Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Intelligent Plant by Michael Pollan


The New Yorker
A Reporter at Large

Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.

by December 23, 2013

Plants have electrical and chemical signalling systems, may possess memory, and exhibit brainy behavior in the absence of brains.
Plants have electrical and chemical signalling systems, may possess memory, and exhibit brainy behavior in the absence of brains. Construction by Stephen Doyle.


In 1973, a book claiming that plants were sentient beings that feel emotions, prefer classical music to rock and roll, and can respond to the unspoken thoughts of humans hundreds of miles away landed on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction. “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, presented a beguiling mashup of legitimate plant science, quack experiments, and mystical nature worship that captured the public imagination at a time when New Age thinking was seeping into the mainstream. The most memorable passages described the experiments of a former C.I.A. polygraph expert named Cleve Backster, who, in 1966, on a whim, hooked up a galvanometer to the leaf of a dracaena, a houseplant that he kept in his office. To his astonishment, Backster found that simply by imagining the dracaena being set on fire he could make it rouse the needle of the polygraph machine, registering a surge of electrical activity suggesting that the plant felt stress. “Could the plant have been reading his mind?” the authors ask. “Backster felt like running into the street and shouting to the world, ‘Plants can think!’ ”
Backster and his collaborators went on to hook up polygraph machines to dozens of plants, including lettuces, onions, oranges, and bananas. He claimed that plants reacted to the thoughts (good or ill) of humans in close proximity and, in the case of humans familiar to them, over a great distance. In one experiment designed to test plant memory, Backster found that a plant that had witnessed the murder (by stomping) of another plant could pick out the killer from a lineup of six suspects, registering a surge of electrical activity when the murderer was brought before it. Backster’s plants also displayed a strong aversion to interspecies violence. Some had a stressful response when an egg was cracked in their presence, or when live shrimp were dropped into boiling water, an experiment that Backster wrote up for the International Journal of Parapsychology, in 1968.

In the ensuing years, several legitimate plant scientists tried to reproduce the “Backster effect” without success. Much of the science in “The Secret Life of Plants” has been discredited. But the book had made its mark on the culture. Americans began talking to their plants and playing Mozart for them, and no doubt many still do. This might seem harmless enough; there will probably always be a strain of romanticism running through our thinking about plants. (Luther Burbank and George Washington Carver both reputedly talked to, and listened to, the plants they did such brilliant work with.) But in the view of many plant scientists “The Secret Life of Plants” has done lasting damage to their field. According to Daniel Chamovitz, an Israeli biologist who is the author of the recent book “What a Plant Knows,” Tompkins and Bird “stymied important research on plant behavior as scientists became wary of any studies that hinted at parallels between animal senses and plant senses.”

 Others contend that “The Secret Life of Plants” led to “self-censorship” among researchers seeking to explore the “possible homologies between neurobiology and phytobiology”; that is, the possibility that plants are much more intelligent and much more like us than most people think—capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory.
The quotation about self-censorship appeared in a controversial 2006 article in Trends in Plant Science proposing a new field of inquiry that the authors, perhaps somewhat recklessly, elected to call “plant neurobiology.” The six authors—among them Eric D. Brenner, an American plant molecular biologist; Stefano Mancuso, an Italian plant physiologist; František Baluška, a Slovak cell biologist; and Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, an American plant biologist—argued that the sophisticated behaviors observed in plants cannot at present be completely explained by familiar genetic and biochemical mechanisms. Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coördinate a plant’s behavioral response. The authors pointed out that electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals.

They also noted that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate have been found in plants, though their role remains unclear.
Hence the need for plant neurobiology, a new field “aimed at understanding how plants perceive their circumstances and respond to environmental input in an integrated fashion.” The article argued that plants exhibit intelligence, defined by the authors as “an intrinsic ability to process information from both abiotic and biotic stimuli that allows optimal decisions about future activities in a given environment.” Shortly before the article’s publication, the Society for Plant Neurobiology held its first meeting, in Florence, in 2005. A new scientific journal, with the less tendentious title Plant Signaling & Behavior, appeared the following year.




Depending on whom you talk to in the plant sciences today, the field of plant neurobiology represents either a radical new paradigm in our understanding of life or a slide back down into the murky scientific waters last stirred up by “The Secret Life of Plants.” Its proponents believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects—the mute, immobile furniture of our world—and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature. They would challenge contemporary biology’s reductive focus on cells and genes and return our attention to the organism and its behavior in the environment. It is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success. Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, “just traces.”
Many plant scientists have pushed back hard against the nascent field, beginning with a tart, dismissive letter in response to the Brenner manifesto, signed by thirty-six prominent plant scientists (Alpi et al., in the literature) and published in Trends in Plant Science. “We begin by stating simply that there is no evidence for structures such as neurons, synapses or a brain in plants,” the authors wrote. No such claim had actually been made—the manifesto had spoken only of “homologous” structures—but the use of the word “neurobiology” in the absence of actual neurons was apparently more than many scientists could bear.
“Yes, plants have both short- and long-term electrical signalling, and they use some neurotransmitter-like chemicals as chemical signals,” Lincoln Taiz, an emeritus professor of plant physiology at U.C. Santa Cruz and one of the signers of the Alpi letter, told me. “But the mechanisms are quite different from those of true nervous systems.” Taiz says that the writings of the plant neurobiologists suffer from “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.”

 He is confident that eventually the plant behaviors we can’t yet account for will be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to “animism.” Clifford Slayman, a professor of cellular and molecular physiology at Yale, who also signed the Alpi letter (and who helped discredit Tompkins and Bird), was even more blunt. “ ‘Plant intelligence’ is a foolish distraction, not a new paradigm,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. Slayman has referred to the Alpi letter as “the last serious confrontation between the scientific community and the nuthouse on these issues.” Scientists seldom use such language when talking about their colleagues to a journalist, but this issue generates strong feelings, perhaps because it smudges the sharp line separating the animal kingdom from the plant kingdom. The controversy is less about the remarkable discoveries of recent plant science than about how to interpret and name them: whether behaviors observed in plants which look very much like learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence deserve to be called by those terms or whether those words should be reserved exclusively for creatures with brains.


No one I spoke to in the loose, interdisciplinary group of scientists working on plant intelligence claims that plants have telekinetic powers or feel emotions. Nor does anyone believe that we will locate a walnut-shaped organ somewhere in plants which processes sensory data and directs plant behavior. More likely, in the scientists’ view, intelligence in plants resembles that exhibited in insect colonies, where it is thought to be an emergent property of a great many mindless individuals organized in a network. Much of the research on plant intelligence has been inspired by the new science of networks, distributed computing, and swarm behavior, which has demonstrated some of the ways in which remarkably brainy behavior can emerge in the absence of actual brains.


“If you are a plant, having a brain is not an advantage,” Stefano Mancuso points out. Mancuso is perhaps the field’s most impassioned spokesman for the plant point of view. A slight, bearded Calabrian in his late forties, he comes across more like a humanities professor than like a scientist. When I visited him earlier this year at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, at the University of Florence, he told me that his conviction that humans grossly underestimate plants has its origins in a science-fiction story he remembers reading as a teen-ager. A race of aliens living in a radically sped-up dimension of time arrive on Earth and, unable to detect any movement in humans, come to the logical conclusion that we are “inert material” with which they may do as they please. The aliens proceed ruthlessly to exploit us. (Mancuso subsequently wrote to say that the story he recounted was actually a mangled recollection of an early “Star Trek” episode called “Wink of an Eye.”)

In Mancuso’s view, our “fetishization” of neurons, as well as our tendency to equate behavior with mobility, keeps us from appreciating what plants can do. For instance, since plants can’t run away and frequently get eaten, it serves them well not to have any irreplaceable organs. “A plant has a modular design, so it can lose up to ninety per cent of its body without being killed,” he said. “There’s nothing like that in the animal world. It creates a resilience.”
Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable. The “sessile life style,” as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one’s immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root “knows” when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound. In a recent experiment, Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, found that, when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for a plant that hadn’t been touched, the sound primed the plant’s genetic machinery to produce defense chemicals. Another experiment, done in Mancuso’s lab and not yet published, found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow “hear” the sound of flowing water.



The sensory capabilities of plant roots fascinated Charles Darwin, who in his later years became increasingly passionate about plants; he and his son Francis performed scores of ingenious experiments on plants. Many involved the root, or radicle, of young plants, which the Darwins demonstrated could sense light, moisture, gravity, pressure, and several other environmental qualities, and then determine the optimal trajectory for the root’s growth. The last sentence of Darwin’s 1880 book, “The Power of Movement in Plants,” has assumed scriptural authority for some plant neurobiologists: “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle . . . having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense organs and directing the several movements.” Darwin was asking us to think of the plant as a kind of upside-down animal, with its main sensory organs and “brain” on the bottom, underground, and its sexual organs on top.

Scientists have since found that the tips of plant roots, in addition to sensing gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. Roots about to encounter an impenetrable obstacle or a toxic substance change course before they make contact with it. Roots can tell whether nearby roots are self or other and, if other, kin or stranger. Normally, plants compete for root space with strangers, but, when researchers put four closely related Great Lakes sea-rocket plants (Cakile edentula) in the same pot, the plants restrained their usual competitive behaviors and shared resources.

Somehow, a plant gathers and integrates all this information about its environment, and then “decides”—some scientists deploy the quotation marks, indicating metaphor at work; others drop them—in precisely what direction to deploy its roots or its leaves. Once the definition of “behavior” expands to include such things as a shift in the trajectory of a root, a reallocation of resources, or the emission of a powerful chemical, plants begin to look like much more active agents, responding to environmental cues in ways more subtle or adaptive than the word “instinct” would suggest. “Plants perceive competitors and grow away from them,” Rick Karban, a plant ecologist at U.C. Davis, explained, when I asked him for an example of plant decision-making. “They are more leery of actual vegetation than they are of inanimate objects, and they respond to potential competitors before actually being shaded by them.” These are sophisticated behaviors, but, like most plant behaviors, to an animal they’re either invisible or really, really slow.
The sessile life style also helps account for plants’ extraordinary gift for biochemistry, which far exceeds that of animals and, arguably, of human chemists. (Many drugs, from aspirin to opiates, derive from compounds designed by plants.) Unable to run away, plants deploy a complex molecular vocabulary to signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them.

