by Tom Jewett
The American Revolution, which began with Lexington and Concord, struck the more populous communities of the eastern seaboard as a succession of violent but passing storms. On the long and pitifully exposed western frontier, however, the sky remained always dark, with disaster constantly threatening. The scattered settlers during these years had no surcease from danger or dread. Their enemy was not an army of disciplined soldiers, but groups of Native Americans capable of springing at any moment from the wilderness to burn a homestead or slaughter a family. This was not due to chance or caprice but to the deliberate strategy of the English military command. It was thought that by inciting the Indians against the American frontier, such widespread terror would be unleashed that rebellion would be discouraged west of the Allegheny Mountains. That the plan misfired was due to the incredible resistance of such men as Joseph Bowman, who were known by the moniker of the “Long Knives”.
Long Knives was the name given by the Indians to the American Rangers who patrolled the Ohio river Valley during the Revolution. Their name struck fear into the hearts of all non-Americans in the Valley, for the British propagandized to the French and Indians that the Long Knives were savage, uncouth, butchers; the dregs of the frontier. True, the Long Knives were hard men, inured by the tribulations of the wilderness, but, as in the case of Joseph Bowman, they were often also educated and cultured.
Joseph Bowman, born in 1752, came from Frederick County, Virginia. His family, like many Virginians of the piedmont was a restless band that became some of the first settlers of Kentucky. Bowman’s upbringing was a mixture that included the classical education of a Virginia gentleman and the rough and tumble frontier skills of the musket, the axe, and the knife. Bowman, a younger contemporary of Daniel Boone and Thomas Jefferson, felt equally at ease in Jefferson’s drawing room or Boone’s woods.
Though still a youth, Bowman’s education and facility with the tools of frontier life marked him as a leader in wilderness Kentucky. He was elected, at the age of 22, an officer of the militia during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. It was during this expedition against the Shawnee that Bowman met and campaigned with George Rogers Clark.
The two young men were remarkably alike in family background, education, and ability. It might have been expected that a rivalry would grow between these two outstanding men of similar character, but instead, a fast friendship based on trust in each one’s ability developed.
Clark came to overshadow his friend Bowman in the annuals of the Revolution, but each of these captains of the wilderness stood as equal giants amidst that company of heroes who took the Northwest Territory from Britain. Clark’s exploits as the leader of the Virginia expedition to Illinois have been well chronicled, mainly by Clark himself. Less well known are the adventures of the 26-year-old conqueror of Prairie du Rocher, St. Phillipe, and Cahokia-Joseph Bowman.
Immediately after the July 4, 1778, capture of Kaskaskia, in which Bowman played a conspicuous role, it was determined that to protect the expedition’s western flank in further conquest that Cahokia had to be taken. Speed was imperative, for with the small force under Bowman’s command, surprise was the main tactic to be utilized.
Bowman assembled a force of some thirty mounted Virginia Rangers and a like number of French militia who had pledge support to the American cause. Although weary from marching and loss of sleep, the necessity of taking Cahokia was so apparent that Bowman and his troop started the evening of the first day of the occupancy of Kaskaskia. The men were to spend the next three nights without sleep, most of the time being in the saddle.
Bowman wrote a short account of this expedition. Its simplicity and lack of self-aggrandizement is in stark comparison to Clark’s journal.
I was ordered off by Colonel Clark with a detachment of thirty men, mounted on horseback, to proceed up the river Mississippi to three more towns, and lay siege to them. The first I came to was fifteen miles from Kaskaskia–the town we had possession of -which was called Parraderushi (Prairie du Rocher). Before they had any idea of our arrival, we had possession of the town. They seemed to be a good deal surprised, and were willing to come to any terms that would be required of them.
From thence I proceeded to St. Philippe, about nine miles higher up. It being a small town they were forced to comply with my terms, likewise. Being in the dead time of the night, they seemed scared almost out of their wits, as it was impossible that they could know my strength.
From thence went to Cauhou (Cahokia), between forty and fifty miles above St. Philippe. This town contained about one hundred families. We rode up to the commander’s house and demanded a surrender. He accordingly surrendered himself, likewise all the inhabitants of the place. I then demanded of them to take the oath of fidelity to the states, otherwise I should treat them as enemies. They told me they would give me an answer next morning. I then took possession of a strong stone house, well fortified for war, (later called Ft. Bowman) and soon got word that there was a man in town who would immediately raise 150 Indians, who were near at hand, and cut me off. I, being much on my guard, happened to find out the person and confined him under guard, and lay on our arms that night, this being the third night we had not closed our eyes.
For his daring raid, Bowman was commissioned a major of volunteers and stood second in rank only to Clark. He was responsible for the civil as well as military operations of Virginia’s western Illinois conquests. Under his leadership the first popular court of justice in Illinois was elected in 1778 at Cahokia. It was a measure of the respect that he had earned from the French that he was selected the first president of the court.
Bowman served as administrator of Cahokia until early 1779 when he and his company of Long Knives joined with Clark in the memorable recapture of Vincennes. Bowman kept a journal of this heroic march. He writes very simply of marching in chest deep water for days and of the bravery and the fortitude of his men. His account differs little from Clark’s except for Clark’s dramatization of certain events.
Ft. Sackville surrendered on February 25, 1779, a day that should have been one of celebration for the Long Knives. Bowman who enjoyed drink and revelry as much as any son of Virginia and Kentucky decided that an appropriate way to mark the surrender of Vincennes was to fire the fort’s cannon in victory. What happened as Bowman and his party entered the powder magazine is still open to speculation. Some reports state that the British had booby trapped it, others report that the Long Knives, well into the celebration, had imbibed too much corn whiskey and become careless. Whatever the reason, the results were that Bowman and five other men were badly injured in an explosion of 26 six-pound cartridges.
Bowman was badly burned by the course grains of gunpowder, which were imbedded in his face. The force of the blast gave him a severe concussion, causing extreme pressure on the brain. Also, the explosion’s intense heat had seared Bowman’s lungs.
Despite his injuries, Bowman took up command of his troops after a short period of recuperation, but he never regained his previous health. His face oozed from infection cause by the gunpowder grains imbedded in his skin. He suffered from sever headaches as a result of the concussion, and his stamina lessened from the damage to his lungs.
Bowman traveled back to Cahokia with the vanguard of Clark’s troops where he worked on plans to take Detroit in the spring. He returned to Vincennes in the summer of 1779 to recruit for the Detroit expedition. While at Ft. Sackville, renamed Ft. Patrick Henry, he succumbed to his injuries. Bowman, the only officer to die during Clark’s campaign in the west, passed away on August 14, 1779, at the age of 27.
Bowman for various reasons has become just a footnote in the history of the American Revolution in the west. Had he lived beyond the Revolution and been able to relate the story of his victories, personally, perhaps he, too, would have taken his place in history with the other famous Long Knives.
“Bowman’s Company”. 20001, www.illinoisregiment.or/BowmansHistory.html
English, William Hayden. 1897, Conquest of the County Northwest of the River Ohio
1778-1783 and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark. Bowen-Merrill Company, Kansas City, Missouri. (Reprinted by the Indiana Historical Bureau, www.statelib.lib.in.us/www/ihb/grcdiary.html.)