C. Frank Dunn, a Lexington historian, was the executive secretary of the Kentucky Progress Commission and the founding editor of the KENTUCKY PROGRESS MAGAZINE, later called IN KENTUCKY. He also did work for the Lexington and Frankfort Chambers of Commerce, the Daniel Boone Bicentennial Commission, and AAA automobile club. He served on the editorial staff of the Lexington Herald, using the pen name “Horsefeathers.”
CAPTAIN NATHANIEL G. S. HART
By C. Frank Dunn (1780-1954)
A marker–the first of its kind in the United States—was unveiled in Hart County, Kentucky, February 25, 1949, memorializing Capt. N. G. “T.” Hart, Kentuckian murdered by one of the British-enlisted Indians in the War of 1812.
Not only the marker but the publicity concerning it, issued by the United States Daughters of 1812, contained several errors about Captain Hart, so it is appropriate that an article telling more about him and with more accuracy be published for the benefit of historians, students, and particularly Kentuckians.
The erroneous initial “T” in Captain Hart’s name apparently began with Collins’ History of Kentucky, which could have been a typographical error, that seems to have been copied by nearly all historians since. The full name of the War of 1812 hero was Captain Nathaniel Gray Smith Hart.
Nathaniel G. S. Hart was the second son of Col. Thomas Hart, one of the proprietors of Col. Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company of Boonesborough fame. As a lad, he was brought to Lexington from Hagerstown, Maryland, by his parents in 1794: Colonel Hart, at 64, decided to cast his lot with “the West”–and in less than a year had established in Lexington a large rope walk (hemp factory), nail plant, and blacksmith shop with four forges. He opened large wholesale and retail stores and began shipping to New Orleans and Philadelphia on a vast scale. He and his son, Thomas Hart, Jr., continued these operations until the death of the Colonel in 1808.
Thomas Hart, Jr., in his will (made in June and probated in December, 1809), gave his “brother Nathaniel G. S. Hart, if he continues to pursue the rope making business, in which he is at present engaged, a preference in the renting of my [rope] walk and the hiring of my hands,” as well as a $3,000 loan.
Nathaniel that year had purchased a five-acre lot at the northeast corner of Limestone and Fourth streets from M. Richardson for $3,000 and set up a flourishing rope walk, which he sold to Thomas H. Pindell in 1810 for $10,000. It seems that Nathaniel did not take over his deceased brother’s hemp factory as John W. Hunt, Abraham S. Barton, and John Hart announced in the Reporter January 10, 1810, that they had “become interested with the executors of Thos. Hart, dec’d, in the rope walk belonging to the estate of the said Thos. Hart, dec’d, under the firm of Hunt & Co.” However, Nathaniel Hart bought four acres at the head of North Broadway in 1811, and there erected a rope walk and hemp warehouse, in operation at his death.
“Nat.” Hart, as he called himself and was familiarly known, became Captain at a critical time of the famous Lexington Light Infantry, organized in 1788 and prominent in the early Indian wars. Gen. James Wilkinson had been its first Captain, and his successors for two decades were seasoned veterans.
When war with the British for the second time appeared inevitable, military organizations in Kentucky were strengthened in preparation for the defense of “the West.” The draft was instituted on May 21, 1812, and on that day, “appointed for drafting the quota of men required from the 42nd regiment, it was paraded for that purpose near the Steam Mill.” After a patriotic address “by Mr. John T. Crittenden, of Russellville, the drum beat along the lines for volunteers, and we are proud to say that upwards of 100 more than the regiment’s quota turned out. Indeed, in every part of the state from which we have heard it will be unnecessary to resort to a draft.
“Capt. N. G. S. Hart, whose patriotic exertions deserve great praise, has now belonging to his company of infantry upwards of 100 of the finest looking young men we ever beheld. They are nearly all equipped and will be ready to take the field in a few days.”
Unlike the drab khaki worn by soldiers today, the apparel of that day made marksmanship easy for the enemy. “The uniform of the Lexington Light Infantry is a blue cloth coatee, cuffs, collar and breast faced with red, and having boned and white bullet buttons blue cloth pantaloons, citizen’s black hat and red plume. During the late war [of 1812] with Great Britain, this company was mustered as volunteers into the service of the U. S. to the number of 90 men, including officers, and was commanded by Capt. N. G. S. Hart, Lt. L. Comstock and Ensign James L. Heran. It was attached to the 5th Regt. of Kentucky Volunteer Militia, commanded by Col. William Lewis and marched for the North Western Army August 1812. In the battles of the Raisin on the 18th and 22nd January, 1813, it bore a conspicuous part and suffered severely in officers and men.”
