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The Shanks Family Massacre

A True Tale from Kentucky History

The Shanks Family Massacre (March 22, 1788) is one of early Kentucky settlers’ bloodiest and most horrific tales. For this reason, and because sensational stories are always in demand, the story became the kernel of truth behind many a “dime novel” story. But unfortunately, the story of the Shanks family has been told and retold, embellished, and changed to the point where the original account was nearly lost.

Dr. Thurman Brooks Rice M.D. had grown up hearing the tale from his grandmother, Rhoda Collins Johnson. While he believed her story, he could find little real supporting documentation. Moreover, the tale his grandmother told seemed eerily similar to several different stories told by other researchers, using different family names and varying in many details. Finally, around 1950 he expended a great deal of time and energy, not to mention his own money, researching the story. Unfortunately, he died on December 27, 1952, at age 64, and his manuscript languished unpublished.

While researching my own family history, I came across the story of the massacre, and thanks to a cousin, found Dr. Rice's research where his notes had been contributed to the Kentucky Historical Society. What follows is a condensed version of the tale as it relates to my own family. If the reader is interested in the unabridged story, contact the author for further information.

Christian Shanks and his wife Catherine Becker crossed the Cumberland Gap to settle in Bourbon County Ky in the late 1700s, well ahead of most of our family. Their daughter Betsy Shanks married Daniel Gillespie, and they birthed an infant. Then Daniel and father-in-law Christian were sadly killed by Indians, precise date unknown, about 1786 or 87, as Betsy was freshly widowed and caring for a babe-in-arms on March 22, 1788, at the time of our story. As our story opens, the local Indians are beginning to embark on a pattern of renewed hostility, as indicated by the earlier deaths of Christian and Daniel. There was a lot of fear on the part of the settlers.


That evening, Michael, the oldest son, had been roused by odd noises and was concerned and debating on waking his sleeping brother when there was a knock at the door. The time was around 11 PM, and most of the household was abed, save three daughters who were at the loom in the attached loom house, a shed where the loom and its paraphernalia were kept. A voice called out, apparently in good English, “Who Keeps House?” Michael was concerned but was about to open the door when his mother realized the visitors were Indians. There were nine people inside, and those doing the knocking were, in fact, hostile Indians, demanding access to the home for unspecified but presumably unsavory reasons.


The widow Shanks and her children (and grandchild) defended themselves unsuccessfully. The girls killed at least one Indian (some accounts say two) in the loom house with a knife used on the loom. The house was burned, five Shanks family members were killed, four at the scene as they tried to escape the fire, and one daughter was kidnapped and later killed. The oldest son Michael, plus Betsy and her baby survived. Michael’s younger brother died helping Betsy and the infant escape. Michael left some later tracks in Bourbon County, Betsy later remarried William Jones, and we have a record of her death in 1818 in Warren County. She and William had five children, but the fate of the baby she saved from the Indians is unknown.


The final survivor was Susannah Shanks, age 14, who was found in the woods some three days later, where she had fled in terror and hid. Found by Robert Clark, she went to live with his family and was adopted by them, or at least took the surname Clark according to Dr. Rice, after those horrific days.


Susannah later married William Rice. The actual marriage date is unclear. Dr. Rice claims it was the following year, in January 1789. If so, she was relatively young, although young brides were not uncommon. We found two different marriage records, Susannah Shanks married William Rice in January 1789, and Susannah Clark married William Rice on Nov 11, 1793.


Since Susannah was only fourteen at the time of the massacre and Dr. Rice documents she took the name Clark after the killings, we tend to prefer the later date as it better fits the overall tale. We suspect there may have been another Shanks family in the area to account for the duplicate records, and as yet, we have not unraveled that piece of the mystery. In any case, whichever date one prefers, Susannah married William Rice; that much is certain.


They moved to Sherburne, some forty miles from the site of the massacre. Various researchers credit them with varying numbers of children, some as many as seven. We know what became of two children: (1) Sarah Rice, born about 1799, and (2) William J. Rice, born about 1808. William married Rhoda Collins Johnson, and they had many children, including Robert Tilton Rice (1857-1923), the father of Dr. Thurman Rice. Dr. Rice’s mother was Ruth Porter, sister to Thomas Leonard Porter, whom my grandfather, Joseph Hampton Gregory, lived with and worked for as a young man, and whom I suspect is the source of my middle name.


Sarah Rice married William Tribby on May 20, 1822. Sarah and William had six children. Among them was Sarah Tribby, born about 1833 and married Nathaniel Gregory in 1856, becoming my Great Grandmother. Thus Susannah Shanks was my third Great Grandmother. Sarah and Nathaniel’s son Joseph lived with and worked for Thomas Porter and named his son, my father, Nathan Thomas Gregory, combining the names of his father Nathaniel and his good friend Thomas Porter.

In another interesting bit of serendipity, Nathaniel and Sarah named their last child, born in 1872, Rhoda Gregory. While we do not definitely know the origin of the name Rhoda, we very strongly suspect Sarah named the child to honor her aunt, Rhoda Collins Johnson, who was living nearby in Sherburne.

One final possible link, although one that seems even more tenuous, is that my Grandfather Joseph had a brother also living nearby. This Great Uncle of mine, Jefferson P. Gregory, had a daughter born in 1887, very close to the time when Robert Tilton Rice married Ruth Porter. We know the Gregory family and the Porter family were close and suspect it likely that this daughter born in 1887 was named Ruth, as a namesake of Ruth Porter.

Note: This story appeared in the October 2012 issue of Kentucky Explorer Magazine

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