A recent study in Science found that the caffeine produced by many plants may function not only as a defense chemical, as had previously been thought, but in some cases as a psychoactive drug in their nectar. The caffeine encourages bees to remember a particular plant and return to it, making them more faithful and effective pollinators.
One of the most productive areas of plant research in recent years has been plant signalling. Since the early nineteen-eighties, it has been known that when a plant’s leaves are infected or chewed by insects they emit volatile chemicals that signal other leaves to mount a defense. Sometimes this warning signal contains information about the identity of the insect, gleaned from the taste of its saliva. Depending on the plant and the attacker, the defense might involve altering the leaf’s flavor or texture, or producing toxins or other compounds that render the plant’s flesh less digestible to herbivores. When antelopes browse acacia trees, the leaves produce tannins that make them unappetizing and difficult to digest. When food is scarce and acacias are overbrowsed, it has been reported, the trees produce sufficient amounts of toxin to kill the animals.

Perhaps the cleverest instance of plant signalling involves two insect species, the first in the role of pest and the second as its exterminator. Several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps some distance away lock in on that scent, follow it to the afflicted plant, and proceed to slowly destroy the caterpillars. Scientists call these insects “plant bodyguards.”
Plants speak in a chemical vocabulary we can’t directly perceive or comprehend. The first important discoveries in plant communication were made in the lab in the nineteen-eighties, by isolating plants and their chemical emissions in Plexiglas chambers, but Rick Karban, the U.C. Davis ecologist, and others have set themselves the messier task of studying how plants exchange chemical signals outdoors, in a natural setting. Recently, I visited Karban’s study plot at the University of California’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, a few miles outside Truckee. On a sun-flooded hillside high in the Sierras, he introduced me to the ninety-nine sagebrush plants—low, slow-growing gray-green shrubs marked with plastic flags—that he and his colleagues have kept under close surveillance for more than a decade.

Karban, a fifty-nine-year-old former New Yorker, is slender, with a thatch of white curls barely contained by a floppy hat. He has shown that when sagebrush leaves are clipped in the spring—simulating an insect attack that triggers the release of volatile chemicals—both the clipped plant and its unclipped neighbors suffer significantly less insect damage over the season. Karban believes that the plant is alerting all its leaves to the presence of a pest, but its neighbors pick up the signal, too, and gird themselves against attack. “We think the sagebrush are basically eavesdropping on one another,” Karban said. He found that the more closely related the plants the more likely they are to respond to the chemical signal, suggesting that plants may display a form of kin recognition. Helping out your relatives is a good way to improve the odds that your genes will survive.

The field work and data collection that go into making these discoveries are painstaking in the extreme. At the bottom of a meadow raked by the slanted light of late summer, two collaborators from Japan, Kaori Shiojiri and Satomi Ishizaki, worked in the shade of a small pine, squatting over branches of sagebrush that Karban had tagged and cut. Using clickers, they counted every trident-shaped leaf on every branch, and then counted and recorded every instance of leaf damage, one column for insect bites, another for disease. At the top of the meadow, another collaborator, James Blande, a chemical ecologist from England, tied plastic bags around sagebrush stems and inflated the bags with filtered air. After waiting twenty minutes for the leaves to emit their volatiles, he pumped the air through a metal cylinder containing an absorbent material that collected the chemical emissions. At the lab, a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer would yield a list of the compounds collected—more than a hundred in all. Blande offered to let me put my nose in one of the bags; the air was powerfully aromatic, with a scent closer to aftershave than to perfume. Gazing across the meadow of sagebrush, I found it difficult to imagine the invisible chemical chatter, including the calls of distress, going on all around—or that these motionless plants were engaged in any kind of “behavior” at all.
Research on plant communication may someday benefit farmers and their crops. Plant-distress chemicals could be used to prime plant defenses, reducing the need for pesticides. Jack Schultz, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, who did some of the pioneering work on plant signalling in the early nineteen-eighties, is helping to develop a mechanical “nose” that, attached to a tractor and driven through a field, could help farmers identify plants under insect attack, allowing them to spray pesticides only when and where they are needed.

Karban told me that, in the nineteen-eighties, people working on plant communication faced some of the same outrage that scientists working on plant intelligence (a term he cautiously accepts) do today. “This stuff has been enormously contentious,” he says, referring to the early days of research into plant communication, work that is now generally accepted. “It took me years to get some of these papers published. People would literally be screaming at one another at scientific meetings.” He added, “Plant scientists in general are incredibly conservative. We all think we want to hear novel ideas, but we don’t, not really.”
I first met Karban at a scientific meeting in Vancouver last July, when he presented a paper titled “Plant Communication and Kin Recognition in Sagebrush.” The meeting would have been the sixth gathering of the Society for Plant Neurobiology, if not for the fact that, under pressure from certain quarters of the scientific establishment, the group’s name had been changed four years earlier to the less provocative Society for Plant Signaling and Behavior.

The plant biologist Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, of the University of Washington, who was one of the founders of the society, told me that the name had been changed after a lively internal debate; she felt that jettisoning “neurobiology” was probably for the best. “I was told by someone at the National Science Foundation that the N.S.F. would never fund anything with the words ‘plant neurobiology’ in it. He said, and I quote, ‘ “Neuro” belongs to animals.’ ” (An N.S.F. spokesperson said that, while the society is not eligible for funding by the foundation’s neurobiology program, “the N.S.F. does not have a boycott of any sort against the society.”) Two of the society’s co-founders, Stefano Mancuso and František Baluška, argued strenuously against the name change, and continue to use the term “plant neurobiology” in their own work and in the names of their labs.
The meeting consisted of three days of PowerPoint presentations delivered in a large, modern lecture hall at the University of British Columbia before a hundred or so scientists. Most of the papers were highly technical presentations on plant signalling—the kind of incremental science that takes place comfortably within the confines of an established scientific paradigm, which plant signalling has become. But a handful of speakers presented work very much within the new paradigm of plant intelligence, and they elicited strong reactions.
The most controversial presentation was “Animal-Like Learning in Mimosa Pudica,” an unpublished paper by Monica Gagliano, a thirty-seven-year-old animal ecologist at the University of Western Australia who was working in Mancuso’s lab in Florence. Gagliano, who is tall, with long brown hair parted in the middle, based her experiment on a set of protocols commonly used to test learning in animals. She focussed on an elementary type of learning called “habituation,” in which an experimental subject is taught to ignore an irrelevant stimulus. “Habituation enables an organism to focus on the important information, while filtering out the rubbish,” Gagliano explained to the audience of plant scientists. How long does it take the animal to recognize that a stimulus is “rubbish,” and then how long will it remember what it has learned? Gagliano’s experimental question was bracing: Could the same thing be done with a plant?

Mimosa pudica, also called the “sensitive plant,” is that rare plant species with a behavior so speedy and visible that animals can observe it; the Venus flytrap is another. When the fernlike leaves of the mimosa are touched, they instantly fold up, presumably to frighten insects. The mimosa also collapses its leaves when the plant is dropped or jostled. Gagliano potted fifty-six mimosa plants and rigged a system to drop them from a height of fifteen centimetres every five seconds. Each “training session” involved sixty drops. She reported that some of the mimosas started to reopen their leaves after just four, five, or six drops, as if they had concluded that the stimulus could be safely ignored. “By the end, they were completely open,” Gagliano said to the audience. “They couldn’t care less anymore.”

Was it just fatigue? Apparently not: when the plants were shaken, they again closed up. “ ‘Oh, this is something new,’ ” Gagliano said, imagining these events from the plants’ point of view. “You see, you want to be attuned to something new coming in. Then we went back to the drops, and they didn’t respond.” Gagliano reported that she retested her plants after a week and found that they continued to disregard the drop stimulus, indicating that they “remembered” what they had learned. Even after twenty-eight days, the lesson had not been forgotten. She reminded her colleagues that, in similar experiments with bees, the insects forgot what they had learned after just forty-eight hours. Gagliano concluded by suggesting that “brains and neurons are a sophisticated solution but not a necessary requirement for learning,” and that there is “some unifying mechanism across living systems that can process information and learn.”

A lively exchange followed. Someone objected that dropping a plant was not a relevant trigger, since that doesn’t happen in nature. Gagliano pointed out that electric shock, an equally artificial trigger, is often used in animal-learning experiments. Another scientist suggested that perhaps her plants were not habituated, just tuckered out. She argued that twenty-eight days would be plenty of time to rebuild their energy reserves.
On my way out of the lecture hall, I bumped into Fred Sack, a prominent botanist at the University of British Columbia. I asked him what he thought of Gagliano’s presentation. “Bullshit,” he replied. He explained that the word “learning” implied a brain and should be reserved for animals: “Animals can exhibit learning, but plants evolve adaptations.” He was making a distinction between behavioral changes that occur within the lifetime of an organism and those which arise across generations. At lunch, I sat with a Russian scientist, who was equally dismissive. “It’s not learning,” he said. “So there’s nothing to discuss.”

Later that afternoon, Gagliano seemed both stung by some of the reactions to her presentation and defiant. Adaptation is far too slow a process to explain the behavior she had observed, she told me. “How can they be adapted to something they have never experienced in their real world?” She noted that some of her plants learned faster than others, evidence that “this is not an innate or programmed response.” Many of the scientists in her audience were just getting used to the ideas of plant “behavior” and “memory” (terms that even Fred Sack said he was willing to accept); using words like “learning” and “intelligence” in plants struck them, in Sack’s words, as “inappropriate” and “just weird.” When I described the experiment to Lincoln Taiz, he suggested the words “habituation” or “desensitization” would be more appropriate than “learning.” Gagliano said that her mimosa paper had been rejected by ten journals: “None of the reviewers had problems with the data.” Instead, they balked at the language she used to describe the data. But she didn’t want to change it. “Unless we use the same language to describe the same behavior”—exhibited by plants and animals—“we can’t compare it,” she said.

