Family Legends:
The Case of the
Axe-Wielding Grandma

By James Pylant

© 2005


My great-grandfather, Henry Gilbreath, told many experiences about his early life and shared detailed memories and stories about his parents and grandparents. Some of these accounts are in his own handwriting but many went unwritten. One of those unrecorded stories remembered by a son-in-law involved a pioneer woman who fought a small band of Indians by using an axe. This woman’s connection to our family could not be recalled, except that he thought she was his father-in-law’s grandmother. Other family members were questioned, and while they remembered the story, they were unsure if the woman was a relative. And only immediate members of the family recalled the story; distant cousins had never heard it. As the story goes, the pioneer woman’s log home was being broken into by Indians, and fearing for the lives of her children, she single-handedly killed the intruders. When an Indian attempted to crawl through a gaping hole in the door, she seized an axe and struck the back of his neck. She then pulled his body through the opening and prepared to strike the next one entering her home.

Henry Gilbreath lived his ninety-four years in Erath County, Texas, where both his paternal and maternal grandparents settled in the 1850s. Erath County suffered numerous raids by Indians in that decade and the one that followed. These attacks were chronicled by local historians, but none mentioned the one described by Gilbreath’s son-in-law. In 1858, Indians raided the farm of Henry Gilbreath’s maternal grandfather, Jones Barbee, stealing horses and shooting near-fatal arrows into the body of a slave. But this incident, which appeared in books and periodicals, shared no similarity to the story of the axe-wielding matriarch. Was the story true? As stickler for accuracy, Henry Gilbreath was not one to tell tall tales. Had his son-in-law misunderstood about the kinship?

The answer came by chance.

Some years later, during a page-by-page reading of old Erath County newspapers, an illustration caught our attention. Found in an 1894 issue of the Stephenville Empire, it depicted a woman aiming an axe at an Indian emerging from a hole in a door. This illustration accompanied a lengthy article entitled “Heroic Defense,” which told how Mrs. John Merrill of Nelson County, Kentucky, defended her life and those of her family by killing six Indians as they attempted to enter her home after breaking through the door. Alas, the incident Henry Gilbreath told did not occur in mid-nineteenth century in Texas, but in the Bluegrass state some eighty years earlier. And it is doubtful that Mrs. Merrill was any relation to Henry Gilbreath. Instead, it seems likely that he read the account in his hometown newspaper, the Stephenville Empire, in 1894. The story probably made an impression on the sixteen year-old, who would later repeat the story decades later to his son-in-law. The son-in-law had mistakenly understood the story was about an ancestor of the Gilbreath family. Old tales passed through generations are fascinating, but genealogists are cautioned about the pitfalls of draping these legends on the branches of a family tree. Details can become altered by embellishment or memory gaps of the storyteller. Then others may have actually originated with friends or neighbors—or in the case presented here—a published account.

The story of the axe-wielding matriarch of the Merrill family, entitled “Heroic Defense,” appeared in the Stephenville Empire on 20 July 1894, as follows:

The history of the dark and bloody ground—that great tract of “Cantucky” which was sold by the Cherokees to the whites in 1775—is full of adventures and heroic deeds in which the women bore their part as bravely as the men. Coming from the older and peaceful settlements of North Carolina and Virginia most of them were at first timid and anxious in time of dangerous, but by degrees they became inured to it and grew accustomed to sleeping soundly, notwithstanding the fact that they lay down each night with no certainty that the morning would find them alive. All the horrors of border warfare and mutilated bodies, became so familiar that when in one instance a man died form natural causes the women of the settlement watched by the body all night, because [torn page; missing text] after the hacked corpses to which they were accustomed.

In the year 1788 among the pioneers in this new territory was a hardy frontiersman named John Merrill; he had staked off a claim on Sandy creek, in Nelson county, near what was then known as “New Bairdstown,” and had built a log cabin after the approved frontier fashion. He had a wife and several small children. Merrill himself was a tall, powerfully built man, and his wife was in every respect a suitable helpmate, being almost his equal helpmate, being almost his equal in size and strength, and quite so in courage.

On the night of April 1 the family had retired to rest early, as was usual in those days when books were few and lightwood knots and tallow dips furnished the only illumination. The daughter of a neighbor, a girl of 14, who lived a few miles off, had ridden over that afternoon with her father and brother and had been induced to remain for the night and share one of the “truckle beds” with the children.

