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."