Rick Karban consoled Gagliano after her talk. “I went through the same thing, just getting totally hammered,” he told her. “But you’re doing good work. The system is just not ready.” When I asked him what he thought of Gagliano’s paper, he said, “I don’t know if she’s got everything nailed down, but it’s a very cool idea that deserves to get out there and be discussed. I hope she doesn’t get discouraged.”
Scientists are often uncomfortable talking about the role of metaphor and imagination in their work, yet scientific progress often depends on both. “Metaphors help stimulate the investigative imagination of good scientists,” the British plant scientist Anthony Trewavas wrote in a spirited response to the Alpi letter denouncing plant neurobiology. “Plant neurobiology” is obviously a metaphor—plants don’t possess the type of excitable, communicative cells we call neurons. Yet the introduction of the term has raised a series of questions and inspired a set of experiments that promise to deepen our understanding not only of plants but potentially also of brains. If there are other ways of processing information, other kinds of cells and cell networks that can somehow give rise to intelligent behavior, then we may be more inclined to ask, with Mancuso, “What’s so special about neurons?”
Mancuso is the poet-philosopher of the movement, determined to win for plants the recognition they deserve and, perhaps, bring humans down a peg in the process. His somewhat grandly named International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, a few miles outside Florence, occupies a modest suite of labs and offices in a low-slung modern building. Here a handful of collaborators and graduate students work on the experiments Mancuso devises to test the intelligence of plants. Giving a tour of the labs, he showed me maize plants, grown under lights, that were being taught to ignore shadows; a poplar sapling hooked up to a galvanometer to measure its response to air pollution; and a chamber in which a PTR-TOF machine—an advanced kind of mass spectrometer—continuously read all the volatiles emitted by a succession of plants, from poplars and tobacco plants to peppers and olive trees. “We are making a dictionary of each species’ entire chemical vocabulary,” he explained. He estimates that a plant has three thousand chemicals in its vocabulary, while, he said with a smile, “the average student has only seven hundred words.”

Mancuso is fiercely devoted to plants—a scientist needs to “love” his subject in order to do it justice, he says. He is also gentle and unassuming, even when what he is saying is outrageous. In the corner of his office sits a forlorn Ficus benjamina, or weeping fig, and on the walls are photographs of Mancuso in an astronaut’s jumpsuit floating in the cabin of a zero-gravity aircraft; he has collaborated with the European Space Agency, which has supported his research on plant behavior in micro- and hyper-gravity. (One of his experiments was carried on board the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavor, in May of 2011.) A decade ago, Mancuso persuaded a Florentine bank foundation to underwrite much of his research and help launch the Society for Plant Neurobiology; his lab also receives grants from the European Union.
Early in our conversation, I asked Mancuso for his definition of “intelligence.” Spending so much time with the plant neurobiologists, I could feel my grasp on the word getting less sure. It turns out that I am not alone: philosophers and psychologists have been arguing over the definition of intelligence for at least a century, and whatever consensus there may once have been has been rapidly slipping away. Most definitions of intelligence fall into one of two categories. The first is worded so that intelligence requires a brain; the definition refers to intrinsic mental qualities such as reason, judgment, and abstract thought. The second category, less brain-bound and metaphysical, stresses behavior, defining intelligence as the ability to respond in optimal ways to the challenges presented by one’s environment and circumstances. Not surprisingly, the plant neurobiologists jump into this second camp.

“I define it very simply,” Mancuso said. “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.” In place of a brain, “what I am looking for is a distributed sort of intelligence, as we see in the swarming of birds.” In a flock, each bird has only to follow a few simple rules, such as maintaining a prescribed distance from its neighbor, yet the collective effect of a great many birds executing a simple algorithm is a complex and supremely well-coördinated behavior. Mancuso’s hypothesis is that something similar is at work in plants, with their thousands of root tips playing the role of the individual birds—gathering and assessing data from the environment and responding in local but coördinated ways that benefit the entire organism.
“Neurons perhaps are overrated,” Mancuso said. “They’re really just excitable cells.” Plants have their own excitable cells, many of them in a region just behind the root tip. Here Mancuso and his frequent collaborator, František Baluška, have detected unusually high levels of electrical activity and oxygen consumption. They’ve hypothesized in a series of papers that this so-called “transition zone” may be the locus of the “root brain” first proposed by Darwin. The idea remains unproved and controversial. “What’s going on there is not well understood,” Lincoln Taiz told me, “but there is no evidence it is a command center.”

How plants do what they do without a brain—what Anthony Trewavas has called their “mindless mastery”—raises questions about how our brains do what they do. When I asked Mancuso about the function and location of memory in plants, he speculated about the possible role of calcium channels and other mechanisms, but then he reminded me that mystery still surrounds where and how our memories are stored: “It could be the same kind of machinery, and figuring it out in plants may help us figure it out in humans.”
The hypothesis that intelligent behavior in plants may be an emergent property of cells exchanging signals in a network might sound far-fetched, yet the way that intelligence emerges from a network of neurons may not be very different. Most neuroscientists would agree that, while brains considered as a whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn’t appear to be any command post; rather, one finds a leaderless network. That sense we get when we think about what might govern a plant—that there is no there there, no wizard behind the curtain pulling the levers—may apply equally well to our brains.

In Martin Amis’s 1995 novel, “The Information,” we meet a character who aspires to write “The History of Increasing Humiliation,” a treatise chronicling the gradual dethronement of humankind from its position at the center of the universe, beginning with Copernicus. “Every century we get smaller,” Amis writes. Next came Darwin, who brought the humbling news that we are the product of the same natural laws that created animals. In the last century, the formerly sharp lines separating humans from animals—our monopolies on language, reason, toolmaking, culture, even self-consciousness—have been blurred, one after another, as science has granted these capabilities to other animals.
Mancuso and his colleagues are writing the next chapter in “The History of Increasing Humiliation.” Their project entails breaking down the walls between the kingdoms of plants and animals, and it is proceeding not only experiment by experiment but also word by word. Start with that slippery word “intelligence.” Particularly when there is no dominant definition (and when measurements of intelligence, such as I.Q., have been shown to be culturally biased), it is possible to define intelligence in a way that either reinforces the boundary between animals and plants (say, one that entails abstract thought) or undermines it. Plant neurobiologists have chosen to define intelligence democratically, as an ability to solve problems or, more precisely, to respond adaptively to circumstances, including ones unforeseen in the genome.
“I agree that humans are special,” Mancuso says. “We are the first species able to argue about what intelligence is. But it’s the quantity, not the quality” of intelligence that sets us apart. We exist on a continuum with the acacia, the radish, and the bacterium. “Intelligence is a property of life,” he says. I asked him why he thinks people have an easier time granting intelligence to computers than to plants. (Fred Sack told me that he can abide the term “artificial intelligence,” because the intelligence in this case is modified by the word “artificial,” but not “plant intelligence.” He offered no argument, except to say, “I’m in the majority in saying it’s a little weird.”) Mancuso thinks we’re willing to accept artificial intelligence because computers are our creations, and so reflect our own intelligence back at us. They are also our dependents, unlike plants: “If we were to vanish tomorrow, the plants would be fine, but if the plants vanished . . .” Our dependence on plants breeds a contempt for them, Mancuso believes. In his somewhat topsy-turvy view, plants “remind us of our weakness.”

“Memory” may be an even thornier word to apply across kingdoms, perhaps because we know so little about how it works. We tend to think of memories as immaterial, but in animal brains some forms of memory involve the laying down of new connections in a network of neurons. Yet there are ways to store information biologically that don’t require neurons. Immune cells “remember” their experience of pathogens, and call on that memory in subsequent encounters. In plants, it has long been known that experiences such as stress can alter the molecular wrapping around the chromosomes; this, in turn, determines which genes will be silenced and which expressed. This so-called “epigenetic” effect can persist and sometimes be passed down to offspring. More recently, scientists have found that life events such as trauma or starvation produce epigenetic changes in animal brains (coding for high levels of cortisol, for example) that are long-lasting and can also be passed down to offspring, a form of memory much like that observed in plants.
While talking with Mancuso, I kept thinking about words like “will,” “choice,” and “intention,” which he seemed to attribute to plants rather casually, almost as if they were acting consciously. At one point, he told me about the dodder vine, Cuscuta europaea, a parasitic white vine that winds itself around the stalk of another plant and sucks nourishment from it. A dodder vine will “choose” among several potential hosts, assessing, by scent, which offers the best potential nourishment. Having selected a target, the vine then performs a kind of cost-benefit calculation before deciding exactly how many coils it should invest—the more nutrients in the victim, the more coils it deploys. I asked Mancuso whether he was being literal or metaphorical in attributing intention to plants.

“Here, I’ll show you something,” he said. “Then you tell me if plants have intention.” He swivelled his computer monitor around and clicked open a video.
Time-lapse photography is perhaps the best tool we have to bridge the chasm between the time scale at which plants live and our own. This example was of a young bean plant, shot in the lab over two days, one frame every ten minutes. A metal pole on a dolly stands a couple of feet away. The bean plant is “looking” for something to climb. Each spring, I witness the same process in my garden, in real time. I always assumed that the bean plants simply grow this way or that, until they eventually bump into something suitable to climb. But Mancuso’s video seems to show that this bean plant “knows” exactly where the metal pole is long before it makes contact with it. Mancuso speculates that the plant could be employing a form of echolocation. There is some evidence that plants make low clicking sounds as their cells elongate; it’s possible that they can sense the reflection of those sound waves bouncing off the metal pole.

The bean plant wastes no time or energy “looking”—that is, growing—anywhere but in the direction of the pole. And it is striving (there is no other word for it) to get there: reaching, stretching, throwing itself over and over like a fly rod, extending itself a few more inches with every cast, as it attempts to wrap its curling tip around the pole. As soon as contact is made, the plant appears to relax; its clenched leaves begin to flutter mildly. All this may be nothing more than an illusion of time-lapse photography. Yet to watch the video is to feel, momentarily, like one of the aliens in Mancuso’s formative science-fiction story, shown a window onto a dimension of time in which these formerly inert beings come astonishingly to life, seemingly conscious individuals with intentions.

In October, I loaded the bean video onto my laptop and drove down to Santa Cruz to play it for Lincoln Taiz. He began by questioning its value as scientific data: “Maybe he has ten other videos where the bean didn’t do that. You can’t take one interesting variation and generalize from it.” The bean’s behavior was, in other words, an anecdote, not a phenomenon. Taiz also pointed out that the bean in the video was leaning toward the pole in the first frame. Mancuso then sent me another video with two perfectly upright bean plants that exhibited very similar behavior. Taiz was now intrigued. “If he sees that effect consistently, it would be exciting,” he said—but it would not necessarily be evidence of plant intention. “If the phenomenon is real, it would be classified as a tropism,” such as the mechanism that causes plants to bend toward light. In this case, the stimulus remains unknown, but tropisms “do not require one to postulate either intentionality or ‘brainlike’ conceptualization,” Taiz said. “The burden of proof for the latter interpretation would clearly be on Stefano.”

