Michael Stoner: The Frontiersman Who Was Always There

By James P. Pierce Lifelong friend of Daniel Boone and associate of Simon Kenton, Michael Stoner was one of the very best long hunter frontiersmen of the late 18th century.

He was born in 1748 in southeastern Pennsylvania in the same general region that Daniel Boone came from. Stoner was of German-speaking background, a fact that was immediately obvious to any who heard him. His English carried a heavy German accent his entire life.

Michael Stoner

Michael Stoner

The original family name was Holsteiner. Two brothers, Peter and John Leonhardt Holsteiner left their home at Zweibruecken in what was then the Rhenish, or Lower Palatinate (near Saarbruecken now in the German province of Saarland). Along with about three thousand other Palatine refugees from the War of the League of Augsburg and the War of Spanish Succession (known in North America as Queen Anne's War), the brothers migrated down the Rhein and across the Channel to England. From England they went to the province of New York in 1710 along with Robert Hunter, the new governor of the Colony.

Upon arrival, the Palatines were expected to pay for their transport by working as laborers for the British producing naval stores; tar and pitch and the like. After this scheme fell apart, the British encouraged the Palatines to migrate up the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys to settle in the wilderness, and also, incidentally, to act as a buffer between British and the French and Indians to the north.. Then, after going out into the wilderness and establishing homes for themselves, many of the Palatines, including the Holsteiner brothers, were robbed of their lands by people with the knowledge and power to do so using the pretext of unsound land title as justification for their actions.

In 1728, the brothers left Schoharie, N.Y. and moved to Tulpehocken, Pa. Both their names appear in the membership list of the Tulpehocken Lutheran Church from 1743-45. Peter's name disappears from the records after this date. Further record of him consists of only a vague family accounting of him settling somewhere in southwestern Virginia and that the Holsten River was named after him.

In March of 1752, John Leonhardt Holsteiner obtained a tract of 300 acres from Peter Weiser and others in Heidleburg Township, near Millback, now in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Part of this land is still held today by members of the family bearing the name Holstein. On the deed, John appears as Leonard Holsteiner. He dropped his first name and the "h" and the "t" out of his second name. His wife's name was Barbara. Nothing is known of her, or of their deaths, except that both died some time before 1758.

The couple had several daughters and two sons; George and George Michael. The county records show that George Holsteiner made application of have the family farm appraised to him. His parents had died without a will, and George wished to take over the land. On June 5, 1759, George Holsteiner received a deed to the farm from Laurence Bausam and his wife, Philipina. Philipina was the only one of George's sisters who was of legal adult age at the time. After this transaction, the family name appears to have been changed to Holstein in all other papers.

The second son, George Michael Holstein, is the real hero of this narrative; he is the person who later took the name of Michael Stoner. He was born in 1748 on the Schuylkill River, near Philadelphia and he was only four or five years old when his parents died.

Older sisters and their families raised him and they must have thought it best, in typical Palatine tradition, that he learn a trade as soon as possible. So, he was apprenticed to a saddle maker in Hickory-Town, now Lancaster, while quite young. However, according to the writings of Stoner's grandson, "his nature was sutch that he could not bare to be tied to a sadlers bench."

Thus, after a quarrel with his master, he left his apprenticeship at age sixteen and went from Berks County to New River, Virginia. There is where he met Daniel Boone and the two first formed a friendship that was to last throughout their lives. By the late 1760's, when he settled at Castle's Wood in the Virginia back country near Cumberland Gap, he had already been over the mountains and into the continent's interior, including Kentucky.

According to the journals of Nathan Boone, Daniel's son, Michael Stoner was "an awkward Dutchman" who spoke with a heavy German accent. Also, he was known as "truthful and reliable"; a man who always got the job done. In 1767, at age nineteen, Stoner accompanied Daniel Boone on his first long hunt expedition into the Kentucky country. He, along with Samuel Harrod and Boone passed through Cumberland Gap to winter over in the difficult mountainous region of eastern Kentucky.

