West Virginia Hills by Jeff Ellis

Monday, July 5, 2010

Following Mary Draper Ingles

     You'd think that since John and I live right on the Ohio River that we wouldn't want to follow other rivers in our free time, but we love the water, and so over the 4th of July weekend instead of enduring the sweltering heat of either the city north of us (Parkersburg) or the city south of us (Point Pleasant) for sternwheel regattas, live bands, food vendors, hundreds of people, and firework displays, we decided to take off on an adventure of our own sans any of that!

     To begin our journey we did make a quick little stop down at the river in Point Pleasant where the Kanawha runs into the Ohio because 1) we wanted to check out the sternwheelers that were docked there, and 2) because that's where we decided we'd start our drive, retracing part of the journey that Mary Draper Ingles made back in 1755 after she was captured by the Shawnee Indians who invaded her home in Drapers Meadows, in Virginia Territory when she was only 23 years old. If you haven't read her story, you really should! There are several renditions of it, but my favorite is James Alexander Thom's novel Follow the River based on the true account of her ordeal. (You can pick up a copy of this in most bookstores that feature books on West Virginia, including the Tamarak if you're stopping by there, or from our Travelin" West Virginia on-line store.) Anyway, her story began in 1732 when she was born to Irish immigrant parents in Philadelphia, PA. Like many other immigrant families, they migrated west to the mountains where they settled in Drapers Meadows (or what is now Blacksburg, VA). There, 18 year old Mary met and married 21 year old William Ingles (their marriage is the first recorded English marriage to take place west of the Allegheny Mountains), and quickly bore two sons, Tommy and George.  It was during this time that the French and British were fighting, Indians were taking sides, and settlers were getting caught in the crossfires. The region of the Allegheny was hunting grounds for several Indian tribes, but it was a group of Shawnee warriors, raiding and setting fire to villages, viciously scalping and killing most men, women, and children, and kidnapping a few white women and children to take back as wives and slaves, who came storming through Drapers Meadows one day when William and another man were out in the fields farming, without any guns and too far away to be of any assistance. While they did escape notice, all of their neighbors were brutally killed, and their houses burned to the ground. William's own wife and children, however, along with one other woman, were carried off by the Shawnee. Mary was 23 years old, Tommy was 4, and George was 3. They were taken down the New River to the Ohio River south to a Shawnee village located where the Scioto and Ohio Rivers meet, into territory that no English white man or woman had ever gone. In order to make the trip she had had to keep up with her captors and hold her own or she would have been killed. While other prisoners who arrived at the Shawnee camp were made to run the gauntlet to prove their strength and worth, she had so impressed all of her captors that she was not forced to do this. However, it was at this camp that her two sons were taken from her and sold. Unfortunately, the youngest, George, did not survive longer than a few months. Mary was hired to sew, but was eventually sold to French trappers and taken further west into Kentucky to help mine salt at Big Bone Lick. Even though this was extremely hard work, she was given freedom to roam around on her own, as it was taken for granted that escape from this area would be virtually impossible. Regardless, Mary had made up her mind that unless she escaped, William would never find her or their sons, and so determined that their only chance of survival would be if she ran for it, talked an older big boned German woman who had aslo been sold to this French trapping party to go with her. Together they took 2 knives and two blankets, and as discreetly as possible, walked away on November 7th. (James Alexander Thom's account, based on historic records and interviews with descendants, says that Mary gave birth to a baby girl in route to the Shawnee village, but left it with a woman who was "married" to one of the French trappers, who had become enamored with the baby and was better able to nurse and care for her, which makes this whole story even more heart wrenching!)