Perhaps the most troublesome and troubling word of all in thinking about plants is “consciousness.” If consciousness is defined as inward awareness of oneself experiencing reality—“the feeling of what happens,” in the words of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio—then we can (probably) safely conclude that plants don’t possess it. But if we define the term simply as the state of being awake and aware of one’s environment—“online,” as the neuroscientists say—then plants may qualify as conscious beings, at least according to Mancuso and Baluška. “The bean knows exactly what is in the environment around it,” Mancuso said. “We don’t know how. But this is one of the features of consciousness: You know your position in the world. A stone does not.”
In support of their contention that plants are conscious of their environment, Mancuso and Baluška point out that plants can be rendered unconscious by the same anesthetics that put animals out: drugs can induce in plants an unresponsive state resembling sleep. (A snoozing Venus flytrap won’t notice an insect crossing its threshold.) What’s more, when plants are injured or stressed, they produce a chemical—ethylene—that works as an anesthetic on animals. When I learned this startling fact from Baluška in Vancouver, I asked him, gingerly, if he meant to suggest that plants could feel pain. Baluška, who has a gruff mien and a large bullet-shaped head, raised one eyebrow and shot me a look that I took to mean he deemed my question impertinent or absurd. But apparently not.

“If plants are conscious, then, yes, they should feel pain,” he said. “If you don’t feel pain, you ignore danger and you don’t survive. Pain is adaptive.” I must have shown some alarm. “That’s a scary idea,” he acknowledged with a shrug. “We live in a world where we must eat other organisms.”
Unprepared to consider the ethical implications of plant intelligence, I could feel my resistance to the whole idea stiffen. Descartes, who believed that only humans possessed self-consciousness, was unable to credit the idea that other animals could suffer from pain. So he dismissed their screams and howls as mere reflexes, as meaningless physiological noise. Could it be remotely possible that we are now making the same mistake with plants? That the perfume of jasmine or basil, or the scent of freshly mowed grass, so sweet to us, is (as the ecologist Jack Schultz likes to say) the chemical equivalent of a scream? Or have we, merely by posing such a question, fallen back into the muddied waters of “The Secret Life of Plants”?
Lincoln Taiz has little patience for the notion of plant pain, questioning what, in the absence of a brain, would be doing the feeling. He puts it succinctly: “No brain, no pain.” Mancuso is more circumspect. We can never determine with certainty whether plants feel pain or whether their perception of injury is sufficiently like that of animals to be called by the same word. (He and Baluška are careful to write of “plant-specific pain perception.”) “We just don’t know, so we must be silent.”

Mancuso believes that, because plants are sensitive and intelligent beings, we are obliged to treat them with some degree of respect. That means protecting their habitats from destruction and avoiding practices such as genetic manipulation, growing plants in monocultures, and training them in bonsai. But it does not prevent us from eating them. “Plants evolved to be eaten—it is part of their evolutionary strategy,” he said. He cited their modular structure and lack of irreplaceable organs in support of this view.

The central issue dividing the plant neurobiologists from their critics would appear to be this: Do capabilities such as intelligence, pain perception, learning, and memory require the existence of a brain, as the critics contend, or can they be detached from their neurobiological moorings? The question is as much philosophical as it is scientific, since the answer depends on how these terms get defined. The proponents of plant intelligence argue that the traditional definitions of these terms are anthropocentric—a clever reply to the charges of anthropomorphism frequently thrown at them. Their attempt to broaden these definitions is made easier by the fact that the meanings of so many of these terms are up for grabs. At the same time, since these words were originally created to describe animal attributes, we shouldn’t be surprised at the awkward fit with plants. It seems likely that, if the plant neurobiologists were willing to add the prefix “plant-specific” to intelligence and learning and memory and consciousness (as Mancuso and Baluška are prepared to do in the case of pain), then at least some of this “scientific controversy” might evaporate.
Indeed, I found more consensus on the underlying science than I expected. Even Clifford Slayman, the Yale biologist who signed the 2007 letter dismissing plant neurobiology, is willing to acknowledge that, although he doesn’t think plants possess intelligence, he does believe they are capable of “intelligent behavior,” in the same way that bees and ants are. In an e-mail exchange, Slayman made a point of underlining this distinction: “We do not know what constitutes intelligence, only what we can observe and judge as intelligent behavior.” He defined “intelligent behavior” as “the ability to adapt to changing circumstances” and noted that it “must always be measured relative to a particular environment.” Humans may or may not be intrinsically more intelligent than cats, he wrote, but when a cat is confronted with a mouse its behavior is likely to be demonstrably more intelligent.

Slayman went on to acknowledge that “intelligent behavior could perfectly well develop without such a nerve center or headquarters or director or brain—whatever you want to call it. Instead of ‘brain,’ think ‘network.’ It seems to be that many higher organisms are internally networked in such a way that local changes,” such as the way that roots respond to a water gradient, “cause very local responses which benefit the entire organism.” Seen that way, he added, the outlook of Mancuso and Trewavas is “pretty much in line with my understanding of biochemical/biological networks.” He pointed out that while it is an understandable human prejudice to favor the “nerve center” model, we also have a second, autonomic nervous system governing our digestive processes, which “operates most of the time without instructions from higher up.” Brains are just one of nature’s ways of getting complex jobs done, for dealing intelligently with the challenges presented by the environment. But they are not the only way: “Yes, I would argue that intelligent behavior is a property of life.”

To define certain words in such a way as to bring plants and animals beneath the same semantic umbrella—whether of intelligence or intention or learning—is a philosophical choice with important consequences for how we see ourselves in nature. Since “The Origin of Species,” we have understood, at least intellectually, the continuities among life’s kingdoms—that we are all cut from the same fabric of nature. Yet our big brains, and perhaps our experience of inwardness, allow us to feel that we must be fundamentally different—suspended above nature and other species as if by some metaphysical “skyhook,” to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Plant neurobiologists are intent on taking away our skyhook, completing the revolution that Darwin started but which remains—psychologically, at least—incomplete.
“What we learned from Darwin is that competence precedes comprehension,” Dennett said when I called to talk to him about plant neurobiology. Upon a foundation of the simplest competences—such as the on-off switch in a computer, or the electrical and chemical signalling of a cell—can be built higher and higher competences until you wind up with something that looks very much like intelligence. “The idea that there is a bright line, with real comprehension and real minds on the far side of the chasm, and animals or plants on the other—that’s an archaic myth.” To say that higher competences such as intelligence, learning, and memory “mean nothing in the absence of brains” is, in Dennett’s view, “cerebrocentric.”

All species face the same existential challenges—obtaining food, defending themselves, reproducing—but under wildly varying circumstances, and so they have evolved wildly different tools in order to survive. Brains come in handy for creatures that move around a lot; but they’re a disadvantage for ones that are rooted in place. Impressive as it is to us, self-consciousness is just another tool for living, good for some jobs, unhelpful for others. That humans would rate this particular adaptation so highly is not surprising, since it has been the shining destination of our long evolutionary journey, along with the epiphenomenon of self-consciousness that we call “free will.”
In addition to being a plant physiologist, Lincoln Taiz writes about the history of science. “Starting with Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus,” he told me, “there has been a strain of teleology in the study of plant biology”—a habit of ascribing purpose or intention to the behavior of plants. I asked Taiz about the question of “choice,” or decision-making, in plants, as when they must decide between two conflicting environmental signals—water and gravity, for example.

“Does the plant decide in the same way that we choose at a deli between a Reuben sandwich or lox and bagel?” Taiz asked. “No, the plant response is based entirely on the net flow of auxin and other chemical signals. The verb ‘decide’ is inappropriate in a plant context. It implies free will. Of course, one could argue that humans lack free will too, but that is a separate issue.”
I asked Mancuso if he thought that a plant decides in the same way we might choose at a deli between a Reuben or lox and bagels.

“Yes, in the same way,” Mancuso wrote back, though he indicated that he had no idea what a Reuben was. “Just put ammonium nitrate in the place of Reuben sandwich (whatever it is) and phosphate instead of salmon, and the roots will make a decision.” But isn’t the root responding simply to the net flow of certain chemicals? “I’m afraid our brain makes decisions in the same exact way.”
“Why would a plant care about Mozart?” the late ethnobotanist Tim Plowman would reply when asked about the wonders catalogued in “The Secret Life of Plants.” “And even if it did, why should that impress us? They can eat light, isn’t that enough?”
One way to exalt plants is by demonstrating their animal-like capabilities. But another way is to focus on all the things plants can do that we cannot. Some scientists working on plant intelligence have questioned whether the “animal-centric” emphasis, along with the obsession with the term “neurobiology,” has been a mistake and possibly an insult to the plants. “I have no interest in making plants into little animals,” one scientist wrote during the dustup over what to call the society. “Plants are unique,” another wrote. “There is no reason to . . . call them demi-animals.”

When I met Mancuso for dinner during the conference in Vancouver, he sounded very much like a plant scientist getting over a case of “brain envy”—what Taiz had suggested was motivating the plant neurologists. If we could begin to understand plants on their own terms, he said, “it would be like being in contact with an alien culture. But we could have all the advantages of that contact without any of the problems—because it doesn’t want to destroy us!” How do plants do all the amazing things they do without brains? Without locomotion? By focussing on the otherness of plants rather than on their likeness, Mancuso suggested, we stand to learn valuable things and develop important new technologies. This was to be the theme of his presentation to the conference, the following morning, on what he called “bioinspiration.” How might the example of plant intelligence help us design better computers, or robots, or networks?
Mancuso was about to begin a collaboration with a prominent computer scientist to design a plant-based computer, modelled on the distributed computing performed by thousands of roots processing a vast number of environmental variables.