“Its gallant Captain, wounded in the knee on January 22, was barbarously murdered by the savages on the 23rd, having.trusted to the protection of his old school-mate, Captain Elliott, then an officer in the British army, who infamously abandoned him to savage cruelty. Besides Captain Hart, twelve of the company were killed.”
Captain William Elliott, who had lain ill of fever for a long time at Col. Thomas Hart’s house, where Nat. Hart had cared for ‘him, assured Captain Hart and the other captured officers that he would have carryalls to transport them to Malden, but after he departed on one of the prisoner’s horses, the Indians took over and began their carnage. Captain Hart paid $600 to an Indian to take him to Amherstburg. They shortly met with a band of Indians in the vicinity and, in a fight to get the $600, Captain Hart was shot off his horse and killed by the Indian who had received the money for his protection.
The Lexington Light Infantry, to complete its record, was disbanded about 1840, but revived in 1860 and John H. Morgan became its Captain. When war between the States loomed, Captain Morgan concealed the rifles of the “Old Infantry” in two hay wagons and departed, with most of his men, for “Dixie.”
Captain Hart had notified his company to meet August 12, 1812, to go to war:
“LIGHT INFANTRY VOLUNTEERS—ATTENTION. As orders have been received for the march of the 5th Regiment of the detachment of the militia of this state to reinforce Gen. Hull in Canada–You are hereby required to attend a parade of the Company on Wednesday, the 12th inst. at 12 o’clock, completely armed and equipped for the expedition. Place of rendezvous, the public square. [Signed] NAT. G. S. HART, Capt. Lexington Light Infantry Volunteers. As the volunteers will not be relieved from duty from the time they parade, all the arrangements which they may wish to make had better be done before that time.”
Captain Hart, en route to the field of battle, drew “the last will and testament of Nat. G. S. Hart, of Lexington, Ky., made at St. Mary’s, Ohio, on October 1, 1812.”
The will was brief but all inclusive: “I give and bequeath to my wife, Anna Edwards Hart, and my children in equal shares the whole of my property. The property which has accrued to me from my wife and what is yet due her as heiress of Col. N. Gist, dec’d,” (he married Anna Edwards Gist) “being considered part of my estate.” He appointed his brother-in-law, Henry Clay; his brother, John Hart; and his wife, Anna Edwards Hart, executors and executrix.
Captain Hart was killed January 23, 1813. His remains were interred by the citizens of Detroit in 1818, but finally in 1834 were removed to State Cemetery at Frankfort.
The story of the death of his widow is one of the saddest in history. Her relatives sent her to New Orleans in 1818 in the hope that a change of scene would assuage her grief. From there she went by boat to New York, where she arrived June 1. “Her mother and sister, who accompanied her, perceived that every hope of recovery was extinguished and it was therefore concluded that she should expend her remaining strength in endeavoring to rejoin her children and friends in Lexington. With this intention, she had succeeded in reaching Philadelphia where, finding herself too feeble to travel, she was placed under the ablest medical care until the 10th of the present month, when the combined force of her disease and the oppressive heat of the weather terminated her life in the 27th year of her age.”
One of the sons, “Thomas Hart, Jr., son of the late Capt. H. G. S. Hart, of Lexington,” died in August, 1825. He never married.
Henry Hart, the other son, who married Elizabeth Brent, daughter of Hugh Brent, of Paris, Kentucky, was residing in St. Louis in the 1870’s.
No story of a prominent Kentuckian is complete without a duel, and this one is no exception. “Correspondence between Capt. N. G. S. Hart and S. E. Watson, Esq., previous to their meeting on the 7th inst.,” was published after the duel, which was fought in January, 1812, on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, at the mouth of Silver Creek (Floyd County)–the identical spot where Captain Hart’s brother-in-law, Henry Clay, came off second best in a similar affair with Humphrey Marshall three years before, almost to the day.
The correspondence began with the following letter addressed by Sam E. Watson to N. G. S. Hart, Esq., December 30, 1811:
“SIR, I have been informed that you on the 16th inst. used the epithets of ‘scoundrel’ and ‘assassin’ as applicable to me. As I am unconscious of having provoked or merited their application, I therefore request you to disavow them or, avow them. My friend, Mr. McKinley, will await your answer.”