     Now to set the scene: Mary and the unknown "Dutch" woman had to cross 145 creeks and rivers as they traveled 250 miles up the Ohio River to where it meets the mouth of the Kanawha River. From there they had to make the 95 mile trek up river, crossing another 46 smaller streams and rivers to reach the Falls of the Kanawha, where they would then have yet another 85 to 90 more miles to follow the New River before Mary reached home. Her story becomes part of West Virginia frontier history once she crossed the Big Sandy River on the Ohio, where she would have entered what is now Wayne County, West Virginia. Remember, by November the weather would have become frigid; they had to live on berries and roots and a few fish that they were able to spearhead; their clothes had already virtually become tattered rags and their shoes were worn through; towards the end, Mary's travel partner became so insane with hunger that she sought to kill and eat Mary, and Mary had to work to escape her and the only knife they had left, when she found an Indian boat at the mouth of one of the smaller rivers and made it across the shore, continuing her journey alone on the opposite side of the river. Neither woman knew how to swim, and so had to journey up each stream until they could find a safe place to cross and then make it back down stream to the river they were following, thus making the entire journey of almost a thousand miles in 42 1/2 days. Mary had made it by sheer will and determination to see her beloved husband once more, and so it was to that end that she had kept her wits, noting the different landmarks along the way so that she could return the same way she had been taken if the chance ever presented itself. She had also made knots in a rope belt that she wore around her waist so that she could keep track of each day that passed. Hers is maybe the most heroic story of any frontier person, man or woman, that I've ever heard of or read about. And I'm so proud that she was in fact a woman! Finally arriving sometime in early December, at age 23, a man who recognized her voice as being his neighbor, took her in and nursed her back to health before taking her the last final miles. She returned home with a head full of white hair she had goten as a result of all the trauma, and a toothless mouth caused by the stress and severe starvation and poor diet, but she and William did reunite, and they had more children. Unfortunately it took another 15 years before they could ransom back Tommy who, with "professinal" help, was eventually able to reassemilate back into European culture. Mary out lived her husband by 33 years, dying at age 83.

    I wanted to follow this woman's tracks. Though I could never in a million years retrace her steps,  I wanted to glimpse the terrain she had walked. Ever since I read Follow the River I have never looked at the Ohio, the Kanawha, or the New Rivers in the same way. Not once have I looked on these rivers and not thought of Mary Draper Ingles and her ordeal. Not once have I not wondered, what if that had been me? At what point would I have given up? I was so obsessed by the story that I told John he just had to read Thom's novel, which he did. I knew that he loved frontier history and the river, and that a story about a woman would not deter him one bit. And just like I had hoped, he fell in love with it too. So here we were together, trying to follow as best we could the route Mary Draper Ingles would have taken along the banks of two of the three rivers. We had already traveled the Ohio and the Kanawha and most of the New River in WV, but decided to start at the mouth of the Kanawha again anyway. There are several places where the roads do not follow the New River, but when they do it's easy to imagine the extraordinary strength and will it took these two women to survive. Remembering that it would have been freezing cold; that they sometimes were following the Indian trails, while at other times they were purposely staying off them; that they were climbing cliffs and walking along the rivers' edges, sometimes fighting the strong currents and rapids that run that time of year; that they were almost barefooted, each wrapped in a blanket that was sometimes wet, and then sleeping on the bare ground wrapped in those same blankets; that they were starving, and scared beyond belief of wild animals and Indians alike. In the place where the Greenbrier River breaks from the New River I think of how incredibly easy it would have been for Mary to have gotten mixed up at that point and then headed in the wrong direction. I think about how two dams on the New River in WV now keep the waters under flood control, as well as the one in Radford, VA where Mary eventually settled with William, but how back then there would have been no such daming up of the rushing waters that might have flooded the rivers' banks. Today it is so beautiful and peaceful along these rivers. John and I both were particularly enamored with Sandstone Falls which lie below Hinton, WV. We spent several hours there before we could bring ourselves to get moving along for the remainder of our trip. We spent the night right across the WV state line in Bluefield, VA before making the rest of our trek the following day, driving over Big Walker Mountain to Wytheville, VA and I81 to Drapers Meadows, Blacksburg, and then finally Radford, VA where Mary lived out the remainder of her long life and then died. From there we headed back into WV where we took several county backroads over the mountains through woods and meadows along gushing streams and railroad tracks before getting back onto Route 60 East heading back to Charleston and then home to Ravenswood, where as soon as I can, I plan to reread Follow the River.