They made their first headquarters at a place that came later to be known as Crab Orchard, named after a grove of crab apple trees growing there. They separated here. Stoner went northwest to the Falls of the Ohio (near present day Louisville, Kentucky). After staying there a short while, he pushed south across Central Kentucky to the Cumberland River, and then went down the Cumberland to near present day Nashville, Tennessee where he met up with Boone and they went back to Virginia together. This long hunt served as preparation for later expeditions that led to Kentucky's first settlement by Whites..

The first settlement attempt into Kentucky, an unsuccessful one, was led by Daniel Boone in September, 1773. He was employed by Richard Henderson, later the leader in the formation of the Transylvania Company. Among the fifty people who set out that Autumn day were William Bush and Bush's nephew, Michael Stoner; reputed to be the two best shots in southwest Virginia. The expedition started out too late in the year and was not sufficiently supplied. They barely covered one hundred miles in the first two weeks. Then disaster struck.

The group was strung out over several miles on the trail when Boone decided that they needed more supplies. Daniel's son , James, along with several others, died victim to Indian ambush while traveling back to Virginia to buy more food. It was a time of despair; the group turned back; they were not yet ready for Kentucky.

We next hear of Michael Stoner, again acting with Daniel Boone, just before the outbreak of Dunmore's War. This predecessor to the Revolutionary War happened mainly along the Ohio and Hocking Rivers between Fort Pitt and Point Pleasant during the late summer of 1774. It may have been an attempt by John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Governor of the Colony of Virginia, to divert the resources and attention of his subjects from the unrest developing in Boston and Philadelphia. More likely, though, is that the whole thing was carried out to secure large sections of the Ohio country for groups of wealthy and influential land speculators, not the least of whom was Dunmore himself. At any rate, teams of surveyors had been out for the last year or so establishing claim to as much of the Ohio country as they could lay instruments to for their shadowy employers.

In the Spring before the campaign, in April of 1774, Dunmore asked for two good men as volunteers to go out and warn the survey teams of the hostilities to come in time for them to escape the war zone unharmed. The first to volunteer was Michael Stoner. The second was Daniel Boone. (There are discrepancies in the records about this. Some sources state that Boone was the first volunteer and he persuaded Stoner to join the enterprise. The Holstein Family history has Stoner as the first volunteer.) The two were directed to go down the Ohio to the Falls (just downstream from present day Louisville, Kentucky--the Falls, really little more that a set of rapids, have long since been blasted away to improve navigability of the river), and then to turn inland following the string of surveyors and ordering them to return in Dunmore's name.

They traveled around 800 miles in 62 days through increasingly hostile territory under very difficult conditions. Trails were scarce to nonexistent and the Indians, having been harassed by invading bands of ruffians for the last year, were finally beginning to strike back. The two men traveled together. Boone's journal of the expedition recounts an incident where, at a salt lick, Stoner taunted a buffalo. The animal, a cow, reacted by charging him. According to Boone, Stoner ran away shouting, "schoot her, Kapiten, schoot her!" Boone found the whole thing so funny that he couldn't stop laughing enough to do anything. Stoner remembered living constantly in fear of Indian ambush such that, whenever they stopped, they would sit back to back so as to not be surprised from any direction. However, they accomplished their mission and the surveying teams were able to safely withdraw.

Still working for Richard Henderson, this time as field manager for his Transylvania Company, a land company which later tried to establish itself as a colony, Daniel Boone organized his second expedition to establish a permanent settlement in Kentucky in 1775. His account book notes: "Mikel Stoner entered, feberry the 5, 1775". After Henderson bribed the Cherokees to sell land that they did not own in Kentucky to the Transylvania Company (at the time, shady land deals could go both ways), the stage was set for establishing a permanent settlement.

Boone, Stoner and a score of others, all men except for Boone's daughter Susanna and a slave woman brought along to cook, left early that Spring to enlarge and smooth out the preexisting trail, part of the ancient Warriors' Path, so that it could accommodate the wagons that the main group following them would be using. The front group would also establish the foundation of a settlement in Kentucky for the others to build on. As enticement, each of the front group was to be paid about 10 pounds for a month's road building work Also, they would get first choice at claiming land parcels in and around the new settlement..

