Grandma’s Story About Being Captured by Indians in 1779

One of the most important historical narratives from 18th century Indian captives, came from a woman buried in the cemetery overlooking Union, West Virginia. There are no historical markers to identify her grave, but the story is an amazing one . . . .

In the early 1840’s, a little-old-lady living in Lewisburg, (West) Virginia, gathered her descendants around her, in front of the fireplace in her home. For years Margaret Handley (Pauley) Erskine (1753-1842) had entertained numerous friends and family with the tale of her violent capture, and the ensuing five years of captivity, by the Shawnee Indians in the years 1779-1784. Now, nearly ninety years old, Margaret said she would tell her story for the last time. If anyone wanted to retain it, they must take notes. For, she sighed, she was growing weary. It distressed her greatly, she said, to relive those memories, and she did not intend to repeat her adventures again.

Drone shot of present day Lewisburg, W. Va.

Margaret Handley, born on February 28, 1753, was the daughter of William Handley, who died when she was just a small girl. She thereafter, as best as I can discern, lived with her older brother, John Handley, about seven years older than she. John Handley, his cousin, Archibald Handley, with both of their families in tow, were among the first settlers in what would become Monroe County, West Virginia. This was probably a result of the influence of James Byrnside, who had been burned-out of the area by the Shawnee in 1763, and was dying to go back after five years of exile; but this time he was bringing lots of friends with guns:

Another circumstance was that [James] Byrnside had spread the news of this promised land among his friends on the Cowpasture and Bullpasture – Among the settlers from that quarter were the Estills, Bensons, Kincaids, Blantons, Laffertys, Meeks, and Raneys. His [Byrnside’s] own survey near the site of Union was bordered by those of Henry Kountz, James Alexander, John Cantly, William Hawkins, James Handley, Robert Noel, Nimrod Tackett, Thomas Stuart, Thomas Johnson, and Erwin Benson.

History of Monroe County, West Virginia, by Orem Morton, at page 28.

The area settled by the Handleys, the Byrnsides, and others, was referred to as the “Sinks,” and later the “Sinks of Monroe” after the area became its own county, rather than the southern segment of Greenbrier County. It consists of a mix of mountains and valleys, with the valleys primarily consisting of rich limestone soil, pocked with sinkholes, where water formed caves in the soft bedrock:

The view from Byrnside’s Fort, possibly looking towards where it adjoined the Handley land. I haven’t quite plotted it out yet. This view’s probably not a whole lot different now than it was then.

By design, James Byrnside and the Handleys were neighbors, and James’ son, John Byrnside, would be closely associated with the Handleys throughout his life, in the founding of Monroe County itself. Like James Byrnside, and others from the little frontier community, Margaret’s brother John Handley, would serve in the Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774, and also with George Rogers Clark, as a Lieutenant in Clark’s famous expedition int he Illinois country during the Revolutionary War.

The view from the second story of Byrnside’s actual fort he built, with help from six other families, in 1770. That window was original, though it was enlarged some, and would have had a bulletproof wooden shutter.

Fortunately for us today, when Margaret told her story for the last time, her grandson, Allen T. Caperton, was among those present and her words have been handed down to succeeding generations.

Allen Taylor Caperton (1810-1876) was born in Monroe County, educated at the University of Virginia and Yale, and studied law with Judge Briscoe Baldwin of Staunton, Virginia. He soon became a member of the legislature and won a seat at the state constitutional conventions held in 1850 and 1861.

Although a strong Union man, he eventually went with the South and served in the Confederate Senate, 1863-1865. In 1875 he was elected to the United States Senate from West Virginia, Upon his death, his colleague, Henry G. Davis, noted in his eulogy, “His great-grandparents on both sides were among the earliest settlers on the headwaters of the Kanawha, then overrun by hostile Indians, and the fact that his grandmother was captured by hostile savages, her infant child butchered before her eyes, and she detamed in captivity for four years, will give some idea of the courage it took and the dangers that had to be encountered in opening to civilization that fertile and beautiful mountain region.” 

Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Allen T. Caperton (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1877), p. 5. See http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh23-4.html

Drone shot of Alan T. Caperton’s beautiful large brick mansion, Elmwood, as it appears today. Also our next door neighbors.

Inscription at the top of the notes: The following is a Copy from a Copy, as written by my Cousin Allen T. Caperton of Union Va, related to him by our Grandmother. Albert Russel Erskine Son of Alexander Erskine Sr. M.D. Copied Feb, 20th 1872.

