A Hero: Fact and Legend
Heathcoate Pickett, pathfinder and river pilot,
Deserves to be called an Indiana Dan’l Boone
By Julie Le Clerc Knox
Vevay, Ind. Freelance writer
Heathcote Pickett, the first settler in Switzerland county, Indiana, was one of its most picturesque figures, as can be shown by piercing together the stories handed down from generation to generation of his relatives and neighbors.
An article in the Vevay Democrat in the 1890’s, written by a relative, told how he was taken captive by the Indians and held captive for two years.In the course of tribal wanderings, they came to Plum Creek, in present day Switzerland County.He persuaded his captors to leave him there.They helped him build his cabin, the first in the country, on a high knoll overlooking the creek and the Ohio River.The banks of the river were then heavily wooded and there was plenty of game-deer, elk, and bear, and the creek teemed with fish, all of which proved Pickett’s judgement was sound.That was in 1795, when he was about 20.
When adopted by the Indians, heavy weights were placed in his ears, which stretched them until they rested on his shoulders, the article said.
His original home is variously given as Maryland or Pennsylvania.He apparently returned to his home to get his brother, James, as there was no other way for James to learn of his whereabouts.Other members of his family and friends followed, and they were together within the present limits of York Township.
But when the French-Swiss came in 1802 and bought 2,000 acres from Congress, between Hunt’s Creek and Indian Creek, these earlier settlers were obliged to leave and go farther from the river.This often happened in earlier times; Daniel Boone and others suffered the same hardship in Kentucky, and many others had undergone privation and spent much labor to reclaim the region from the wilderness, not only had to move, but received no recompense.
Evidently, this did not discourage such a dauntless soul as Heathcoate Pickett, for by no stretch of the imagination could he be called a homebody.He loved adventure, and wandered far afield.
His outstanding achievement was making many voyages to New Orleans with farm produce, thus developing agricultural interests by establishing a regular market.
He built the first flatboat in the county and piloted it south; it was known as “the Orleans” boat.Flatboats are said to have originated in the Ohio Valley.The sawed lumber of which they were built was very valuable in the South and was usually sold as well as the freight.
Piloting a flatboat to New Orleans in those days was a difficult undertaking.The Ohio and Mississippi were full of snags, sandbars, lodged trees, and rocky cascades.There were no land guides or signal lights or channel charts;Heathcote could not have read them if there had been, as he could neither read nor write.He used “X, his mark” as his signature.But what did it matter when there so many more necessary things at that time that he was master of?
He is accredited with more trips to New Orleans, piloting his own boat, than any other person-33 in all.What is more remarkable, 26 times he walked the 1700 miles home through forest and swamp over the Tennessee Trail.The other times he worked his way back by pushing a keel boat or as a deck hand on steamers, bringing in wood for stoking the engine fires
Four to eight weeks were necessary to make New Orleans with good luck.Usually they tied up at night along the riverbank.Under the best of conditions, the voyage was full of peril and many did not survive.There were dangersnot only from river and wilderness but also from Indians and piratesalong the banks.Cave-In-Rock in Illinois was for years the hideout for notorious pirates, and it is said at least a hundred persons fell victims to the brigands lurking there.
Even in New Orleans there was no safety.Boatmen often were set upon by thugs in the waterfront dives and taverns, lying in wait to rob and murder these men with money-laden belts.There were no banks, and Pickett had not only his own money to protect, but also that of the others who had entrusted their money to him on these expeditions.His integrity was unquestioned.But this was only half the peril.There was the return through Indian country, which took from 57 to 60 days of steady walking.That he made so many successful trips proves his ability as a woodsman.He apparently had nothing to fear from the Indians, which seems to prove he had lived among them.His ears were probably his passports to safety.He knew Indian languages, smoked the peace pipe with them.Of a jovial temperament, he was an Indian diplomat, known among them as the brave with the big laugh.During the war of 1812, he was often warned of danger by his red friends.
Because he knew the woods so well, he was employed by U.S. surveyors in laying out township lines.Many old paths are now state highways in York and Posey Townships.
A mighty hunter, daring river pilot and gallant frontiersman, he could not have been much of a farmer as he was often away from home for months and years at a time.No more was he a successful family man.
He married Sallie Drake in 1802, but was absent from home for long stretches, leaving her unprovided for.In 1812, he left her for two years, and again later, taking all their furniture, leaving her dependant on friends.In 1816, the long-suffering Sally procured a divorce.She was allowed the care and maintenance of their daughter, Elizabeth, and $25 dollars per year alimony for three years.They also had a son, Benjamin, born in 1804.It was Benjamin who provided for his father in old age, and his stepmother, for in 1820, Heathcote married a Mary Henry.Benjamin bought them a home at Pickett’s Corner, named in Heathcote’s honor, where he probably spent his remaining years.
What became of Sallie is not recorded.
The date Pickett died is not definitely known, and no one seems to know where he is buried.Some say it is in Lee County, others say on a farm near Mount Sterling.
The last vestiges of his cabin on Plum Creek were swept away by flood many years ago.
The achievements of this Daniel Boone of Switzerland County are matched by the legend of his family background, which is so interesting it deserves mentioning though it may not be authentic.
The story is that Heathcote’s family roots go back to England and farther still to Spain, where a certain Don Jaime Piquett went to England and there married a Lady Mary Heathcote of Heathcote, Derbyshire, England.Her father requested that the eldest branch of his family be named Heathcote.The Don and his Lady came to America.
In 1840, a lawyer from the east sought out Heathcote, saying a title to an English estate could be his if he’d go to England and establish his claim.As he had no money for this trip, his great nephew, Nathan Walden, offered to sponsor the undertaking if he would divide the money with his family.Pickett refused.He probably realized he could not qualify socially for the position his birth entitled him to.He apparently loved the free life of the backwoodsman more than rank and gold, and the offer had no appeal to him, so the armorial coat of arms of his distaff family was lost to him.
Pickett is described by one who remembered him as being of ordinary stature with black hair and eyes and freckled face.He was always dressed as a backwoodsman in buckskin shirt, and breeches, and moccasins.His ears were his most outstanding features.
This fearless, daring old pioneer doubtless had his shortcomings, yet he performed a great service to his county by blazing trails and by his boat feats which opened new markets for farmers.
Russell Pickett, a teller at the Vevay Deposit Bank, has the powder horn of Heathcote Pickett, but does not claim to be a descendant.