At the end of the road, the workers built the beginnings of Fort Boonesborough. Michael Stoner stayed on, claimed land, and worked as a hunter for the new settlement during its first year or so.

In the West, the Revolutionary War really started in 1774 with Dunmore's war, and did not end until the Battle of Fallen Timbers twenty years later. It was largely a war between White settlers scattered east and south of the Ohio River in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky and the Ohio Country Indian Nations living north and west of the River. By now these were a mixed group of long-time resident nations such as the Miami and groups who had been dislocated from their homes further east and south by White advance such as the Delaware and the Shawnee.

Ironically, the Frontier Whites were often rather ambivalent in their loyalties. They were not particularly enthusiastic about the Revolutionary Cause. In fact, many of them had come west to escape what they considered oppression by the wealthy eastern landowners who had formulated the Declaration of Independence itself. On the other hand, they tended not to be particularly loyal to the Crown either. The irony is even greater in that, from 1775 to 1782, a greater percentage of these Westerners, relative to total population in the area, met violent death related to the Revolutionary War than in any other part of the country. One thing they agreed on was that their real enemies were the Indian Nations living across the river in the Ohio Country. Among those enemies, the most formidable were certainly the Shawnee. Boonesborough got its introduction to the Revolutionary War and its first trial by fire in the Spring of 1777.

The British had urged restraint to their Indian allies in 1776, but the Ohio Indians, after their experience in Dunmore's war, saw gains by the Americans as nothing other than threats to themselves and their lands. So, by the Spring of 1777, the arguments of the Peace Chiefs were being rejected and War Chiefs such as the Shawnee Black Fish had taken command. Black Fish led an army of two hundred Shawnee warriors south across the Ohio that Spring. In all of Kentucky that year, there were 121 men available to defend the 280 settlers living there. Among the 22 men available to the defense of the ten or fifteen families living in Boonesborough was Michael Stoner. What happened at Boonesborough that Spring was a major occurrence in the lives of four of the most famous of the long hunters on the frontier; Michael Stoner, Daniel Boone, Wm. Bush, and Simon Kenton. It was an experience that was to bond them for the rest of their lives.

Harrodsburg had endured sporadic attack since early March, but much smaller Boonesborough remained unbothered until April 24th. As luck would have it that morning , the scouts who normally would have been out in the forest , Stoner and Simon Kenton included, were all in the fort, so there was no forewarning . The first sign of trouble was when the cows refused to go out to pasture; they would go no further than the gate of the fort. Boone, acting as militia captain, sent two men out to investigate. They saw nothing unusual. As they were coming back to the fort, a small group of Shawnees ran out of a sycamore tree grove in a nearby hollow and fired at them. This sycamore hollow was to be a major weak point in the defense of Boonesborough. The two men ran for the open gate about seventy yards away. One was brought down and a small group of Indians quickly overwhelmed him and set to work lifting his scalp. Simon Kenton was standing at the gate with his gun loaded. As one warrior rose from the crowd screaming his war cry and waving aloft his bloody trophy, Kenton impulsively charged from the fort, stopped short, aimed, and shot the warrior dead. The other Shawnees scattered into the forest.

Very quickly Kenton was joined on the plain in front of the fort by Boone, Michael Stoner, William Bush and ten or twelve others. They immediately spread out in pursuit of the disappearing Shawnees. Stoner was a few yards ahead of the rest when he saw a warrior moving and hiding along a rail fence to the west. He fired and hit his mark but, before he could reload, he himself was hit twice by return fire. One ball went through his wrist, another lodged in his hip. The Kentuckians, as they came to Stoner's defense, heard a sound of many footsteps closing behind them. Looking back, they saw the lane leading back to the fort filling with several dozen Shawnees who had been hiding in that same sycamore hollow. They were cut off. "Boys, we have to fight!" Boone shouted. "Sell your lives as dear as possible!"

