Most American families have at least one special ancestor
whose contributions to the formation of our country set him
apart from the rest. Often, "tall tales" built around his
exploits are passed on from generation to generation. Each
teller adds his or her own embellishments until the ancestor
becomes larger than life, a family hero. These heroes play a
very important role in maintaining and perpetuating a family's
pride, no matter how outrageous and fantastic the tales become.
The Gess family of Fayette County, Kentucky, has such a
hero, JOHN GESS, whose life on the Kentucky frontier was
filled with adventure. But for his untimely death, he might
have become one of Kentucky's folk heroes, rivaling Simon
Kenton and Daniel Boone for a place in our state's history
For generations the story of John Gess has been kept alive
by the family. As late as 1933, family members joined the
Daughters of the American Revolution recalling his bravery and
love for his young country. My great grandmother, Laura Gess
Hayman, died on September 10, 1936, after decades of suffering
from crippling arthritis. During her later years, the
adventures of John Gess lived through her beautiful stories,
but at her death the link was broken.For unknown reasons, her
children and grandchildren did not pass on her memories. Only
in the past few years, through painstaking research and
correspondence with distant relatives, have parts of her
stories been revived. The purpose of this narrative is to
insure that the exploits of John Gess will not be forgotten
again. Future generations will be able to reestablish the pride
in our family by passing an their own, "tall tales" derived from
this historical record.
Gess is not a common name in Central Kentucky. Although
settling in the Bluegrass region over two hundred years ago,
family remains quite small. The 1997 Lexington(Kentucky)
telephone directory includes only six households with the
name. One reason for the limited number of descendants is the
early confusion concerning the correct spelling of the name.
Eighteenth century variations included Goes, Gass, Giss,
Guess, Goss, Gist Guest, and Gest. It seems that only one
branch settled on the "Gess" spelling while much larger
numbers chose "Gass" as their name. Ironically, neither
choice appears to have been the original spelling.
Over eight hundred years ago in what is now Perthshire
in Scotland, a Celtic chieftain by the name of Luguen of
Strathearn acquired title to a large tract of land on the
northern banks of the River Earn known as "Trinity Gasq," on
which he built his castle. As was the custom of the time, the
owner was identified by the name of his estate, thus Luguen
became known as Luguen Gasq." His son Galfridus, who lived
during the early thirteenth century, dropped the "of" and was
known simply as "Galfridus Gasq," thereby establishing the
name. During the next five hundred years the Gasq family
spread into other parts of Scotland, but by the seventeenth
century most of the family had concentrated in the counties
of Ayre, Dumfries, and Wington. The names spelling had also
evolved to "Gask" or "Gass."
During the seventeenth century many members of the
Gass/Gask family took part in the Protestant plantation in
northern Ireland, supplanting native Catholic landowners in
an effort to colonize the hostile island country. Great numbers of
lowland Scots made the short trip across the Irish Sea to
become a nationality we today call the "Scots-lrish."
In spite of the large numbers of newly arrived
Scots, native Irish Catholics continued to defend their
lands and political rights in a struggle that continues
today, some three hundred years later. As a result of this
continuing economic warfare, many of these "Scots-Irish"
sought a peaceful home in the newly developed colonies
Sometime prior to 1716, John Gass of County Antrim
in northern Ireland arrived in Lancaster County in the
American colony of Pennsylvania, bringing with him his new wife,
ne' Margaret Cowen, also of Scots-Irish heritage. The couple
settled appropriately in the Donegal section of Lancaster
County, so named because it was populated almost exclusively by
John and Margaret Gass had at least seven children,
Isabella, James, William, John, Robert, David, and Henry, all
of whom were born in Pennsylvania between 1716 and 1734, the
year of their father's death. In his will the older Gass
directed his remains "be desently buried in the
[Presbyterian] church yard of Donigall" and that "ye
plantation (be left] to my sons. Because the farm was so
small, most of the male heirs had no choice but to seek
their fortunes elsewhere in the new world. John Gass[Jr.)
settled in what was then Albemarle County, Virginia, and was
followed by his widowed mother and older brother David.
David Gass became close friends with Daniel Boone and later
moved to Kentucky with the famous explorer. John Gass
remained in Virginia and had at least one son, John
Gass(III), the subject of this sketch. Although his uncle David also
used the "Gess" spelling at times, it was John Gass[III] who
permanently adopted "Gess" as his last name. Whether by choice or
due to a lack of formal education, the change has confused
historians for generations.
