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Report of Colonel Morgan Morgan

The Kentucky Frontier Legend of Mrs. Merrill
Head | Part I | Part II | Part III | Works Cited

This account of the Mrs. Merrill legend is taken from Reverend James B. Finley's Life Among the Indians; or Personal Reminiscences and Historical Incidents Illustrative of Indian Life and Character. Whether this was the earliest published version of the tale is not known, but it is believed to be rather accurate as Reverend Finley writes that, "The above story I have often heard from the lips of Mrs. Merrill herself."  The original date of publication for this book is not included in the binding, but as Reverend Finley died in 1857, it was obviously written before that time.

The Legend of Mrs. Merrill as Published in Reverend Finley's "Life Among the Indians:"
               Another, and perhaps a still more striking instance of female heroism occurred, in
1791, in Nelson County.  The House of a Mr. Merrill was assaulted by savages.  Hearing the
dogs barking, Mr. Merrill opened the door to ascertain the cause.  He was fired at, and fell
wounded into the room.  The savages attempted to rush in after him, but Mrs. Merrill and
her daughter succeeded in closing the door.  The assailants began to hew a passage
through it with their tomahawks; and, having made a hole large enough, one of them
attempted to squeeze through it into the room.  Undismayed, the courageous woman seized
an ax, gave the ruffian a fatal blow as he sprang through, and he sunk quietly to the floor. 
Another, and still another, followed till four of the number had met the same fate.  The
silence within induced one of them to pause and look through the crevice in the door. 
Discovering the fate of those who had entered, the savages resolved upon another mode of
attack.  Two of their number clambered up to the top of the house, and prepared to descend
the broad, wooden chimney.  This new danger was promptly met.  Mrs. Merrill did not desert
her post; but directed her little son to cut open the feather bed, and pour the feathers upon
the fire.  This the little fellow did with excellent effect.  The two savages, scorched and
suffocated, fell down into the fire, and were soon dispatched by the children and the
wounded husband.  At that moment a fifth savage attempted to enter the door; but he
received a salute upon the head, from the ax held by Mrs. Merrill, that sent him howling
away.  Thus seven of the savages were destroyed by the courage and energy of this heroic
woman.  When the sole survivor reached his town, and was asked, 'what news?' a prisoner
heard his reply - 'bad news! The squaws fight worse than the long knives.'
               The above story I have often heard from the lips of Mrs. Merrill herself.  She was a
member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  After the death of her first husband she was
married to a Mr. Hunter. She settled on Paint Creek, in 1797; and subsequently died there,
in the triumphs of faith.

Of this Mrs. Merrill and her family, nothing is known.  In exception to James Morgan's statement that she was called "Miff," even her name has been lost in history.  Her husband's name is generally given as John, though James claimed that it was instead, William, and that he first came to Virginia with the John Merrill who had married Jemima Batten.  In this account, however, it is important to note that Mrs. Merrill's husband is not referred to as anything other than "Mr. Merrill."  Further, while accounts of the legend also mention that there were children in the Merrill home, their names have been lost as well.

However, Lucullus McWhorter noted in his The Border Settlers of Northwestern Virginia from 1768 to 1795, that:
                             
                              William Hacker, Sr., the scout, and John Hacker, the settler, were brothers.  There
               was a sister named 'Betsy,' who tradition says, was Mrs. Merrill of Kentucky border fame;
               while another version of this tradition has it that she married a Mr. Freeman, although
               crediting her with the terrible achievements of Mrs. Merrill with an axe and featherbed. 
 
This William and John Hacker arrived in the Buckhannon country with a group of settlers led by Samuel Pringle in 1768.  There was an Elizabeth Hacker, wife of John Freeman, who is believed to be their sister, and subsequently, the "Betsy" of whom McWhorter makes reference.  However, this "tradition" that McWhorter speaks of is undoubtedly false.  Within McWhorter's own work, he prints a statement made in 1833 by one Paul Shaver, a former young patriot of the American Revolution.  As Shaver wrote, "There were ascertained a number of Indians in the neighborgood or distant about thirty miles on Salt Lick, some of whom in May 1777, appeared in the neighborhood of West's Fort and killed and scalped one woman, Mrs. Freeman."  This Mrs. Freeman is believed the be none other than Elizabeth Hacker, wife of John Freeman.  In Withers' Chronicles of Border Warfare, a further account is given of the incident:
 
                              About the middle of June, three women went out from West's fort, to gather
               greens in the field adjoining; and while thus engaged were attacked by four Indians, laying
               in wait.  One gun only was fired, and the ball from it, passed through the bonnet of Mrs.
               Hackor (Hacker), who screamed aloud and ran with the others towards the fort.  An Indian,
               having in his hand a long staff, with a spear in one end, pursuing closely after them, thrust
               it at Mrs. Freeman with such violence that, entering her back just below the shoulder, it
               came out at her left breast.  With his tomahawk, he cleft the upper part of her head, and
               carried it off to save the scalp.
 
Thus, as it is understood that this Mrs. Freeman is the same woman as Elizabeth Hacker, it is naturally impossible for her to be the same heroic woman of Nelson County, Kentucky, who courageously defended her family from hostile Indians in 1791.  It is unfortunate that the names of Mrs. Merrill and her family have been lost throughout time, however, one must realize that it is unlikely they will ever be discovered.   


Finley, James B. Life Among the Indians: or Personal Reminiscences and Historical Incidents Illustrative of Indian Life and Character. New York: Eaton & Mains.
 
McWhorter, Lucullus Virgil. The Border Settlers of Northwestern Virginia from 1768 to 1795: Embracing the Life of Jesse Hughes and Other Noted Scouts of the Great Woods of the Trans-Allegheny. Dayton, VA: Ruebush-Elkins Co. 1915.
 
Withers, Alexander Scott. Chronicles of Border Warface: Or a History of the Settlement by the Whites, of Northwestern Virginia, and the Indian Wars and Massacres in that Section of the State. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company. 1912.