William Whitley and Me


It was a cool September sometime around 1962. I had been playing and singing in London, Ontario, and decided to take a look for my great-grandfather’s graves and place of death to the south in lower Ontario. The relative that I was looking for was Colonel William Whitley. He was one of the first Kentucky pioneers in the days of Daniel Boone. He founded modern horse racing in the United States and made some of the first Kentucky sour mash whiskey. His recipe is still used by Evan Williams and Jack Daniels. He built the first brick home west of the Allegheny mountains as well, but his fame was that of an Indian fighter. The evidence is not conclusive, but eye-witness accounts point to Whitley as being the man who killed Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in lower Ontario during the War of 1812.

The death of Tecumseh sealed the fate of the organized Indian resistance to the settlement of the Northwest Territories, as Tecumseh was the leader of this cause. The movement fell apart upon his death. Tecumseh had partnered with the British who were seeking revenge, retribution, and a reclamation of the lands they lost by the success of the American Revolution.

Obviously, Whitley was an important man and I felt that I should try to locate his grave if possible, as he died there in battle and was buried on the battle site. What I did not know was the site was on a Canadian Indian reservation.

Soon after turning onto the gravel roads that led to the battle site a dozen cars filled with young teenagers from the reservation began to follow my car. I sped up.  So did they. When I tried to outrun them, they cut me off and surrounded my vehicle. They were drinking beer and feeling their power.

“What are you doing here? What is your business,” they wanted to know. One of them said. “We are not subject to the laws of Canada here. If we decide to kill you, there is nothing anyone can do about it. We have our own laws.”  He opened his jacket to reveal a nasty-looking pistol.

I quickly told them I was simply looking for the place my Grandfather was buried way back in 1814. “He died here in battle,” I said.

“Was he Indian?” was the response.

As a rule, I like to be truthful at all times, but this was obviously a time when telling the truth would be a very bad idea.

“Yes, he was,” I lied. “Do you know where the graveyard is located?”

“There is no graveyard. You look like a honky to me.”

“It’s been a lot of years. My bloodlines have been mixed since then. I even have some Irish in me,” I said. “English too,” I added, suddenly remembering their British ties of the past and their current status in the United Kingdom. I remember wondering why they still called it a United “Kingdom” when they had only a Queen with little political control over a loose federation in distant countries.

The teenager with the gun took his last swig from the beer can and tossed it to the side of the road. “We’ll let you go, but you take your white ass off this reservation and don’t come back. Follow us.”

He returned to the car and led the way. I followed and behind me was a parade of hostile teenagers.

Driving down the road, I had plenty of time to think about history and the present. Should I even be proud that my great grandfather helped take the lands from the natives? I asked myself. Should I be shocked that white men took native scalps as well in retaliation? How, I asked, is it possible to enjoy doing that?

Maybe they did not enjoy it, I told myself. Maybe they found it to be necessary. How much different was it than cutting off the chicken’s head for Sunday dinner or taking an ax to the cow or pig. Somebody has to do it. Yes, I knew there was a difference. We are talking about what people do to people—but when land gets scarce and populations grow, the natural laws take over and the population disperses.

“If someone else occupies the land, we can share it. There was plenty of land for the white man’s expansions, I thought.” The problem was, that the natives were there and they did not want to change their ways. They had no great architecture, only a few written works, and no literary or artistic record like the European invaders had. Watching the miles roll and the open country reveal itself, there seemed to be plenty of land for everyone even now. I could see how those pioneers who wanted the freedom to own their own land and harvest the fruits of their own sweat would feel about another group that tried to prevent them from doing just that. Tecumseh himself, and then the natives to the West, would all soon learn that the white men would come like swarms of locusts and eat up all the lands that sustained them. Both sides felt themselves to be morally right, as is the case in most disputes.

It was a crossroad in history. My grandfather lived it and I witnessed its effects, Even those who won did not win, as rural life would practically be wiped out within a few centuries and the land would be privately held by the richer and more productive among them.

I was at a loss as to what to do next. “Niagara Falls,” I thought to myself. I’ll go there instead.”