 His collaborator, Andrew Adamatzky, the director of the International Center of Unconventional Computing, at the University of the West of England, has worked extensively with slime molds, harnessing their maze-navigating and computational abilities. (Adamatzky’s slime molds, which are a kind of amoeba, grow in the direction of multiple food sources simultaneously, usually oat flakes, in the process computing and remembering the shortest distance between any two of them; he has used these organisms to model transportation networks.) In an e-mail, Adamatzky said that, as a substrate for biological computing, plants offered both advantages and disadvantages over slime molds. “Plants are more robust,” he wrote, and “can keep their shape for a very long time,” although they are slower-growing and lack the flexibility of slime molds. But because plants are already “analog electrical computers,” trafficking in electrical inputs and outputs, he is hopeful that he and Mancuso will be able to harness them for computational tasks.
Mancuso was also working with Barbara Mazzolai, a biologist-turned-engineer at the Italian Institute of Technology, in Genoa, to design what he called a “plantoid”: a robot designed on plant principles. “If you look at the history of robots, they are always based on animals—they are humanoids or insectoids. If you want something swimming, you look at a fish. But what about imitating plants instead? What would that allow you to do? Explore the soil!” With a grant from the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies program, their team is developing a “robotic root” that, using plastics that can elongate and then harden, will be able to slowly penetrate the soil, sense conditions, and alter its trajectory accordingly. “If you want to explore other planets, the best thing is to send plantoids.”

The most bracing part of Mancuso’s talk on bioinspiration came when he discussed underground plant networks. Citing the research of Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues, Mancuso showed a slide depicting how trees in a forest organize themselves into far-flung networks, using the underground web of mycorrhizal fungi which connects their roots to exchange information and even goods. This “wood-wide web,” as the title of one paper put it, allows scores of trees in a forest to convey warnings of insect attacks, and also to deliver carbon, nitrogen, and water to trees in need.

When I reached Simard by phone, she described how she and her colleagues track the flow of nutrients and chemical signals through this invisible underground network. They injected fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes, then followed the spread of the isotopes through the forest community using a variety of sensing methods, including a Geiger counter. Within a few days, stores of radioactive carbon had been routed from tree to tree. Every tree in a plot thirty metres square was connected to the network; the oldest trees functioned as hubs, some with as many as forty-seven connections. The diagram of the forest network resembled an airline route map.

The pattern of nutrient traffic showed how “mother trees” were using the network to nourish shaded seedlings, including their offspring—which the trees can apparently recognize as kin—until they’re tall enough to reach the light. And, in a striking example of interspecies coöperation, Simard found that fir trees were using the fungal web to trade nutrients with paper-bark birch trees over the course of the season. The evergreen species will tide over the deciduous one when it has sugars to spare, and then call in the debt later in the season. For the forest community, the value of this coöperative underground economy appears to be better over-all health, more total photosynthesis, and greater resilience in the face of disturbance.
In his talk, Mancuso juxtaposed a slide of the nodes and links in one of these subterranean forest networks with a diagram of the Internet, and suggested that in some respects the former was superior. “Plants are able to create scalable networks of self-maintaining, self-operating, and self-repairing units,” he said. “Plants.”
As I listened to Mancuso limn the marvels unfolding beneath our feet, it occurred to me that plants do have a secret life, and it is even stranger and more wonderful than the one described by Tompkins and Bird. When most of us think of plants, to the extent that we think about plants at all, we think of them as old—holdovers from a simpler, prehuman evolutionary past. But for Mancuso plants hold the key to a future that will be organized around systems and technologies that are networked, decentralized, modular, reiterated, redundant—and green, able to nourish themselves on light. “Plants are the great symbol of modernity.” Or should be: their brainlessness turns out to be their strength, and perhaps the most valuable inspiration we can take from them.

At dinner in Vancouver, Mancuso said, “Since you visited me in Florence, I came across this sentence of Karl Marx, and I became obsessed with it: ‘Everything that is solid melts into air.’ Whenever we build anything, it is inspired by the architecture of our bodies. So it will have a solid structure and a center, but that is inherently fragile. This is the meaning of that sentence—‘Everything solid melts into air.’ So that’s the question: Can we now imagine something completely different, something inspired instead by plants?” 
PHOTOGRAPH: Grant Cornett

Thursday, December 26, 2013

BP and Chevron are accused of dumping toxic radioactive waste into the swamps of Louisiana

Fri Dec 20, 2013 at 03:37 PM PST

Think Progress reports that BP and Chevron have been illegally dumping toxic waste, including radioactive waste, into the waters of Louisiana.


CREDIT: AP Photo/Louisianian Department of Environmental Quality

This is just outrageous. The fossil fuel industry has zero regard for the American people. I hope the parish wins and wins big.
The Louisiana parish of Plaquemines is taking on a group of oil and gas giants including BP and Chevron for allegedly dumping toxic waste — some of it radioactive — from their drilling operations into its coastal waters, according to a lawsuit removed to federal court on Thursday. Plaquemines Parish is claiming the companies violated the Louisiana State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 by discharging oil field waste directly into the water “without limitation.” Worse, the companies allegedly failed to clear, revegetate, detoxify or restore any of the areas they polluted, as required by state law. The oil and gas companies’ pollution, along with their alleged failure to adequately maintain their oilfields, has caused significant coastal erosion and contaminated groundwater, the lawsuit said.
snip
Plaquemines’ suit says BP and Chevron should have known that the oilfield wastes, referred to as “brine,” contained “unacceptable and inherently dangerous” levels of radioactive materials called Radium 226 and Radium 228. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, small amounts of Radium 226 were once used as an additive in toothpaste, hair creams, and even food items due to supposed beneficial health properties. Those products soon “fell out of vogue,” however, after it was discovered that the health effects were exactly the opposite of beneficial. Long-term exposure to radium also increases the risk of developing several diseases, including lymphoma, bone cancer, leukemia and aplastic anemia, according to the EPA.
Radium emits both alpha and gamma radiation, the former of which is detrimental if taken into the body through inhalation or ingestion — a real concern considering the alleged water contamination. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 80 percent of the radium that is swallowed will promptly leave the body through feces, while the other 20 percent enters the bloodstream and accumulates preferentially in the bones. Some of that radium will remain in the bones throughout the person’s lifetime, the EPA said.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Chronology of Robert Benge, aka Chief Bench


compiled by Don Chestnut

Robert Benge was born circa 1760 probably in the Cherokee village Toquo to John Benge and Wurteh, a Cherokee. Robert grew up to be the most notorious Cherokee in history. He was so feared in the central Appalachian areas of present-day Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, that the settlers admonished their children by saying, "if you don't watch out, Captain Benge will get you."

Toquo was a Cherokee village on the Little Tennessee River in present-day southeastern Tennessee. Robert grew up as a Cherokee, but with his red hair, European look, and his good command of English, he could also pass as a pure Euro-American. He used this double identity to good effect in his raids against the settlers. He was known as Bob Benge, Captain Benge, Chief Benge, Chief Bench, or just The Bench. If he had a Cherokee name, it is not known.
Robert's father was John Benge, an Indian trader who lived among the Cherokee, and his mother was Wurteh who was part of an influential Cherokee family. [Robert's pedigree can be found in the genealogy database, "Our Ancestors."] John was previously married to Elizabeth Lewis, daughter of William Terrell Lewis and Sarah Martin, a prominent family originally from Virginia. Elizabeth's sister, Susannah Lewis married John's brother, Thomas Benge. John and Elizabeth had several children at their home in western North Carolina. These were William Lewis, Sarah, and Obadiah Martin. Apparently, John was also living with Wurteh at his home with the Cherokee (probably Toquo) and had several children born there. These were Robert, Utana "the Tail," Lucy, and Tashliske. After Elizabeth and the Lewis family found out about John's Cherokee family, their marriage was dissolved and Elizabeth latter remarried John Fielder and had other children. Wurteh also had a child from a man whose last name was Gist or Guess and their child became known to history as Sequoyah. Robert and Sequoyah were half brothers.

Date unknown, circa 1777: John Benge, Wurteh, and their family moved with Dragging Canoe to the south near the southern border of Tennessee [from Evans, 1976].

Date unknown, after 1777: Robert Benge lived at Running Water Town in Tennessee next to the northwestern border of Georgia. Here he was befriended by the Shawnee Chiksika, an older brother of Tecumseh. A small group of Ohio Shawnee were there to assist Dragging Canoe in his efforts against the whites. Robert and several Cherokee joined the Shawnee in their attacks against white settlements especially in the upper Holston River area of northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Robert was thought to be Shawnee by some because of his association with this band. His skills in these raids elevated his rank among certain of the Cherokee and Shawnee [from Evans, 1976].

June 29, 1785: The cabin of Archibald Scott and Fannie Dickenson Scott (of Castle's Woods) on Wallen Creek in present-day Lee County, Virginia was attacked by thirteen Indians coming from Wallen Ridge. At nighttime the Indians broke down the door and shot Archibald who died. The Indians then tomahawked and scalped all four of the children. They carried Mrs. Scott outside, packed their booty and then burned the house. At this time she heard the name Benge spoken several times by some of the Indians. A white man with the Indians told her that he was Hargus [what is his last name?] and had taken up with the Indians (he had committed a crime and joined the Indians to escape punishment). During the night they headed north, crossed Wallen Ridge, and headed up the Powell River valley. By daybreak they entered Big Stone Gap and went up a tributary to the north flowing from Black Mountain near the present-day Kentucky-Virginia line. On the northern side of Black Mountain in present-day Kentucky, the chief divided the booty equally and sent a party of nine to head for the Clinch River settlements in order to steal horses. The other four traveled northward. On the eleventh day of the attack, the four Indians stopped at their rendevous to wait for the other nine. Three went hunting leaving Mrs. Scott with the oldest of the group. She escaped from the lone Indian and traveled through the rugged wilderness for many days traveling along the Big Sandy River, through the gorge at Pine Mountain and finally, on August 11, 1785 she broke through the wilderness at New Garden in the upper part of the Clinch River. [from Addington, 1966, p. 88-96; sources were: Virginia State Papers, vol. IV, p. 40; Freeman's journal, Philadelphia [Dec. 15, 1785]; and Journal of Francis Asbury] [It is unknown whether Robert Benge was a member of this Indian party.]

