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Mary Draper Ingles' Return to Virginia's New River Valley
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The cabin of William and Mary Draper Ingles
It was built at Ingles Ferry, Va., sometime after the 1755 return of Mary Draper Ingles after her 800-mile walk home from west of Cincinnati.
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Ingles Ferry, early 1900s
William Ingles licensed the ferry in 1762 in Pulaski County, Va. Its operation was interrupted from 1842-1864 by a bridge. It then ran until 1948, when the ferry sank.
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Mary Draper Ingles' journey
The red line shows her movement west as a captive of the Shawnee Indians, and the blue line her return east with
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Bronze sculpture of Mary Draper Ingles
It was created by sculptor Matt Langford and rests in front of the Boone County, Kentucky Public Library Main Branch. Matt Langford is the 2009 winner of the Shirley Mann Memorial Heritage Award and two-time winner of 'The Art of Discovery' public art competition.
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It was in a field above this rock formation, along the New River near Eggleston, Va., that Mary Draper Ingles was found in 1755.
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Lewis Ingles Jeffries stands in front of the smokehouse of the Ingles family farm, the main house of which was built in the 1890s by Mary's son John.
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The Ingles Ferry Tavern
Roberta Ingles Steele and her husband Paul Steele still own the tavern, near Ingles Ferry, that was operated by William and Mary Ingles in the 18th century.
Her journey -- some 800 miles on foot over a six-week period in 1755 -- was marked by near starvation as well as more immediate threats to her life. But return Mary Draper Ingles did, arriving back home naked, skeletal and white-haired despite her age of just 23 years.
It was late November, l755; a skiff of snow dusted the ground of Adam Harmon's cornfield near Eggleston's Springs, Va. Harmon and his two sons were gathering the last of their corn when they heard a faint "hallo." And then another.
Instinctively, the Harmons reached for their guns. It was the second year of the French and Indian War, and the Shawnees weren't to be trusted. Five months earlier, they'd swooped down onto the tiny nearby settlement of Draper's Meadows, murdering four, wounding two, and taking five hostages.
"Hallo!" It was a woman's voice, pitifully weak, but oddly familiar to German settler Adam Harmon.
"Surely, that is Mary Inglis!" he's reported to have exclaimed.
It was, indeed, Mary Draper Ingles calling for help, but not the same robust young woman who had been carried off by the Shawnees five months earlier. Naked and skeletal, her hair nearly white, Mary Ingles was more dead than alive.
Harmon carried her into his cabin, wrapped her in blankets, bathed her swollen feet in warm water, and fed her small amounts of fresh venison and bear meat.
The story of endurance and courage that Mary Draper Ingles told in the days following is astonishing. Her saga is the subject of Alexander Thom's best-selling novel, "Follow the River"; Earl Hobson Smith wrote an outdoor drama, "The Long Way Home," still produced each summer in Radford [addendum, 5/21/09 – the drama ran for nearly three decades but is no longer produced]; ABC made it the basis of a made-for-television movie which aired early in l995.
And while some of the story's details, told and retold over the past 240 years, are understandably hazy, the essence of what Mary Draper Ingles did -- her 42-day, 800-mile escape from her Shawnee captors across a mountainous wilderness -- couldn't be more clear.
The Drapers and Ingles families settled on Horseshoe Bend of the New River in l748. Now part of the Virginia Tech campus, the fertile land lay a few miles north of the old Indian Road through the main valley stretching between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge. In his classic book "Sketches of Virginia," William Henry Foote lyrically describes Draper's Meadows:
On top of the main Ridge of Virginia mountains, the meadows presented a beautiful extent of rolling country, very fertile, and healthy, and containing within its bounds abundant springs of pure water, some of which find their way to the Atlantic through the James, and the Chesapeake Bay, and others that mingle their streams with the Ohio and Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.É The 'meadows' were glades with few trees or marshes, and fed herds of buffalo and deer.
To George and Eleanor Draper, Mary's parents, this land must have seemed like paradise. Irish immigrants, the Drapers had arrived in Philadelphia in l729. Along with the teenaged Ingles brothers, William and John, the Drapers were the first settlers to scale the Alleghenies, which were, in the l740s, according to John P. Hale in "Trans-Allegheny Pioneers," the "limit and western barrier of civilization and discovery."
