- Historic Sites
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
On the day of their decision, the two put all possible distance between themselves and the Shawnee camp, taking pains, however, to double back from their true course to throw off possible pursuers. At sundown, they hid among leaves and branches, waiting fearfully for the search they were sure must follow. Search the Indians did, but probably thinking that the women had fallen prey to wild beasts, they soon gave up. At dawn the women crept from hiding, unaware that the Indians had abandoned thought of further pursuit. Regaining their track, they angled back to the edge of the Ohio River. It does not strain credulity to surmise that the two women were overseen by a guardian angel. Most of their route would be through country that had never felt the tread of a white foot, through forests that had been standing for untold centuries, through the haunts of beasts that had seldom seen an interloper. In that land and in those days, animate danger did not lurk; it leapt unafraid. And even though explorers and land promoters later admitted that this countryside teemed with wildcats, bears, cougars, and wild boars, traditional accounts maintain that Mary Draper Ingles and Mrs. Bingamin never encountered anything even as fearsome as a polecat. But they would find that not all the dangers in these forests were four-footed.
For Mary this was no unthinking plunge into the unknown. She knew well enough what a stupendous chunk of country lay between her and home. Had there been a string-straight path from Big Bone Lick to Draper’s Meadows, with not a single hill along the way, it would have measured two hundred and eighty miles. No one will ever know the exact length of the tortuous, up-and-down path the women had to travel—but it was close to eight hundred miles.
Their only certain pointer to the east and civilization was the Ohio River. Their starting point, on that morning after the escape, was some forty miles downstream and across the river from the bend that would someday sprout the city of Cincinnati. They trudged eastward, and for the first week or so the trip was almost pleasurable. It was the end of September, and the days seemed to take warmth from the flaming autumn foliage; the women averaged thirty miles a day. If their diet of pohickory nuts, chinquapins, papaws, and scuppernongs got monotonous, at least there was a sufficiency of it. The nights were getting crisper, but by burrowing deep into great banks of dead leaves and huddling together under their blankets, they slept without too much discomfort.
The only habitations they passed were a few beaver houses half-submerged in small wayside streams. But their trek was taking them through the squares and along the streets of many a city-to-be. Between Big Bone Lick and their first landmark—Shawnee Town, on the other side of the river—they wended through the future Kentucky market towns of Covington, Newport, Augusta, Maysville, and Vanceburg. They would have tried to add meat to their vegetarian menu, but their only weapon was one tomahawk—Mrs. Bingamin had either lost hers or got tired of carrying it—and Mary had scant idea how to use the thing for hunting game.
When the travellers came abreast of Shawnee Town they made a cautious detour inland. It added several miles to their trek but brought them good fortune. At dusk, they found a falling-down, deserted cabin. Beside it was a strangled patch of corn in the midst of which was a swaybacked old horse wearing a bell. They slept in the cabin and breakfasted on ears of raw corn, a welcome change from their accustomed diet.
When they moved on they took the horse. He was a wretchedly woebegone old skate that should have been riding, not ridden. But he was a source of encouragement for the women, who took turns riding and walking. Thus they passed the sites of present-day Ashland and Catlettsburg and came to the Big Sandy River where it debouches into the Ohio from the south. They found it uncrossable. Neither could swim, and they despaired of ever constructing a serviceable raft. They had to turn southward along the Big Sandy until it was shallow enough to ford. This took them more than twenty miles off course, to the Y where the Big Sandy is formed by the confluence of the Tug and Levisa forks. So much driftwood had piled up at the junction that it formed an unbroken but shifty bridge from one side to the other. After some hesitation, the women decided to brave it. They tried to get the horse over, too.
The women had to clamber precariously from tree trunk to stump to taproot as the mass of flotsam turned, skidded, or floated away beneath their weight. Halfway across, the melancholy old plug plunged through a drift and was stranded, bellied over a thick bole. The women tried heroically to free him, but they were helpless without a hoist of some sort. Finally they had to leave the poor nag marooned. They hurried on without looking back, and he let them depart without audible reproach.