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Mary Draper Ingles

The story of Mary Draper Ingles represents one of the truly heroic deeds of early American history. In her day and for many years to come, Mary Ingles was one of the most talked-about people in America...and with good reason, as you'll discover when you read her story.

In July of 1755, Mary Ingles was living in the westernmost settlement in America, Draper's Meadows, at the site of present-day Blacksburg, Virginia. By all accounts, Mary was a vibrant and beautiful young lady, remarkable for her unusual athleticism and her flowing auburn hair. Said to be the most attractive woman in frontier Virginia, she was courted by and married to the highly-respected William Ingles. They had two young sons, Thomas, age 4 and George, age 2. Mary was expecting their third child any day. Although they were settled on land which was part of the traditional hunting grounds of several indian tribes, they had always maintained good , peaceful relations with the native americans that passed through the area. Bands of Shawnee hunters routinely stopped by and were given food and shelter. Brightly painted war parties on their way to terrorize the Catawbas and other tribes to the south were also frequent guests at the Ingles cabin. But all that changed with the coming of the French and Indian war in 1755. The Shawnee had allied themselves with the French against the intrusive English colonists and several pitched battles had already been fought in Pennsylvania and New York. The isolated settlers in southern Virginia had no way of knowing of these ominous developments.

On July 8, 1755, a band of Shawnee indians, led by a highly-placed subchief known as Captain Wildcat, attacked the Draper's Meadows settlement, killed most of the settlers and took Mary and her children captive. Among the captives was Mary's sister-in-law, Bettie Draper. Luckily, both husbands, William Ingles and John Draper, were away tending their crops when the attack occurred. The indians plundered the settlement and then set off for their town on the Ohio River with their captives in tow.

On the third day of the journey, Mary gave birth to a daughter. Apparently the indians were impressed with her handling of the pain of childbirth because, from that time on, she was treated with increasing concern. After approximately 20 days march, the party reached the Ohio river at what is now Point Pleasant, West Virginia. They turned downstream and, several days later, crossed the Ohio at the mouth of the Scioto river, site of present-day Portsmouth, Ohio. They traveled a short distance up the Scioto to the main Shawnee town of Chillicothe, or Lower Shawnee Town.

Upon reaching Chillicothe, the captives were subjected to the indian custom of running the gauntlet. The entire tribe assembled into two long parallel rows leading to the main lodge building. The captives were stripped and forced to run between the rows while the indians beat them with sticks, clubs, briars and anything else that was handy. Those who fell were forced to run the entire gauntlet again. Apparently, running the gauntlet was looked upon as a trial. Those who exhibited strength and courage were favorably regarded and became candidates for adoption into the tribe. The weak and cowardly were deemed unworthy of Shawnee citizenship and later burned at the stake in a gruesome execution. Due to the influence of Captain Wildcat, who was apparently quite enamored of Mary, she was spared the running of the gauntlet.

Because of all the indian raiding during the war, their was no shortage of captives at Chillicothe. It was here that Mary met "the old Dutch woman" who would accompany her on her upcoming escape. Although her name has been lost to history, she is thought to have been a Frau Stumf and is thought to have lived in the vicinity of Ft. Pitt, present-day Pittsburgh, PA. Most likely, she was captured during the disastrous battle of Ft. Duquesne where the English forces, under Gen. Braddock (with a noteworthy second-in-command named Geo. Washington), were routed by the tribes with the loss of many prisoners.

After running the gauntlet, the prisoners were either burned or adopted into the tribe, their ultimate fate being determined by their individual captors.

It was the naïve americans' custom to adopt captives as replacements for deceased family members. Apparently, this was done without regard for the sex of the captive. An adopted male captive could replace a recently lost wife or even a child. A female captive could replace a prestigious male tribal leader. Still more curiously, the adopted captive actually inherited any title, prestige or property that belonged to the deceased. After the gauntlet and the executions, the survivors were parceled out to various tribal members. It was at this time that Mary's sister-in-law, Bettie Draper, was adopted by a widowed Shawnee from a different village and the women were then separated.

At the time of Mary's captivity in Chillicothe, there were two French traders staying at the village. They had several bolts of cotton flannel cloth and quickly recognized that these, along with Mary's considerable sewing skills, represented a good potential for profit. In exchange for some badly needed blankets for herself and her new baby, Mary agreed to make up some shirts. The shirts were a big hit and quickly became symbols of prestige among the male indians who, according to several accounts, were seen to proudly carry their new garments through the village on the same poles usually used to display scalp trophies.

Along with the Frenchmen, Mary had quite a little cottage industry going and was rapidly gaining considerable prestige in the tribe. By all accounts, she was a proud and dignified woman, qualities greatly admired by the Shawnee. It was at this time that, according to some accounts, the illustrious and respected subchief, Captain Wildcat, attempted to adopt Mary into his family as his wife. Although Mary had found much to admire in the Shawnee culture, she was still very much Will Ingles' wife and had no intention of marrying an indian...even a highly-respected one like Captain Wildcat. Insulted by her rebuff, Captain Wildcat announced that, regardless of her wishes, he would adopt her two sons and raise them to positions of leadership in his sept.

Chillicothe, at that time, was a major village of the Maykujay sept of the Shawnee. The Maykujay were the spiritual leaders of the tribe, highly regarded as wise and thoughtful men. Because of its prestige, their town, Chillicothe, attracted extended visits from members of all the different Shawnee subtribes. Captain Wildcat was one such visitor. He was a very prominent member of the Kispokotha sept...the war leaders and, as such, would someday be chief of the entire nation during times of war. The major Kispokotha village at that time was located many miles north of Chillicothe. After his rebuff by Mary, Captain Wildcat took Tommie and Georgie and returned to his own village, determined never again to be so foolish as to fall for a white woman...no matter how desirable she might be. This action speaks volumes about Mary Ingles' class, intelligence, courage and bearing.

