Rick Allen lit a cigarette, pushed back in his chair and looked out over Fishing Worm Ridge. He seemed to be looking across two hundred years.
“Don’t be scared. No need to hide your children,” he said, reciting his lines from memory. “I won’t be here long. I’m just here to pick up a few supplies, and then I’ll be on my way. I wouldn’t want to disturb you ‘civilized’ folks.
“My name is George Ash, but folks around here call me ‘Injun George.’ I run the ferry across the Ohio, just opposite the mouth of the Kentucky River. People ride my boat all the time, but most have little to say to me.”
Rick Allen isn’t really George Ash, of course, but he has dressed up like a Native American, and has performed locally several times as George Ash, one of Switzerland County’s most colorful frontier figures.
According to the 1885 History of Switzerland County, “George Ash, the celebrated “white Indian,” was one of the first settlers of Craig Township — locating here as early as 1810, perhaps. He was captured by the Indians when a boy and remained with them till grown to twenty-five or thirty years of age. He was given a tract of land opposite Carrollton, Kentucky, and here he located about 1810 and resided till his death at an advanced age.”
Talking about “Injun George” and his own life, Rick Allen blended his personal story into the monologue he did in performances of the Plum Creek Anthology, a play about the history of Switzerland County, written by Kevin Stonerock.
Gam and Jonas Cattell: “All stories begin with something.”
“All stories begin with something,” Rick Allen said. “Mine began with divine providence and the mysteries of the universe.”
Rick has been living on Fishing Worm Ridge for fifteen years, but the story he told is centuries old.
“All my ancestry goes back to New Jersey,” he said, “back to Jonas Cattell.”
Quoting from a summary of Cattell’s life on the family website, Rick described one of his family’s most prominent personalities: “Fleet of foot with a keen eye. A man who was one with his surroundings and lived with the land rather than just on it. A great story teller, family man and adventurer. He probably knew every backroad and deer path in South Jersey. A blacksmith, carpenter, hunter, fisher, farmer, I am sure he did whatever it would take to survive. He walked everywhere that he went even while fox hunting. He found horses to be too cumbersome for getting through the brush.”
Rick Allen learned about Jonas mostly from stories his grandmother told him as a child.
“Gam — as everyone used to call my grandmother (whose full name was Meretta Gibson Cattell) — always talked of Jonas Cattell. Oh, the stories she would tell!”
One of Rick’s favorite stories was about Jonas.
“He was her great great great grandfather, and this is what happened….”
Again, Rick Allen recited practically word-for-word from the family Revolutionary War history:
“Jonas Cattell was half Leni Lenape (Delaware) Indian, and during the Revolutionary War was chosen, because of his vast knowledge of the trails and short cuts of South Jersey, to warn the soldiers of Fort Mercer at Red Bank that over 1,200 Hessian soldiers were approaching to take over the fort. He is said to have run over 10 miles from Haddonfield, New Jersey to Red Bank Battlefield in National Park, and arrived in plenty of time for the soldiers to prepare for the attack. Because of his speed of foot, the American soldiers were able to defeat the Hessian troops, leaving over 500 casualties while only sustaining 14 losses and 23 wounded.”
“That story that Gam told,” Rick Allen said, “was the beginning of my interest in Indian stuff. I, in turn, am sort of one of the ones who glean that kind of information and pass it onto folks.”
“Everybody has a link to wherever they’re at.”
But how did a New Jersey native end up as Craig Township’s George Ash?
Rick Allen explained: “Everybody has a link to wherever they’re at. Some people choose to live wherever they live. We chose to live here.”
Why that happened was another story.
“Some friends of ours had moved out here in 1973, Steve and Barbara Wood.”
That was a story in itself. Rick Allen told how when he was younger, “If you lived in Jersey, you vacationed in the Florida Everglades.”
Steve Wood knew all the off-the-road locations in the Everglades, and he met some “Indiana hippies who wanted to know the best places to go.” Steve shared what he knew, and they in turn invited him to visit the goat farm they had in Ohio County.
“Steve came back and made the report it was beautiful country and that he was moving out and wouldn’t be coming back,” Rick Allen remembered.
“And we had to come out to visit him, of course, and it was everything he said it was and more.