That decision turned out to be another story in itself.



Colonel William Whitley, born August 14, 1749, Augusta County, Virginia; died 5 October 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, Ontario, Canada.

William Whitley was a pioneer in Kentucky in the days of Daniel Boone. He was a tall man with light eyes, sandy hair, and a prominent aquiline nose. In the spring of 1775, accompanied by his brother-in-law, George Clark, Whitley made an expedition into the bowels of the Kentucky wilderness, selected a location on the banks of Dick’s River, and returned to Virginia for his family. He had married Esther Fullen sometime around 1770. She was born May 19, 1755, and was six years younger than he. After scouting the location near a branch of the Dix River called Cedar Creek, they returned to Virginia to prepare their families for a permanent relocation. The families left Virginia in November 1775.

At that time they had two small children, three-year-old Elizabeth (1772), and one-year-old Isabella (1774). Esther and the children rode the same horse, Elizabeth being strapped behind and Isabella carried in Esther’s arms. More than once Esther’s horse stumbled on the rugged terrain and the Whitley girls tumbled in a heap to the ground.

Upon their arrival, Whitley planted 10 acres of corn to establish his claim to the land. After the planting, Whitley and his family moved to the safety of the fort of St. Asaph’s (the present-day town of  Stanford, Kentucky), as Kentucky was still the native American’s hunting ground and attacks upon settlers were both frequent and violent.

Most of the trip was made in November of 1775. Rain and snow were encountered often. The trip was quite difficult and took thirty-one days to accomplish. Whitley was one of early Kentucky’s most prominent leaders, taking the lead in subduing the Indians and mapping the frontier. He built the first brick house west of the Allegheny Mountains, a veritable mansion with glass painstakingly hauled by pack horses from Virginia. This feat is all the more remarkable considering it was a time when rude cabins and forts were the norms.

It is curious as to what motivated William to go to Kentucky in 1775. Winds of war were flaming fires in Virginia. The American Revolution was about to begin. Whitley, with his anti-British views, would certainly have fought in the Revolution. Perhaps he feared that the colonists would not win and Kentucky would be a safe haven to raise his family without British interference. Certainly, his courageous exploits as a soldier in Kentucky proved he had no fear of—nor moral objection to—war. Whitley was best known for being an Indian fighter. Politics he left to others. Perhaps he, the son of an Irish immigrant, had no use for the revolutionary politics.

By 1779, Whitley returned had for his family and permanently settled on the land he had claimed years earlier.

Whitley’s home was well-appointed and professionally designed. A handmade hardwood staircase had thirteen steps to symbolize the original colonies. An escape tunnel was dug in the case of Indian attacks. The windows were all set high enough to deter an attacker from climbing inside.

Whitley would scalp many natives during his career as a militia leader and frontiersman. He volunteered for service in George Rogers Clark‘s expedition against Indians in the Northwest Territory when the Ohio Territory was yet a wilderness settled by Native Americans.



Whitley’s last battle was fought when he was sixty-four, during the War of 1812. The Indian confederation, under the leadership of Tecumseh, had joined with the British in a last-ditch effort to stop the ever-expanding white hordes. Whitley, despite his advanced age, answered Governor Shelby’s calls for volunteers, enlisting as a private in Richard Mentor Johnson’s Kentucky Volunteers.

While the main force was deployed to fight the British in lower Ontario, Johnson’s orders were to contain the Indians. Fearing an ambush, he sent out a small unit of twenty men ahead of the main force. This group was called “The Forlorn Hope”. At the head rode Colonel William Whitley. At the first volley, fifteen of the twenty were unhorsed. When the smoke had cleared, both Tecumseh and William Whitley were numbered among the slain.

It is possible, and perhaps it is so, that William Whitley killed Tecumseh at the exact moment that Tecumseh shot him. Some eyewitnesses to the battle claimed that was what happened. However, Richard M. Johnson rode to political fame on the claim that he was the slayer of the great Indian leader. Historians are uncertain, and the deed will be forever muddied in the waters of time. In his 1929 autobiography, Single Handed, James A Drain, Sr. gives a detailed account by Col. Whitley’s granddaughter in which Whitley and Tecumseh killed each other simultaneously.