In 1750, 18-year-old Mary Draper and 21-year-old William Ingles were married in the first white wedding west of the Alleghenies. Soon thereafter their son, Thomas, became the first white child born west of the Alleghenies.
Being first -- setting precedents -- seems to have been the stuff of which Mary Draper Ingles was made.
It was a warm Sunday July morning in l755 when a band of Shawnee warriors swooped down on Draper's Meadows. They left behind four dead -- Colonel James Patton (who fought valiantly with his ever-present broadsword), Mrs. George Draper (Mary's widowed mother), Casper Barger (an elderly widower whose head was carried away in a cloth bag and gruesomely displayed at the next settlement), and John Draper's infant son (who was "brained" against Ingles' log cabin walls). The Shawnees also took five hostages: Henry Lenard, Bettie Draper (John's wife), four-year-old Thomas and two-year-old George Ingles (George and Mary's sons), and, of course, Mary herself.
Mary's husband was in his fields harvesting wheat when he heard the shots and screams. Running back to the cabin, the unarmed William encountered two Indians. Foote gives this account of the chase:
Two stout Indians discovered him and rushed at him with their tomahawks. He fled to the woods; they pursued, at a little distance from each other, one on each side of Mr. Inglis. He perceived that the Indians were gaining upon him, and attempting to jump over a fallen tree he fell, and gave himself up for lost. Owing to the underbrush, the pursuers did not see him fall, and passed by on each side of him as he lay in the bushes. In a few moments he was upon his feet and escaped in another direction.
Carrying away food and tools, as well as their hostages, the Shawnees took their time traveling to the New River. The underbrush was thick, the forest virgin, and who was left to pursue them?
It is difficult to fully imagine the numb terror of the hostages as they were prodded through the forest, having witnessed the bloody massacre of their family and friends and knowing that their fate could be the same. Bettie Draper's right arm had been shattered by a musket ball, and Mary was nine months pregnant. Maybe.
The two primary accounts of Ingles' kidnapping and subsequent escape present conflicting views on the matter of Mary's pregnancy. The manuscript by John Ingles, Sr., the son of Mary and George who was born 10 years after his mother's return from captivity, makes no mention of a baby born on the trail. But great-grandson John P. Hale's account of the first white settlements west of the Alleghenies, "Trans-Atlantic Pioneers," makes it clear that Mary Ingles gave birth to a daughter several days after her abduction.
Roberta Ingles Steele, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Mary Draper Ingles, is hesitant to offer a definitive answer to the baby question.
"It was about time (two years between children was a natural spacing) for another baby," she concedes. "On the other hand, I believe that Mary would have told her son John about the baby if there had been one." Steele points out that if there had been a baby born on the trail, it most certainly would have died. "Did she or didn't she have a baby? There's no historical record to answer the question."
Birth or no birth, Mary Ingles was, by all accounts, a strong and tough woman, who won the respect of her Shawnee captors by calmly controlling her frightened children and efficiently nursing her sister-in-law's broken arm with poultices of comfrey root and deer fat. The Shawnees allowed Mary to roam the woods unattended looking for herbs, knowing that she would not desert her two sons and injured sister-in-law.
Down the New River they traveled north (the New flows south to north and crosses the mountains from east to west, cutting through every ridge of the Alleghenies), until they reached the Kanawha, where they made camp at a salt spring. There the captives were put to work making salt by boiling water -- in their own (stolen) kettles.
During the month it took the Indians and their captives to reach the Shawnee village on the banks of the Scioto and Ohio rivers, Mary Draper Ingles was busy memorizing landmarks, tying knots in a string to keep count of the days of travel, and, always, noting that they followed rivers.
What waited for the prisoners at the Indian village wasn't pleasant. Together with white prisoners from other raids, Bettie Draper and Henry Lenard were made to run the gauntlet -- pass between two parallel lines of Indians wielding clubs and whips. The best they could hope for was reaching the end scratched and bruised and humiliated; the worst possible outcome was death.
Again, Mary Ingles was treated well, being spared the running of the gauntlet. She determined to put herself to good use, hoping to keep her children with her.