(c) copyright 2010 Travelin' West Virginia All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent. For more information send an e-mail to trvlnwv@live.com

Friday, June 11, 2010

River Living

     Welcome to the first in a new series about River Living. In this series I will be covering all sorts of information about life along the Ohio River. I may be covering what I see along the river from the view on my front deck, or about the parks and campsites located along the river, to people I meet boating, or anything else I might happen across in my travels up and down the river. When I arrived back in my hometown just about a year ago I knew that river living at the edge of the Ohio would be truly special, and I am blessed to have this opportunity to share it with you.

     Last week Connie and I were taking a break from the work we were doing, and since it was a warm day in the early afternoon we decided to enjoy our break from our front deck overlooking the river. It wasn't too long before a canoe came paddeling up to the old ferry landing with two "gentlemen" on board with a hefty load of equipment and supplies. I knew immediately that they were not the run of the mill paddlers that we usually see, and thus I became very interested, wondering about where upriver they were coming from and where downriver they were going.

     As they made their way to a successful landing and exited their canoe, the younger of the two men came walking up the street calling back to his partner that they were in Ravenswood. I stood observing from the deck, and as the man approached I called out a greeting to him. He returned my greeting and inquired about directions to where he might find a store to get ice and some other supplies. I gave him directions, glad that I could be of some help to a visitor to our landing here on the river.

    As soon as he left for the store I grabbed my camera and notebook and tore out the door toward the landing to speak with the older man waiting down at the landing. As I approaced he had his back to me, looking out over the river from the landing. I hollered out from some distance, "Welcome to Ravenswood," as I approached. The man turned to face me and thanked me for my warm welcome, though he seemed somewhat surprised that I was there and greeting him in such a manner. I asked where they were coming from and he told me that he and his son had started their river journey from Clarington, Ohio and had been traveling for seven days. (Clarington, Ohio is located between Moundsville and New Martinsville on the Ohio side of the river.)

     As we exchanged introductions I learned his name was James (Jim) Webb, that he was from Cincinnati, Ohio, and that he was 60 years old. He has been traveling the Ohio River since 1993, and has completed the entire length ( approximately 981 miles) of the river from Pittsburg, PA to Cairo, IL once. This particular trip he was traveling with his son, Christopher Webb (age 38, and also from Cincinnati), who after completing this trip will have one more segment of 204 miles of the river, until he too will have completed the full length of this great river by canoe.


     Mr Webb told me that they paddled about twenty mils a day, and that this was their seventh day on this trip. Their destination was Pomeroy, Ohio where they would be picked up. He told me about his experience of going through the locks in a canoe. The whole business sounded pretty scary to me, especially when he described how the water rushed out of the lock on the downriver side. He was also nice enough to send me a picture of their canoe entering one of the five locks they had to navigate through on this trip. Christopher told me of their experience of camping on an island the night before during a hard storm, and how glad he was that his father had secured the canoe for the night so that it didn't end up floating downriver without them.

     I guess the real reason I was so fascinated by these guys was that I have often dreamed about doing just what these two men were doing, taking a canoe trip downriver, camping and fishing along the way. Part of my frontiersman fantasy! Meeting these two gentlemen reminded me of a book I had read some years ago, entitled 99 days on the Yukon: An account of what was seen and heard in the company of Charles A. Wolf, gentleman canoeist . I was 19 years old living in Alaska, and although I've had many outdoor adventures this is something I have yet to do. Talking with Mr. Webb inspired me to think that I might yet have a river trip of my own. But in any case, I hope some day to look down at the river and see these two paddling in to the landing once again on another one of their own river living adventures.