“Then the casinos came to Atlantic City, and within five years the march of development was all around us, rapid increase in property taxes and demand for services. One day, after putting up with all this, I came home and announced I wasn’t going to die in New Jersey.
“My wife said ‘no’ about moving to Wyoming — I’d always loved that country. So I said, ‘How about Switzerland County?’ She said ‘sure’ to that.”
So with their three girls: Tehya who was 13; Nina, 14; and Sara, 6. They came to Craig Township (the township in which George Ash had settled) to an unfinished frame cabin on a fourth of an acre. They have been working on the house ever since, and have “picked up the other 20 acres” that surrounds them.
“We made the transition easily,” Rick Allen said, “because the kids already had friends here because they’d been here so often with us visiting the Woods.”
“What a community this is!”
But that is still only part of the story. What about divine providence and the mysteries of the universe?
Rick Allen smiled and shook his head: “Divine providence!” he exclaimed. “What a community this is!”
They had left their extended families back in New Jersey, but once they arrived in Craig Township, “family just appeared.”
Soon he and his wife began to find resemblances between the people they met here in Switzerland County and people in the East.
“And we said, why here’s someone who looks like so-and-so,” and coincidences like that kept happening.
They forged close ties to the members of their church, the Spring Branch Baptist Church.
“Church family became a surrogate family as caring as blood family, maybe more so,” Rick Allen said.
And one thing led to another. He discovered intriguing connections between his Native American background, the stories his grandmother told him and the history of his adopted Switzerland County.
“With all the info my grandmother gave me, I had gotten into reenactments back in New Jersey and even did a few things here when we got here.
“Then the Plum Creek Anthology came out,” he said. “The part of George Ash was originally slated for another fellow. But it didn’t work out that way, and I got the part.
“I have all the clothes, and I’ve done research and have tried to get them as accurate as possible.”
Then more pieces of the puzzle began to fit together, more of the pieces of what Rick Allen called “divine providence and the mysteries of the universe.”
“Doing George Ash was like, ‘Wow — I can relate to this!’ My dad always called me George, it was a nickname.”
And there were other strange coincidences in both his and Ash’s family that made Rick feel his connection to Ash and southern Indiana came from more than just chance.
“We’re all stuck here in this material universe ruled by time and stuff,” he said, “but does time really exist?”
“The Indians, they seemed to come from nowhere.”
Time seemed to slip away as he spoke. The sun was bright and hot that early April afternoon. Rick Allen leaned back and looked out over Fishing Worm Ridge. Then he continued the narrative of George Ash that he had memorized years before:
“My father, John Ash was a soldier in Clark’s army. He fought in the Vincennes and Kaskaskia campaigns. I was jut a child when he and my mother settled near Bardstown. One day — I must have been about seven at the time, my mother, father and several others left the settlement, heading for the Falls of the Ohio to pick up supplies. My sister and I were left in the care of a neighbor. The Indians, they seemed to come from nowhere. When the woman who was keep us heard screams, she hid the two of us in an empty flour barrel, hoping that we would escape capture. But my sister began to cry and we were discovered. I recall looking into the face of an angry Shawnee warrior as I was pulled from my hiding place.
“We were marched north. Before we reached the Ohio, my sister began to cry again. The Shawnee silenced her…with a tomahawk. Others could not keep the pace…they too were killed. But I was strong. I would not let my captors see my fear.
“When we reached Shawnee country, the people from my settlement were separated and sent to several Indian towns. I was treated harshly at first, watched closely. I was called ‘White Dog’. I was an outsider, the enemy, a white man’s son. But after several moons, as I lost hope of ever seeing my mother and father again, I began to forget my white ways.
“After some time, I was adopted into a Shawnee family to replace one of their sons who had been lost in battle. I was treated with love and kindness by my Shawnee mother and father, taught to think and act like a Shawnee.
“As I grew into manhood, I was allowed to accompany the warriors on raids across the Ohio. More than once I dressed in white man’s clothing and pretended to be an escaped captive in order to lure the flatboats to the shore where my Shawnee brothers were lying in ambush. More than once, I wielded the scalping knife myself. For these acts, I am hated by many. But you must understand. I spent seventeen summers with the Shawnee people. I AM Shawnee! “
— Bill Felker
Next week: more on the life of George Ash, one of the most colorful characters in Switzerland County history.