An Indian Captivity

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July 30, 1755, dawned clear and bright in Draper’s Meadows, a tiny log-cabin t community in what one day would be Blacksburg, Virginia. Soon most of the settlement’s men and women were working in the scattered wheat and maize fields or expanding the unforested glades to increase their tillable land. One of the few to stay indoors was Mary Ingles, a raven-haired, blue-eyed matron who at twenty-three had already known an eventful life.

Her name had been Mary Draper when, in 1748, she first entered the New River valley. She came with her widowed mother and her brother, John, together with Thomas Ingles, his three sons, and a handful of pioneers enticed by the Loyal Land Company.

Draper’s Meadows was the first organized English settlement that far west in the Allegheny Mountains, and Mary especially, of all its inhabitants, had several “firsts” to her credit. In 1750 she had accepted the proposal of one of Thomas Ingles’ sons, William, and become the first English bride in that part of the mountains. A year later the couple’s first son, Thomas, arrived—the first white child to be born on that frontier.

And now, on this summer’s day, Mary and her mother were keeping an eye on two-month-old George and hoping that little Tom wasn’t getting into mischief outside. He wasn’t, but others were—a band of Shawnee warriors hungry for plunder and eager to prove their bravery by acquiring scalps. The settlers at Draper’s Meadows had little reason to fear an attack. True, Indians of many tribes—Shawnees to the west, Cherokees to the southwest, Catawbas to the southeast, and various Souian clans in eastern Virginia—used the main trail that followed the New River westward through the mountains toward the Kanawha and Ohio rivers. But Virginia’s treaties with the Iroquois Confederacy had generally spared the area from disturbance by the Indians to the north and south; and except for isolated incidents of pilferage and harassment, the western Indians had left the Meadows pretty much alone.

What these secluded pioneers did not yet know was that almost two weeks earlier General Edward Braddock’s force of British regulars and Virginia militiamen had been disastrously beaten by the French and Indians at Fort Duquesne, some three hundred miles to the north. Perhaps it was that that put the Shawnees into a warlike frame of mind; perhaps it was merely their own unpredictable temperament. At any event, this particular Shawnee band, previously undetected, were now exploding from their forest camouflage.

It is moot how many of that day’s atrocities Mary Ingles observed. Her mother was tomahawked. Her brother’s wife, Betty, attempted to flee with her baby, but she was brought down by an Indian’s bullet that shattered her arm. Betty’s baby was seized by a Shawnee who swung it by its heels, pulverizing its head against a log wall. At another cabin, fiery old Colonel James Patton, one of the land company’s magnates, attempted to defend himself with his sword. Against impossible odds, he dispatched two of the savages before a bullet got him. Elsewhere in the settlement Casper Barrier fell dead, James Cull was seriously wounded, and Henry Leonard was knocked senseless. Mary, clutching her sons, was seized but was unharmed. She, the two boys, and Betty Draper were flung onto settlers’ horses and driven off.

Out in the fields Will Ingles paused from his labors when he saw smoke, from the area of the cabins, threading upward above the towering canopy of forest. Although unarmed, he ran homeward; so did the other men, but they must have known they were too late. Most of the cabins were already crackling boxes of flame.

By then the raiders and their prisoners were well away and travelling fast. The Indians paused briefly at the lonely hut of Phil Barger, an old hermit. Enraged to discover nothing worth stealing there, they hacked off the old man’s white-bearded head and took it along with them. A little farther on their way, they dropped the grisly souvenir on the doorstep of a Mrs. Lybrook.

They pressed on at a pace that was brutally punishing to the wounded Betty Draper; Mary, riding alongside, supported her sister-in-law as best she could. Fortunately, Tom and his baby brother, riding in the clutch of a murderer, seemed to think the cavalcade a grand lark. Their exuberance looked like bravery to the Shawnees, who from then on treated the boys with primitive respect and kindness.

True to their traditional values, the Shawnees spared themselves no more than they did their mounts or their prisoners. There were only brief halts, to eat rations of leathery jerked venison or to drink from springs. Seeking to outdo one another in endurance, the braves somehow slept as they rode; the children napped leaning against them, and Betty was in a merciful half-coma. Only Mary dared not doze at all.

The party travelled down the New River some forty miles before crossing to its western bank. They left the New at its junction with the Bluestone and went up and over Flat Top Peak. Then they made a short cut around some unfavorable terrain and came again to the river, now broadened by the waters of many tributaries into the Kanawha River, not far from present-day Charleston, West Virginia.

They camped at the Kanawha near the mouth of Campbell’s Creek to take advantage of an adjacent salt lick. The Shawnees put Mary to work helping them boil down brine. During these several days Mary found opportunities to bathe and poultice Betty’s broken arm; Betty was well on her way to recovery by the time the Shawnees loaded the salt on their newly acquired pack animals.