(c) copyright 2010 Travelin' West Virginia All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent. For more information send an e-mail to trvlnwv@live.com

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Weston

     A lot of us might be able to remember the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson, who gave a stellar performance as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a story set during the late 60s, early 70s in a state mental hospital somewhere in Oregon. I was only 16 years old, but I will never forget how terrified I was of Nurse Ratchet, and her horrible treatment of the mentally ill patients in her ward, especially the 6'7" very docile Chief Bromden, the 1/2 Indian character (the story's narrator) who was driven by his fear of the "Combine," a huge conglomeration that controlled society and forced people into conformity. I can't remember what it was I feared more -- her, or the idea of potentially being forced to give up my own individuality if I ever failed to maintain anything less than a semblance of normality! I was a teenager! I was feeling somewhat rebellious and abnormal anyway, and while I understood that McMurphy pushed the envelope (so to speak) a little too much, and so did not get a lot of sympathy for most of the film, even he finally was forced to succumb to the superior powers that be. So who was I? There was even a history of slight "craziness" in my family, so I needed to be extra careful! Electroshock therapy and lobotomies were not to be taken lightly, and the "institution" had the power to do as they pleased! We had all heard "stories." Ken Kesey, who wrote the novel (published in 1960), was inspired to write his story based on what he had witnessed while working in a mental institute during the 1950s. And as I walked down the long corriders of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, I felt transported back to the days when women, especially, could easily end up being committed.  Thank goodness I was with John who is still rather enamored with me, and doesn't think I'm all that nutty!

     It was a sunny day when we headed out along beautiful, scenic Rt. 47, on what was originally the Staunton Turnpike that ran from Parkersburg across the mountains into Virginia. In less than 2 hours we hit Rt. 33 in Weston, taking us right by the asylum, and not having a set destination, plus never minding that ominous dark clouds ere brewing up a bad storm overhead, we decided to stop and check it out. And, as luck would have it, we were right on time for the 90 minute Paranormal Tour (I'm not kidding!), so we paid for our tickets and quickly joined our guide and another couple. Together the five of us would be hitting the "hot spots" of ghostly activity as we walked down the nearly dark hallways (they were rather dimly lit, plus by then it was thundering and pooring rain) covering all four floors of this delapidated stone-cut masonry building built some 140 years ago.

     We were kept entertained by lots of really cool ghost stories of past residents who seemed to still be hanging around. There was Ruthrie, an 89 year old woman who liked to slam her dinner tray, and a not-so-friendly man who paced the end of one hall,  whose presence both John and I felt. It was really hot in the asylum, as there was basically no air circulating anywhere; but at the end of this first hallway we both felt this man's presence so strongly that cold chills were running up and down my arms, and John said he felt like he was being pushed. Many times we felt a heavy weight on our chests (another sign of spirit activity); and we both witnessed the ghost of Lily, a 9 year old girl who had lived there with her mother, "playing" with a plastic ball. On the 4th floor John actually saw an apparition run into a closet in a room and then disappear. Some weird stuff actually showed up in John's photos, like shadow figures (which they say are seen often roaming the halls, as are people's faces) and spirit-like light forms; and then lots of his pictures turned out fuzzy, as if they were out of focus. Twice, John's camera just stopped working in rooms where there was supposed to be a lot of paranormal activity. He wouldn't be able to take a picture, and then he'd walk away, and BAM! He could.This kind of thing has never happened to him before, and it really frustrated him!

     Construction began on this asylum, formerly known as the Weston State Hospital, in 1858, and opened in 1864 to house 250 people, reaching its peak in the 1950s, with 2,400 patients in what became extremely overcrowded conditions. Changes in the treatment of mental illness, along with the deterioration  of the building, forced its closure in 1994. The building and its 300 acres were privately purchased in September 2007, and renamed the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

     Both the building and its use have fascinating and notable histories.  On June 30, 1861, while the building was still under construction, Colonel Erastus Bernard Tyler swept through town with his 7th Ohio Infantry  looking to round up and convict any and all southern sympathizers, though their main mission was more likely the Western Branch of the Exchange Bank of Virginia, which had in its vault $30,000 in gold coins deposited by the VA state government to provide wages for the laborers working on the new asylum.  Tyler removed $27,000 of it (which would be worth 1/2 million dollars today), and took it to Wheeling, where it was used to help fund the new state of West Virginia in 1863! (Thanks, Virginia!) At the end of the war, the completion of the asylum was given top priority, and to this end Weston never had to experience any post-war economic depression.

