County Named for Indian Fighter
Col. Abraham Owen
Information traveled slowly in the early 1800's. The Kentucky legislature was about to go into session as word arrived that a former member and military hero fallen into battle while at his favorite pursuit of fighting Indians at Tippecanoe, Indiana. The legislature went into official mourning.
They awaited their chance to properly honor the fallen hero's name and it came several years later: Frankfort General Assembly of Kentucky: BE IT ENACTED...THAT OUT OF THE COUNTIES OF Franklin, Scott, Gallatin, and Pendleton...Shall from and after the first day of April next constitute a distinct county to be called and known by the name of Owen in honor of Col. Abraham Owen...who was killed at the battle of Tippecanoe in the fall of 1811....approved February 6, 1819. Collin's History of Kentucky has provided the following account:
Abraham Owen was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1769. His father, Brackett Owen, went from Prince Edward to Jefferson County in 1782. There he established Owen's Station, a small frontier fort used during the latter part of the Revolutionary War for protection against the Indians. Owen's Station was located about four miles from the present day Shelbyville.
Allies of the British continued to harass frontier settlements even though the war was virtually over. Brackett Owen is referred to as "Col. Owen" in various accounts of that period but no commission has been found. His part in the Revolutionary War is recognized by both the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution.
At the age of 16, young Abraham joined his father in Kentucky in 1785. In 1790, he married Martha daughter of Bartholomew and Mary Motly Dupuy. In 1791, Abraham Owen accompanied Col. John Hardin and Col. James Wilkerson in their campaigns against the Northwest Indians, in what is now northern Ohio and Indiana. Later that year, Owen accompanied Gen. Arthur St. Clair, who marched with 1400 men against Indians led by Chief Little Turtle.
St. Clair's force was surprised by a sudden Indian attack at dawn November 4 1791. Nine hundred whites were killed or wounded in that vicious slaughter which is known in history by the amazingly simple title "St. Clair's Defeat." Abraham Owen, a lieutenant in Capt. Lemon's company in that campaign, was wounded in the face and arm. He retreated with other beaten survivors to Fort Washington (now Cincinnati). There he met a newly commissioned army ensign just reporting for his first assignment William Henry Harrison, later to be a major general and ninth president of the United States. Twenty years later after this meeting, Harrison and Owen would face together the threat of another Indian surprise attack.
Owen was in the expedition led by Col. Hardin to White River and participated in the action which routed the Indians in their hunting camps. His brother, John James Ballard, and others of Shelby County, were his associates on this occasion. It is not known that he was in Wayne's campaign. He commanded the first militia company raised in the county, and the humane efforts of Col. Owen to provide for the wants and promote the comforts of his associates were illustrative of his general good character. Owen was soon promoted to the rank of major and then colonel of the regiment.
Abraham Owen returned to his home where the wounds slowly healed. When Kentucky became a state and Shelby County was created, its organizational meeting was held at Brackett Owen's home in October of 1792. A nearby site was chosen and Abraham Owen helped lay out the new town of Shelbyville. He served as town trustee and magistrate and as Shelby County surveyor.
Col. Owen was soon after elected to the legislature by the largest vote ever before polled in the county. In 1799 he was chosen a member of the convention which framed the second Kentucky constitution. No man in the county had a stronger hold on the affections of people whom he was always ready to serve in peace or war. In battle he was fearless - as a citizen, mild and gentlemanly. He was esteemed an excellent officer on parade and possessed a high order of military talent. He was promoted to major in 1804, and commandant of the 18th regiment of the Kentucky militia in 1808.
In 1811 the storm clouds of another war gathered due to the discontent of the Indians under their great leader Tecumseh a one - eyed Shawnee known as "The Prophet." In addition to Shawnees gathered with him were the Miamis, Pottawattamies, Chippewas, Kickapoos, Winnebagos, Ottowas, Wyandottes, and Sacs.
