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Searching for the Graves of My Ancestors - The Kerr’s Creek Massacres

By Terence Gilmore Cady © 2014

Online: July, 2014

My journey to Kerr's Creek began when I was a little boy. I asked my mother where we came from. She began with a chaste explanation of human reproduction. “No, not the birds and bees,” I said. “Where did we all come from? You, Daddy, and those from before.” She smiled. “That’s a long story, honey. Your ancestors on my side, the Gilmores, came from Scotland. They came to America in the early 1700s. Your cousin Haskell did research on many of my people, and some were killed by the Indians on the Virginia frontier. You best ask cousin Haskell for answers.”

Years passed (school, girls, football and college) before I was mature enough to ask cousin Haskell about my ancestors in America. I got to him just in time. He died soon after he sent me detailed records of my mother’s people in America, including notes of his journey in 1966 to Kerr’s Creek.

This past Labor Day weekend, I finally made a pilgrimage to try to find the graves of my ancestors who were killed or captured by Shawnee raiders at Kerr’s Creek. Kerr’s Creek, a few miles west of Lexington, Virginia, was settled around 1736, mostly by the Scots-Irish recently arrived in the American colonies; some of whom, including my maternal ancestors, had come down from Pennsylvania after William Pitt expelled them from his colony when they began stealing native lands and threatening Pitt’s peaceful relations with the Indians. Now, in Virginia, my ancestors and their compatriots were again encroaching on Indian lands and fostering resentment that was boiling over into retribution.

The Shawnee struck the area of Kerr’s Creek three times: first in 1759, when they killed John Gilmore and his wife, Agnis. Their son, Thomas Gilmore, escaped the carnage, only to be killed in a later raid in 1764.

Cousin Haskell visited the cemetery in 1966, located graves thought to be those of John and Agnis in the cemetery at New Monmouth (Presbyterian) Church, marked, according to family legend, by reddish-brown fieldstones. The cemetery abuts the road, is now overgrown with chest high weeds, and snake infested, according to a gentleman I met coming from services at the adjacent Bible Church (Baptist), who added, “It’s a mess; the Presbyterians don’t keep it up.” I did not venture into the fenced area, but moved on to New Monmouth, six miles west of Lexington.

The more notable raids occurred in 1763, and again in 1764, leaving a record of terror, tears and blood. I did not find any complete contemporary report by survivors. Fortunately for posterity, in January 1872, The Rockbridge Citizen republished an account titled “The Indian Massacre on Kerr’s Creek,” by Rev. Samuel Brown, who interviewed living descendants of survivors and discovered a family bible of J. T. McKee’s grandfather, no relation to my people, with some contemporaneous information about the raid. Despite discrepancies in details in surviving records, all accounts portray a terrifying story of families destroyed. This account represents a creditable composite of the varying records about the times and victims of the raids on Kerr’s Creek.

Dawn, July 17, 1763, Shawnee warriors attacked Kerr’s Creek. The raiders killed many of the settlers, including entire families. Two incidents are noteworthy. The raiders fell upon Jacob Cunningham’s home. He was away at the time. The raiders killed his wife and scalped his ten-year old daughter, who survived, only to be captured in the second raid in 1764, and taken to the Shawnee towns along the Ohio River. Eventually, she was ransomed and returned to Augusta County. She lived for forty years, dying from the cancerous effects of her scalping.

A single raider attacked the home of John McKee. He and his family, including six children, fled in an effort to conceal themselves in the woods. A single raider overtook John, his wife, Jennie McKee, and an old servant who was lagging behind, the old woman pleading for them not to abandon her. Mrs. McKee begged her husband to go on without her. He refused, and then relented. John McKee escaped with his children, but returned to find and bury his wife in a shallow grave, as did many other survivors. The raiders left the scenes of carnage with plunder and scalps, but without captives. At the time of Rev. Brown’s account, 1872, road builder’s uncovered remains thought to be victims of the 1763 raid.

October 10, 1764, a larger party of Shawnee raided Kerr’s Creek, killing many settlers and taking thirty captives. Thomas Gilmore, John and Agnis’ son, was killed and scalped, and their cabin burned. According to Rev. Brown’s account, Thomas’ wife, Eliza, fought with an Indian who was about to scalp Thomas. The Indian moved to kill her too, but another Indian intervened, admiring Eliza’s courage. The raiders took Eliza and her son, John, and two daughters, with other captives, to the Ohio River Shawnee towns. Some never returned, including Eliza’s daughters, but fortunately for me, Eliza and her son John Gilmore were eventually ransomed and returned to Ft. Pitt around 1765. John, my great-great-great grandfather, fought in the Revolutionary War. John and his wife, Madeline Shepherd, had several children, one of whom was Samuel Gilmore, my great-great grandfather, who moved to Danville, Virginia.

At New Monmouth, the ‘new’ Presbyterian Church and cemetery, the trail seemed to grow cold. The New Monmouth cemetery was established years after the raids on Kerr’s Creek. Still, there were several headstones for Gilmores, but only Capt. William C. Gilmore, 1812 - 1890, was verifiably among my known ancestors buried there. I found his grave and headstone, and those of his two wives, Polly Gilmore, nee Moore, and Hannah, in the oldest part of the cemetery adjacent to the church’s social hall. After I returned home to New Mexico, I learned that Capt. Gilmore and Polly Moore’s daughter, Martha, married Harry E. Moore. One of their descendants, Robert Gilmore Moore, became a Postmaster of Lexington.

Though my search to find more of my ancestors’ final resting places was frustrated, my journey was fruitful. I learned why my ancestors stopped to call this place “home.” I saw and felt firsthand the luscious land, the verdant hills and meadows, the streams and rivers, where they, along with other courageous pioneer families, lived, worked, loved, started families, and died. I left the valley fulfilled; my journey complete at last.

Old Monmouth Cemetery 2Old Monmouth Cemetery

New Monmouth CemeteryNew Monmouth Cemetery

Gravestone of Hannah GilmoreGravestone of Hannah Gilmore

Gravestone of Polly GilmoreGravestone of Polly Gilmore

William C GilmoreGravestone of William C. Gilmore