“It was in the fall (23’rd September, 1779) that Margaret Paulee with her husband, John Paulee (sometimes written ‘Pauley’), with one infant (female) about one year old, set out from the County of Monroe, Virginia, for a journey to Kentucky for the purpose of establishing themselves. They were attacked by a party of Indians, who, as it was conjectured, had some notice of the projected trip and waylaid them for the purpose of making captives. There were six Indians, and the party in company with Mr. Paulee consisted of Mr. Paulee and wife, Robert Wallis, Brice Miller, and James Paulee. Each man was armed with a rifle, but there being no cause to apprehend an attack only one was loaded at the time of the attack.

18th century Virginia rifle, such as the group may have been carrying.

Margaret’s words are in bold italics, as follows:

It was about 11 or 12 0’clock when, to adopt the language of Grand Ma, I was riding in front of the Cattle, that we were taking with us, with my Child in my arms, about five (5) miles from the mouth of East River, I was alarmed by the report of a gun which Seemed to have been fired from behind a log. My horse took fright, & at that moment I heard my Husbands Voice, calling to me repeatedly to ride back. I turned to obey his Summonds, when one of the party of Indians came from behind a tree, and pulled me from my horse, and with a blow from his Club, Struck me Senseless.

In those days they seemed to have placed a great emphasis on capitalization of random words in sentences, the reason for which I haven’t really recognized a rational pattern. The capitalization, spelling, and grammar, is almost entirely original. I’ve only altered it where it’s overly confusing so as to be a distraction . . . .

The party crossed the New River at the ford at the mouth of Rich Creek – present day Rich Creek, Virginia, then traveled a mile or so to present day Glyn Lyn, Virginia, and from there started up the East River, which is more of a creek than a river, heading west towards Kentucky. I’ve been to the spot before. At the mouth of the East River, early settlers, in 1742, found the burned remains of a log cabin and the body of a dead woman, Mary Porter. They left a memorial, which in an updated form, remains today – though nobody knows exactly what happened. Here are some of the pics I took of the spot last year:

The attack against Margaret and her husband is believed to have taken place about one mile south of the mouth of Five Mile Fork creek, on the upper end of a farm owned by William Smith. The route they were taking was the shortest route to the Cumberland Gap, and into Kentucky. See History of Summers County from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, by Henry Miller, at p. 555.

“What took place. during this State of insensibility, I was only enabled to gather from the Indians themselves, after I came too. The dreadful tale was easily Comprehended, after the evidences that met my Senses, on recovery. The gun of my poor Husband, & the Scalp of poor Wallis, too terribly indicated the results of the Engagement. There was also in Company the Wife of Wallis, James Paulees Wife & Child, Samuel Campbell & Wife, tho the two latter were behind & hid. James Paulees Wife & Child were taken prisoners, and placed on a log beside me after I had recovered. It was while I Sat upon the log, that an Indian came with the reeking Scalp of Wallis, who poor fellow was never heard of more.”

Something that’s never occurred to me before is the smells associated with situations like this. Those of us who have gutted and cleaned animals – especially deer – immediately can recall the strong smells associated with first cutting open the belly of a deer: the hot steam; the strong odor of the guts; the different smells associated with removing the hide from the muscle tissue. Of course it isn’t necessarily different when it came to human beings and violent warfare, such as scalping. Details such as this, being a trial lawyer, and often thinking of such things, in my mind it adds overwhelming credibility to her recollections. Not that anyone is doubting what she said. But that’s not the sort of thing anyone would think to make up, or to add for embellishment purposes . . . . Speaking of scalping, here are some “scalping knives,” which I’ve written another post about, if you’re interested in learning more:

Original British-Made Indian Trade Scalping Knives. Bottom three in the middle are original, two of them excavated at Indian villages. The others are contemporary replicas made by Ken Scott.

My Husband, when he Saw me dragged from my horse, ran up & fought over my body with three of the Indians, using nothing but the butt of his Gun, when one of them put his gun, to his breast & Shot him through. He believing that his Wife & child were both dead, & thinking the wound which he had received mortal, left the Strife & Started upon his way back. In his retreat he turned Several times & observed the Indians looking after him attentively, probably expecting him to fall, from the Shot which he had received. When he reached a turn in the road he left it, & taking the Woods probably thereby Effected his Escape. In the Scuffle he lost his own Gun, but took one from the Indians, which he carried away with him.”

When Crow’s Tavern gets up and running at our Byrnside’s Fort restoration, our first toast with our hot toddies must be to John Paulee: mortally shot with what was likely a large caliber musket at close range, after which he took one of the Indian’s own guns away from him, and walked off to go die on his own terms, gun in hand, with them staring in disbelief. That was one tough man.