Captain Hart immediately dispatched the answer:
“SIR, Your favor of this morning I have received by your friend, Mr. McKinley.
“On the 16th inst. I honored you with the epithets ‘Coward, Villian [sic] and Assassin.’ The history of that day, which I have examined again and again, but confirms me in the belief of your criminal and unjust conduct. In this opinion I am fortified by ‘the evidence of respectable men, by the verdict of twelve honest jurors, and by that abhorrence for your character which you have observed in every rank of life. Posted as a ‘Poltron [sic] and Coward,’ it was not believed that you would have called on me to redeem for you, your character. Educated to no religious profession, I have ever admired the mild spirit of Christian charity, and have determined to assist you in your regeneration in any fair and honorable manner.
“I shall not assume to myself the right to direct the course which you ought to pursue; suffice to say that I hold myself responsible for every action in my life, and that if you would consider yourself aggrieved by expressions which I never will retract, your friend will know where to find me, ever ready to do all men justice.”
Watson accepted the challenge in a reply the same day, December 30:
“SIR, I received your answer to my note of this morning. I will not descend to make any reply to the unwarrantable abuse it contains. My friend, Mr. McKinley, is authorized to make arrangements with your friend for a competent mode of redress.”
The “meeting” was fully described in a “Statement,” signed by the respective seconds, “J. McKINLEY, THOMAS DEYE OWINGS, Louisville, January 7, 1812”:
“STATEMENT. Agreeably to appointment, Captain Nathaniel G. S. Hart and Samuel E. Watson, Esq., met in the Indiana Territory on this day. The Pistols being loaded, the parties took their positions and fired without effect. Mr. Owings then inquired if either was wounded and being answered in the negative, remarked that the gentlemen had behaved extremely well. Mr. McKinley then observed that he hoped the thing would be at an end, and that the parties would return to a state of intimacy and friendship. Capt. Hart replied that it was impossible, and that they never would be friends, and proposed taking a second shot. Mr. McKinley then urged the propriety of proceeding no farther. Mr. Owings then told him that he acted on the defensive and awaited their pleasure. Mr. McKinley then addressed Mr. Watson, to know whether he would proceed. Mr. Watson replied that he left it with his friend to act as he thought proper. Upon which Mr. McKinley determined to drop the affair.”
Nat. Hart was a popular, as well as substantial, young man in Lexington. On the very day of the duel he was elected one of the trustees of the Lexington Library. And two years before, he had been elected one of the seven trustees of the town of Lexington. All of the others were much older men and had been recognized leaders in the community for many years. He was a Fayette County Magistrate at the time he entered the war “and was highly esteemed.”
No better selection could have been made, in the erection in Hart County, Ky., of the first of a host of markers to be erected throughout the United States to “men who rendered notable civil, military or naval service to the nation from 1784 to 1815” for whom counties were named.
- In Kentucky Magazine, Spring 1949, p. 35.
- Fayette County Court Deed Book Co. Ct. D, p. 507.
- W. A. Leavy, Kentucky Historical Society Register, July 1942, p. 268.
- Col. Thomas Hart’s letter February 15, 1795, to Governor Blount.
- Fayette County Court Deed Book Co. Ct. D, p. 427.
- Lexington Reporter, January 1, 1811, and Fayette County Court Deed Book K, p. 135.
- In the rear of the residence of Thomas Hart, Jr.–today Sayre College central building–194 North Limestone St.
- Fayette County Court Deed Book F, p. 33, and H, p. 297.
- Lexington Reporter, May 23, 1812.
- MacCabe’s 1838 Lexington directory.
- Perrin’s History of Fayette County, p. 426.
- Lexington Kentucky Statesman, August 21, 1860.
- Perrin’s History of Fayette County, p. 454.
- Lexington Reporter, August 8, 1812.
- Fayette County Court, Will Beck B, p. 465.
- Lexington Reporter, August 26, 1818.
- Lexington Reporter, September 4, 1826.
- Leavy, loc. cit., p. 263.
- Lexington Reporter, January 11, 1812.
- Col. Thomas Deye Owings, for whom Owingsville, Ky., was named.
- Lexington Reporter, January 13, 1810.
- Leavy, loc. cit., p. 283.