     As for the insane, American colonists came to our shores believing that people who exhibited aberrant behavior had to be possessed by demons, witches, or Satan himself (note the Salem Witch Trials of 1692). Those without family or friends were most often placed in prisons along with criminals, chained naked to the walls, no matter the temperature, and mired in their own filth! Families who felt more responsibilty, but embarrassed none the less, often hid their relatives in attics, or sheds, or even in holes in the ground. By the 1770s facilities began to be constructed specifically to house the insane, but still more to extricate them from society rather than to help them, since insanity was thought to be incurable. It was Thomas Kirkbride who theorized that creating a more curative environment, one that admitted lots of sunshine and fresh air, would at least be a more moral way to treat patients (as he had witnessed the Quakers' treatment of the insane while he was a doctor at the Friends Asylum in PA), and could more possibly help towards some recovery. Thus, the building in Weston was designed based on Kirkbride's theory. Dorothea Dix, a famous social reformer, also greatly disturbed by the barbaric treatment given the mentally insane, worked single-mindedly towards altering their conditions as well. It is also noted at Weston that Dix would hire only the ugliest of women to be nurses, so as not to excite any of the patients, male or female, or other hospital staff. The doctors, nurses and staff members all had residences and living quarters on the upstairs floors. The occassional smell of pipe tobaco still lingers in the air of one doctor's apartment, which it did on the day John and I visited, prompting some excitement from our tour guide, who suggested that it was unusually strong that day, as we could all smell it! Hmmmm.

     By the turn of the century the practice of brain surgery had begun, and an American by the name of Walter Freeman  "perfected" the lobotomy, performing his first one in 1936. Inserting ice picks under the eyelids of patients, he drove them through the thin layer of skull bone, using a mallet and local anesthesia. Freeman performed 1000's of these lobotomies, even beginning a propaganda campaign to promote them as being the cure for anything from psychosis to depression to neurosis to criminality. He worked in WV before moving to CA where he eventually performed "assembly line" lobotomies, going from one patient to another, even having his assistants time him to see if he could break lobotomy speed records! He performed his last ice pick lobotomy in 1967 when a patient died on the table. By this time both doctors and the public were up in arms, questioning the number and necessity of lobotomies being performed in the United States. Unbelievably, while lobotomies are no longer being performed, having been replaced by the drug thorazine, electroshock therapy still is being used!

     From 1864 to 1889 there were about 125 different recorded reasons for admittance to the Weston State Hospital. Among them were listed bad habits and political excitement, domestic trouble, fever and jealousy, female disease, hysteria, ill treatment by husband, marriage of son, religious excitement, seduction, time of life, sexual abuse and stimulants, grief, hard study, shooting of daughter, venereal excesses, novel reading, parents were cousins, dissapointed love, desertion by husband, feebleness of intellect, over action of the mind, laziness, fall from horse, suppressed masterbation, and women trouble. These were just a few, but one can imagine that not every person admitted needed to be there, or wanted to be there. There's more than one story of women suffering from post-partum depression being admitted, along with their babies, by their husbands, never to be released even after recovery. Their husbands had found a new wives and moved on. I also imagine that still other people found solace and happiness shut away from the drudgery of their everyday lives. But in any case, it's hard to imagine why any of them might still be hanging around.

     The SyFy Channel's Ghost Hunter's Academy will be airing their visit to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum  tomorrow, Wednesday, June 9th at 9:00 p.m. If you're interested, check it out. John and I will definitely be watching!

(c) copyright 2010 Travelin' West Virginia All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent. For more information send an e-mail to trvlnwv@live.com