The popular Harrison, now a captain in the army and governor of the Indian territory, "his voice stirring the people like a bugle," called for volunteers, which call was met by a prompt and ample response. Old Indian fighters like Abraham Owen and others instantly started for the field. He left Kentucky with Capt. Frederick Geiger's company. At the mouth of the Vermillion River these sixty Kentuckians joined the main army. Gen. Harrison, in writing to the war Department said: "Col. Abraham Owen, commandant of the 18th Kentucky regiment, joined me a few days before the action. He accepted the appointment of volunteer aid-de-camp to me..."
The army including one regiment of regular militia and volunteers from Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, numbered over 900. They marched up the Wabash to within a few miles of the junction of that stream with the Tippecanoe, near which point was located the Indian settlement known as the Prophet's Town. Harrison had orders to deal with the Indians without fighting if possible so when he reached the Prophet's Town on Nov. 6, he tried to parley with the Indians. Nothing was accomplished, but the Indians agreed to renew the parley the next day. Harrison's force went into camp a mile west of the Indian camp, on an area of high ground beside a creek.
While encamped here, a Black bullock driver apparently deserted and then reappeared within the lines under mysterious circumstances. A brumhead court-martial was held and the sentence was death. Gen. Harrison to Gen. Scott in a letter concerning this wrote: "But when he was first taken Gen. Walls and Col. Owen who were old Indian fighters and as we had no iron to put on him, had secured him after the Indian fashion. This is done by throwing a person on his back, splitting a log and cutting notches in it to receive the ankles then replacing the several parts and compressing them together with forks driven over the logs into the ground. The arms are extended and tied to stakes secured in the same manner. The situation of a person thus placed is about as uneasy as can possible be conceived...." Gen. Harrison shortly thereafter changed the sentence and freed the accused.
The Indian's preparations for the battle included chewing on their bullets so that the wounds inflicted might be more lacerating. This may have accounted for the high mortality among the Americans struck. The frontiersmen on the day of battle had no food save boiled horse meat The encampment on the night of November 6 1811 was in the form of a rectangle. Great fires in the center threw the men into silhouette once they arose.
As the attack commenced, Gen. Harrison mounted a bay horse and Col. Owen mounted a white horse and both rode toward the heaviest firing. The Indians had seen Gen. Harrison riding a white horse the previous day and thus concentrated their fire on the rider approaching on a white horse in the darkness. Col. Owen fell dead from his saddle.
Gen. Harrison received a shot through his hat but otherwise went through the battle untouched. He skillfully shifted his troops to meet each separate attack the Indians made and repulsed them all. At daylight, Harrison's troops counterattacked and dispersed the Indians. They then built breastworks and waited for another Indian attack which never came.
The Indians later returned to the battle site and dug up the bodies of the whites and scalped them. The bodies were left scattered and years later the bones were gathered and required in a central grave. They now rest peacefully under the battlefield which has become a beautiful state park near the present Lafayette Indiana. A large monument tells the story of the battle and lists the dead. A few feet away a simple stone tablet marks the spot where Col. Owen fell at the site of the first attack.
Tippecanoe was overshadowed in history by the soon to follow War of 1812 and by later larger battles but it must rank as one of the most decisive American engagements. Had the Garrison army failed at Tippencanoe, there was not another organized American military force in the Northwest territory to deal with the Indians.
Col. Owen's experience with St. Clair in 1791 doubtless had a strong influence on Harrison's measures at Tippecanoe and Owen's role in gaining the victory was recognized despite his death early in the battle. Col. Abraham Owen left a large family to unite his country in deploring his premature fall. His daughters intermarried with the most respectable citizens of Henry County and his son Clark became a distinguished citizen of Texas having won high rank in her civil and military annals. His brothers, Robert and William, were also highly respectable citizens of Shelby County. His father was an early settler of high standing and marked character.
"His fort near Shelbyville was the resort of intrepid families of that day and may be said to have been the flourishing county of Shelby. The chivalric patriotism of Col. Owen in leaving a position of ease and civil distinction at home, to volunteer his services against the northwestern savages is truly illustrative of the Kentucky character. After ages we will look back upon the deeds of heroism at Tippecanoe with the very same veneration with which the present generation regards the memory of those who fought and fell at Thermopylae."