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An Indian Captivity
The kidnapped frontier woman might have thought twice about trying to escape had she known that what lay beyond—the way home—could be as dangerous as the Shawnees who held her
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
They followed the Kanawha until it joined the Ohio at Point Pleasant, and thence pursued the Ohio westward to a point opposite the mouth of the Scioto. There, on the north bank of the Ohio, was their principal town—the site of today’s Portsmouth, Ohio. On the Indians’ efficient ferry rafts the whole company crossed the river and were received in Shawnee Town with bonfires, dancing, and banqueting.
Mary soon found herself inside a malodorous thatched building. Squaws stripped her and divided her clothes among themselves; they pinched and prodded her, giggling at the whiteness of her body. Reclad in buckskins, she was led out again for a humiliatingly intimate inspection by some of the men.
That none of the prisoners was tortured or killed bespeaks the casual and mercenary motives of these Shawnees, who had perpetrated the massacre more to gain booty and to display their courage than to start a blood feud. The young Indians recounted their heroic and profitable adventure; they proudly displayed the scalps they had taken, and were recognized as braves by their elders. The major items of plunder, such as horses or slaves, were community property of the whole tribe and were assigned for use at the discretion of the chiefs. Betty was sent to Chillicothe, an outlying Shawnee village. She went, wan and submissive, having cared about nothing since her baby’s murder. Mary’s boys were taken from her; the distraught mother bade them show the same courage that they had exhibited thus far.
For a while thereafter Mary merely existed, letting the days wash over her, doing what she was bidden, eating scraps of unappetizing food, and sleeping on the vermin-ridden pallet allotted to her.
Gradually she came alive again, realizing that survival depended upon her proficiency as a worker. She was an able seamstress, and her skill with herbs, displayed in caring for Betty’s shattered arm, qualified her to minister similarly to the Indians. Clearly she was more valuable alive than dead.
She knew it was inconceivable that Will Ingles could ever track the party that had brought her to the mouth of the Scioto. The only hope for her return—and, with luck, the return of her sons—was for Mary to escape and walk the uncountable miles home.
Mary Ingles discovered that hers was not the only white face in Shawnee Town. Occasional French traders and coureurs de bois came to bargain muskets and manufactured goods for the Indians’ furs, but Mary doubtless realized that none would imperil his lucrative trade, much less his life, by helping a captive to escape.
There was also another white woman in the town. In traditional accounts she has been called only “the Dutch woman,” and much speculation has arisen about her. It became popular belief that she was old, fat, phlegmatic, and bestialized from long captivity. She was also generally believed to have come from Pennsylvania. But a recently published history of Virginia’s Montgomery County contends that the Shawnees, returning from Draper’s Meadows, had in fact visited one more homestead on the New River. There, according to this version, the Indians bedevilled old Henry Bingamin and carried off his wife. The Bingamins were of German extraction, and the traditional accounts may have confused “Deutsch” with “Dutch.” Since the Bingamins later settled in Pennsylvania, their name probably passed from memory—hence merely “the Dutch woman” and hence the mistaken assertion that Pennsylvania was the place of her abduction.
At any rate, about two months after she was brought to the Shawnee town, Mary and Mrs. Bingamin were compelled to accompany an Indian party on a trek to the tribe’s chief source of salt—Big Bone Lick, some one hundred miles to the west and across the Ohio in what today is Boone County, Kentucky.
Big Bone was a sight to see, for although it was surrounded by an unwholesome swamp, the lick itself had been a gathering place for animals from time immemorial. (A decade later Colonel Thomas Bullitt and his company of explorers and surveyors are said to have used the tusks and vertebrae of mastodons for tent poles and for stools and benches.) And even in Mary’s day herds of buffalo and elk were still beating paths to the site. Such trails, as potential avenues to freedom, did not escape Mary’s notice.
In addition to their duties in the camp itself, she and Mrs. Bingamin customarily foraged on the borders of the swamp for wild grapes, berries, and nuts to augment their diet.
When Mary first proposed flight, the older woman tried to discourage her. But Mary’s resolve was so great that one afternoon her fellow prisoner reluctantly agreed to accompany her.
Each of the women had secreted a blanket, and each possessed a dull tomahawk which the Indians allowed them to use in gathering firewood. Mary managed to trade hers to a Frenchman in exchange for a sharper one, but the women were far from able to provision themselves properly for a long trek.