During Mary's work as a shirtmaker to the Shawnee rich and famous, her newborn daughter was often cared for by the indian wife of one of the Frenchmen. This young girl had recently lost her own newborn and had been very helpful in wetnursing Mary's child. Soon after her children left with their adoptive father, Mary, Frau Stumf, the Frenchmen and the wetnurse left the village, along with several other indians, on a salt-making expedition down the Ohio river at Big Bone Lick. It was at this time that Mary began to have thoughts of escape and return to her beloved husband in Virginia.

Big Bone Lick is, today, the site of a wonderful state park in Kentucky. It's about 30 miles downstream from Cincinnati, Ohio on the Ky side of the Ohio river. At that time, there were still huge deposits of mastodon bones preserved in the salt for some 10,000 years. After spending several days planning her escape while working at the salt-making chores, Mary and the old Dutch woman left the camp, ostensibly to gather food. They left a false trail of blazes to confuse potential "rescuers" and headed for the Ohio River.

Modern parents tend to look askance at Mary's decision to leave her newborn baby with the Shawnee. Such critics should take note of the realities of frontier life. Mary and her companion faced, as it turned out, six weeks of strenuous foot travel. They had no food. It was October and the snow would fall before they reached shelter. They could not build a fire, since they had no flint and any fire would have attracted the attentions of any of the many indians travelling on or alongside the river...as would any cries from an infant. They had no warm clothes, only thin linsey-woolsey summer dresses. In short, their prospects were grim to the extreme. A 3-month old child would have had absolutely no chance of surviving such an ordeal. Mary also knew that the indians would care for the infant as their own. In short, she made the heartbreaking decision to give her child a chance to live as opposed to certain death on the long road home. Frontier parents made these types of decisions all the time and should not be judged by our lofty standards...especially since most modern parents can't find anywhere near the time to spend with their offspring as did their forebears.

Mary and the old Dutch woman followed the Ohio upstream on the Kentucky side of the river. Since neither could swim, the women had to follow each of the Ohio's many tributaries upstream until they could find a shallow place to ford. This added literally hundreds of miles to their journey. Without the detours, they would have traveled something like 450 miles from Big Bone Lick to Draper's Meadow. With the extra distance, it's estimated that the journey ended up covering some 800 miles!

Along the way, the women survived (barely) on berries, nuts and insects. It was Fall and their were abundant acorns and pawpaws. The problem was that they had to devote most of their waking hours to travelling, not scouring the environs for food. They found roots and water plants near the many small streams, but became sick upon eating some of these. But lack of decent food was a real problem and both women were close to death when they arrived in the vicinity of Draper's Meadow.

An additional problem confronted Mary when her companion became mentally unstable nearing the end of their ordeal. Persistent accounts maintain that the old woman even tried to kill Mary for food, although the earliest verbal accounts failed to mention it. Eventually, probably upstream of the Bluestone river, the women separated and Mary was left to finish her epic journey alone.

In early December, Mary crawled to the remote hunting cabin of one of her old neighbors, Adam Harmar. Due to ongoing indian scares, she was almost shot by one of Harmar's sons as she approached the cabin. Once the recognized her, Mary's rescuers cared for her wonderfully and she began the long road back to health. Harmar's sons went out searching for Frau Stumf and found her several days later. After convalescing, she returned to Pennsylvania and disappeared from history.

Mary was unable to reunite with her husband immediately, since Will and John Draper were returning from a visit to the Cherokee nation in Tennessee. They had gone to the Cherokee in an effort to get those well-respected indians to intercede with the Shawnee to effect Mary's release. Within days, however, the two lovers were back together.

Mary Ingles survived her ordeal remarkably. The most striking evidence of her incredible experience was that her auburn hair had turned completely white. She and Will had four more children and actually survived further indian raids. Subsequent contact with the Shawnee revealed that the entire tribe had heard of Mary's legendary trek and her respect among the tribe increased still further. Back in Virginia, Will's hard work and business sense paid off and the family prospered. They established a ferry service across the New at Drapers Meadow and built an inn to service the growing army of settlers. Will died in 1782 at the age of 53. Mary never remarried and lived comfortably, finally passing on in 1815 at the ripe old age of 83.

Mary's younger son, George, died while still a child in the company of the Shawnee. Mary's older son, Thomas, was raised by the Kispokotha Shawnee until he was ransomed back by his father thirteen years after his capture. He was totally acclimated to the indian lifestyle and his transition to the "civilized" culture of Virginia was less than smooth. He never lost his respect for the Shawnee people nor his infatuation with their lifestyle. Eventually, Thomas was sent to an academy in Virginia that later became the University of Virginia. Here he met and was befriended by none other than Thomas Jefferson, whose insatiable curiosity about the native culture made for a natural friendship. Thomas married but his family was all but wiped out in yet another indian raid. He eventually served with the American forces in the battle of Point Pleasant. Thomas Ingles eventually left Virginia and relocated along the Holston River in Tennessee. Later, the restless wanderer attempted to float a boat down the Tennessee River to the Mississippi. They wrecked the boat at the treacherous Muscle Shoals and were rescued by...guess who...friendly indians. Eventually he settled in Natchez, Mississippi.

The saga of Mary Draper Ingles and her family remains one of history's truly remarkable stories. Today, Mary's story is retold in Blacksburg's outdoor drama, "The Long Road Home." You can also read a fictionalized, but essentially accurate, book by James Alexander Thom, called "Follow the River," available in paperback at major bookstores. On your next raft trip down the magnificent New River Gorge, take a moment to think of one of the bravest women of all time who walked these very shores almost 250 years ago.