Whitley was buried near the battleground, in Chatham, Ontario. His horse, Emperor, had one eye and two teeth shot out during the charge. Whitley’s powder horn and rifle were returned to his wife in Kentucky. The rifle is currently on display at the William Whitley House State Historic Site.


The route that was taken by the Kentucky Militia to the battle in Ontario.

Richard Mentor Johnson later became a Kentucky senator and Martin Van Buren’s vice president. He spent much of his career in debt, although he was able to mortgage properties and avoid prison. His constituents were not so lucky. The financial crisis of 1819 especially hurt farmers and many common people were sent to debtors’ prison. Senator Johnson was outraged, and on this day in 1821, he was responsible for outlawing debtors’ prisons in Kentucky, well ahead of the national curve. After Johnson’s 10-year crusade to end debtors’ prison on the national level, Congress enacted a federal statute in 1832. Johnson said in a speech on the Senate floor: “The principle is deemed too dangerous to be tolerated in a free government, to permit a man for any pecuniary consideration, to dispose of the liberty of his equal.” Bankruptcy protection replaced debtors’ prisons.


Sportsman Hill, the first circular racetrack in the United States.

Whitley called his home Sportsman’s Hill. It was there that he built the first circular race track in the United States. He instituted several racing traditions that changed horse racing in the USA forever. He built the first clay track. Tracks had been turf before Whitley. Being solidly anti-British, he ran his races counterclockwise, as it was the British custom to run them clockwise. American race tracks still run counterclockwise.

The William Whitley House still stands near Crab Orchard as a Kentucky State Monument and museum.


William and Esther Whitley had eleven children, all of whom survived to maturity.

1. Elizabeth (Mrs. Robert Stevenson) b Virginia about 1830.

2. Isabella (Mrs. Phillip Sublette), b Virginia about 1774, d Kentucky 
about 1820.

Phillip and Isabella's first born son, William, was the famous mountain 
man and fur trader, Bill Sublette, who rose to fame in the far west and 
has vast sections of Wyoming named for him.

3. Levisa (Mrs. James McKinney), b Harrodsburg, KY Feb 24, 1777. Moved to Missouri.

4. Solomon, b Kentucky 1770, moved to Missouri.

5. William, b Kentucky, Apr 20. 1782, d Lincoln Co., KY Aug 23, 1849.

6. Andrew, b Kentucky 1784, d Lincoln Co. 1844.

7. Esther (Mrs. Samuel Lewis), b 1786, d Woodford County. 1815.

8. Mary (called Polly), (Mrs. James Gilmour), b Kentucky 1788, moved to 
Illinois, later to Colorado and Oregon

9. Nancy (Mrs. John Owlsey), b 1790, d prior to 1820 near Crab Orchard.

10. Sally (Mrs. Henley Middleton), b 1792, d 1845 near Crab Orchard.

11. Ann (Mrs. William Harper), b 1795, d Woodford Co., Ky after 1879.

William Whitley was the son of Solomon Whitley and Elizabeth Barnett, 
immigrants from Ireland, who settled in Augusta County, Virginia. He was the oldest of four sons and is thought to have had five sisters as well.
William Whitley was killed at the Battle of the Thames, Lower Ontario, 
Oct 5, 1813. His wife, Esther died at the home of her daughter, Ann Harper, in Woodford County, Kentucky, Nov 20, 1833

SOURCE: The Draper MS. 9 CC 5, 12-13, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Family Bible of William Whitley, Jr. Filson Club, Louisville, KY.

[My personal connection to this family is through #8, Mary (called Polly).She married  James Gilmour, b Kentucky 1788, moved to Illinois, later to Colorado and Oregon. Polly’s son, William Whitley Gilmour was the father of Hedron Walker Gilmour, my grandfather on my mother’s side. The famed mountain man William Sublette was also a grandson of William Whitley.]

The home went through many changes over the years before the State of Kentucky took possession and restored it as a museum and historical park.

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