The Captivity of Jonathan Alder (1773-1849)
and his life with the Indians
Capturing Horses in Kentucky-Swimming the Ohio River
In the spring of 1790, when Mr. Alder was about sixteen years of age, a company of Indians organized to go over into the territory of Kentucky for the purpose of stealing horses from the whites. There were nine in the company. The names of five of the party are given: Blackfoot, the leader, Big Turtle, a chief, Skunk, Crow and young Alder. The narrative continues: '"They were very anxious for me to go with them. They told me it would be a good chance to get a fine horse or two, and that if I would go, they would give me the choice of any they got. I had never owned a horse but was very desirous of doing so and did not reflect upon the mode proposed to obtain them. To me nothing seemed wrong so far as the whites were concerned. We had suffered so much at their hands that all seemed to be fair. I was assured the whites would steal our horses or anything we had if they had a chance to do so. They had several times taken or destroyed all we had, whereby we were almost reduced to a state of starvation. Hence I felt somewhat like retaliating if I should have the opportunity. I knew I would like the trip even if we failed in getting horses. Under these considerations, and with the consent of my old Indian father and mother, I concluded to go with them. We were then in the neighborhood of the Mack-a-Chack towns and from thence we passed down through what are now called Logan, Union, Madison, Pickaway and Ross counties. We stopped a few days on the Pickaway plains. hunted, and passed on slowly, for Indians on such trips are never in a hurry. We killed a number of deer, bear, elk and buffalo on the trip and dried the meat, so that we might pack it on our backs. After we crossed the Scioto River, we struck the Ohio River near where Portsmouth now stands. We stopped there one day, and made bark canoes in which we crossed the river into Kentucky. This was the first time I had seen the Ohio River since I crossed it as a prisoner. As soon as we got over we cut holes in our canoes and shoved them into the stream, in order that we might leave no sign by which the whites could discover and defeat our plan. After the canoes had floated into the main current of the river, we struck out into the country. We camped in a low thicket that night, without fire, and ate our supper of jerked meat, lay down and slept. We traveled the next day, cautiously until late at night and on the third day we came to a settlement, stopped and concealed ourselves until evening, keeping two men out hunting all day for signs of horses. About sundown we began to hear bells all around us. The settlers all belled their horses in those days. We could hear men at every cabin, cording wood. The head Indian remarked that the whites had a day which they kept and on which they did not work. He said tomorrow will be that day and their horses will all be turned out until day after tomorrow, and the men will be in and about their cabins; so, we may just as well commence now and gather up the horses, as it is the best time we will have to do so; and we went to work as soon as possible. Before it was quite dark we had a number of horses caught and taken back and tied in a secret place. We had the advantage of the moon, as it was then full. Arrangements had previously been made in order that we might have the benefit of the moonlight. By nine o'clock we had all the horses caught, bridled and ready to mount. We had in all thirty-two horses, young and old. I had a mare, a two-year old and a yearling colt. The head Indian said if any of us were not satisfied, he would give more time to get other horses but we told him we did not want anymore. He then gave the word to mount, which we did, and started, the head Indian leading the way in a westerly direction, to where he knew there was a wagon road that led to the Ohio River. We had not traveled more than half an hour when we struck the road. It was what I suppose is now called the Maysville road. As soon as we got in the road we put our horses to a full trot, and at some places, to full speed. We passed several cabins and the dogs at every cabin made a terrible noise. Some of the people had not gone to bed. At one cabin we passed there was a light inside and the dogs made a wonderful barking, and seemed very savage. A man came out bareheaded, and scolded the dogs. The Indians hallowed at the dogs to 'get out' several times. The man came to the yard fence and put his hands on the gate and stood there until we had all passed. We kept to the road until about three o'clock in the morning, when we left it and traveled in a northeasterly direction. We continued all night and the next day, and then stopped for the night. We had now been three nights without sleep and, after we had eaten our bite of supper and were preparing to lay down an owl commenced hooting. The head Indian commenced counting, one two, three, and so on, then another owl and another, commenced hooting. Each one hooted thirty times before it stopped. The head Indian thanked them over and over again very gracefully and then got up and went to his tobacco pouch, took his pipe, filled and lighted it, and sat down to smoke; at the same time, he drew out of the fire a few coals and threw some tobacco upon them and called upon the Great Spirit to come and take a smoke with him all the time thanking the Great Spirit for his kindness in informing us of our danger. Every few minutes he threw more tobacco upon the coals and repeated the request for the Great Spirit to take a good smoke, saying all the time, how kind he was to his red children, and that his red children would always love and honor such a good and kind Spirit who had gone to so much trouble to tell them that they must not stop where they were, as they were pursued. After he