ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

MARCH 31, 1793

Moses Cockrell, and a few whites, are leading pack animals across Powell's Mountain. Today, they will be attacked by Chickamauga Chief Captain Bench, and his followers. All of the Europeans will be killed except Cockrell, who will escape after outrunning Bench.

"If you don't watch out, Captain Benge will get you"  Copyrighted by Don Chesnut, 1997

Robert 'Bob' Benge was born circa 1760 probably in the Cherokee village Toquo to John Benge and Wurteh, a Cherokee. Robert grew up to be the most notorious Cherokee in history. He was so feared in the central Appalachian areas of present-day Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, that the settlers admonished their children by saying, "if you don't watch out, Captain Benge will get you."

Toquo was a Cherokee village on the Little Tennessee River in present-day southeastern Tennessee. Robert grew up as a Cherokee, but with his red hair, European look, and his good command of English, he could also pass as a pure Euro-American. He used this double identity to good effect in his raids against the settlers. He was known as Bob Benge, Captain Benge, Chief Benge, Chief Bench, or just The Bench. If he had a Cherokee name, it is not known.

Robert's father was John 'Old Trader' Benge, an Indian trader who lived among the Cherokee, and his mother was Wurteh who was part of an influential Cherokee family. [Robert's pedigree can be found in the genealogy database, "Our Ancestors."] John was previously married to Elizabeth Lewis, daughter of William Terrell Lewis and Sarah Martin, a prominent family originally from Virginia. Elizabeth's sister, Susannah Lewis married John's brother, Thomas Benge. John and Elizabeth had several children at their home in western North Carolina. These were William Lewis, Sarah, and Obadiah Martin. Apparently, John was also living with Wurteh at his home with the Cherokee (probably Toquo) and had several children born there. These were Robert, Utana "the Tail," Lucy, and Tashliske. After Elizabeth and the Lewis family found out about John's Cherokee family, their marriage was dissolved and Elizabeth latter remarried John Fielder and had other children. Wurteh also had a child from a man whose last name was Gist or Guess and their child became known to history as Sequoyah. Robert and Sequoyah were half brothers.

March 31, 1793: The small Benge group set up an ambush along a road near the top of Powell Mountain in present-day Lee County, Virginia. Three white men were leading a pack train down the mountain. ".As the whites drew closer Benge [Robert] recognized their leader as Moses Cockrell. Cockrell was a loud mouthed ruffian, whose reputation as an 'Indian Fighter' in the Holston area was similar to that which Overall had formerly enjoyed on the Cumberland. Cockrell was a large man, and very vain of his size and strength. He had frequently boasted that he would relish an encounter with the notorious 'Captain' Benge in personal combat, and had in profane terms predicted the outcome for the amusement of many tavern audiences. Benge had heard of his boasts, and grimly determined to give Cockrell an opportunity to make good his words. He instructed his men to shoot Cockrell's companions, but to leave the big man for him. The ambush was successful, and Cockrell's friends fell at the first fire.

"Leaving his rifle behind, Benge sprang from the bushes with his tomahawk in his hand. Cockrell immediately recognized Benge from his red hair. In spite of his vivid descriptions of what he would do upon meeting Benge, Cockrell could only think of flight. He dashed down the mountainside, crashing through the underbrush like a wounded buffalo, with Benge in close pursuit.

"Two miles away, in the valley of Wallen's Creek, was a settler's cabin. Cockrell felt that his only hope for escape lay in reaching that cabin, and to this end he drove his strength to the utmost limits. Although he was handicapped by the weight of two hundred dollars in silver at his belt, the big fellow managed to stay a few steps ahead of Benge. At last, by a desperate effort, he reached the clearing. Benge was only a few feet behind when Cockrell vaulted the rail fence surrounding the cabin. As Cockrell jumped, Benge threw his tomahawk. The razor sharp axe stuck in the top rail of the fence, and the white man reached the safety of the cabin. Not knowing how the house might be guarded, Benge withdrew to join his companions on the mountain, leaving Cockrell to nurse his wounded pride. The big man continued to be a source of amusement in the local taverns, but after this, the laughter was of a different sort." [Evans, 1976].

The story as told by Summers (1903) follows."The trouble with the Indians began at the opening of spring in the year 1793. On Sunday about the first day of April, Ensign Moses Cockrell and two men were passing from Rye Cove to Powell's Valley, with several loaded horses. On the top of Powell's mountain they were fired on by twelve Indians. The two men who accompanied Cockrell were shot dead on the spot, and Cockrell himself was pursued to the foot of the mountain. Two of his horses were killed and all the loads lost."

