- 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
After crossing the Big Sandy the two women found the going no longer easy or rapid. With October came colder weather. Their clothes were now tattered and their moccasins worn out. Even at night, curled up under shelving rocks, the women suffered greatly from exposure. Rains severely cut their fare, too. The trees and bushes were fast losing their fruit; nuts and berries fell and rotted on the ground. Often their only meal of the day was pieces of soft bark, roots, or any other edible-looking flora. Getting nearer to Mary’s home—by imperceptible stages, but getting there—she and Mrs. Bingamin began to speculate on which of them would be driven to eat the other. They even drew lots. When Mary lost, she tried to insure that the grisly jest not become serious. She regaled her companion with tales of Will Ingles’ wealth and of the reward he would pay the older woman for helping Mary get home. Mrs. Bingamin was larger and stronger than Mary, but the younger woman managed to placate her and still her tirade against having been inveigled into leaving the Shawnees to starve in the wilderness. Mary, too, was disheartened at the number of times they had to backtrack along an intervening stream before being able to cross it, and then having to come back all that way without having made a mile of homeward progress.
The success that the fron tier s women enjoyed in this heartbreaking trek was less mysterious to them than to anyone today who retraces their line of march. More than luck and guardian angels led Mary and Mrs. Bingamin to their primary goal, the Kanawha River, which they could follow to the New River and the home valley: the Indian paths, or traces, through the forest primeval were evident to them. A number of streams might be confusingly similar to the one they sought, but the great east-west road paralleled only the Kanawha. It must have been thus that the women found the river.
They passed the site of today’s city of Huntington, detoured around the Guyandot River, forged northward through West Virginia’s present Cabell and Mason counties, and then, where Point Pleasant now stands, came to the mouth of the Kanawha. Mary rejoiced as they turned along its western bank and headed directly south toward her beloved Meadows.
But there was as much cause for despair as rejoicing. Their journey was only half over; the mountains lay ahead; and the pilgrims were in sad shape. The weather was becoming increasingly bitter. In the foothills of the Alleghenies the women were blasted by icy winds sweeping down from the peaks. They bound shreds of their clothing around their feet with strands of the leatherwood shrub. This left them garbed only in their stolen blankets, now nearly threadbare. Food was just about nonexistent. Often, in desperation, they would seize and devour anything that was green and growing. As often as not this avidity would leave them doubled up with agonizing cramps or limp from vomiting or diarrhea. But even at such times, despite her pain or weakness, Mrs. Bingamin was still able to find strength to blame Mary and revile her with frightenine malevolence.
They had only one filling meal during the whole time they struggled along the Kanawha. It is nauseating to contemplate, even from a distance of two centuries. Accounts vary as to whether it was a deer’s head they found caught in driftwood or whether it was a raccoon. All agree, however, that it was in an advanced state of decomposition. Its fetid odor sickened the women even as they tore into it. But eat it they did, ravenously, and they carried the few remaining scraps of meat with them when they went on.
They groped along the Kanawha to Coal River, far up that stream, across it, back down again to the Kanawha, and on past the future site of Charleston. Daily they saw deer and other game foraging, but there was no way to run them down. Mary’s tomahawk was also lost by now. Mrs. Bingamin was getting more rabid by the mile, her rage against her companion increasing with her pangs of hunger. Mary had grown used to privation and the natural hazards they encountered; but the older woman’s mounting madness was no natural thing, and Mary knew no defense.
They came at last to the salt lick near Campbell’s Creek where Mary’s party had camped on the way out. From here the journey became a nightmarish treadmill. Every league of the leafless forest was exactly like the one they had just covered. They crossed an interminable series of creeks, then unknown and unnamed—Rush, Pens, Fields, Slaughters, Kellys, Paint—each seemingly just like all the others.
When they worked their painful way around the falls of the Kanawha, the monotony of the country changed—for the worse. They were in regions that Mary had not seen with the Shawnees, because their overland short cut on the way out had bypassed this long loon of the river. Marv soon discovered that the Indians had had good reason to steer clear of the water route. For the two women had passed from the Kanawha valley into the awesome New River Gorge, which is said to be the only eastern rival of the Grand Canyon. For miles the river rampages like a millrace between grim rock cliffs and precipitous mountains that tower a thousand feet above the water. An experienced team of well-fed, well-equipped mountaineers would find the gorge an estimable test of skill and strength, even in the best of weather. The two emaciated women clutched at their flimsy blankets and bucked into the canyon against a fanged November gale.