The Kidnapping That Gave Birth to a Legend

You may wonder why three teenage girls were allowed to go off on such a dangerous outing in the first place. In retrospect, it’s easy to say that was a mistake, but it was a simpler time back in the ‘70s. Parents didn’t have to keep a constant eye on their children — especially three responsible young ladies.

Jemima, Elizabeth, and Fanny ranged from 14 to 16 years of age. Jemima’s family moved into the community the year before. She immediately struck up a close friendship with sisters Elizabeth and Fanny. On Sunday, July 14, the girls went for a Sunday afternoon canoe ride on the Kentucky River. They happily floated down the river, oblivious to the lurking danger. If they had known about the five men who kept them in sight, they would never have gotten into the canoe.

Before any of the girls could react, one of the men rushed the canoe and pulled the girls to dry land. The girls struggled, but they were no match for the kidnappers. The men ordered the girls to keep quiet. If they behaved themselves, no one would be hurt. Despite the assurances of their kidnappers, the girls were in fear for their lives.

The men led their captives away from the scene of the abduction. The girls knew that all of their hopes for survival faded, the further they went. An unspoken agreement passed between them that they would do whatever they could to slow the kidnappers’ progress.

Jemima suddenly yelled in pain. She had left her shoes back at the bank of the river before getting in the canoe. “I can’t possibly move quickly through these woods,” she protested. It was true that she was barefoot, but her primary objective was to make noise and slow the party’s progress. At least with regard to the latter objective, she was successful. As she gingerly tested each spot of ground before taking another step, the party’s progress slowed to a crawl.

One of the captors went on ahead. When he returned, he had a horse with him. He was confident this would allow them to pick up speed. Jemima had different ideas, however. No one would have guessed that the girl who clumsily climbed onto the horse and awkwardly tried to cling to its back was actually an experienced rider. Every few feet of progress brought another loud exclamation from the girl as she tumbled onto the ground. Despite the captors’ insistence upon speed, the travelers were moving even slower than before.

As Jemima distracted the kidnappers, Elizabeth did her best to leave clues for the rescuers that she hoped would be looking for them. A broken branch from a bush, strategically-placed footprints in the mud, and pieces of fabric torn from her dress showed their path. She could only hope the clues were obvious enough to be spotted by a search party without being so blatant that the kidnappers would realize what she was doing.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of the girls raised alarm throughout the community. The girls’ fathers organized a search party and set to work on their mission. For two days they combed through the wooded land by the last place the girls were seen. Even the most optimistic of the searchers began to suspect they would never see the young ladies alive again.

The abduction of Jemima, Elizabeth, and Fanny, painted by Karl Bodmer.

Then, just as despair was starting to creep into their spirits, one member of the search party spotted one of the clues left by Elizabeth. Then they found another. Soon, the search party was hot on the trail of the kidnappers. They were energized with renewed hope. Thanks to Elizabeth’s ingenious clues and Jemima’s deliberate slowing of the party’s progress, the search party caught up with the abductors on the morning of the third day.

The kidnappers were preparing a fire for breakfast when the search party surprised them. The sound of a gun shattered the peacefulness of the morning. As one of the captors fell, Jemima yelled excitedly, “That’s daddy’s [gun]!” She was right. Her father’s shot had dropped one of the kidnappers. Two others were felled by other rescuers. The remaining abductors forgot about any prospects of ransom and escaped as quickly as they could. The girls were overjoyed, and the rescue party was relieved. The girls were shaken but otherwise unharmed.

Elizabeth was particularly happy to see her fiancé Samuel Henderson among the rescuers. Yes, she was still a teenager, but remember that this is the ‘70s that we’re talking about. Despite her tender years and the horror she had just endured, she insisted that the wedding go on as planned. Three weeks after the rescue, Elizabeth and Samuel were united in marriage. That wedding was special for several reasons. For one thing, had the rescue attempt turned out differently, they could have been holding a funeral that day instead. Jemima’s uncle officiated at the wedding, further illustrating the close connection between the families.

It also happened to be the first recorded wedding in the territory we now know as Kentucky.

Yes, it was a different kind of life back in the ‘70s, where communities tended to become a world unto themselves. On the day the girls were abducted — July 14, 1776 — the United States of America was ten days old. No one in the area had yet gotten word about the recently-signed Declaration of Independence.

As you can imagine, the neighbors had a lot to talk about after the daring rescue. For a while, all the hype was about the courage of the young girls and how their ingenuity led to their rescue. Over time, the focus started to shift toward the rescue party. Jemima was largely responsible for this. Her pride and excitement at hearing the sound of her daddy’s gun never faded. She told everyone who would listen about her brave father who dared risk any danger imaginable so he could see his little girl again. In time, her daddy’s reputation eclipsed her own.

You may not have heard of the three young girls who were kidnapped by Shawnee and Cherokee warriors, but you’ve almost certainly heard of other legendary exploits of Jemima’s daddy, the man whose legend was born out of his efforts to rescue his little girl. His name was Daniel Boone.

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