William H. Perrin, in his History of Fayette County,
Kentucky , published in 1882, described John "Gess" as a native
of England, and since no contradictory evidence was known,
twentieth century family members accepted Perrin's conclusion
as correct. However, in recent years several records have been
uncovered that prove conclusively that John Gess was the son of
John Gass (Jr.) and a descendant of the Scots-Irish Gass
In 1843, Dr. Lyman C. Draper interviewed John Gass, the son
of David Gass and grandson of John and Margaret[Cowen] Gass.
This seventy-eight year old pioneer stated that he knew John
Gess personally and noted that Gess was his cousin. In
addition, Joseph Schafer, Superintendent of the Draper Papers
at the University of Wisconsin, identified John Gess as "a nephew
of the pioneer David Gass." Finally, several references to
John Gass/Gess(III) were discovered in the Turley Noland
Papers at Eastern Kentucky University. Manuscript #775
includes the notation that "John[Gess] was a nephew of David
Gass and the child of another brother of David's, John Gass."
John Gass/Gess [III] spent his early years in Virginia
and married there in 1773 to Sarah Lucas, who was a native
of Scotland according to Perrin's history. Their first
child, John Gess, was born probably in Fincastle County,
Virginia, on September 8, 1774, since both John and his uncle David "Gess" served
in that year as privates in the Fincastle County Militia.
John Gess served for forty days as a private in Captain David
Looney's company and participated in the Point Pleasant
campaign during Lord Dunsmore's War.
It appears that John's father, John Gess (Jr.) was dead by
this date because John Gess III cast his lot with his uncle
David and followed him to the waters of the Clinch River in
southwestern Virginia. According to the Draper Manuscripts, by
1774 "Daniel Boone and John Gass lived 2 miles from this
fort(Fort Christian in Fincastle County, Virginia, near the
town of Castlewood in what is now Russell County). " Both John
Gess and Daniel Boone were living on the farm of David Gass
which served as the staging area for Boone's early forays into
Early in 1775, Daniel Boone organized a group of settlers
on the Gass farm and set off for Kentucky. The little company,
including David Gass, passed through Cumberland Gap and made
its way to the banks of the Kentucky River in what is now
Madison County, Kentucky. It was here that Kentucky's second
oldest permanent settlement was established, called
Boonesborough. It is not known whether John Gess was a member
of this first group of pioneers, but his name appears in the
records of the settlement less than a month after its
establishment. Samuel Wilson's First Land Court of Kentucky
includes a land claim dated January 6, 1780, by John Gass/Gess
which states that he raised "a Crop of Corn in the year 1775 &
1776" an Johnson's Fork. Perrin's History of Fayette County
described Gess as "among the first pioneers.
Although the date of his arrival is uncertain, it is known
that he came to Kentucky alone. Because of the threat of Indian
attacks and the severe living conditions, Gess left his wife
and young son behind in southwestern Virginia. No doubt, he
wanted to establish a farm, build a house, and then go back to
Virginia for his family. Little did he know what adventures lay
ahead and that he would not be reunited permanently with his
family for nine years.
Since he was a "single" man in the Boonesborough fort,
John Gess was not allowed a cabin of his own. Two early maps
of the fort show that he lived with his Uncle David Gass in a
cabin along the back wall of the fort, and later with Col.
Richard Callaway in a larger cabin located in the middle of
the stockade's yard.
Although only bits and pieces can be gleaned from the
available records, it appears that John Gess was an unusually
outspoken and recklessly courageous man in a time when all of
the settlers could be called courageous. Almost immediately
after his arrival at Boonesborough Gess became involved in the
famous feud between Daniel Boone and Richard Callaway. Gess
sided with Boone and threatened Callaway on several occasions.
The Journal of the Proceedings of the Colony of Transylvania,
dated May 26, 1775, records that "John Guess" was ordered to
appear before the House of Delegates "to answer for an insult
offered Colonel Richard Callaway." Later the same day, Gess was
"reprimanded by the chairman" and released. One can only
imagine the nature of the insult, but if the deeds of later
generations are any indication it must have been a good one!
The dangers of life on the Kentucky frontier left little time for continuing
differences of opinion. The constant threat of Indian attack kept the settlers
busy finishing the fort. It was just such an attack that ended the feud
between Gess and Callaway and brought John Gess a considerable measure of fame.
Thomas D. Clark, in his books "The Kentucky and Kentucky: Land of Contrast,
describes what took place.
