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William Robbins

PIONEERS OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, INDIANA
Published in the Madison Weekly Courier – Oct. 29, 1873

Uncle Billy Robbins is known far and wide throughout this county as one of its earliest settlers. He was but ten years old when his eyes first beheld the Indiana hills and his vigorous young step trod over them. Mr. Robbins was born in Shelby County, Kentucky, in 1794. At that early period the incursions of savage warriors from the north side of the Ohio was a frequent and terrible trial to the settler. A few years before the birth of the subject of this sketch, the Indians killed and scalped an elder brother at a place called Bullskin, in one of their predatory raids. Quiet, however, was soon restored and the humble cabin of the pioneer began to line the banks of the wild Ohio.

In 1804 little Billie Robbins, then just ten years of age, was placed astraddle a horse and, with a sack of flour for a saddle and some groceries elsewhere, started from his native home to the house of an uncle living one half mile below the mouth of Indian Kentuck Creek. The journey was not a lengthy one, but the country was wild and desolate, almost a trackless wilderness, so full of wild beasts that it required a brave heart and considerable nerve in a mere boy to make his way alone through it. The Kentucky River was crossed at its mouth and the trail pursued down the south bank of the Ohio until opposite the mouth of the now famous creek, where the hail was made for a pirogue or canoe. Uncle Billy says he saw plenty of deer and smaller game in this trip, and now and then a painter or black bear would come in view. His curiosity about the latter was easily satisfied, and so long as they let him alone he took particular pains not to bother them.

The uncle alluded to, whose cabin stood below the mouth of Indian Kentuck
Creek was John Ryker, Esq., one of the first of that large family to settle in this county. At the hail of his nephew, Mr. Ryker crossed the river in his pirogues. The young adventurer was seated in the stern, holding the bridle of his horse, which swam behind, and was soon paddled across to the Indiana shore, landing just above Eagle Hollow. Mr. Ryker’s cabin was the scene of a jollification that night over the arrival of their kinsman and the luxuries he brought with him-flour, coffee, sugar, &c., articles that could be obtained only in one way – by a trip to the settlements in Kentucky.

In 1809 Mr. Robbins became a permanent settler, making his home with an uncle who had built a log hut two miles north of Canaan. The Indian war breaking out shortly after this, our hero enlisted as a Ranger and kept guard for several months at the blockhouse on Wilson Buchanan’s farm. This blockhouse was built by the settlers for a refuge; it stood about a mile north of our present Barboursville, in Shelby Township, on the county line. No remains of the building are now visible, its site having been enclosed within a burying ground on the farm of Enoch B. Buchanan, a son of Wilson Buchanan.

Mr. Robbins next served in a company raised along Indian Kentuck Creek, of which Jim McKay was captain and Jep Storms the lieutenant. This was in 1811-’12. No fight took place with the Indians; occasionally they slipped into the settlement and stole horses and got away before the Rangers could catch them. When at length Williamson Dunn raised a company to patrol the woods and range along the border of the settlements, Mr. Robbins again enlisted and rode all over this and the adjoining counties, sometimes standing on picket in the dense, damp woods; at other times chasing the wily foe from his lurking place, as he endeavored to fall unawares upon some lonely settler.

This service was rough and arduous, and Mr. Robbins was obliged by sickness to return to Kentucky. He soon, however, volunteered in a Shelby County regiment, and marched up through Ohio with General Harrison to Detroit when it was retaken from the British. Mr. Robbins was also engaged in the battle at the river Thames, where Tecumseh fell. He says he couldn’t say who killed Tecumseh. It was a pretty bloody place around where his body was found. Col. Dick Johnson was wounded just in front of where he lay, and an old man named Whitney, of Johnson’s regiment, was killed there. Most of the soldiers thought Whitney killed him. He was a noted Indian fighter and a very brave man. On that day he rode a big sorrel horse. Uncle Billy remembers him particularly because, before the battle became general, he shot an Indian across the Thames, then swam over and scalped him, and threw his body in the water. After recrossing he rode past Uncle Billie’s company with the reeking scalp on his outstretched arm, making a picture he wasn’t likely to forget soon.

After the war, the ranger returned to Shelby Township, Indiana. This was in 1813. The first settlers were from Shelby County, Ky., and it probably got its name therefrom. Ranger Robbins bought land 2 ½ miles North West of Canaan; paid from $2 to $2 25 per acre, the government price. It was all woods and had never received the slightest cultivation. After he paid for it, Uncle Billie says he knocked around and concluded he didn’t want anything but a wife; so he got married on the 21st day of January, 1816, to Elizabeth Wildman, an aunt of our present Auditor of State.

The wedding took place five miles from Madison, on the Graham road. Old Uncle Jesse Vawter, a Baptist preacher, performed the ceremony and he done it up brown. Johnny Bramwell and wife was there, Jacob S. Ryker and a big crowd of friends. A week after the wedding, continues Mr. Robbins, I built a pole cabin right in the woods; I hadn’t cleared a stick of timber before and was right in the green woods. The cabin was one story and had one room, the ceiling was just high enough to walk under it; had a puncheon floor and clapboard roof. I built two bedsteads with one post, ran it across one end of the room and it filled it up entirely. Our bedstead was for visitors. My nearest neighbors, Mason Watts and R. Cox, lived a mile and a half off.

Well, I went to work and cleared by farm. I made it a rule in the fall of the year to hunt one day in a week to keep in fresh meat. I didn’t like to hunt on Sunday, and I couldn’t spare the work days, so I always went between Saturday and Monday. I had a rifle gun with a flint lock. The highest I ever killed in one day was five deer. One time I killed two young bears two miles north of my cabin. I was out hunting and came across the dam at the root of a poplar gum; I wounded her, but as it was late she ran off in the woods, the cubs came out then and I killed them. I saw a painter (panther) on Big Creek one day, when I was hunting deer. It was on the ground running from me, having seen or heard me coming. I was a little dubious about him, but followed along a while trying to get a shot.

I was in Madison at the sale of the first lots by old Col. Paul and Jonathan Lyons. Most were sold just about the Court House square, which had been laid out. Where the Courier office is, and all around, except near the square, was woods. Lots facing the square sold for about $15 each. Main Cross and Main streets, with a few others, were the only streets laid out. There wasn’t but a few houses in the place then either. I remember old Jacob Wagner’s house, grand-father of Ike Wagner. He had a blacksmith ship too. John Boone had a grocery below the square. These were the first in the town. Colonel Paul lived on Main Street, near the river, where the Todd house is now. The people dressed in linsey, wore two shirts and pants, and sometimes buckskin breeches. Some old men wore knee-breeches and stockings, but these were rich fellers; poor folks mostly settled this county, they could not buy land in Kentucky, and some came over here.

During my life – I will be 79 on the 18th day of November – I voted for Henry Clay for President, and old General Scott; I lost these votes. I voted for Taylor and Harrison. I knew Harrison, had seen him often. I voted for old Abraham Lincoln twice, the best man I ever voted for. I voted for old General Grant twice, and gave him inside of my own family, twenty-six votes. There was my own vote, my sons, son-in-law and grand-sons. Grant ought to give me a premium. The government is giving me a pension of $96 a year, and I am thankful for it, and will be thankful for more. I am living in Monroe Township now.