Filson Favorites: Chester Harding’s Portrait of Bland W. Ballard

Major Bland W. Ballard (1759 or 1761-1853) was an early pioneer in Kentucky and quite possibly the toughest looking man of his era. The Filson’s portrait of Ballard by Chester Harding depicts a man hardened by the violence of the Ohio Valley frontier. In 1788, a party of Delaware Indians killed Ballard’s

Portrait of Bland Ballard by Chester Harding, ca. 1820-1830

Portrait of Bland Ballard by Chester Harding, ca. 1820-1830

father, stepmother, two brothers and half-sister, while Ballard was at a nearby fort. Hearing the gunfire, Ballard rushed back to his family’s cabin and reportedly killed six of the attacking Delawares before they retreated. Ballard told historian Lyman C. Draper in 1844 that he had killed thirty or forty Indians during his life, in part to retaliate for the massacre of his family. He certainly gave himself every opportunity. From 1779 when he immigrated to Kentucky through the War of 1812, Ballard served as a scout on no fewer than seven campaigns against the Indians north of the Ohio River, and he fought in numerous skirmishes with Indians raiding in Kentucky. Even when he was in his fifties, Ballard continued his private war against the American Indian, fighting in the Northwest during the War of 1812. Although wounded and captured at the Battle of River Raisin in 1813, Ballard survived the war and returned to Shelbyville, where he died in 1853.

Ballard was a large man for the eighteenth century. Draper described the frontiersman as “six feet, strong, raw boney man weighing upwards of 200.” That description matches the figure painted by Chester Harding in the early ninteenth century. In Harding’s painting, Ballard appears in a fringed buckskin jacket, and with the dark smudges on his face, he looks as though he has just returned from a fight in the woods and given no thought to rinsing away the grime of the wilderness. Ballard seems to be lurking in the shadows, and unlike Daniel Boone in the portrait Harding did of him, Ballard’s eyes look into the distance, maybe watching for danger. As much as any portrait in The Filson’s extensive collection, Harding’s portrait seems to capture the essence of its subject. From Ballard’s own telling of his life and later historical accounts, we know he was a hard man, comfortable in a dangerous world.

Filson Historical

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