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James Burns of Madison

Reminiscences of a Jefferson County Pioneer
Published in the Madison Courier – Dec. 10, 1873

One of the oldest and most intelligent of our early settlers is living on Second Street, in the extreme western part of the city. It is old James Burns, the father of ex-Mayor Miles S. Burns. Mr. Burns was born in Loudon County, Virginia, near Alexandria, in 1786. He moved to Kentucky, traveling in a wagon, in the year 1794. Mason and Bracken counties were his stopping places until 1806, when, accompanied by a young wife he had lately married, he removed again into Ohio.

In December, 1806, Burns entered Fort Washington for the first time. The fort was surrounding village had not yet received the present name – Cincinnati. The tract of land back from the river was called Hobson’s Choice, the rest, facing the river, Fort Washington. The houses were few and scattered here and there in the woods and clearing. Mr. Burns rented a farm and lived upon it. He was enrolled in the militia and saw extensive service against the Ohio Indians. When Aaron Burr came west and fled southward to New Orleans, Burns was among the militia who kept guard along the river at Cincinnati to intercept and capture him. The wily Burr, however, evaded the authorities and passed south without detection.

Burns came to Madison in 1814, the Indians being then at war with the settlers. James Harisock, John Burns and James Burns together purchased a boat at Cincinnati in which to bring themselves, their families and household possessions to Madison. The boat was about one hundred feet long and roofed over. Three days were occupied in floating down to Madison. We landed, says Mr. Burns, opposite the big frame house that old John McIntire put up. It is the same house John Marsh now lives in, though it has been remodeled several times. Main Street at that time — 1814 — was the only street in the town. Main Cross was laid out only a little way down towards Mulberry. A person had to drive around logs and trees to go anywhere. The timber was cut down to make a show but was not cut up or hauled away. There were eight or ten families in town, not more.

The bottom was almost entirely covered with woods, only a little spot for houses. Burnett’s public house stood on Main Cross, close to where the old Indiana bank is now. On Main Street was John Booth’s tavern, a hewed log house on the east side of Main, below our Court House. A man named Wilson had a cabinet shop near the tavern. Col. Paul lived in a brick house near the river bank, the only brick house in town them. Three or four lawyers were boarding with him, William Hendricks, Christopher Harrison, the government surveyor, and others. Soon after I came Harrison was elected to Congress. This was before he was married. Basil Bentley, the first sheriff of this county, also boarded with Col. Paul. Mrs. Sering was then on a visit to her aunt, Mrs. Paul. I took dinner shortly after I came to town with Col. Paul and saw them all. Old Wagner, Ike Wagner’s father, had a blacksmith shop between Main and Mulberry, on High street. John McIntire kept a dry goods store in his big frame house. Col. Paul had a mill back and above the present burying ground on Crooked Creek. The mill was up and had just got to grinding corn when I came. It was on the bank of Crooked Creek and was run by water power. The mill was a frame building and was fixed to make flour about 1816. Dawson Blackmore was living on the corner of High and Walnut, in a one-story hewed log house. He had three sons and two daughters. Dawson Blackmore Jr. was the first white male child born in Madison. He was a baby when we came.

Betty Strickland, a daughter of Judge Strickland, who lived beyond Blackmore’s on Walnut Street, was the first girl baby born about here. The Vawters were here and a few others besides when our party landed. As we went up town from the boat, we found everybody setting around watching for Indians, afraid to go out of the house almost. A man named Jim Moore invited us to his house, to stay a few days, and we went. After getting the families at Moore’s, Hartsock and myself took our guns and went to Wirt, then a fort or blockhouse. We passed the blockhouse at old James Edwards’ mill on Clifty creek. When we got out to the other blockhouse on Harbert’s creek, the people ran out and closed the gate, thinking we were Indians. They made us stand off and holler a good deal before they let us in. After the gate was opened they were standing staring and gaping to see whether we were true or not.

I examined the land I had bought that day and the next morning we got horses and returned to Madison. I then hired a team and hauled out two or three loads of furniture and things. Next we sold the boat to John and Jim Cowden. Our three families moved out to Harbert’s blockhouses together. The first night we camped by a big log on old Jesse Vawter’s place. We slept on the ground before a log fire near to the old blockhouse. We located on Harbert’s creek, on the site of the village of Wirt, six miles from Madison.

Five families were living in the blockhouse at this time; our party added three more, making eight in all. There was William Harbert, the first settler, after whom the creek took its name. He went out and built a cabin in 1811, before the war began, along with Daniel Hickman, John Brock, Samuel Chasteen, Wm. West and their families. To there were added the two Burnses and Hartsock with their families. We all lived in the blockhouse and were in continual fear of the Indians. Every night we kept guard, and Judge Dunn passed once or twice every week with his Rangers.

The Indians came in sight frequently threatening us. Several persons that had wandered off in the woods hunting disappeared and were never afterwards heard of, no doubt having been murdered or carried away by the Indians. The blockhouse stood about fifteen rods east of my late residence at Wirt; that is, east of the frame house with the locust trees before it. It is on the right hand side of the road going north. The site of the fort is now a part of the farm of Hiram Francisco. The blockhouse was a square inclosing about one half an acre. In each of the four corners were log houses built unusually strong. The upper part hung over on the outside to prevent the Indians climbing up on the roof, and all the sides were pierced with holes to fire through. There were other houses close up to the picket walls which served to strengthen the pickets. The picket was a fence of high heavy posts driven into the ground and sharpened on the ends. There was a gate on the north side of the fort, and one on the east. Inside the fort was a hollow square, all the homes being close up to the walls.

