Note: Clifton Gorge is one of the most scenic nature preserves in the Midwest, and any season is a perfect season to venture along the trails and learn about the history that took place there.
By Jeff Louderback
Some believe it was the legendary Daniel Boone.
Others say it was the burly and seemingly mythical in stature Simon Kenton, who stood 6-foot-6.
Yet most historians agree that a young, brash Kentuckian named Cornelius Darnell accomplished the feat that appears impossible today.
It’s unclear who made that daring leap across Clifton Gorge to avoid inevitable death at the hands of the Shawnee, if anyone did at all. The legend is among the many that whisper through the deep, dark terrain of the Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve outside of the village of Clifton.
Connected to John Bryan State Park, Clifton Gorge once thrived with mills and distilleries in the mid-1850s. Before that, the area teemed with Native Americans and pioneers cautiously trekked through.
The story that led to the mystery of who jumped across the gorge originated in Kentucky in November 1778. With salt running low at Boonesboro, the adventurous Boone gathered a group of men and journeyed to the Salt Licks, south of Cincinnati. Two months later, enough salt as produced to dispatch a part of the contingent back to the village.
While the rest of the salt workers remained at the campsite, Boone embarked on a hunting expedition, and that is when trouble ensued.
“He walked past fallen tree, saw two Shawnee and ran,” said Tim Snyder, an author of historical books in Ohio who spent 22 years with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources at Clifton Gorge. “The Shawnee caught him, shook his hand and then led him to their nearby camp.”
That is where Boone met Chief Blackfish, who preceded Tecumseh as the Shawnee leader.
“Blackfish told Boone that the Shawnee were planning an attack of the remaining men at the campground,” Snyder explained. “Boone told the chief that, even though the salt workers would be outnumbered, lots of warriors would be killed.
“He persuaded Blackfish to let his men surrender with the promise that nobody would be killed or sent through the gauntlet,” Snyder added. “Being prideful Kentuckians, the men didn’t want to comply, but Boone finally convinced them to give up.”
When Boone’s crew reached the north side of the Ohio River, the Shawnee formed a gauntlet.
“Boone asked Blackfish why he was breaking their agreement, but the chief pointed out that Boone didn’t say anything about not running the gauntlet himself,” Snyder said. “So Boone ran through it, but it wasn’t a rough gauntlet. The Shawnee were just having a little fun.”
By the time Blackfish’s party reached Old Chillicothe (now Oldtown outside of Xenia), some of Boone’s men had escaped or disappeared. Blackfish admired Boone and adopted him as a son. When the chief took his prisoners to Detroit to trade with the British, he refused an offer for Boone.
Blackfish’s respect for Boone wasn’t mutual, however. He lived with the Shawnee for six months, plotting his escape the entire time.
“Since he lived with them so long, the Shawnee didn’t pay close attention to Boone. They didn’t consider him a prisoner,” Snyder said. “One night, Boone overheard the Indian Council making their plans to attack Boonesboro.
“When Boone was asked to bring the horses in, he filled the bells around their manes with grass so no sounds would be made,” Snyder added. “Boone returned and said he couldn’t find the horses. Blackfish told him not to return until they were found.”
That cleared the way for Boone’s escape. He warned Boonesboro and forced the Shawnee to postpone their attack for one year.
Darnell, who was a 16-year-old boy and a member of the salt working crew, remained a prisoner in Old Chillicothe. He is the one many historian believe eluded the Shawnee by leaping over the gorge.
“One day, when most of the warriors were hunting, Darnell stole a musket and fled,” Snyder said. “He knew that they would expect him to head south for Boonesboro, so he decided to go north and then curve back around to Kentucky.”
Apparently, Snyder explained, Darnell was not aware that the Little Miami River dropped into a gorge and there was no way to get across. The Shawnee warriors discovered the boy’s path and caught up with him at the gorge. Darnell shot and killed two warriors. Then he turned and jumped.
“He knew that, if they captured him, he would be burned at the stake, so he took his chances with the gorge,” Snyder said. “He didn’t make it all the way across, but he grabbed leaning tree branches and pulled himself to safety. The warriors saw this and thought he was protected by Gods, so they stopped their pursuit.”
Information from the Lyman Draper Collections suggest that Darnell made the jump. Late Greene County historian Fred Marshall adamantly agreed. An article from Ohio Magazine in 1908 suggests that Kenton accomplished the feat. Through the years, Boone himself has even been mentioned as the figure.
“My contention is that legendary feats in time become attached to legendary names. Most people would figure that Boone or Kenton would have made the jump because they were known for dramatic events like that,” Snyder said. “I think that Darnell was the one who made the jump
“A guy named (John) Filson wrote a history of Kentucky and Boone was prominently featured,” Snyder said. “Not one thing was said about him jumping the gorge.
“Many books have been written about Kenton,” he added. “Not one attributes him to making the leap.”
Around 1900, three Greene County histories were authored and listed Darnell as the man who jumped across the gorge. No first name. Just Darnell.
Today, a boardwalk meanders along the trail where the Shawnee warriors gave chase, and a lookout features a plaque where Darnell’s Leap reportedly took place. Amid the tranquility of one of the most beautiful natural treasures in southwest Ohio, the legend of a courageous act leads the imagination to contemplate a picture of how that moment must have felt to a frightened 16-year-old boy who took the chance of plunging into the gorge below instead of the inevitable agony he would have suffered at the hands of his captors.