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William Whitley

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

William Whitley (August 4, 1749 – October 5, 1813), was an American pioneer in what became Kentucky, in the colonial and early Federal period. Born in Virginia, he was the son of immigrants from northern Ireland. He was important to the early settlement of the U.S. Commonwealth of Kentucky, where he moved with his family from Virginia. He served with the Kentucky militia during the Northwest Indian War.

He was married and his eleven children lived to adulthood, settling as far West as Oregon. At the age of 64, Whitley signed up to serve in the War of 1812. He was killed in Canada at the Battle of the Thames; some accounts credit him with killing Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader allied with the British.

Early life and family

William Whitley was the son of Solomon Whitley and Elizabeth Barnett, immigrants from Ireland who settled in Augusta County, Virginia. (They were likely from Northern Ireland and Protestant.) He was the oldest of four sons and is thought to have had five sisters as well.

About 1771 or as late as 1775, Whitley married Esther Fullen, also from Virginia.[1] A few years later, he proposed that they move from Virginia to the western frontier across the Appalachian Mountains.[1] When she approved, he organized an expedition with his brother-in-law, George Clark.[1][2][b] The pair met another party of seven pioneers; the two parties combined and continued with their expedition.[1] After scouting a location near a branch of the Dix River called Cedar Creek, they returned to Virginia to prepare for a permanent move west.[2]

The families left Virginia in November 1775, shortly before the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.[2] When they reached their new site, Whitley planted 10 acres (40,000 m2) of corn to establish his claim to the land.[2] He and his family moved to the safety of St. Asaph's fort (present-day Stanford, Kentucky), as the local Shawnee and Cherokee resisted European-American encroachment in their territory.[2] In 1763, the British had promised the Native Americans that this area west of the mountains would be a reserve for them and prohibited to colonists.

Not feeling safe, the Whitley and Benjamin Logan families moved to the protection of Fort Harrod, near present-day Harrodsburg, Kentucky. In this period, Whitley saw the body of William Ray, who had been scalped by Indians. Many years later, when dictating his memoir to his son-in-law, Phillip Soublett, Whitley said that Ray's body was the first he had seen scalped. He was horrified and considered the Indians brutal for what he considered mutilation. During the Revolutionary War in 1779, Whitley discovered the mutilated bodies of the Starnese family near Blue Lick (south of Boonesborough, Kentucky) and documented the find.[3] There was continued warfare with Cherokee in the region during the revolution.

Military career

After the Revolutionary War, Whitley volunteered for service in George Rogers Clark's expedition against Indians in the Northwest Territory.[2] He was assigned to Captain John Montgomery's Company, which accompanied Clark's forces.[2] During his military career, Whitley was known to scalp many natives as a militia leader and frontiersman. By 1779, Whitley had returned for his family and permanently settled on the land he had claimed years earlier in what is now Kentucky.[2]

By the 1790s, the settlement at St. Asaph's developed into the town of Stanford. Whitley and his family built a large brick house outside town, near what would later become Crab Orchard, Kentucky. The plantation was named Sportsman's Hill. It was the first brick house built in Kentucky and still stands, preserved as the William Whitley House State Historic Site. The house includes a secret passage for escape and survival during raids by Native Americans. The plantation originally included a racetrack. This racetrack set several traditions for horse racing in the United States. It had the first clay (instead of turf) track in the United States and here horses were raced counterclockwise (instead of clockwise, as was the British tradition).

In 1792, Isaac Shelby, the newly elected governor of Kentucky, commissioned Whitley as a major in the 6th Regiment of the Kentucky militia.[2] He was promoted to lieutenant colonel the following year.[2] In 1794, he led 200 militiamen in a highly successful raid against a Chickamauga village in Tennessee.[2] The Chickamauga were a band of Cherokee, referred to by the geographic area where they lived.

In 1813, at the age of 64, Whitley returned to military service. He volunteered in the Kentucky Mounted Infantry during the War of 1812 with Great Britain.[2] In the Battle of the Thames, on October 5, 1813, he led the "Forlorn Hope" charge against Tecumseh's forces. Both Tecumseh and Whitley were killed in the battle. Whitley was buried near the battleground, in Chatham, Ontario.[2] Militia colleagues returned his horse, Emperor, his powder horn, strap, and rifle to his wife in Kentucky after the war. The rifle is currently on display at the William Whitley House State Historic Site.

Some primary accounts suggest that Whitley was likely the person who killed Tecumseh. Richard Mentor Johnson is generally credited with killing the Shawnee leader. James A Drain, Sr. published an autobiography, Single Handed (1927), in which he recounts Whitley's granddaughter telling their family tradition that Whitley and Tecumseh killed each other simultaneously.[4]

Political career

In 1797, Whitley served a single term in the Kentucky House of Representatives.[2] He also represented Lincoln County as a commissioner of the Kentucky River Company in 1801.[2]

Legacy and honors


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

These were:

  1. Elizabeth (Mrs. Robert Stevenson) b Augusta, Virginia, 1772, d Huntsville, Alabama, 1830.
  2. Isabella (Mrs. Phillip Sublette), b Virginia, about 1774, d Kentucky about 1820. Phillip and Isabella's first-born son, William, was notable as a mountain man and fur trader, known as Bill Sublette. Areas of Wyoming were named for him.
  3. Levisa (Mrs. James McKinney), b Harrodsburg, KY, February 24, 1777. Moved to Missouri.
  4. Solomon, b Kentucky 1770, moved to Missouri.
  5. William, b Kentucky, Apr 20. 1782 - d Lincoln Co., KY, August 23, 1849.
  6. Andrew, b Kentucky 1784 - d Lincoln Co. 1844.
  7. Esther (Mrs. Samuel Lewis), b 1786 - d Woodford Co., KY 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., KY
  10. Sally (Mrs. Henley Middleton), b 1792 - d 1845 near Crab Orchard.
  11. Ann (Mrs. William Harper), b 1795 - d Woodford Co., KY after 1870

Esther Whitley died at the home of her daughter, Ann Harper, in Woodford County, Kentucky, November 20, 1833.[5]

Representation in other media


  • ^[a] The Biographical Cyclopedia gives the name as Esther Fuller and the marriage date as 1775.
  • ^[b] The Biographical Cyclopedia gives the name as George Clark.

External links


  1. ^ a b c d Biographical Cyclopedia, p. 273
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Ellison, p. 949
  3. ^ Hardin
  4. ^ Drain (1927), pp. 16-18
  5. ^ Draper MS. 9 CC 5, 12-13, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Family Bible of William Whitley, Jr. Filson Club, Louisville, KY.
This page was last edited on 23 September 2019, at 21:22
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