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 books.

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 in America.

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 Scots-Irish protestants.

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 family.

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 Kentucky.

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.

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 barefooted leader.

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 Bourbon County.

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 28th, 1777.

"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 family.

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 of:

(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 Nancy 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 2/1/1821.

(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 on 5/10/1843.

(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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