She was disappointed. Four-year-old Thomas was taken to a village near Detroit; young George was traded to a family and disappeared deeper into the Ohio wilderness. Bettie Draper "went up the region of Chillicothe," adopted by an Indian chief who had recently lost his own daughter.
With the arrival of two French traders at the Shawnee camp, Mary was put to work sewing shirts from the checked fabric they traded to the Indians. In return she earned blankets for herself and for her fellow captive, "the old Dutch Woman."
What despair Mary must have felt when she and the Old Dutch Woman were taken farther north to Big Bone Lick, near present-day Cincinnati, again to make salt for the Indians. Some 150 miles farther away from her husband, to an eerie place where mastodon bones protruded from swampy, sulfurous, salty water. Two more firsts for Mary Draper Ingles: She became the first white person to make salt west of Kanawha; the first white woman to enter what are currently Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.
It was here that Mary resolved to make an escape. Deprived of her children, she convinced the Old Dutch Woman that it would be better to die in the wilderness than to live a life of slavery. One early October afternoon, the two women were allowed to forage the woods for nuts and wild grapes. With two blankets and a single tomahawk, in tattered clothes, they disappeared into the forest.
Mary and the Old Dutch Woman faced incredible adversity. Theirs would be a 500-mile trip (excluding any backtracking) on foot through nearly impenetrable forests. They couldn't use Indian paths for fear of re-capture and, then, torture and burning at the stake. Winter was fast approaching. Their only hope was to stay as close as possible to the Ohio River, following it to the confluence with the Kanawha and, then, the New River. Unfortunately, neither woman could swim.
The trip lasted 43 days. The sameness of those days must have been numbing, the setbacks innumerable, the pain of exposure and hunger incessant. John Ingles senior's account of his mother's journey is horrific:
"They freequantly in passing up & down those streams to find a passage when they found the river made a bend & point of ridges wood attempt to cross these points of riges to shorten their distance and by being woorn down by fateigue & starvation wood have to pule themselves up by the srubs & bushes till they got to the top and to decend they wood slide all the way down Under These defiqualteys and nothing to sustain nature but what they picked up in the woods such as black walnuts grapes pawpaws etc. & very often so pushed with hunger that they wood dig up roots & eate that they knew nothing of."
Their journey was made easier for a short time by the discovery of an abandoned cornfield and horse. Carrying as much corn as they could, the two women took turns riding the horse, from whose neck a bell jangled. The horse wasn't with them for long: Crossing a tributary of the Ohio River on a logjam, the women watched in horror as the animal slipped between the logs up to its stifle, mortally injured.
What were these two starving women up against, once they reached the New River Gorge? Realize that it's called the Grand Canyon of the East, that to fall from the sheer cliffs is to fall into waters that the West Virginia Indians called The River of Death. It was snowing, and the women were by now virtually naked and shoeless, sleeping in hollowed-out logs under scanty blankets of dry leaves, their bodies racked with bloody flux.
Twice, half-mad from pain and hunger, the Old Dutch Woman tried to kill Mary Ingles with the intent to cannibalize her. Because she was by far the younger, Mary fought her off both times. After the second murder attempt, Mary managed to put the New River between them for protection. But her sense of decency required her to stay within shouting distance of the old woman.
Mary was now about 30 miles from Draper's Meadows but faced the most difficult part of her journey. She had already scaled 1,500-foot sheer cliffs, and another loomed in front of her: Anvil Rock.
It took Mary Ingles two days to climb that rock and make her way down the other side. Where she was found by Adam Harmon and his sons.
After several days of convalescence, Harmon took Mary to Draper's Meadows, which they found deserted because of "an Indian alarm." They continued on to Dunkard Bottom Fort, where "Mrs. Ingles had, with glad surprise, a joyful meeting with such of her friends as were present at the fort."
But her husband, you ask. What about William Ingles, for whom Mary had traveled more than 800 miles (including many detours and much backtracking) on foot? Ironically, William Ingles and John Draper, Mary's brother, were in Tennessee and Georgia, seeking news through friendly Cherokees of their loved ones. Their mission, Hale reports, "had been fruitless, and they were returning, sad, disconsolate, despairing, almost hopeless."
With great restraint, William and Mary Ingles' great-grandson describes their eventual reunion this way:
"Such a meeting, under such circumstances, and after all that had occurred since they last parted, nearly five months before, may be imagined, but can not be described. I shall not attempt it."