“After going Some distance in the woods, he laid down Expecting to die, but after waiting, felt relieved & leaving his gun, Set out for Woods Fort on Rich Creek. On reaching New River, he waded it & by the assistance & guidance of John Woods, arrived Safely at the Fort, where he died in a Short time, under the full belief that we his Wife & Child had fallen under the tomahawk of the merciless.”

The New River, in the vicinity of the area where the attack likely took place. Crossing the river would not have been an easy task.

Here’s a drone photo I took of the actual site of Wood’s Fort, near Peterstown, Monroe County, West Virginia:

A drone shot of the actual site of Wood’s Fort, overlooking Rich Creek, snaking through the valley. It empties into the New River a few more miles up the valley.
Wood’s Fort in relation to the New River, which is seen at the top of the screenshot, running left to right, from Ripplemwead, through to Glyn Lyn, Virginia – which is the mouth of East River, and the Mary Porter monument I posted above.

“I, after recovering from the Stunning Effects of the blow which I had received, observed, my Child lying a Short distance from me, & approaching it took it in my arms’ fondly thinking to afford it Shelter, but all my fond hopes & motherly affections were arrested by the approach of an Indian, who barbarously murdered it with a Club & then threw it upon the ground. The Child of James Paulee met the Same fate.”

Below is a great example of what the club likely looked like. These were often left at the scene of killings – especially by the Shawnee – as early examples of “calling cards” – so that whomever found the unfortunate victim would know the identity, or at least the get the general idea, of who the killer, or killers, was:

“The party, who afterwards went in pursuit of these Indians found the body of my Child which had been protected from the Wolves, by a little fierce dog which was found lying by its Side. The other Child was entirely eaten up by the Wolves. There were five Indians & one white man named Morgan, composing this party. The latter Seemed more barbarous than the Indians. After possessing themselves with what of the baggage they could conveniently Carry & taking 12 of the horses, they placed me on my horse & Mrs. James Paulee on· hers & Set out.”

Here’s an example of an old Indian saddle, which could probably used for a pack saddle, or riding saddle. You’ll see below where she mentioned the “horn” of one of the saddles being used to tie-off something:

Original Native American saddle, covered in rawhide and hand-stitched with sinew.

“Our beds were ripped open, the feathers poured out & the ticking taken, Starting up the North fork of East River, an Indian leading my horse, we continued our Way traveling in the middle of the River for a mile or more, & then in the direction of Blue Stone, we went a westwardly direction traveling all day & all night & never Stopping until late the next night, when they encamped, using the precaution to build their fire in a Sink hole.”

By “sink hole,” I believe she is referring to a cave, or possibly a small cave with an inflow of water, which I suppose would technically be a sink hole according to how we use the term in the “sinks of the greenbrier” area in which this occurred.

I’m not sure if this is what Margaret meant by “sink hole,” but this is a rock overhang I explored in West Virginia, which has long been used as an Indian campground. This would shield the smoke, and provide shelter. A “sink hole” must mean “cave,” because today what we refer to as a sink hole, would not shield the smoke, as it is not covered, generally.

The Indians led them through the “middle of the river” for a ways in order to make it more difficult for a rescue party to track them. They followed the East River to the mouth of Five Mile Fork, and thence up Five Mile Fork until it reached the Bluestone River, in present day Mercer County, West Virginia:

“I Suffered much during these two days & nights having had repeated falls from my horse, caused by the barbarous Morgan, who Seemed to take a malicious pleasure in Cutting my horse & causing him to throw me forth over his head. I could learn nothing of their plans or purposes, but this Morgan informed me that they intended to take us to Shawnee Town & make Squaws of us. They took no other precaution to Secure us than placing us pretty well in midst & taking our Shoes from us, returning them to us the next morning. I frequently thought of attempting an Escape, but Every time I raised my hand one of the Indians would raise his also.

I believe she’s saying that she would wait until everyone was asleep at night, and then as she started to move, one of the Indians would mimic the movement, in order to show her that she was still being watched.

I ate nothing for 3 or 4 days, the Savages Seemed always desirous that we Should partake of What Ever they had or obtained to Eat. The one that Killed my Child was more Kind to me than any of the rest. I had provided myself with a little dried beef, biscuit, & cheese, ·which they were fond of, a little of which I partook I had also provided myself with a bottle of Spirits, in case of Sickness, which was Still in my Satchel, hanging to the horn of my Saddle, but becoming alarmed lest they might get hold of it & drink & become more barbarous, I unloosed it, & let it fall in the Woods, where it may remain to this day.”

