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Women in History

feature stories in honor of Women’s History Month

Scalped - the Story of Peggy Chenoweth

(Margaret McCarty Chenoweth)
b 1751 - Hampshire County, VA - d 1839, Shelby County, KY

By Kathy Cummings

scalped small

Of all of the women whose stories dot Kentucky History none has fascinated me more than the story of Peggy Chenoweth.

Chenoweth is a well known name in Louisville. Although most don't know the history behind it - they are familiar with Chenoweth Lane, Chenoweth Elementary, Chenoweth Appliances, and more. The truth is that Richard Chenoweth was one of the original founders of Louisville. He is credited with building a fort on Corn Island and later Fort Nelson the more permanent fort at The Falls of the Ohio. The Chenoweth family came down the Ohio River in 1778 and first occupied Corn Island with the troops of George Rogers Clark.

Much of the story of the Chenoweth's come from family accounts and The Draper Manuscripts. The family consisted of Richard Chenoweth, his wife Margaret (Peggy) and their children. The older children were born in Virginia, the remainder after they settled in Kentucky.

Richard Chenoweth heard of Clark's expedition coming down the Ohio. Chenoweth decided that it was the best way to enter the Kentucky country with the military presence of Clark's men. The troops protected about 20 families as they left Fort Pitt on flatboats. When they arrived at The Falls of the Ohio (Louisville) Clark built his camp on the small island closest to the falls. The troops and the families planted a corn crop. The name was thus determined as Corn Island. The families were to remain behind on Corn Island while Clark's men headed out for the Illinois territory.

Corn Island
Fort Nelson

Fort Nelson - built 1781 and named for Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson

Several months after the troops left Clark sent Simon Kenton and another man back to Virginia with dispatches for Governor Patrick Henry. They stopped briefly at Corn Island for they also carried a letter to the men on the island to begin to build a fort - not on the island but on the Kentucky side of the river.

The most experienced builders of the men on the island was Richard Chenoweth so he headed the operation. Two years later when Clark had returned and determined to build a more permanent fort, Chenoweth also headed that operation which was named Fort Nelson. It was a decision that was to impact the remainder of his life.

Despite the continued threat of Indian attacks on the settlements Chenoweth purchased a tract of land near present day, Middletown, KY. He first built a large log cabin and then moved his growing family there. Once there, barns, outbuildings and a stone spring house were added.

The spring house being a stone structure was built with gun ports in the wall and two entrances. As the sturdiest building on the property it was to act as a fortification in case of attack. The station was attacked twice. History tells us that most major Indian attacks ceased after the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782 and the end of the Revolutionary War. But in truth after that time the Indians continued to hit small settlements in Kentucky. The difference was that there were no major attacks.

The Chenoweth children at the time they moved to the station were Mildred, Thomas, Jane James, Levi, Margaret, Naomi and Polly. Some accounts list some of these as family members but not the children of Richard and Peggy. There is also record of Gideon Chenoweth being at the station. Some accounts list "Gid" as he was called as being a child of Richard from a previous marriage.

Chenoweth had also hired two guards for the protection of the family. Thomas Chenoweth was carried off by Indians while making a trip to the nearest grist mill on Floyd's Fork around 1788. It was discovered in 1794 that he had been captured and was living with the Indians. Like many captives the Cheoweth's bargained to have Thomas returned. But it was many years before he was fully assimilated back into the white culture.

James Chenoweth was also hit by an Indian arrow in June of 1777.  During that skirmish it was discovered that the horses had wandered off. Richard Chenoweth and one of the guards went after the horses only to find that they had not "wandered off" but that Indians on the premises had released them. When the men reached the horses, Indians sprang up and began firing. At the sound of gunfire Peggy Chenoweth ran from the house with two loaded guns heading toward the altercation. There she encountered the others and the Indians fled.

Chenoweth Spring House

The remains of the Chenoweth Spring house

They removed the arrow from James’ hip. But he continued to suffer from the wound. Some years later a visiting doctor examined the healed wound. He removed part of the metal that had still been lodged in the hip. After that James was fully recovered.

But the most notable event in Peggy Chenoweth's life, is remembered as the Chenoweth massacre. On July 17, 1789 Shawnee Indians advanced on the Chenoweth's land. The state historical marker lists 5 dead. Of all those present Levi, Margaret and Polly were listed as killed. Various accounts differ on the fate of all of the family members. One of the guards named Bayless was killed. Six year old Naomi was asleep in her bed and overlooked by the Indians.

Peggy Chenoweth ran for the spring house. She was shot in the back with an arrow. The Indian approached the fallen woman and pulled the arrow from her back. Peggy Chenoweth remained silent and lifeless. Perceiving her to be dead, the Indian then took a dull knife blade to remove the woman's scalp. He cut around her hairline, then placed a foot upon her back and grabbing her hair proceeded to tear off the entire scalp. The blood loss was extensive but through it all Peggy Chenoweth remained silent. She did not cry out. No screaming. Letting the Indian think she was dead was her salvation. She was eventually found in the spring house. One account says she used the cold spring water to slow the bleeding. The scalp wound, the arrow shot and two tomahawk blows were her injuries, any one of which could have brought about her death.

My admiration for this pioneer woman has to do not so much with the attack she lived through but the life she lived to the fullest. As Kentucky became more settled and Indian attacks lessened many could put those days behind them. Peggy Chenoweth wore a "skull cap" until the day she died. It had to be a constant reminder of the attack. She was a small woman, described as "no taller than a girl of 12 or 14." And yet she looms as a large figure in terms of Kentucky history. In a time when the stories of women were scarcely remembered her story is commemorated. 

Although her eldest son, Thomas, was found alive after many years what heartache did this woman suffer. First the not knowing what happened to him, then the thought that he might be dead. Later the realization that he was alive and finally the confrontation of the life that had changed him. He had grown to manhood in another culture. Three children killed by Indians. How did a mother not become bitter and hate the land she had moved to.

The Chenoweth's did not live an easy life. The decision of Richard Chenoweth to head the building of Fort Nelson had lifelong repercussions. Like George Rogers Clark he used his personal money and good name for the endeavor. Clark's later monetary trials were well documented. Virginia lost the records of all the transactions of his military campaign and it left him permanently in debt. From the law suits and records left behind, Richard Chenoweth suffered a similar fate and never regained his money. His heirs continued well into the 1840's trying to regain any part of the losses he had suffered.

Paggy Chenoweth bore two more children - Tabitha and Ann. The date of her husband's death varies in different accounts but is generally considered to be 1803. Peggy then moved with her remaining children to a place called Big Spring near Shelby County where she died in 1839. Her age was believed to be about 88 at her death


Although the Chenoweth Family is buried in the family cemetery this marker was placed in the Long Run Cemetery by Historic Middletown, Inc. As many of the women in Kentucky’s History there are no known illustrations of Peggy Chenoweth - only of her husband and his accomplishments.

Special thanks to the Chenoweth Website for many of the accounts used here.

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