Mary Ingles went on to bear four more children: John, Mary, Susan and Rhoda. After living in Bedford County for several years and narrowly escaping yet another Indian massacre, William and Mary returned to Montgomery County and operated Ingles' Ferry across the New River, accumulating large landholdings on both sides of the river. Though William died in 1782 at 53, Mary lived until 1815, dying at the advanced age of 83. Son John built her "a proper house" near the ferry along the Stagecoach Road, Mary continued to live in the windowless log home that her husband had built for them, saying she felt safer there. Recently, the stones from the chimney of that house were used to erect a monument to her in the West Radford Cemetery.
And what came of sons Thomas and George, sister-in-law Bettie, and the Old Dutch Woman? After a failed escape attempt, Bettie Draper resigned herself to life with the Indians and became well-known for her medical skills. After six years, she was ransomed from the Shawnees in 1761 and lived out her days with her husband at Draper's Meadows.
George died in Indian captivity without ever seeing his mother again. But Thomas was returned to "civilization" at the age of 17, after several failed attempts by his parents to find him. However, "the habits of civilized life were not pleasing to him." Thomas was given to long absences from home, returning to the woods and Indian ways. He was sent to Charlottesville, where he studied with Dr. Thomas Walker and, it's said, he met many of the Founding Fathers.
Thomas married; he and his family followed the frontier westward. Ironically, his own family was attacked by Indians in 1781, two of his children killed and his wife Elenor tomahawked so severely that a surgeon removed 13 pieces of skull from her head.
The Old Dutch Woman, left on her own after her second murderous attempt against Mary Ingles, was fortunate enough to find a deserted hunters' camp several days after Mary's rescue and gorged herself on the abandoned food. Adam Harmon and his sons found her (at Mary's insistence) and brought her back to Dunkard Bottom Fort, where she and Mary "had a Joyful meeting." She found a ride north to Winchester and then traveled home to Pennsylvania.
What does it matter, this story of tenacity and survival? Why are people still fascinated by the story of Mary Draper Ingles? Why does Tamarack Industries of Beckley, W.Va., think enough of Mary to manufacture and market pewter figurines of her? Why has a West Virginia hiking club taken the name "The Mary Ingles Trail Blazers," made its mission the maintenance of the Mary Draper Ingles Trail in the lower Kanawha Valley, and staged a living history presentation in late September?
Ingles' great-great-great-granddaughter suggests a couple of theories beyond the obvious.
"My nephew attributes it to feminism," Roberta Ingles Steele says. "Maybe it's an outgrowth of our maturing sense of history," she adds.
Steele (along with a niece and nephew) still own the land on which Ingles' Ferry and Stagecoach Road was built, across the New River from the town of Radford. The weathered Ingles Ferry Tavern, where Roberta's aunts lived in the 19th century, is now home to pigeons and mice. There was talk a few years back about reopening the ferry as an attraction, even some start-up money, says Steele. Nothing came of it.
Roberta's cousin, Lewis Ingles (Buddy) Jeffries, lives across the river from the ferry site on his family's farm, just above the amphitheater in which "The Long Way Home" has been performed for the past 27 years. Buddy Jeffries was drawn back to his homeplace after a long career in the military. In addition to owning the rights to "The Long Way Home," Jeffries spends his time repairing fences, raising beef cattle, and restoring the house in which he grew up.
Built by John Ingles in 1789, Jeffries' home is one of three remaining in Montgomery County bult prior to 1800 in frame rather than log.
"Using more modern and elegant building materials was my ancestor's way of getting this part of Virginia out of the frontier mentality,"Jeffires says.
There's a certain irony to Mary Draper Ingles' son setting out to eliminate the frontier mentality -- the very mentality that Mary Draper Ingles embodied in her tenacity, resourcefulness and strength.
Still, I think she must have approved roundly, America was built by tough people looking to the guture. Thenotion of progress -- the steady movement toward a goal -- lay at the heart of American expansion, in all of its glory and all of its horror. And Mary Draper Ingles' goal that bitterly cold, late-November day -- to cover the last few miles of her return to Draper's Meadows -- was made precisely in that fasion. Step by step.