KENTUCKY: LAND OF CONTRAST
Thomas D. Clark
"The opening act of one of Boonesboro' several domestic
ordeals occurred an Sunday afternoon, July 14, 1776, when
Jemima Boone, and Elizabeth and Frances Callaway set out across
the Kentucky [River] to visit a neighbor. The girls paddled a
canoe diagonally across the river from the fort, and at the
moment its nose rooted into the gravel on the far bank a tawny
arm snatched it aground and four Shawnee bucks laid hold of the
girls, but not before the spunky Betsey Callaway had bounced an
oar off a brave's head. The younger girls were paralyzed with
fright, but Betsey kept her wits and was about as much bother
to the Shawnees as a gnawing bear would have been. The Shawnees
had always shown a fondness for female captives and now they
had three young ones in tow. Immediately they headed home by
way of the Blue Licks and the buffalo trace to parade their
prizes in the Ohio villages.
When it was discovered back in Boonesborough that the
girls were gone, there was great excitement. John Gess swam
across the river under the immediate danger of being
fired upon by Indians in ambush and rescued the canoe. Daniel
Boone took to the woods barefooted. When the cry went up that
Jemima Boone and the Callaway girls had been captured, the
gallant Samuel Henderson was shaving. He had one side of his
face and was about to begin on the other, but he had no time to
finish. The other men of the fort were dressed in their
'Sunday' homespun clothes, and they did not take time to change.
Across the Kentucky, Boone was able to pick up the trail
of the savages and the girls Quickly he mapped out a plan of
stradegy. One party was sent directly to the fording place at the
Blue Licks on the Licking, and a second followed closely upon
the heels of the kidnapers. Night came before the searching
party got far on the trail. Again the courageous John Gess
volunteered his services, and a pair of moccasins for the
Time was of the essence - in fact, it might already be too
late if the Indians could beat their white pursuers to the Ohio
River. They might have done so had the unruly girls not created
so many delays by complaining and sulking. Never had three
Kentucky girls been pursued by such illustrious company.
Besides Boone, who had the advantage of having twice been
prisoner of the Shawnees and now demonstrated his expert
woodsmanship there were William Bailey Smith, John Holder,
Samuel Henderson, John Floyd, Nathaniel and David Hart, John
Martin, John McMillan, William Bush, John and David Gess, and
Flanders Callaway. Three miles below the Blue Licks the Indians stopped for the night, and
here they were surprised and shot, and the tattered girls
escorted home as Kentucky's first heroines."
Other Kentucky authors also extolled the heroism of John
Gess. Daniel Boone biographer Michael Lofaro called him
"fearless" and "intrepid," while Lawrence Elliott, author of The
Long Hunters, described him as the "bravest of men." Gess's fame spread
throughout the Kentucky settlement and was known for the rest
of his life as the "hero of Boonesborough. " Since two of the
kidnapped girls were daughters of Col. Richard Callaway, Gess
was invited to live with his former adversary and Gess even named one of
his daughters Elizabeth Callaway Gess in honor of one of the
girls he helped to rescue.
Gess's accomplishments were not limited to Boonesborough.
According to the Draper manuscripts he accompanied Michael Stoner on
hunting expeditions into what is now Bourbon County and "helped
survey the area." In 1775 and 1776 he raised crops of corn "on
Johnson fork" near the present Bourbon-Clark County border.
This same land was granted to Gess in 1780 and willed to his
heirs in 1799, thus making him one of the first settlers of
John Gess also contributed to the history of Fort Harrod,
Kentucky's first white settlement. On January 30, 1777,
Capt. George Rogers Clark arrived at Fort Harrod with his company
of Kentucky militia, including John Gess. An Indian attack was
expected at any moment and Clark's company was sent to
strengthen the garrison. According to Lewis Collins- History of
Kentucky, the fort was besieged from March 6th through March
"John. Gess with a number of others went outside of the
fort to give the Indiana battle. Gess was struck by a ball on one side of his chin, cutting the skin
along his jaw-bone but not breaking the bone, and knocking him over on his back. The Indian
who fired the shot, supposing he had killed him, ran up to scalp him - but when very near,
Gess took aim as he lay on his back, shot the Indian dead, and made his escape into the fort."
Although wounded and disfigured, John Gess's military career was just beginning.