1788: John Sevier led a group of whites to attack Cherokee towns. Robert saved many of the Cherokee of Ustalli (Ustally) Town by evacuating them before and during the attack. Ustalli was located in southwestern North Carolina on the Hiwassee River very close to present-day Tennessee. Five of the Cherokee rearguard were killed while trying to bide time for the evacuees, and the white militia captured one young boy. John Sevier and his men burned the town and attempted to run down the evacuees. Benge set up an ambush at the mouth of Valley River which delayed the attackers and allowed the Cherokee to reach safety. However, at this point, the little boy who had been captured was "brutally murdered" by Thomas Christian who was quoted as saying "Nits make lice."
Sevier and his men went to the Cherokee village of Coota-cloochee and started to burn down about a hundred acres of corn. However, the Cherokee John Watts, with four hundred Cherokee warriors arrived, forcing a retreat of Sevier's men [from Evans, 1976].

Circa 1788: Robert Benge was married to a Cherokee woman and settled at a site still called Benge's Field just south of present-day Trenton, GA. This was the Cherokee village called Lookout Town [from Evans, 1976].
Robert was reported in many publications to have married Jennie Lowrey and his brother, Martin was reported to have married Eliza Lowrey, her sister. However, the two Benges who married the Lowery sisters were the nephews of Robert who had the same name and were the sons of Robert's half brother, Obadiah Martin Benge. Some of the children reported as Robert Benge's were the children of his nephew. It is thought that Robert was married and did have children, but their identity is uncertain [Oleta Benge Kite, personal communication, 1995-1997].

1789: Earlier, the Cherokee had attacked the ___ Brown family on their flatboat [where?]. Three children had been captured. John Sevier had also captured some Cherokee on Flint Creek. Robert Benge was visiting at the Cherokee village of Nickajack in southernmost Tennessee or in northwestern Georgia when an exchange of prisoners was proposed. The two older white children, Joseph and Polly Brown were in the area and ready to be exchanged, but the little girl (name unknown) was held by a recalcitrant Cherokee at Crow Town, about thirty miles away in present-day northeastern Alabama. The Cherokee who held her refused to give her to a messenger sent to pick her up for the exchange. Robert Benge heard of the trouble, got on his horse with his war axe and said "I will bring the girl, or her owner's head." The next day, Robert appeared at Nickajack with the little girl [from Evans, 1976].

"Sometime in the year 1789, John Wallen built a small cabin at the mouth of Stock Creek where Clinchport is situated now. He located his cabin on the Kentucky Path, and, no doubt, helped to entertain some of the hundreds of settlers who were at that time emigrating to Kentucky over the Wilderness Road. Wallen was not left long in the peacable enjoyment of his new home in the wilderness. Benge and his forest bloodhounds soon found his cabin. One morning just at daybreak, his wife, on opening the door, was shot at by an Indian and slightly wounded. Quickly closing the door, she barred it to prevent its being forced. Wallen, who was yet in bed, then hastily arose and snatching the gun from its rack, shot and killed the Indian nearest the door. The other Indians then rushed upon the house, trying to effect an entrance, nor did they retreat until Wallen had killed three of them. After driving the Indians away, Wallen and his wife went to Carter's Fort, eight miles distant. (Carter's Letter, Draper Manuscripts.) [from Addington, 1977, sent by M. J. Arthur]" [It is unknown whether Robert Benge actually participated in this raid, although it was attributed to him.]

Summer of 1791: At the Cherokee town called Running Water in present-day southernmost Tennessee, Robert Benge announced that he was going to start a raiding campaign against white settlers in southwestern Virginia. Five men joined him and they proceeded northward [from Evans, 1976].

Summer of 1791: At the Cherokee town called Running Water in present-day southernmost Tennessee, Robert Benge announced that he was going to start a raiding campaign against white settlers in southwestern Virginia. Five men joined him and they proceeded northward [from Evans, 1976].

August 23, 1791: Robert Benge's group raided the William McDowell house near Moccasin Gap (Russell Co., VA). Two whites were killed and an 8-year-old boy and woman were captured [from Evans, 1976].

August 26, 1791: Benge's group raided the Elisha Farris house. Four whites were killed and Nancy Farris, a 19-year-old girl, was captured [from Evans, 1976].
"August 26, 1791, a party of Indians headed by a Captain Bench, of the Cherokee tribe, attacked the house of Elisha Ferris, two miles from Mockison [sic] Gap, murdered Mr. Ferris at his house, and made prisoner Mrs. Ferris and her daughter, Mrs. Livingston, and a young child together with Nancy Ferris. All but the latter were cruelly murdered the first day of their captivity." [Bledsoe et al, in Summers, 1903, p. 438]

Spring of 1792: Robert Benge led raids on the upper Holston River in present-day northeastern Tennessee and Virginia [from Evans, 1976].

April 6, 1792: Robert Benge's group attacked the Ratcliff settlement. Four whites were killed [from Evans, 1976].
Spring and Summer, 1792: A militia company commanded by Captain James Cooper was formed to protect the settlers against Indian attacks and they patrolled the area of Hawkins Co., now in northeastern Tennessee. The presence of the militia company prevented further raids in the area. Robert Benge was reported to have been seen in several areas of eastern Tennessee during this time, but the militia never came in contact with him [from Evans, 1976].

September, 1792: Robert Benge and his brother, Utana ("The Tail") visited Hiwassee Town in southeastern Tennessee. They were heavily armed and traveling north. They announced that they were going to kill John Sevier. They never located him [from Evans, 1976].

October 2 or 3, 1792: Robert and Utana "The Tail" Benge reached Black's Blockhouse at the head of Crooked Creek of Little River [Knox Co., NC (now Blount Co., TN)]. This fort "was commanded by a sergeant from Captain Crawford's Company. The Benge brothers reached the fort about an hour after dark. Part of the garrison was sitting out of doors by a fire, with no thought of danger. Both brothers fired and, changing their position, quickly reloaded and fired again. This procedure was repeated, giving the impression that they were a much larger force. Two of the militia by the fire, George Moss and Robert Sharpe, were killed, and John Shankland was wounded. James Paul was killed inside the blockhouse. During the shooting three of the white's horses were killed, but Benge [Robert] and his brother were able to capture seven of the animals which they took back to the Lower towns with them." [from Evans, 1976; also from "History of Blount County," p. 10 (thanks to Jean Sharp).]

Circa 1792: "On another occasion, Benge [Robert], with a small war-band, ambushed a party of whites traveling from Southwest Point to Nashville. The group consisted of seven men, a boy and four women. One of the Cherokees fired too soon, alerting the whites. At the sound of the shot, the seven men set spurs to their horses and fled at top speed, leaving the women to their fate. The four women were too terrified to move. Benge approached them and, speaking in English, told them they would not be hurt. He shook hands with each of them, assuring them that they were safe. One of their horses had bolted and Benge caught it an tied it to a tree. He then built a fire for their use, and courteously took his departure. Four of the white men did not slow their horses until they reached Nashville. The other three, when they were sure the Cherokees were gone, returned to the women and escorted them the rest of the way in safety." [Evans, 1976].

January 22, 1793: Robert Benge, his two uncles, Doublehead [Taltsuska] and Pumpkin Boy [Iyahuwagiatsutsa] and several other Cherokee, in retaliation for the Cherokee defeat at Buchanan's Station, went into the "barrens" region of southwestern Kentucky. [This was a region with little water because of the large number of sinkholes, i.e. a karstic plain. It was also thought to have been burnt in the past to provide grassland for bison.] They set up an ambush at one of the few watering holes, Dripping Spring, along the Nashville-Kentucky road. Captain Overall and a Mr. Burnett were proceeding south on the road with nine packhorses loaded with provisions (whiskey, salt, etc.) for the settlements along the Cumberland. Both were killed in the ambush and their scalps were taken. "…The whiskey they found was regarded as a pleasing bonus for the victory. After making liberal use of it, Doublehead made a suggestion which shocked even his battle hardened companions. He calmly drew his knife and began cutting strips of flesh from the bodies of the two white men, proposing that the Cherokees join him in the ancient Iroquoian ritual of 'eating their enemy.' This type of ceremonial cannibalism was the means by which the northern Iroquois enhanced their reputations as fierce warriors. After several rounds of reciting their own war exploits and consuming the booze, their ferociousness was second to none and Benge and the others followed Doublehead's example by partaking of the hearts and brains of their victims. The deed was done with little sense of ceremony, but rather as a deliberate atrocity, well calculated to strike terror in the hearts of the Cumberland settlements." [Evans, 1976]

After January, 1793: Robert Benge, Doublehead and party returned to the Lower Towns and planned to form larger war parties against the whites along the Cumberland River [Evans, 1976]. Robert and two or three others set out for Virginia in March [from Evans, 1976].

Sometime in March, 1793: "In the month of March, 1793, a considerable band of Indians were seen on the headwaters of the Clinch river attempting to steal horses. The Indians finally succeeded in stealing eight horses, and made off toward the Ohio. In the meantime Major Robert Crockett proceeded to gather a company to pursue the Indians, and while engaged in gathering them in he directed Joseph Gilbert and Samuel Lusk, two scouts, to follow the Indians, and, in case they found them, to give him information.
"Gilbert and Lusk had not followed the Indians more than an hour, when they came to a lick, at which the Indians had concealed themselves waiting for deer or elk. As soon as the scouts approached the lick they were fired upon by the Indians, and Lusk was wounded in the hand. Gilbert turned and started to run, when Lusk called him to stay and save his life, if possible. Gilbert, fired with all the noble instincts of true manhood, turned and shot the first Indian dead on the spot. The Indians surrounded him, and, his gun being empty, he dropped it and drew his hunting knife, and attacked the Indians with such spirit that they dared no longer get within his reach; but they used their tomahawks with such effect that he soon lay dead by the side of Lusk, who was now reviving. The Indians scalped Gilbert and carried Lusk off a prisoner. Major Crockett and his force came up after some time, but they were too late to accomplish any good." [Campbell, in Summers, 1903, p. 436-437]

Circa March 15, 1793: "..several emigrants were killed on the Kentucky road. Captain Andrew Lewis, to appease the settlers who were about to break up, placed a sergeant and twelve men at Dump's creek." [Summers, 1903, p. 434-435]

March 20, 1793: "…a party of Indians numbering twenty-three appeared upon the frontiers of Wythe and Montgomery, frequently showing themselves, to the terror of the inhabitants. John Davidson was murdered by them and a number of horses were stolen from Wolf creek, Bluestone and Island creek. The Indians made their escape, except a small party entrusted with the care of about eighty horses, from Island creek. This company was pursued by a large party from Bluestone and another from the head of Clinch, and were overtaken the next day, at the mouth of Little Cole, at what is called the Island of Guyandotte, where they were attacked by the whites. Three of their number were killed and scalped, all the horses retaken, with the arms and blankets of a part of their warriors. The number of Indians concerned in the murder of John Davidson at the Laurel fork of Wolf creek was about twelve. This party of Indians carried off a number of horses from that neighborhood and passed with them in daylight through the heart of the Bluestone settlement."" [Summers, 1903, p. 435]

March 31, 1793: The small Benge group set up an ambush along a road near the top of Powell Mountain in present-day Lee County, Virginia. Three white men were leading a pack train down the mountain. "…As the whites drew closer Benge [Robert] recognized their leader as Moses Cockrell. Cockrell was a loud mouthed ruffian, whose reputation as an 'Indian Fighter' in the Holston area was similar to that which Overall had formerly enjoyed on the Cumberland. Cockrell was a large man, and very vain of his size and strength. He had frequently boasted that he would relish an encounter with the notorious 'Captain' Benge in personal combat, and had in profane terms predicted the outcome for the amusement of many tavern audiences. Benge had heard of his boasts, and grimly determined to give Cockrell an opportunity to make good his words. He instructed his men to shoot Cockrell's companions, but to leave the big man for him. The ambush was successful, and Cockrell's friends fell at the first fire.

