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.

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