The American Revolution was now under way and the Kentucky settlements were a hotbed of
revolutionary sentiment. In January 1778, George Rogers Clark, now a colonel, organized the
largest and most complex unit raised by Virginia during the war specifically for the defense
of the "Western Department" [Kentucky]. Clark was authorized to attack the British outpost
of Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River and establish a post an "the falls of the Ohio," the site
of Louisville, Kentucky. On April 10, 1779, "John Guess" transferred to Capt. John Williams'
Company of Clark's command, officially known an Clark's Illinois Regiment of Virginia
State Militia. Private John Ges fought with Clark against the British and Indians at
Kaskaskia in 1778 and at Vincennes[ Indiana] in 1779, and successfully delayed British plans
for a major offensive against Kentucky. He later participated in a campaign against pro-
British Indians in Ohio and in numerous border raids in 1781.
Although the British formally surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1782, the
warfare in the west continued unabated. In March of that year Wyandot warriors struck
Strode's Station about twenty miles from Boonesborough, killing two settlers and wounding
another. The war party was pursued by Captain James Estill and a party of twenty-five men
including John Gess. On March 22nd Estill's men caught up with the Indians at Little
Mountain, near the future site of Mt. Sterling. Almost evenly matched,
according to Lowell Harrison's A Now History of Kentucky, "the
opponents fought one of the most vicious battles in the history
of Kentucky's Indian warfare." Estill was killed and thirteen of his
men were killed or seriously wounded. The Wyandot Indians had
equally heavy losses, but they remained in control of the battle
field, and the engagement was considered to be an Indian
victory. The white survivors fled back to Estill's Station, a
distance of some twenty-five miles, carrying the wounded
through dense forests and rough terrain.
John Gess continued to serve at least until July 30, 1784,
when he received a pay warrant "in full balance of his service
as a soldier of the Illinois Regiment." With peace finally at
hand John Gess felt safe to bring his family from Virginia. By
1784, he acquired several tracts in Fayette County "on Boons
Creek and the East Fork of Hickmans Creek," in addition to his
holdings in Bourbon County. Sometime prior to 1788 he built a
spacious two story log house in what is now the Athens community
in Fayette County. Clay Lancaster, in Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass.
described the dwelling as "comparable to the better early brick
house --- with an ample hall encompassing an open well
containing a staircase, and large equisized rooms on either
side. On the Gess farm, the house, set far --- back from the
Walnut Hill and Chilesiburg Road [and was] a five-bayed example.
" Regrettably, the house was torn down after 1961, but the
surrounding farmland is still owned by members of the Gess
In the years after the Revolutionary War John Gess became
a prosperous farmer, acquiring several additional parcels of
land. Now that he was united with his wife, his family increased as
well. Between 1784 and 1797, nine children were added to the
family. On April 16, 1799, John Gess died suddenly. After
sacrificing nine years on the frontier preparing a better life
for his family, John Gess was able to spend less than fifteen
years enjoying the fruits of his efforts. Gess was buried on
the farm in an unmarked grave. On August 12, 1929, his remains
were moved to the Lexington Cemetery and reinterred among other
family members in Section #I, Lot #28. This grave is also
unmarked and current cemetery policy prohibits the erection of
a monument at the site. It is truly sad to think that one of
Kentucky's early heroes lies forgotten in an unmarked grave in
a cemetery filled with Kentucky's heroes. Hopefully, one day a
proper marker can be placed at the grave of this special Kentucky hero.
JOHN GESS and SARAH LUCAS GESS were the parents
(1) JOHN GESS born 9/8/1774 in Virginia; married Annie Winn in
Fayette County, Ky, on 1/19/1800; died on 8/13/1849.
(2) NANCY GESS
born c. 1780's in Fayette County, KY; married John
Whitaker in Fayette County on 10/11/1809.
(3) Jemima Boone GESS born
c. 1780's in Fayette County, KY;
married John True in Fayette County on 9/12/1803.
(4) ELIZABETH GESS
born c. 1780's; married William Cockerill who
died in 1803.
(5) JAMES GESS born c. 1780's in Fayette County, KY; married
Price in Fayette County on 10/28/1805.
(6) SARAH GESS born 9/25/1785 in Fayette
County, KY; married
Richard Bledsoe in Fayette County on 1/21/1807 and died on
(7) WILLIAM GESS born 2/16/1793 in Fayette County, KY; married to
Mary Winn Vallandingham in Fayette County on 10/20/1817 and died
(8) THOMAS GESS born c. 1790's; his fate is unknown.
(9) SUSANNAH GESS barn c.1797 in Fayette County, KY; married on
2/14/1815 to George Winn Cotton and died in 1839.
(10) MARY (POLLY) GESS,
born c. 1790's; her fate in unknown.
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