"Leaving his rifle behind, Benge sprang from the bushes with his tomahawk in his hand. Cockrell immediately recognized Benge from his red hair. In spite of his vivid descriptions of what he would do upon meeting Benge, Cockrell could only think of flight. He dashed down the mountainside, crashing through the underbrush like a wounded buffalo, with Benge in close pursuit.
"Two miles away, in the valley of Wallen's Creek, was a settler's cabin. Cockrell felt that his only hope for escape lay in reaching that cabin, and to this end he drove his strength to the utmost limits. Although he was handicapped by the weight of two hundred dollars in silver at his belt, the big fellow managed to stay a few steps ahead of Benge. At last, by a desperate effort, he reached the clearing. Benge was only a few feet behind when Cockrell vaulted the rail fence surrounding the cabin. As Cockrell jumped, Benge threw his tomahawk. The razor sharp axe stuck in the top rail of the fence, and the white man reached the safety of the cabin. Not knowing how the house might be guarded, Benge withdrew to join his companions on the mountain, leaving Cockrell to nurse his wounded pride. The big man continued to be a source of amusement in the local taverns, but after this, the laughter was of a different sort." [Evans, 1976].
The story as told by Summers (1903) follows…"The trouble with the Indians began at the opening of spring in the year 1793. On Sunday about the first day of April, Ensign Moses Cockrell and two men were passing from Rye Cove to Powell's Valley, with several loaded horses. On the top of Powell's mountain they were fired on by twelve Indians. The two men who accompanied Cockrell were shot dead on the spot, and Cockrell himself was pursued to the foot of the mountain. Two of his horses were killed and all the loads lost."
"Captain Neal, with a party, pursued the Indians but did not succeed in overtaking them. The Chief who led this company of Indians was a half-breed Shawnese [actually Cherokee] by the name of Benge. A writer in speaking of this occurrence says: "He was remarkable for his strength, activity, endurance and great speed as a runner. He was a man of more than average intelligence also, as well as of great bravery and strategy, and had more than once approached the settlements so stealthily and by a route so secret that he fell upon the scattered settlers without an intimation of his approach and retired to his wigwams beyond the Cumberland without leaving a trace of the route he had traveled, though rangers were constantly on the lookout for his trail. One of these rangers of the Holston settlements was a man by the name of Cockrell, and the writer must make a digression to record an incident in his history. He was famous for his size, activity and handsome person. Benge and himself were rivals in manhood and woodcraft, each jealous of the other's prowess and courage, and both anxious for an occasion to meet in single combat. Not many months before Benge's last incursion, they met on top of Powell's mountain, in what is now Lee county, each with a band of followers. The Indians were in ambush, having observed the approach of the whites, who were not aware of their proximity, and Benge instructed his companions not to kill Cockrell, so that he himself might run him down and capture him. At the crack of the Indian rifles two or three of Cockrell's companions fell; seeing which and at once comprehending the folly of a combat with dozen savages, he sprang away down the mountain side, like an antelope, with Benge in close pursuit. Two miles away in the valley on Wallen's creek was the cabin of a pioneer, in reaching which Cockrell knew was his only chance of escape. Having two hundred dollars in specie in a belt around him, he found he was carrying two much weight for a closely contested race, and that Benge was gaining on him. Making a desperate effort, however, he increased his speed a little, and as he leaped the fence that surrounded the cabin, Benge's tomahawk was buried in the top rail before Cockrell reached the ground. Benge seeing that he had missed his aim, and not knowing how many men and rifles might be in the cabin, fled back to his companions, sadly disappointed.
"A few years after this Cockrell died on the north fork in this county, and during the 'wake,' while his body lay in the cabin, an old comrade who had been in many a hard pinch with him, thus gave utterance to his thoughts and feelings as he paced the puncheon floor in great sorrow: "Poor Cockrell, he is gone! He was noble fellow after Injuns and varmints, and I hope he has gone to where there is as much game and as desperate good range as he had on Holston!" [from Summers, 1903]

First week in April?, 1793: "During the same week [as the attack on Cockrell], fourteen persons were killed on the Kentucky road, near the Hazel Patch. The whites discovered the Indians and attempted to secure the first fire, but failed, and only two of the whites made their escape. The Indians lost five dead, and one white man with them killed. Both parties broke and ran at the same time in opposite directions." [Summers, 1903, p. 434]

April 1793: "…the same chief ['Captain Bench'] with a party of Indians, attacked and murdered the family of Harper Ratcliffe, six in number, about eight miles west of the above-mentioned gap [Mockison Gap, sic]. [Bledsoe et al, in Summers, 1903, p. 438]

April 20, 1793: "Colonel Isaac Bledsoe was killed on Cumberland in the month of April, and on the 20th of the month, a skirmish took place between twenty Indians and eight white men at Laurel river, in Kentucky, in which skirmish the white people were all killed, except McFarland, who escaped, and a number who were wounded." [Campbell in Summers, 1903, p. 436]

June 12, 1793: Cherokee chiefs and delegates appointed by President George Washington were holding a meeting to discuss peace prospects at the Cherokee town, Coyatee (at the mouth of the Holston, southwest of Knoxville, TN). A renegade white militia, led by Captain John Beard, charged into town firing upon Indian and white alike. Major Thomas King was sleeping with Chief Hanging Maw's daughter and had to jump out of a back window of their cabin to avoid death. Other government agents, James Ore and Daniel Carmichael were fired upon but they escaped harm. The Cherokee Fool Charlie, Betty Kitegista, and four others were killed. Chief Hanging Maw, his wife, and the daughter of Nancy Ward were wounded in the attack. The remaining government delegation were finally able to convince Beard and his men to halt their attack, spare the rest of the Indians, and to not burn their town. Beard was later arrested and was brought to a military court, but was acquitted, probably because of his friendship with John Sevier [from Evans, 1976].

July 17, 1793: "…Bench with two other warriors traversed the settlement, on the north fork of Holston for upwards of twenty miles, probably with the intention of making discoveries where were negro property. In this rout they fired at one Williams, and took prisoner a negro woman, the property of Paul Livingston, who after two days captivity made her escape." [Bledsoe et al, in Summers, 1903, p. 438]

Summer, 1793: Beard's attack and subsequent acquittal caused the Cherokees to elevate their attacks on white settlements. Chief John Watts called for warriors to gather and the largest Cherokee war party in history. Robert Benge was one of the first among them to volunteer. Also joining were Shawnees from Running Water in southern Tennessee and a large group of Creek enlisted by Chief Doublehead [from Evans, 1976].

Summer?, 1793: As the war party moved north, Nettle Carrier [Talotiskee] and his brother, Pumpkin Boy went ahead to scout. The scouts approached the blockhouse at Ish's Station which was commanded by John Sevier. The two were spotted by sentries and Pumpkin Boy was shot and killed [from Evans, 1976] [Pumpkin Boy was Robert Benge's uncle].

Summer?, 1793: John Watts wanted to target Knoxville, Tennessee because it was the largest white town in Cherokee territory. Chief Doublehead attacked and burned every white cabin along the way, announcing their approach to Knoxville and defeating Watts' plan to make a surprise attack there [from Evans, 1976].

Summer?, 1793: John Watts attacked the fort at Cavett's Station instead. The owner, Alexander Cavett was killed while fighting. During the course of the battle, Watts decided to offer clemency and asked Robert Benge, because of his excellent English, to arrange the cease fire. Robert talked to the settlers and told them that they would be not be killed, but would be traded for Cherokee held captive by the whites. The surviving settlers agreed to the terms. Doublehead, whose brother Pumpkin Boy had recently been killed by Beard's attack, didn't want any whites to survive. He and some of his Creek friends charged the fort as soon as the gates were opened and proceeded to attack the defenseless captives. Robert Benge and Cherokee James Vann tried to save the captives, but they were outnumbered. "James Vann pushed his horse into the surging mob and pulled a small child up behind his saddle. Doublehead immediately rushed forward and smashed the boy's skull. Raising his voice, Vann taunted Doublehead with the name 'Baby-killer,' a parody of the honorable war title, 'Man-killer.' The enraged Doublehead swung his axe at Vann, who was able to turn his horse in time to avoid the blow. John Watts attempted to save another child. He gave young Alexander Cavett, Jr., to three of the Creeks, instructing them to take the boy to a safe place. His efforts, noble though they were, were useless, because the Creeks murdered the boy." [Evans, 1976]

Fall, 1793 [reported as July 17 above]: "In the fall of 1793, a party of eight Indians passed through the thinly-settled parts of Russell county, and captured a negro woman, the property of Paul Livingston, near Big Moccasin Gap, but before they could carry her beyond the settlements she made her escape and reached her home." [Campbell, in Summers, 1903, p. 437]

October 3, 1793: "…On the third day of this month [October] a party of Indians attacked two families who had lately settled on the road through the wilderness, on the Kentucky side of the Cumberland mountain, within three miles of Hawkins' Station. They killed one man and wounded two children, but were driven off by a man who occupied an adjoining house." [Campbell, in Summers, 1903, p. 437]

Fall and Winter 1793-1794: Robert went home to be with his family for the winter and never again allied with John Watts or Doublhead [from Evans, 1976].