With that they charged. Individuals stopped to fire when opportunities offered themselves; then they would dash forward raising each his own horrific war cry. A witness reported that the Kentuckians "made right at them...near enough to see the white of many an eye...the Indians would always give way." Some records hint that the Indians did so because they were in hopes of capturing them all for their own purposes, probably to use them to pursuade the fort to surrender. Others report that this was simply an example of the Indians' fighting style--being cautious about going into hand-to-hand combat and favoring more a wait for a favorable opportunity, then attack approach. Anyhow, the Kentuckians broke through, but not without sustaining several more injuries, Boone being among the first. He was shot through the ankle, went down, and was saved from being scalped by Simon Kenton, who clubbed the warrior attacking Boone to death. Kenton hoisted Boone up over his shoulders and ran to the fort, Indian bullets humming all around the two of them all the way.

Stoner and Bush were the last to come in. Bush had fired twice already and "had put the powder in the gun, and was holding the bullet in his mouth" preparing for a third shot when he saw Stoner faltering from loss of blood. Throwing his arm around his nephew, he began to pull him along, but Stoner shook him off . "Tem gottam yellow rascals vill schoot us. Ve are too pig a mark, Pilly Push," he shouted. Stoner hobbled ahead and Bush held the Indians back, levelling his empty gun at them as if about to fire. Looking around, he saw that all his comrades had made the safety of the fort, so he spun around and began to run. He saw the Indians aim their guns, heard the discharges and saw balls crashing down all around him. He was not hit, but by the time he passed through the gate, his legs had been extensively cut by gravel and stone kicked up by the Indian shots. The Indians had wanted to take Bush prisoner and held their fire until it was obvious that they were not going to be able to capture him; thus he escaped.

The Shawnees kept up intermittent fire for a while, but they soon left, taking their dead and wounded along with them. Later in Harrodsburg, Kenton reported to George Rogers Clark, colonel of Virginia militia charged with the defense of Kentucky, that "40 or 50 Indians attacked Boonesborough, killed and scalped Danl. Goodman, wounded Capt. Boone, Capt. Todd, Mr. Hite, and M. Stoner. Indians 'tis thought sustained much damage." Stoner recovered from his wounds and stayed on through the following year in and around Boonesborough, acting as a scout and hunter for the settlement.

He was with George Rogers Clark at the final taking of Vincennes in February, 1779, and he may have been with him during his entire campaign in the West.

On a visit in western North Carolina, Stoner was caught up in forces leading to the Battle of King's Mountain, which took place on October 12, 1780. That was where the British lost their paramount weapons researcher, Major Patrick Ferguson. He was commander of the loyalist troops trapped on King's Mountain and virtually annihilated by an American force composed almost entirely of Virginia and Carolina frontiersmen. 400 of the original 1200 loyalists lived to surrender after a sniper cut Major Ferguson down. An ironic footnote to this incident was that Ferguson, an extraordinary marksman himself as well as the inventor of the first breech-loading flintlock rifle used in England, had specifically been assigned to kill George Washington at the battle of Germantown, by sniping him across the battlefield. Ferguson found Washington and had him in his sights, but, not being able to believe that a general officer would dress so casually, he concluded that his target could not be Washington and held his fire.

Later, in 1782, Stoner was wounded in the Battle of Blue Licks, in present day central Kentucky. This battle is often cited as the last engagement of the Revolutionary War. It was the end of the last British campaign in the West. It involved a force of 600 from north of the Ohio, including fifty British Regulars under Captain Wm. Caldwell. The rest of the army consisted of Indians from the various Ohio Nations. Among their leaders was the notorious Simon Girty. The invaders crossed the Ohio in late August or early September and proceeded without being detected to The Blue Licks (a salt spring or seep long used by both humans and animals as a salt source) on the Licking River in Kentucky. There, about 350 of the force set itself up in camp while the remaining 250, including the 50 Redcoats, proceeded further inland and attacked Bryan's Station. Various militia groups, totaling some 180 or so men assembled in Lexington and came to reinforce the Station only to find the besiegers gone.