The bright blaze of the fire, which the rawness of the early spring night made comfortable, had sunk down to a few smoldering embers, and it was nearing midnight when the growls of the great watch-dog outside of the door changed into a furious barking, which wakened Merrill from his sleep. Jumping up he walked over to the door, and, pulling down the bar which rested across it, looked out, heedless of the danger to which he might be exposed in doing so. Several shots were fired at him as he stood in the open doorway, and he could see a number of Indians rushing towards him; he fell, shot in the leg and arm, but before the savages could reach the door Mrs. Merrill and the young girl had rushed to it swung it together, getting the bar into place as the Indians dashed against it.

They helped the wounded man back to his bed, where he lay unable to defend himself or them in any way. The Indians meantime had lost no time in rallying, but at once assaulted the door with their tomahawks. After a short interval the stout oaken planks showed signs of giving way, and Mrs. Merrill left her groaning her husband to seize the axe which stood in one corner of the chimney. Stationing herself at one side of the door and stood determined to do battle for her own life and those of her husband and children.

The break in the door grew perceptibly larger, until it was of sufficient size to admit the head and upper part of the body of an Indian, who was forced, from the height of the opening, to stoop as he endeavored to enter; as he did so the powerful arm of Mrs. Merrell, whom he could not see, brought the keen edge of the axe down upon the back of his neck and he rolled dead upon the floor.

Another head and shoulders came through the opening, again the axe came down, and another Indian fell upon the body of his comrade. Ignorant of the fate of the others, two more savages attempted to etner, and four death bodies, the victims of Mrs. Merrill’s axe, lay pilled upon each other at one side of the partially splintered door.

The attack then ceased for a while, and the Merrills heard the remaining Indians parleying on the outside. Find that none who went in by the broken door gave any token of life, the savages concluded that the way was too dangerous to be give further trial, and they commenced exploring around the house in search of some safer place of attack. The single small window, with its one close shutter of boards was too firmly secured to prove available, but the yawning top of the great chimney, built of rough stones an daubed with clay, was more than wide enough to admit the passage of a man’s body.

With heavy hearts the Merrills became aware that some of the savages had climbed upon the roof and were commencing a descent down the chimney. Merrill rolled himself with difficulty from the feather bed on which he lay, heedless of the agony which this caused him to feel in his wounded arm and leg, and with the help of his oldest boy, who was only 7, he dragged it to the fireplace, slit it open with a knife which the boy brought him and emptied its contents on the smoldering coals. A stifling smell and smoke went up the chimney and partially pervaded the cabin; it proved so overpowering to the two Indians who were climbing down the inside of the chimney that they lost their hold and tumbled down half suffocated upon the hearth. Leaving the girl to guard the broken door Mrs. Merrell ran to the fire place. The two ill-starred Indians [missing text] downward into the stifling smoke and feathers and dispatching them also by blows from her dripping weapon.

At this juncture the seventh and last Indian stuck his head in the through the hole in the doorway to see how matters were progressing, and the cries of the girl who stood guard warned Mrs. Merrill of this new danger, and called her back to her former post. Powerful woman though she was, the unusual exertion and the death of six men, all of them killed with her own hand, now began to tell upon her strength and nervous system. The great excitement under which she labored, and the imminent danger had kept her up so far, but she was now so much exhausted that it was but an uncertain blow which she dealt upon the cheek of the last foeman. It was owing to this that he was able to extricate himself from the door, and retire form the contest. His wound proved to be not very severe, and he succeeded in making his way back to his tribe at Chillicothe. In a letter written shortly afterwards by Colonel James Perry to Rev. Jordan Dodge, dated Nelson county, Ky., April 20, 1788, it is related that this Indian upon his return that this Indian upon his return was questioned by some white men as what was the news. His reply was: “Pl[torn page] bad news: squaw fight worse than long knives.”

Merrill lived to get well and obtain a small indemnity for all he had undergone by disposing of the ornaments worn by his would-be-murderers. The bodies of the dead savages had been adorned with fine head-dresses and many silver ornaments, which were stripped from them by the neighbors before they were tossed into one common grave for burial. This “silver furniture,” as it was styled in Colonel Perry’s letter, was carried to one of the larger towns and sold for what in those days was thought a considerable sum.


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