“The Stolen Boy” is a fascinating story that has been handed down through my family. The main character’s name is never revealed, but there are several details in the story that prove it describes the life of my 3X great-grandfather, Ambrose Bowen Epperson. I am almost certain that Ambrose is also the author of the story, although the evidence for that conclusion is a bit more circumstantial. I will be devoting a series of blog posts to a historical and genealogical analysis of the story. The text of the story will be shared exactly as I received it, including all misspellings and grammatical errors.
So the friend Bill did all the planning again as follows: Bill was to take his horse and Nay was to ride behind him because his horse was the stoutest and that would save S’s pony. They were to take a by-road through the Mutton Creek Swamp to Dunn’s Tavern and stay there all night, then Nay and his brother S could go on supposing that the brother J would not get any more than to Bill’s Father’s that night – which was the case. About half way between sundown and dark, the three started for the Mutton Creek Swamps, a distance of about eight miles through mud and water. The state road ran a round the swamps, which made the distance ten or twelve miles to Dunn’s tavern. On reaching the tavern about twelve o’clock, Bill inquired if any one had stopped there since dark.
The answer was, “No.”
“Now says Bill, “I have accomplished my purpose.”
The next morning was clear and beautiful. It was agreed that Bill was to return home and the brother S and Nay were to start on their long journey both on one pony. They bid each other a long and hearty farewell. The first town on the road was Vernon on the Mascatatack where the brother bought a suit of summer clothes. The little fellow hardly knew himself and being used [sic] to towns he was somewhat embarrassed. The two brothers were soon on their journey again, sometimes both riding, sometimes both walking and sometimes they would one ride, for by doing so they saved the pony. Thus they traveled on, crossing the Ohio River at Madison, made their way to Christiansburgh, Shelby County, Kentucky where their two oldest sisters lived or in that neighborhood. They rested there about two days and started on their journey again, made their way to the town of H where the brother S lived and where Nay saw the other brother who was conducting the business fro the brother S while he was gone. After a few weeks they heard from the brother J through their friend Bill.
Now let us go back to their brother J. As soon as the three got out of sight of this neighbor, Smyth, sent one of his boys up to tell the brother J that Nay was gone. The brother J got on their track and followed to where they got in the canoe. He was satisfied that they were not very far ahead of him so he pushed on down the river to opposite the old boat yard, swimming several slews on the way. When he got there everybody was gone and the nearest house was where the man lived that had the nickname who heard the brother J hollow and went down and set him over. The brother J got to this friend Bill’s Father’s about dark learning that his brother S and Nay were gone piloted by their friend Bill. He gave up the chase and stayed there until the next day when Bill returned. When they met they had few hard words but Bill’s Father being a good man and a friend to everybody soon got them on friendly terms again.
Then the brother J said, “Bill, what was your motive in assisting in stealing Nay?”
“Well,” says Bill, “It was not that I had anything against you but I well knew that you have had bad luck and a great deal of sickness and were not able to take care of your own family as you wish to and under the existing circumstances you would not be willing to give the boy up of you could help yourself and ;your brother S had just started in life got a good trade too, single ;young, stout, and hearty and I thought he ought to take care of him.
“Well, says the brother J, “I reckon it is all for the best.” So that evening he returned home with a sad heart and when the children learned that Nay was gone clear off to Kentucky, they had a hearty cry.
On the Road
When the group realized that John was following them, Bill came up with a new plan. They would head for Dunn’s Tavern on a “by-way through the Mutton Creek Swamp”. The story gets a bit confusing at this point, but if I am interpreting it correctly, it was about eight miles from Bill’s father’s house to Dunn’s Tavern by the swamp route (tentatively marked in red on my annotated map). I don’t know the location of Bill’s father’s house, but it was previously described as being three miles from the old boathouse.
Old newspaper accounts indicate that Mutton Creek was subject to frequent flooding. If the White River was “bank full and rising” as is mentioned earlier in the story, the Mutton Creek area was probably very wet and swamp-like. The current wetlands associated with Mutton Creek (the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge) are a few miles south of the group’s presumed route. The size of the “swamp” may have been reduced when numerous drainage ditches were dug in the area in the early 20th century.
Apparently, the route through the swamp was chosen because it was a significantly shorter than taking the main roads. The story says “the state road ran round the swamps, which made the distance ten or twelve miles to Dunn’s tavern.” I think this is meant to be a comparison to the eight-mile distance via the swamp. A map from this time period shows a road (drawn in purple on my annotated map) running between Brownstown and Brookville. This road would have passed near the area where the group was traveling and had been a “state road” before the capital was moved to Indianapolis in 1825, although it no longer held that official status. A few miles to the northeast, this road intersected with the Madison State Road, an actual “state road” connecting Madison and Indianapolis. The intersection of these two roads was located several miles northwest of Vernon. If Dunn’s tavern was located along the Madison State Road, closer to Vernon, then travelling cross-country would have provided a shorter, albeit muddier route. I imagine the three travellers were in desperate need of a bath when they arrived at their destination!
I was hoping to learn more about Dunn’s Tavern, but I have not found any references to an establishment by that name. Taverns in those days were primarily a stopping point for travelers, serving as both inns and restaurants. Most taverns also served alcohol. The accommodations at Dunn’s Tavern were probably quite basic, but our travellers were likely not accustomed to luxury.
After Bill returned home, Squire and Ambrose continued on their journey. Their route, by modern roads, is shown on the map below to give some idea of the extent of their travels. The first town they passed through was Vernon, then and now the county seat of Jennings County, Indiana. (Although North Vernon is now a much larger town than Vernon, it did not exist until the 1850s.) The next town mentioned in the story is Madison, Indiana, suggesting that the brothers remained on the Madison State Road. At Madison, they crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky, probably by ferry boat. The first destination mentioned in Kentucky is Christianburg, where they visited their two oldest sisters, Permelia Langley Epperson and Emily Epperson, who were then about 17 and 15, respectively. The Eppersons had lived near Christianburg before they moved to Indiana, so the sisters probably lived with relatives there. The brothers’ final destination was “the town of H”, where Squire lived. There Ambrose got to see his brother James Harvey Epperson, who had been managing Squire’s business during his absence. “H” was probably Harrodsburg, the county seat of Mercer County, which is located about 35 miles south of Frankfort. The following year, Squire obtained a marriage license in Mercer County and online family trees indicate that his oldest daughter was born at Harrodsburg.
Ambrose had travelled about 125 miles to his new home, but he had entered a different world. At the start of the journey, even being in a town was a novel experience for him. Now he would live in in a town, with a brother he barely knew. He must have had very mixed feelings of sadness, fear and excitement about leaving the life he knew behind and starting a new adventure.
Inns And Taverns In The Midwest:Typical Functions, Forms And Layouts
Kentucky, County Marriages, 1797-1954 FamilySearch.org
Ancestry.com Pubic Member Trees
Teresa is the the owner of KinSeeker Genealogy Services. She has a Ph.D. in Biology and a lifelong fascination with genealogy. She been researching her own family history for over 20 years and loves helping others "find their stories."
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