Convinced by the British presence that they were chasing the entire invading force, the Kentuckians went in pursuit, following them back to their main camp at The Blue Licks. Charging across the Licking River into what they thought to be the camp of a force approximately the same size as theirs, The Kentuckians ran into an ambush that dealt them their most severe defeat in their long Border War with the Ohio Indian Nations. Seventy two of the Kentuckians were killed in that battle. The Indians, for it was largely and Indian action, lost only three, and four others were slightly wounded. The remaining Kentuckians fled back across the Licking River in panic.

Stoner was wounded early on in the fight and fell from his horse. He hid in the bushes until the day after the battle, when he was rescued by militia reinforcements under Col. Benjamin Logan. Logan arrived a day too late to help the Kentuckians; they knew he was coming with several hundred men, but, instead of waiting for him, they resorted to their usual tactic of a head-on charge into the fray immediately after first contact with the enemy.

Stoner later participated in various campaigns up into the Ohio country that were part of the Indian wars that raged across the eastern United States following the Revolutionary War. These conflicts have traditionally been granted only a few paragraphs in most general American History books. Reexamination of these times shows them to be part of a pivotal era in American history. This was when national policies and attitudes developed that have directed every aspect of United States' expansion, even to the present day.

Specifically, Stoner campaigned with Capt. Wm. Hardin, and Colonel Logan in 1786 on a successful raid against the Shawnees made possible by the diversion of George Rogers Clark's campaign against the Miami. It is also thought that he went out with his uncle, now Colonel Wm. Bush, on Harmar's fruitless campaign against the Miamis led by Little Turtle in September, 1790. Harmar and his force of more than fourteen hundred men were ambushed and soundly defeated near the ruins of the magnificent Indian town of Kekionga, which had been at the headwaters of the Maumee River in what is now northeastern Indiana.

In around 1786, Stoner was married to Frances Tribble, born in 1769, daughter of Reverend Andrew Tribble and his wife, Sarah Ann Burris. Stoner was 38 years old; his wife was 17.

After the marriage, the Stoners settled in what is now Clark County, Kentucky five miles southeast of the town of Winchester. Their first child, George Washington Stoner, was born there. In 1797, they moved to the Cumberland River area in Pulaski County, and later to Wayne County, near Monticello, Kentucky. Stoner's Fork of the Licking River was named after him because of his making pre-emption and settlement on that stream at a place about five miles south of present Paris, Kentucky.

In 1808 Daniel Boone, who had moved west to Missouri in 1799, sent an invitation to Stoner to come visit him at his new home at Femme Osage near the mouth of the Missouri River. Stoner liked the idea so much that not only did he want to come visit; he wanted to move there permanently. Kentucky was becoming too crowded for him. However, he could not persuade his wife to move, so he left alone

Late in the summer of 1810 Stoner arrived at Boone's cabin. His intent was to hunt and explore the Upper Missouri. Boone, in temporary remission from the rheumatism that had plagued him in his old age, could not resist the temptation to join the expedition and so, off they went early that Fall, with some younger relatives of Boone's along to give support. Boone was 76 years old in 1810 and Stoner was 62.

Boone's rheumatism returned and he had to turn back after six months. However, he brought back the best catch of his long career as a professional hunter and trapper. Stoner kept on going. He went 1600 miles up the Missouri, far beyond any habitation. Part of the time he was alone; part of the time he was with company. For a period of four or five months he saw no Whites at all. According to records left by Stoner's son, they went "high up the Missouri trapping" and, according to at least one person in the party, they made it as far as the Yellowstone River where it joins the Missouri on the present northeastern Montana-North Dakota border. It must have been the trip of their lives!

Coming back downriver, he stopped once again to visit Boone. Then he returned, after an absence of two years, to his home in Kentucky. That trip was his last hunt. Michael Stoner died September 3, 1815. He was 67 years old. His remains were buried near Monticello, Wayne County, Kentucky, where his grave is marked only with a crude stone.