Spring, 1794: When the weather started to warm, Robert Benge went to Willstown in northeastern Alabama to get his brother "The Tail" [Utana]. Together they went to Running Water Town in southern Tennessee and met up with several other Cherokee warriors. This small group then proceeded northward to southern Virginia to make raids on whites in that area, as they had before [from Evans, 1976].

April 6-9, 1794: The story in Elizabeth Livingston's own words [from interview of Mrs. Livingston by A. Campbell in Summers, 1903, p. 439-441]:

April 6, 1794 "About 10 o'clock in the morning, as I was sitting in my house, the fierceness of the dog's barking alarmed me. I looked out and saw seven Indians approaching the house, armed and painted in a frightful manner. No person was then within, but a child of ten years old, and another of two, and my sucking infant. My husband and his brother Henry had just before walked out to a barn at some distance in the field. My sister-in-law, Susanna, was with the remaining children in an out-house. Old Mrs. Livingston was in the garden. I immediately shut and fastened the door; they (the Indians) came furiously up, and tried to burst it open, demanding of me several times to open the door, which I refused. They then fired two guns; one ball pierced through the door, but did me no damage. I then thought of my husband's rifle, took it down but it being double triggered, I was at a loss; at length I fired through the door, but it not being well aimed I did no execution; however the Indians retired from that place and soon after that an old adjoining house was on fire, and I and my children suffering much from the smoke. I opened the door and an Indian immediately advanced and took me prisoner, together with the two children. I then discovered that they had my remaining children in their possession, my sister Sukey, a wench with her young child, a negro man of Edward Callihan's and a negro boy of our own about eight years old. They were fearful of going into the house I left, to plunder, supposing that it had been a man that shot at them, and was yet within. So our whole clothing and household furniture were consumed in the flames, which I was then pleased to see, rather than that it should be of use to the savages.
"We were all hurried a short distance, where the Indians were very busy, dividing and putting up in packs for each to carry his part of the booty taken. I observed them careless about the children, and most of the Indians being some distance off in front, I called with a low voice to my eldest daughter, gave her my youngest child, and told them all to run towards neighbor John Russell's.
"They, with reluctance, left me, sometimes halting, sometimes looking back. I beckoned them to go, although I inwardly felt pangs not to be expressed on account of our doleful separation. The two Indians in the rear either did not notice this scene, or they were willing the children might run back.
That evening the Indians crossed Clinch Mountain and went as far as Cooper creek, distant about eight miles.
"April 7th, set out early in the morning, crossed Clinch river at McLean's fish dam about twelve o'clock, then steered northwardly towards the head of Stoney creek. There the Indians camped carelessly, had no back spy nor kept sentries out. This day's journey was about twenty miles.
"April 8th. Continued in camp until the sun was more than an hour high; then set out slowly and traveled five or six miles and camped near the foot of Powell's mountain. This day Benge, the Indian chief, became more pleasant, and spoke freely to the prisoners. He told them he was about to carry them to the Cherokee towns. That in his route in the wilderness was his brother with two other Indians hunting, so that he might have provision when he returned. That at his camp were several white prisoners taken from Kentucky, with horses and saddles to carry them to the towns. He made enquiry for several persons on Holston, particularly old General Shelby, and said he would pay him a visit during the ensuing summer, and take away all his negroes. He frequently enquired who had negroes, and threatened he would have them all off the North Holston. He said all the Chickamooga [Overhill] towns were for war, and would soon be very troublesome to the white folks.
"This day two of the party were sent by Benge ahead to hunt.
"April 9th. After traveling about five miles, which was over Powell's mountain, and near the foot of the Stone mountain [near Dorchester], a party of thirteen men under command of Lieutenant Vincent Hobbs, of the militia of Lee county, met the enemy in front, attacked and killed Benge the first fire, I being at that time some distance off in the rear. The Indian who was my guard at first halted on hearing the firing. He then ordered me to run, which I performed slowly. He attempted to strike me in the head with the tomahawk, which I defended as well as I could with my arm. By this time two of our people came in view, which encouraged me to struggle all I could. The Indian making an effort at this instant pushed me backward and I fell over a log, at the same time aiming a violent blow at my head, which in part spent its force on me and laid me for dead. The first thing I afterwards remembered was my good friends around me, giving me all the assistance in their power for my relief. They told me I was senseless for about an hour.
"Certified this 15th day of April, 1794. A. Campbell"
On the subject of the militia's pursuit of Benge, Summers states (1903, p. 441-442): "Vincent Hobbs was a lieutenant in the militia of Lee county, and, at the time in question, he was attending the court of that county which was in session. Upon the arrival of the express with the news of the Indian invasion, the court immediately adjourned and a party was organized upon the spot, under the command of Hobbs, to waylay a gap in Cumberland mountain called the Stone gap, through which, it was supposed, the Indians were mostly to pass. [In this party, besides Vincent Hobbs, were: John Van Bever, Job Hobbs, Stephen Jones, James Huff, James Van Bever, Peter Van Bever, Abraham Hobbs, Adam Ely, Samuel Livingston, George Yokum and ___ Dotson. Also probably present was Capt. William Dorton.] On his arrival at the gap, Hobbs discovered that the Indians had just passed through before him; he therefore pursued with eagerness and soon discovered two Indians kindling a fire; these, they instantly dispatched, and finding some plunder with them, which they knew must have been taken out of Livingston's house, they at once came to the conclusion that these two had been sent forward to hunt for provisions and that the others were yet behind with the prisoners.
Col. Arthur Campbell in Summers, 1903, p. 442-443: "The object of Hobbs was now to make a quick retreat, to cover his own sign if possible, at the gap, before the Indians should discover it, and perhaps kill the prisoners and escape. Having gained this point he chose a place of ambuscade; but not exactly liking this position he left the men there, and taking one with him by the name of Van Bibber, he went some little distance in advance to try if he could find a place more suitable for his purpose. As they stood looking around for such a place, they discovered the Indians coming up with their prisoners. They cautiously concealed themselves and each singled out his man. Benge, having charge of the younger Mrs. Livingston, led the van, and the others followed in succession; but the Indian who had charge of the elder Mrs. Livingston was considerably behind, she not being able to march with the same light, elastic step of her sister. When the front came directly opposite to Hobbs and Van Bibber they both fired, Hobbs killing Benge, and Van Bibber the one next behind him. At the crack of the rifle the other men rushed forward, but the Indians had escaped into a laurel thicket, taking with them a negro fellow. The Indian wha had charge of the elder Mrs. Livingston tried his best to kill her, but he was so hurried that he missed his aim. Her arms were badly cut by defending her head from the blows of his tomahawk. The prisoners had scarcely time to recover from their surprise before the two Livinstons, who heard the guns and were now in close pursuit with a party of men from Washington, came running up and received their wives at the hands of Hobbs with a gust of joy. Four Indians were killed and five had escaped, and it appears they were separated into parties of three and two. The first had the negro fellow with them, and, by his account, they lodged that night in a cave, where he escaped from them and got home.
In the meantime a party of the hardy mountaineers of Russell collected and proceeded in haste to waylay a noted Indian crossing place high up on the Kentucky river. When they got there they found some Indians had just passed. They immediately drew the same conclusion that Hobbs had done, and hastened back to the river for fear those behind should discover their sign. Shortly after they had stationed themselves, the other three made their appearance; the men fired upon them, two fell and the other fled, but left a trail of blood behind him, which readily conducted his pursuers to where he had taken refuge in a thick canebrake. It was thought imprudent to follow him any further, as he might be concealed and kill some of them before they could discover him. Thus eight of the party were killed and the other perhaps mortally wounded."

April 29, 1794: Senior militia officer, Col. Arthur Campbell, sent Benge's scalp to Virginia's governor, along with the letter, quoted in Summers (1903, p. 443):
"The scalp of Captain Benge, I have been requested to forward to your Excellency, as a proof that he is no more, and of the activity and good conduct of Lieutenant Hobbs, in killing him and relieving the prisoners. Could it be spared from our treasury, I would beg leave to hint that a present of a neat rifle to Mr. Hobbs would be accepted, as a reward for his late services, and the Executive may rest assured that it would serve as a stimulus for future exertions against the enemy."
The General Assembly of Virginia send Mr. Hobbs a silver-mounted rifle.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Robert BENGE
1763 - 9 Apr 1794
BIRTH: 1763, Toquo Village
DEATH: 9 Apr 1794, Stone Mountain, Dorchester, Richmond, Virginia
Father: John BENGE
Mother: Wurtea WATTS

NOTE: Watts, Wurteh - 1/4th Shawnee-Cherokee Metis born about 1745-died after 1770 - daughter of Oousta White Owl aka Oousta Great Eagle-1/2 Shawnee-Cherokee & John Watts Sr-white, wife 1st 1758 of Robert Due aka Chief Jolly-1/2 Shawnee Metis, 2nd 1760 of George Gist-1/2 Cherokee Metis, 3rd 1761 of Bloody Fellow-Shawnee, 4th 1762 of John Benge-white, mother with Due of Chief John Jolly/59-3/8th Shawnee-Cherokee Metis, with Guess of Sogwili aka George Guess /60-1/8th Shawnee-Cherokee Metis, with Bloody Fellow of Tahlonteeskee/61-5/8th Shawnee-Cherokee Metis, with Benge of Martin aka Tail/62, Robert aka Bench-Chief Benge/63, Lucy/68, Daughter/69, Richard Benge/70-all 1/8th Shawnee-Cherokee Meti
Killed not long after the Shelby Raids of 1779, after they moved back to North Carolina to live near relatives. Their own son Robert killed them unknowing they were in North Carolina.

Family 1 : Black Fox Daughter CHIPPEWA
MARRIAGE: 1786, Benges' Field, Georgia
Richard BENGE
John (Wagonmaster) BENGE
Mary Polly (Ooloosta) BENGE
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References Cited
Addington, L.F., 1966, Indian stories of Virginia's last frontier. Historical Society of Southwest Virginia, No. III, 135 p.

Addington, R. M., 1977, A history of Scott County, Virginia. Publisher unknown, p. 125, 126.

Evans, E.R., 1976, Notable persons in Cherokee history: Bob Benge. Journal of Cherokee Studies, v. 1, no. 2, p. 98-106.