Micajah Mayfield at Old Fort Jefferson
By Phil Norfleet
While many students of the history of the American "Old Northwest" have heard of the exploits of George Rogers Clark in that area during the Revolutionary War, few have heard of Clark's attempt to establish a fort near the mouth of the Ohio River in 1780-1781, called Fort Jefferson. The purpose of this short essay is to describe the fort, review the events in the fort's brief history and discuss its connection with the Mayfield family, more specifically with one Mayfield, Micajah Mayfield (1748-1838).
Muster Lists Re Mayfields Serving in Clark's Illinois Regiment
At least six Mayfields served at various times in George Rogers Clark's Illinois Regiment of the Virginia State Line. Most, if not all of these Mayfields, belonged to the family of James Mayfield (d. 1780) of Amherst and Montgomery Counties, Virginia. These six (6) Mayfields are:
As is evident from the above table, all the Mayfields except Micajah, departed military service on 13 July 1780. Apparently, all of these Mayfields, except perhaps the younger James, immediately went south to the Cumberland Settlements, located near the modern city of Nashville. Shortly after their arrival, the senior James Mayfield was killed near Eaton's Station, by Delaware Indians, in about August 1780.
As noted above, and based on his Revolutionary War Pension Application, Micajah Mayfield continued, at least intermittently, in military service until 31 March 1783.
During this period, Micajah was one of the soldiers, under the command of George Rogers Clark, who took part in the establishment and garrisoning of Fort Jefferson.
Fort Jefferson was established by George Rogers Clark at the express instruction of the then Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. The fort was established in April 1780, but was abandoned in June 1781. The early Kentucky historian, Mann Butler, in an article first published in 1854 in The Western Journal and Civilian, provides a good summary of the events surrounding the establishment of this fort. He tells us that:
The year 1780 was remarkable for the establishment of Fort Jefferson, on the Mississippi, five miles below the junction of the Ohio with that stream. Colonel Clark effected this measure in conformity with instructions from Governor Jefferson, in order to fortify the claim of the United States to the boundary of the left or eastern bank of the Mississippi, south of the Ohio. It is now well known that neither the Government of France or Spain was friendly to the extension of the American boundary to the Mississippi. Every artifice of diplomacy was resorted to by these powers, on both sides of the Atlantic, to prevent this aggrandizement of the United States. ...
A most elaborate statement of the American claims was drawn up by a committee of Congress on the 7th of October, 1780. In this paper, reference is specifically made ... to the fact that the United States had obtained possession of all the important posts and settlements on the Illinois and the Wabash ... They had, moreover, established a post in a strong and commanding situation near the mouth of the Ohio. It was in the spring of this year that this fort was established. ...
In January 1780, the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, wrote letters to Joseph Martin, the Indian Agent, to George Rogers Clark, and to certain surveyors for the State of Virginia, concerning the fort. Martin was directed to contact the Cherokee to purchase land for the new fort - Jefferson apparently did not know that the land in that area was claimed by the Chickasaw, a British Indian ally. The Virginia surveyors and Colonel Clark were instructed to make sure that the fort would be established on land within Virginia's territory and not upon land claimed by North Carolina.
In early April 1780, Colonel Clark set out from his headquarters on the Falls of the Ohio (site of modern-day Louisville) with an expedition of about 200 men. It was intended that the site become an economically viable settlement as well as a military fort, hence several weeks were spent in determining the exact site for the fort and adjacent town. The location selected was a place then called the "Iron Banks" about five miles below the mouth of the Ohio, near the modern town of Wickliffe, Kentucky. The fort and community were situated on a slightly elevated floodplain between a creek initially called "Liberty" Creek (later known as "Mayfield" or "Mayfield's" Creek) and a series of eroded bluffs to the north.
On 19 April 1780, Clark and his men, presumably including Micajah Mayfield, arrived at the site selected for the fort and settlement. The fort was laid out in a square shape. The adjoining community, called Clarksville, was also established consisting of several stout blockhouses.
Depoyster's Diagram of the Fort Jefferson Site
Among the correspondence of Lyman Draper is a letter, dated 21 October 1886, from a certain J. C. Depoyster, a long time resident of the town of Wickliffe, Kentucky. In the letter, Depoyster provided a description (including a diagram) of the site of the fort as it existed in his time. A transcript of that letter follows:
In ans. to yours of 18th Instant making inquiry about Old Fort Jefferson, I will report as follows:
1st) It is six miles below the mouth of the Ohio.
2nd) The head of Island No. One, is just opposite. It has been washing away at the head for years and making at the foot - it is about 4 miles long and about 1/2 mile wide.
3rd) The plateau of ground where the fort stood is about 7 feet above highest water and is about 150 yds. wide to the low ground.
4th) The hills back [of it] are about 150 ft. high.
5th) The mouth of Mayfield empties into the chute of Island No. 1 about 300 yds. from where [the] old fort stood.
6th) It is about 100 yards from the Fort to the bar [?] of the Hills.
The Fort was a wooden structure and was about 100 yds. from the bank of Mayfield Creek. You can get a narrative of the size of the Fort in August, 1781, from the Life of Governor Reynolds of Illinois. I will make you a rough diagram on the next page showing you better of the surroundings.
