- 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
Hopeful of wading in the river around the cliff’s base, Mary tested the depth of the water, but she found that she could not plumb it. The waters swirled crazily in uncertain whirlpools. Overcome by weariness, dampness, and cold, Mary searched in despair for a sheltered spot to rest for the night. She found no cave, no hollow log, no bower of limbs and leaves. After having come so far, tantalizingly near home, she appeared doomed to end her journey and her life in the snow at the foot of Anvil Rock.
In the morning she rose stiff, swollen, and sore. As much from desperation as from hope, she scanned Anvil Rock again, knowing that to climb around and over it was her only chance. Since morning shadows reveal the perspectives indicative of ledges which are concealed by the shimmering rays of the setting sun, Mary Draper Ingles found a devious way to ascend what had appeared to be an unscalable cliff. It was now only another mountain, albeit a steep and tall one.
Slowly, with frequent pauses, the half-starved and nearly exhausted woman reached the summit of Anvil Rock. It took her most of a day, during which she had often been tempted to let herself fall, to exchange her suffering on the heights for surcease on jagged rocks or in icy depths below. With vehemence, Mary always afterward referred to this as her “most terrible day.”
Fearful that her already overtaxed powers would fail her, Mary forced herself to begin her descent while it was yet light. From the summit of Anvil Rock there was a long, gradual slope to the east. Not far from its bottom she found a patch of corn. She shouted to bring its owners to her aid; there was no answer. But she had been heard. Soon three white men stood over her, Adam Harmon and his two sons, Mary’s former neighbors at Draper’s Meadows; after the massacre, they had moved about twelve miles west. The next thing Mary knew, she was in the Harmons’ little cabin, swaddled in blankets and lying on a pallet before a cheery fire. Her lacerations had been bandaged. It was the first real shelter, the first warm clothing, the first bed, the first fire, the first decent food she had known in forty days.
During the next few days, Mary’s periods of consciousness gradually lengthened between periods of deep sleep. Despite the fact that the Harmons’ larder was full of venison haunches, Adam decided that what she needed was good English beef tea; he slaughtered one of his priceless cows to provide it.
When Mary was well enough to travel, Adam rode along with her the dozen miles to Draper’s Meadows. The community had recovered remarkably since July go, but its inhabitants had panicked at rumors of a new Indian raid and fled to the safety of a newly constructed fort at Dunkard’s Bottom, near the spot where Will Ingles had recently established a ferry service across the New River.
At the fort, Mary’s friends and neighbors greeted her first with disbelief and then with real joy. Her husband and her brother, John, were not there to welcome her, however. They had gone to seek information about their kidnapped wives from the Cherokees in northeastern Tennessee. Unknown to those at the fort, Will and John had completed their fruitless mission and had returned to within a few miles of Dunkard’s Bottom. Their arrival at the small blockhouse the next morning was a wonderful reunion after nearly five months of separation.
Before Mary had recovered her strength in the Harmons’ cabin, she had begged them to form a party to rescue Mrs. Bingamin from her mad wanderings on the west bank of the New River. The Harmons had been so horrified to learn that one of their neighbors had attacked another with cannibalistic intent that they had refused Mary’s plea. But now they finally consented to look for Mrs. Bingamin. When they found her, she was nearby and in much better health than Mary had been, for she had found food, clothes, and a horse at a deserted cabin. When the two women met at Dunkard’s Bottom they were quick to forgive each other. Because of renewed Indian raids, many homesteaders in the westernmost settlements retreated eastward. Most, like the Ingleses, moved only as far as Bedford, Virginia, about seventy-five miles east of Draper’s Meadows. But the Bingamins pushed up the Shenandoah Valley to Winchester en route to Pennsylvania, and they never went back to Virginia. It is not unreasonable to suppose that they were ashamed of Mrs. Bingamin’s threats against Mary, and that they decided to move away from the reproachful and suspicious eyes of their neighbors on the New River.
As the years went by and settlers penetrated farther into the western wilderness, word drifted back of the fate of the other captives. Eventually Mary learned, with a grief that no number of intervening years could soften, that her baby George had died within a year of his capture. But the others fared better. Betty Draper was found and ransomed some six years after Mary’s return. Young Tom, too, came home, a long thirteen years after his good-bye to his mother. Will made many journeys into the Shawnee country before he tracked him down, and had to haggle long and hard before the lad’s fellow braves would give him up.
Meanwhile, Will and Mary raised a large family. In the fullness of her years, Mary became the beloved matriarch of a considerable clan of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lived to be eighty-three. By the time she died, in 1815, she had seen the new United States born, and had watched it push its frontier westward. But she had been there first.