The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Captivity of Jennie Wiley

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

The beginning of this story takes place in what is now Bland County, Virginia in the area of Walker's Mountain and Walker's Creek, in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War. At the time, there was still a lot of Indian activity in the frontier mountainous region of Bland County. It concerns the family of Thomas Wiley and his wife, Jennie Sellard Wiley.

Thomas and Jennie Wiley settled on a piece of land on Walker's Creek and built a cabin and began their family. They must have been brave individuals to have settled in such an uninhabited land with Indian attacks occurring with some regularity. The Shawnee Indians were particularly disgruntled with the Wiley's neighbor, Mathias Harman, and attacked the Wiley place, thinking it belonged to Harman. The raiding party of Indians were composed of Shawnees, Cherokees, Wyandots and Delawares.

By the time Harman and Thomas Wiley got to the Wiley homeplace, Jennie's teenaged brother and three children had been killed and Mrs. Wiley, along with her fifteen month old child were kidnapped. The raiding party with Mrs. Wiley and child were pressed to travel swiftly across Brushy Mountain and Wolfe Creek to the Bluestone River. They took little time to eat and even less to rest, fearing they were followed by avenging white men.

The next day the group including Mrs. Wiley crossed the Great Flat Top Mountain and headed for the Guyandotte and Tug Rivers, in the direction of present day Ohio. The Indians didn't even take time to hunt for fresh meat for meals but ate dried deer meat jerky and parched corn. Imagine the weariness Jennie Wiley must have felt. She had been climbing through laurel thickets, over rocks cliffs, through swamps and creeks with a 15 month old child in her arms. The baby had probably cried constantly because of the conditions. The Cherokee Indians were in favor of killing Mrs. Wiley and her child, but one of the Shawnee Indians claimed the right to keep them for himself. The next day a bear was killed and fresh meat and bear grease were eaten by the Indians and Mrs. Wiley. It rained most of the next day. She lived in constant fear that if she could not keep up with the strong Indian braves, that they would kill her child to make traveling easier.

The next day, Mrs. Wiley dropped behind the Indians and at one point, and ran back the way they had come, up the river. The Indians quickly overtook Mrs. Wiley and did what she feared most - the Cherokee seized her child by the feet and hit its head against a big tree. He scalped it and pushed Mrs. Wiley back into the stream to continue the journey.

All this time, the Indian group were being followed by Mathias Harman, but soon, the white men tracing the raiding party gave up the search in a swampy area, and returned to Bland County. Among this search party were Absalom Lusk, Henry and James Skaggs, Adam and Henry Harman. Thomas Wiley did not go with them, as Harman selected ten of the most experienced Indian fighters to go with him. Hindered by the high water and heavily burdened pack horses, the search party proceeded too slowly to catch up with the Indians.

That night the Indians reached the Tug River and realized it was too swollen with rain water to cross any way except for swimming. They were afraid the white men were hot on their heels and felt they had to get the distance of the river between them. Two Indians got on either side of Jennie Wiley and forced her into the water and began swimming with her between them. The water was swift and she feared she would drown, but they finally made it to the other side. After this they trudged on to the Louisa River. By the ninth day of Jennie's captivity they had reached the Ohio River, which was so swollen that they back tracked the Little Sandy River to find a crossing point.

Here, Jennie Wiley, pregnant, delivered a premature baby. She thought herself close to death, but both she and the baby survived. The Indians brought her meat and built a fire near her, but knowing she had little chance to escape, did not watch her closely.

The Indians spent the winter in a camp at the mouth of Cherokee Creek and allowed Jennie to live alone with her child in a rock house. When the weather became warmer, in about three months, the Indians decided to give the baby a "test." They tied it to a piece of bark and set it adrift in the cold water of the creek. It began to cry and its mother rushed out to retrieve it. The Indians took the crying to be a bad sign and killed the baby. Mrs. Wiley was permitted to bury the child, a son, in a corner of the rock house.

Time passed and the Indians still traveled and camped, but there seemed no urgency of the Indians to press on to a destination. One day in the fall, they were joined by another party of Indians who had a captive white man with them. Mrs. Wiley was not allowed to go near him. The Indians seemed blood thirsty and frantic and soon tortured and killed the white man. They made Mrs. Wiley stay secluded away from all this. The new Indians treated her with disgust, and she doubted that she would remain alive long. She was traded to another Indian who wanted to take her back to his village to teach his wives to write and weave cloth.

During this night, Jennie Wiley came to a decision. She had a dream that indicated she should go and find a white settlement, a fort. The next morning, the Cherokee who had bought her told her he was going to the Big Mudlick Creek to hunt, and the whole band of Indians left camp.

In spite of a heavy blowing rain (remember it was late in fall of the year), she saw an opportunity and took it. She took a tomahawk and a knife and quickly made her way up the river toward home. She waded back up the rivers, slowly, and though exhausted by this harsh travel, she proceeded on. After wading in the swift rivers for close to two days, she heard the sound of voices and dragged herself up the bank and saw women and children on the other side of the river. She called out but it alarmed the people and they withdrew inside the fort and closed the gates. She continued to call, shouting her name and saying that she had escaped from the Indians and feared they would soon be after her.

Finally an old man came out of the fort and she recognized him as Henry Skaggs. He helped her to cross the river and enter the fort. As they entered the fort, they heard Indians yelling from the thickets. The Cherokee who had bought her came out into the open and asked why she had left him. Skaggs fired his riffle although he knew the range was too great to hit any of the Indians. But the sound of the shot was enough to make the Indians retreat.

Later that winter, a party led by Mathias Harman took Jennie back to her Virginia settlement on Walker's Creek. The party was attacked several times by Indians, but was successful in their journey.

Mrs. Wiley was in captivity for about eleven months. In the years to follow, Thomas and Jennie Wiley moved to Kentucky and settled on Big Sandy River, about fifteen miles from the settlement where she found refuge after her escape.

Today there is a state sponsored Jennie Wiley Trail between Prestonsburg and Pikeville, Kentucky. This country was settled at a terrible price from early frontiersmen and women such as Jennie Wiley.