"Captain Neal, with a party, pursued the Indians but did not succeed in overtaking them. The Chief who led this company of Indians was a half-breed Shawnese [actually Cherokee] by the name of Benge. A writer in speaking of this occurrence says: "He was remarkable for his strength, activity, endurance and great speed as a runner. He was a man of more than average intelligence also, as well as of great bravery and strategy, and had more than once approached the settlements so stealthily and by a route so secret that he fell upon the scattered settlers without an intimation of his approach and retired to his wigwams beyond the Cumberland without leaving a trace of the route he had traveled, though rangers were constantly on the lookout for his trail. One of these rangers of the Holston settlements was a man by the name of Cockrell, and the writer must make a digression to record an incident in his history. He was famous for his size, activity and handsome person. Benge and himself were rivals in manhood and woodcraft, each jealous of the other's prowess and courage, and both anxious for an occasion to meet in single combat. Not many months before Benge's last incursion, they met on top of Powell's mountain, in what is now Lee county, each with a band of followers. The Indians were in ambush, having observed the approach of the whites, who were not aware of their proximity, and Benge instructed his companions not to kill Cockrell, so that he himself might run him down and capture him. At the crack of the Indian rifles two or three of Cockrell's companions fell; seeing which and at once comprehending the folly of a combat with dozen savages, he sprang away down the mountain side, like an antelope, with Benge in close pursuit. Two miles away in the valley on Wallen's creek was the cabin of a pioneer, in reaching which Cockrell knew was his only chance of escape. Having two hundred dollars in specie in a belt around him, he found he was carrying two much weight for a closely contested race, and that Benge was gaining on him. Making a desperate effort, however, he increased his speed a little, and as he leaped the fence that surrounded the cabin, Benge's tomahawk was buried in the top rail before Cockrell reached the ground. Benge seeing that he had missed his aim, and not knowing how many men and rifles might be in the cabin, fled back to his companions, sadly disappointed.

"A few years after this Cockrell died on the north fork in this county, and during the 'wake,' while his body lay in the cabin, an old comrade who had been in many a hard pinch with him, thus gave utterance to his thoughts and feelings as he paced the puncheon floor in great sorrow: "Poor Cockrell, he is gone! He was noble fellow after Injuns and varmints, and I hope he has gone to where there is as much game and as desperate good range as he had on Holston!" [from Summers, 1903]

References: Evans, E.R., 1976, Notable persons in Cherokee history: Bob Benge. Journal of Cherokee Studies, v. 1, no. 2, p. 98-106. Summers, L.P., 1903, History of southwest Virginia 1746-1786, Washington County 1777-1870. Richmond, Virginia, J.L. Hill Printing Co., 921 p.

Benge the Half-Breed was the son of a white trader, John Benge, and a Cherokee woman. He became notorious in Southwest Virginia. Mothers sometimes threatened their children with him if they did not be good. The State of Virginia offered a reward for him, dead or alive. He was notable, being one of only two known red-headed Indians. The other red-headed Indian was called "Will". He was the founder of Willstown in Tennessee. Moses Cockrell was a noted Indian fighter and big game hunter. He and Benge had been acquainted in former years, and at last both came to seek a combat. On March 31, 1793, they met on top of Powells Mountain at Kanes Gap, in Lee County. Cockrell was a large, handsome man and an active border ranger. Benge had become jealous of his prowess and desired very much to capture him alive that he might torture him. Likewise Cockrell had boasted of what he would do, and Benge had doubtless heard of it. Benge and his warriors waylaid Cockrell and his companions with their pack train on the Mountain, and killed all but Cockrell at the first fire. Cockrell had no choice but to run for his life, and Benge had ordered his warriors to leave the ranger to him. It was two miles to a cabin down the mountain side near the head waters of Wallens Creek, doubtless the Robert Duff Cabin, not far from where the Scott cabin had been destroyed. Benge pressed down on Cockrell in the race, only a few jumps behind. Cockrell was swift on foot, but he had a bag of $200.00 in specie which was a handicap. He reached a rail fence at the cabin yard and vaulted over it. Benge threw his tomahawk, but missed, the weapon sinking in the top rail as Cockrell went over. Cockrell entered the cabin safely, and Benge had to beat a hasty retreat very much enraged.

Copyrighted by Don Chesnut, 1997
  
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