1, 1815. (Jefferson Co. Deed Book A p. 41) This land was in Section 17 and fractional section 20 (both in Jefferson Co.) and fractional section 21 (in Switzerland Co.) Twp. 3N Range 12E.
Ash operated a ferry, which could have been used by the first settlers, although his ferry did not get official approval before Charles Kilgore was granted a license between Port William (now Carrollton) and Indiana early in 1805. The earliest evidence of Ash's ferry comes on April 13, 1811 (Ash had a license 1809 in Clark Co., according to researcher Ginny Reeves who was unable to give the exact citation) when he was taxed in Jefferson County.
In his heart, was Ash European or Indian? Contemporary accounts say he dressed and spoke like an Indian. Nevertheless, he was European enough to petition Congress, and use official documents. And he became a Methodist who deeded land for the Spring Branch Baptist Church. Although some settlers bore him ill will, blaming him for attacks by Indians, the Indiana Republican interviewer wrote that Â“His neighbors, however, informed me that these prejudices and suspicions have died away.Â” In many ways, AshÂ’s behavior resembles that of immigrants who Anglicize their names and adopt American customs in order to be accepted. He left his Indian wife and married a European one, and was intent on finding his family. The conclusion that he copied the style of the Masterson houseÂ–to prove himself EuropeanÂ–is hard to resist.
As with many pioneers, AshÂ’s age remains a mystery. His account that he was 10 when he was captured in 1780, places his birth at 1769 or 1770. His tombstone shows that he died on Oct. 31, 1850 at the age of 95, which puts his birth around 1755. The 1850 census of Switzerland County appears to put his age at 99, and the variance is no worse than for many other settlers of the same era. His wife Hannah died in 1837 in the 63rd year of her life. Their two children are also buried in the family cemetery, Eliza Norman Ash, who lived 1810 to 1817 and drowned in the river, and son George Colonel Ash, who lived 1812 to 1872. George C.'s wife Caroline Ash, (1816-1888) is also buried in the family cemetery. His will in Switzerland Co. names his son as the only heir. AshÂ’s will names only his son George C. Ash. However, there was an Evan Ash, born in 1802, who owned land only three or four miles to the north of GeorgeÂ’s property. It seems possible Evan was a son not mentioned in the will, but there is no proof.
(I owe a great debt to Steve Huffman, current owner of the Ash house for providing me the 1829 account and information on the Ash cemetery. The Indiana Republican interview is available on microfilm at the Madison Public Library. The History of Milton Township is available in the library files and I have also transcribed in on my computer.)