Robert Benge, also called “Chief Benge,” was a notorious enemy of the settlers in Southwestern Virginia and surrounding areas. He remains an enigmatic figure today and conflicting accounts of his life continue to raise more questions than provide any answers. While know for brutality and even cannibalism, in one instance, this strange figure was also recorded as having a sense of honor.
Writers of the era cited Benge for having remarkable strength and endurance. He was a fast runner who was stealthy and couldn’t be tracked. He was known for his physical size as well as attractiveness.
It is believed Benge was born sometime around 1760, in the Cherokee Village of Toquo. This was on the Little Tennessee River in Southeastern Tennessee. Benge’s use of a double-identity made him one of the deadliest and most proficient raiders known. While raised as a Cherokee, Benge had an Irish father named John Benge, and from all physical appearance looked just like a red-headed European settler. His fluent grasp of English also aided him in his mission.
He was said to have held an above-average intelligence, which is no real surprise as historians suggest that his half-brother was the Cherokee intellect Sequoyah. Sequoyah devised the very first Cherokee alphabet.
One of the first accounts of Benge’s brutality was attacking the Scott Family in Lee County, Virginia. In June of 1785, a group of 13 natives broke down their cabin door during the night. The patriarch of the family, Archibald, was shot and killed. Their four children were tomahawked and scalped. For some reason, Fannie, Archibald’s wife, was spared and carried away with them. It was all for naught as the group left her with an elder to steal horses days later and she escaped.
In 1791, Benge sets his eyes on Southwestern Virginia and begins to raid the homesteaders there. Five other natives join him in his quest. In Russell County, two white men were killed while a boy and a woman were captured in an August raid.
The Elisha Ferris house was hit next a few days later. Four whites were killed, Mrs. Ferris, her daughter Mrs. Livingston, a small child and Nancy Ferris, Elisha’s 19-year-old daughter were taken. All, but Nancy, were viciously murdered within 1 day of captivity.
In January of 1793, another ambush was made at a spring on the road between Nashville and Kentucky. Two men, known as Mr. Burnett and Captain Overall, were carrying supplies for the settlers. Both men were killed and scalped, but this time, the native group actually consumed them. Benge took part in the cannibalism.
The raids continued, Benge even got into the slave trade by stealing settlers slaves and selling them elsewhere. However, the fighting came to an end on April 29, 1794. A Lieutenant Hobbs shot Benge and sent his scalp to the Governor of Virginia and requested a gun for the feat. The General Assembly of Virginia sent him a silver-mounted rifle.
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