Three of the Stoner children as well as one grandson married Boone descendents and had large families of their own. One of their sons, Dr. Michael Lower Stoner, born about 1798, was a framer of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Author's Note and Question:

Why is there so little mention in the history books of a man who did so much? Three causes come to mind which, put together, would assure obscurity for anyone not obsessed with getting his name before the public.

First, I am pretty sure Michael Stoner was illiterate; he could not write, at least not in English. Thus, he would be entirely dependent on others to leave written record of his presence.

Second, being illiterate would have prevented him from rising to many positions of leadership. He would not be able to keep log books and records, which would keep him from most managerial positions. This would help guarantee his obscurity.

His friend Daniel Boone, by contrast, was fairly literate for the time; he could read and write. True, his spellings were quite imaginative, but, that was not unusual at that time. But, then, Simon Kenton was no great reader and writer either. That probably prevented his rise to leadership anywhere but on the battlefield, but even casual students of early American frontier history know of his exploits. Why not Stoner?

Third, we have the prejudices of the chroniclers of the time. Stoner was a "Dutchman". He spoke with a heavy German accent his entire life. True, he was born in Pennsylvania, but he was of German-American background. During the Colonial-Revolutionary War period, the strongest ethnic slur routinely heard in Anglo-America was damned Dutchman. The first person on record to have uttered this oath was John Smith at Jamestown. He was referring to a small group of German glassmakers that had come with the Jamestown company. They (the glassmakers) had been trying to make friends with the Indians and Smith did not like it. Anglo-Americans during the Colonial and Revolutionary period felt threatened by German-American ethnicity. Coming closer to Stoner's time, we only have to look into the writings of a founding father as prominent as Benjamin

Franklin to find comments about German Pennsylvanians that are borderline pathological in their dislike. Frontier people, almost as often targets of eastern establishment disdain and contempt as "Dutchmen", seemed not to share this prejudice, at least not as strongly. But frontier people often were not the writers of their own exploits. The early writers, like John Filson, the first person to write the exploits of Daniel Boone, were easterners and had eastern prejudices. They would not be interested in writing the exploits of any "damned Dutchmen". That, in this writer's opinion, is the main reason for Michael Stoner's obscurity today. Present day historians are still influenced, knowingly or not, by the works of their predecessors. If the early writers ignored the works of certain peoples, then "they never happened".

References and further reading:

The Stoner Family (compiled by Miss Bess Hawthorne, LaPlace, Illinois), from The Boone Family - Allied Families p.550-552, at http://asterix.mathcs.wilkes.edu/~lancaster/ppl/h/holstein/michstoner.html

Straight Up To See The Sky, by Timothy Truman, copyright 1991, Eclipse Books. References to Dunmore's War and Indian wars in the old Northwest in the 1780's and 90's.

Daniel Boone, the Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by John Mack Faragher, copyright 1992, Henry Holt and Company, Inc. Frequent mention of Stoner as companion of Boone in many endeavors.

The Frontiersmen, by the Editors of Time-Life Books, text by Paul O'Neil, copyright 1977, Time-Life Books, Inc.good summation of frontier campaigns of the Revolutionary War, especially G.R.Clark's Vincennes Campaign, The Battle of King's Mountain, and the Battle of Blue Licks. Many illustrations and maps from the period.

The American Heritage History of The American Revolution, edited by Richard M. Ketchum, narrative by Bruce Lancaster, introduction by Bruce Catton, copyright 1971, American Heritage Publishing Company. good chapter on the war on the Frontier. Many illustrations from the period.

That Dark and Bloody River, by Allan W. Eckert, copyright 1995, Bantam Books. very detailed history of the Ohio Valley during Stoner's time there. Battle of Blue Licks covered. A must read for anyone who wants to study the Frontier Ohio Valley during the last half of the 18th century. Eckert's works are sometimes dismissed as being fiction. They are not fiction; they are historical narrative. I recommend this as well as all his other books to anyone wishing to study this time period