ceased smoking he got up and came to us saying, 'We would have to leave where we were; as there were over thirty whites after us and we would be overtaken and killed if we remained and that it would never do to stay there after the Great Spirit had been so good as to warn us of our danger! It was with much reluctance that we bridled our horses, mounted and started on again. I became so sleepy on the trip that I came near falling off my horse several times. At every creek or brook we passed I got off and threw water in my face to keep from slumbering but it was impossible to keep awake. About eleven o'clock at night Big Turtle called a halt. He said 'He was not going any further that night, and was not afraid of hooting owls but if there were any that were afraid they could go on and he would stay where we were. I got off my horse, and then one after another got off, until all had dismounted except Blackfoot the head Indian. He said: 'If all were going to stop he might as well do so,' and dismounted. We slipped the blankets and halters from our horses and wrapped ourselves in the blankets and laid down where we were. I was asleep in a short time. When I awoke the next morning the sun was far above the horizon and was shining down in our faces. We found our horses near bye not more than two hundred yards off. We ate a little breakfast, bridled our horses and started again. Two Indians of our company; Skunk and Crow; had very fine horses. Skunk asked Crow to let him ride his horse that day. He said he would like to try his gait and speed. Crow consented and the change was made. Skunk, all through the day, was engaged in making Crow's horse show off to the best advantage. Both Indians seemed very proud of their horses for, although they got but one each they were the finest horses in the lot. When we halted for the night, we turned our horses out; and after chatting a little wrapped our blankets around us and laid down to sleep. When we got up the next morning we found all our horses near by except Skunk's. Skunk bridled Crow's horse and lashed on his blanket, when a dispute arose about the horse. Crow said, 'Skunk should not ride his (Crow's) horse that day.' Skunk said it was the one he rode the day before; and he would ride him that day, as it was the horse he intended to keep. Blackfoot told him to hunt around for the missing horse, as he would not wait long. Crow sauntered around a short time, but did not go out of sight. He came in, directly, looking sulky, and walking up to Skunk said: ‘You say that is your horse, do you?” Skunk replied crabbedly, saying: 'Yes, that is my horse.’ As soon as he replied, Crow leveled his gun and shot the horse through the body. It dropped down and Skunk began to pull off the blankets to prevent them from becoming bloody. Skunk asked Crow why he did not tell him he was going to shoot the horse, that he might have taken off the blankets to prevent them from getting bloody. Crow walked off and made no reply. Skunk took his blankets off and said: 'Men, wait a little until I look for my horse.’ Blackfoot said: 'There lies your horse, you have no other one;' and then ordered the men to mount. Horses were freely tendered Crow and Skunk to ride for it relieved the horses of being led, as all had two or more.
"We arrived at the Ohio River that day about noon. When we got ready to cross the river we rushed the horses down the bank into the water at a suitable place, where they were hemmed in on all sides. They were tired and gaunted and not disposed to be contrary. We led two or three down to the water then rushed the remaining ones in with whips and fired two or three guns. Every horse struck out vigorously for the other side of the river. We watched them and saw them all land safely on the opposite shore and ascend the bank. We then peeled an elm tree, made a bark canoe, and placed our guns, blankets and clothing in it. An Indian tied a piece of bark to one end off the canoe and the other end around his neck and struck out for the opposite bank, towing the canoe after him; followed by all the rest of the Indians, one after another single file, to swim the Ohio River. I thought I was a good swimmer but had not yet swam any very great distance nor in very deep water. So I remained until the last as I was the youngest person in the company and desired to have the way clear. When the last person had gone about four rods from shore I started, feeling a little timid, but full of faith in my ability to swim across the river. I swam it with ease. It seemed as if I hardly wet my back. We all came out safely on this side of the river. We dressed and then, emptying the canoe, sank it and ascended the bank and ate our supper, after which we moved our horses to a proper place to graze and placed a guard on the margin of the river to see if we were followed. After a delay and rest of a few days for ourselves and horses, and having prepared a good supply of fresh venison, we commenced our line of march for the Indian towns on Mad River. We passed up about the same route we came, through Ross, Pickaway and Madison counties. We traveled very leisurely, for it was a good place to graze our horses. After some time we got home and, as usual, and our story, with all the particulars, was told. My old Indian father and mother were greatly pleased at my success. I had given them a full history of all that happened. Every little incident was related to them by me. They could not be satisfied to hear the head Indian tell it. They thought it a great feat for me to swim the Ohio River. They set a high value on the horses, not because they were valuable, but because they had a son who could venture so far and be so successful in stealing horses, and get back with his property safely. They were, consequently, very proud of the horses for my sake, and were never tired of speaking of my wonderful adventures."