The families that lived there had built cabins on their land when they first made the settlement, all of them from a half mile to three or four miles distant from Harbert’s. When the Indians came about they were afraid to stay separated and so far from each other; so the blockhouse was built. The location was a first rate one. It was on the high bank just south of the creek. Then the land on the east and west side sloped down a little lower than were the fort was. A fine large spring was near the fort, too. While here at the blockhouse I went out hunting one day and shot three deer at one shot. How do you think I did it? “The three deer must have been standing in a row to let the bullet go through them all.” No, it wasn’t that way. I shot an old doe with two babies in her.

About this time my brother John’s horse strayed away from the settlement. He went out to hunt it taking my gun, tomahawk, scalping knife and dog. A little ways from Wirt he started a bear with two cubs. He chased them until the cubs got out of breath. The old bear seeing them lagging stopped, and cuffed them with her paw, to make them climb up a little tree. She put her back against the tree and was growling like blazes when John came up. As he shot, the dog caught the bear by the hind leg and kept his hold until she was finished with the tomahawk. He killed the cubs then without any trouble. In those days we all dressed in buckskin breeches and hunting skirts. We never went out without our guns ready for an encounter with the Indians or wild animals. The woods were so full of game that the Rangers got all they had to eat out of them. If they didn’t shoot it they had to go without.

This county belonged to old Captain White-eyes and his brood. White-eyes pretended to be a big chief and friendly to the whites, but there was no dependence in him. I saw him many a time. He was a bold looking old jockey, rather sassy, about thirty years old and not short of six feet in height. He wore the Indian garb, breech cloth, leggings, and moccasins, with a blanket thrown over his shoulders. His leggings were of dark blue or black woolen cloth, pretty fine, too. Indians were particular about cloth; they knew what was good and wouldn’t buy if it wasn’t. His hair was long and black and had buzzard quills stuck around in it. He always carried a gun and a tomahawk. His tomahawk was made with a pipe in the pole. He was the biggest Indian in his tribe.

The Pottawattomies tribe came from out on the Wabash. There was well onto a hundred with White-eyes. They had a camp on Marble Creek, close to Hillis’ blockhouse. It was in Lancaster Township on Stout’s farm. The camp was on a little knoll, a very pretty place. All about it the bark was pulled off the trees and set on end for shelter. Trees were peeled as high as they could read and for a good bit around as they had about fifteen wigwams. Indians wouldn’t go in a house and sit down in a chair to eat from a table. They’d get down on their knees around the table and take things off the plates with their hands. They mostly eat meat. I’ve seen Indians eating meat off one end of a chunk and a dog biting and chewing a t the other. They thought as must of their dogs as they did of themselves. In the logs and stumps about the camp you’d see little holes hollowed out where they put their corn and pounded it with tomahawks. They had a good many ponies which they used in packing their things from place to place. Every man carried his rifle and hunting gear. Old White-eyes rode generally.

The squaws wrapped a lot of stuff, sometimes a bushel or two of corn, in a blanket and swung it on their backs, having the ends tied and pressing against their foreheads. They were accustomed to come here to trade and never got away without getting pretty well melted with liquor. Always had a jug. One Indian would carry it under his blanket. They’d all sit down in a ring and this one would take the jug out from under the blanket and take the first drink. Then he passed it around and took another drink at the last before he put it under his blanket again. They all wanted to carry the jug.

The Indians were pretty good marksmen, they shot with rifle and bow and arrow. One time, when thirty or forty of White-eye’s men were passing through my place, I coaxed one of them into my stable to see a bay mare the Indians had stolen once. The mare hated the sight of an Indian. Shed begin to plunge and kick the moment she saw one. Before he got fairly in the stable the mare squealed and kicked at him. The Indian broke and run, saying “she no good horse, no good horse.”

Madison was owned originally by Paul, Burnet, Davis and Lyon. Burnet lived in Cincinnati, Davis some place in Ohio, and Lyon at Eagle Hollow. Davis and Burnet came in after the first sale of lots by Paul and Lyon in 1811. Jefferson County extended to the Indian country and was called Jackson’s purchase. The first man that ever lived in Madison was a Negro named Madison, from whom the town got its name. The first steamboat that passed this point was the Robert Fulton, I think she passed here in 1815 or ’16. The first boat I was ever on was the Hibernia. I went to Cincinnati on her from this place in -17 or ’18. The boat was not running regularly between any points. The first newspaper was called the Republican Banner, if I recollect right. It was owned by William Hendricks. Samuel Pelham was the editor, and Jacob Rhodes was the printer. The paper was weekly, and was started in -14 or ’15.

Wirt was laid out by Col. Arion, James Vawter and myself. I proposed Wyandotte as the name of the place. Col. Arion suggested Wirt, after William Wirt of Virginia, and so it got that name. The Baptists (Iron Jackets) organized a church at Wirt, in February, 1818. The meeting was held in the log school house. The members were Wm. West and wife, Wm. Harbert and wife, John Burns and wife, James Burns and wife, Robert Harbert, a single man, a young woman named Rebecca Marshall, John Stevens, Wilson Monecrief, Abner Moncrief, James Harbert, Thomas Glover and Rachel Johnson. Daniel Stogedill, the preacher, was from Pulaski Co., Ky. Church was held in the school-house for nine years. Then a little brick house was built. The present church is almost exactly on the site of the first one, just a small distance east of the old one. The first baptism recorded by the church, was in June, 1825.

The first school-house was built pretty near the present church. It was started in 1819. The teacher was a Scotchman, named Carmichael, who boarded at my house. The first mill-dam ever built on Big Creek was made by James Hays. It was in Lancaster Township, and is now the property of John B. Craft. It was formerly owned by Horace Byfield. The dam is there yet; I had my wheat and corn ground there for three or four years.