I located at Fort Jefferson, Oct. 1858, and have lived here ever since. The land belongs to my Brother - also Island No. 1. During the War [Civil War], I found on the Bank of the Creek near where the Fort stood, a 7 ft., 6-pound siege gun; it was taken from me by order of the Col. of the 2nd Regiment - I forget his name - Tuttle I believe, and carried [it] to Cairo, Ill.; afterwards Col. Sprague, in command at Cairo, gave it back to me; but before I could bring it home, it was carried off, and I never knew what became of it. They want to put it in the Historical Museum, I think, in Chicago. It was 11 ft. below the surface when I found it, with mou[th] projecting to the creek, the bank carrying off [eroding] let it show. ... [See Draper Manuscripts, George Rogers Clark Papers, 27J1]
Chickasaw Siege of Fort Jefferson
Clark's stay at Fort Jefferson was short lived. In early June he was obliged to return to Central Kentucky to assist in repelling a concerted British and Indian attack on the Kentucky settlements around Harrodsburg. After his departure, Fort Jefferson soon had a very serious Indian problem of its own!
While Jefferson had intended that the site of Fort Jefferson be purchased from the Indians, we have already noted that the American government didn't even know which tribe controlled that area! At any rate, no effort was made by Clark or anyone else to purchase the site from the rightful owners, the Chickasaw.
By the time that the Chickasaw found out about the fort it was already a fait accompli. The tribe was quite naturally incensed about this unexpected intrusion onto their territory and immediately proceeded to do something about it. In late August 1780, a large band of Chickasaw attacked the fort and associated community. They were led by British Lieutenant William Whitehead and by James Colbert, a Chickasaw half-breed. The siege, including several fierce battles, lasted for about five days. About mid-way during the siege, as he was leaving a parley with the Americans under a flag of truce, Colbert was shot in the back by one of the fort's defenders. Colbert was seriously wounded but not killed by this act of treachery. The historian, Mann Butler (see above) tells us:
This act of treachery, according to our own usages, enraged the Indians to the utmost pitch of exasperation, and at night they collected all their forces and made a furious assault on the fort, endeavoring to take it by storm. When the Indians had advanced in very close order, Captain George Owen, who commanded one of the block houses, had the swivels (could these have been the Kaskaskia guns?) loaded with rifle and musket balls, fired into the crowded ranks of the enemy. The consequent carnage was excessive, and the enemy dispersed. ...
On 30 August 1780, the Indian forces withdrew from the fray, but not before they had destroyed most of the settlers' corn crop and their cattle and sheep. Although the siege had been lifted, small groups of Chickasaw continued to harass the fort and attack supply convoys. Finally, on 8 June 1781, the fort was abandoned.
Naming of Mayfield Creek
I conclude this short essay on Fort Jefferson with some speculations concerning how Mayfield Creek got its name.
There are several stories floating about concerning how the creek near Fort Jefferson received its name. At the time Fort Jefferson was first established, the stream was called "Liberty Creek," but soon thereafter, the creek came to be known as Mayfield Creek.
By the late 19th century the most commonly told story involved the kidnapping of a Mississippi gambler named George Mayfield, He was taken to western Kentucky near the old Fort Jefferson site and held there for ransom. While attempting to escape, Mayfield is supposed to have fell into the creek and drowned. I consider this story to be totally unsupported nonsense! The name of George Mayfield appears to be a garbled reference to the George Mayfield (d. 1848), a grandson of James Mayfield (d. 1780), who was captured by Creek Indians in 1789 and who later became a well-known Indian spy and interpreter for Andrew Jackson. Since George did acquire a 640-acre plantation in Mississippi, and since he was well-known in both Tennessee and western Kentucky, somehow his name came to be associated with the naming of Mayfield Creek.
Another story is one that is cited in the Draper Manuscripts concerning a certain John Mayfield. In a letter, dated 30 November 1888, a certain B. A. Neal writes to Lyman Draper and states the following:
In regard to Mayfield. On whose account Mayfield Creek was named and the town to the Creek. I was told by Crofford Anderson, now dead, but who settled on the Creek in 1818, that one John Mayfield, who possibly was one of Gen'l Clark's men, was drowned in the creek at an early day, and that the creek took its name from him, and the city from the creek. He (Mayfield) has no descendants here. [See Draper Manuscripts, Kentucky Papers, 34CC37]
I should point out that the extant records of Clark's Illinois Regiment make no mention of any soldier named John Mayfield.
The story which I consider to be the closest to the truth, is also found in the Draper Manuscripts and concerns the founding of Fort Jefferson and Micajah Mayfield. Larry Murdock brought this reference to the attention of the Internet Mayfield List in January 1999:
All set to work cutting down trees and soon had the fort erected - a small stockade with bastions, enclosing perhaps a quarter of an acre. One day Micajah Mayfield, one of the soldiers, went out a hunting, got lost, fell upon the headwaters of a creek, which he concluded to follow down to its mouth, judging it would lead him to the Mississippi - and hence the name of the creek. [See Draper Manuscripts, George Rogers Clark Papers, 8J62]
No one really knows how the creek got its name; however, I consider the Micajah Mayfield version to be the one most esthetically pleasing to me. In my view, Micajah Mayfield is the quintessential frontiersman and it would be most appropriate that he, in the role of a "lost hunter" would give his name to a major landmark of western Kentucky!
1. Margaret Heberling Harding, Compiler, George Rogers Clark and His Men, Military Records, 1778-1884, published 1981.
2. Kenneth C. Carstens, Murray State University, Kentucky, Fort Jefferson, 1780-1781: A Summary of Its History, published 1994 in: Selected Papers from the 1991 and 1992 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences.
3. Kenneth C. Carstens, Murray State University, Kentucky, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Munition Supplies at George Rogers Clark's Fort Jefferson, published 1991 in: Selected Papers from the 1989 and 1990 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences.
4. Arrell M. Gibson, The Chickasaws, published 1971.
5. George Morgan Chinn, Kentucky Settlement and Statehood 1750-1800, published 1975.
6. Mann Butler, Valley of the Ohio, Reprint, published 1971.