Unbroken West Virginia wilderness still exists in many places. It sounds like they turned due West through the modern-day coalfields of West Virginia, which would have looked like solid hills as far as the eye can see, with no valleys whatsoever. Definitely the difficult route to travel, and likewise difficult for rescuers to pursue.

“The next day we Continued our rout, a Westwardly direction through a Wilderness, nothing occurring until we reached the Ohio River, where the plunder our Saddles &c were put into a canoe & carried over, the Indians Swimming beside the Horses Afterward we crossed the Scioti & then -the Miami. “

The Shawnee had a history of being nomadic, at one point being in Florida, hence the name Shawnee, derived from the Suwannee River in Florida, which I grew up fishing in. My family still has my great grandfather’s fishing camp on the Suwannee River in Levy County, Florida. Later, in the early to mid 18th century, they concentrated in Pennsylvania, always in a somewhat subservient role in a power struggle with the larger and stronger Iroquois, who claimed most of the land they did, and would, occupy. As white settlement encroached, they mostly removed to the Ohio county.

In 1783, the Shawnee, or the “Shawnoes” were concentrated on the Upper Ohio River in the northwestern territory still claimed by Virginia, under its Second Charter in 1609
Source: Library of Congress, Die Vereinigten Staaten von Nord-America (William Faden, 1783)

Here is the Scioto River near Chillicothe, OH, which must be close to where they crossed:

The Scioto River, in the vicinity of Chillicothe, Ohio

An example of the remnants of a Shawnee ford across the Scioto – though this is further upriver where it’s smaller.

Site of the 18th century Shawnee Ford over the Scioto River, site of the current bridge of County Road 265, near Kenton, Ohio.

They also forded the Miami River, heading West.

The Miami River, from an old postcard.

“The Scioti we crossed at the old Chilecotte town & then forded the the Miami & came in Sight of the Shawnee Town when we camped, & the next morning gave Signal by firing the guns & giving a peculiar hollow which indicated that they had returned with prisoners plunder & Scalps. The object in Stopping was to prepare for Some ceremonies common to all whose lot it was to be prisoners. They came Shouting & rejoicing. One of them approached me & held out his hand, to whom I offered mine in return, when he Struck me a blow which brought me to the Earth. The Chief of the gang who had taken us, Seemed enraged at this treatment & interposed for my protection. The Sympathy created by this treatment in all probability Saved me from the necessity of running the gauntlet a thing which every prisoner has to undergo. It is what the Savages calls a Welcoming.”

Map showing the Indian Trails and Towns in Ohio. It looks like they may have taken Trail 6 from near Point Pleasant, then Trail 3; or possibly they started at the mouth of the Scioto and took Trail 2 and then Trail 3.

“The manner of it is, a large number of Squaws & Indian boys place themselves along a line armed with clubs & Switches The prisoner is then required to run an appointed distance & to undergo all the blows that can be inflicted. I saw two boys about 15 years of age named Zoffit who were brought in & made·to run, they were Started & one of them turned upon the first blow & returned it, an act which So pleased the Indians that he escaped the blame & was adopted.”

Running the gauntlet was a tradition in many native tribes, wherein prisoners would have to run through a double sided line of villagers, wielding sticks and clubs. As you run, they each hit you, some harder than others, and if you make it through, you get to live, or possibly be adopted into the tribe. Or, if you can’t make it through, or fail to do so, maybe you don’t live, or are deemed unworthy of adoption. One of the most famous recollections of running a gauntlet is that of Simon Kenton:

An old engraving showing a man running the gauntlet who, takes one of the Indians’ clubs and uses it for his own benefit to get through the gauntlet. This is likely a depiction of Simon Kenton, though I’m not sure where it originated. You can see that many of the Indians are laughing at this, thus earning him respect.

“Through the compassion of the Chief I escaped running the Gauntlets, but my fellow prisoners were forced to do So & Suffered Severely. We were then taken before the “Council” & through an Interpreter, questioned Severely. They inquired particularly if my Husband was not a Captain & upon my replying in the negative, they cautioned me not to tell a lie, being opined that he was a Captain from the courageous manner in which he had behaved & fought. Upon a further consultation it was determined that I should be addopted into the family of Wabakah Kahtoo, into whose family I entered having been gifted with the White Wapen belt.”

“Wabakah Kahtoo,” as she calls him, was the Shawnee Chalakatha Chief named “White Bark.” He was born in 1732, in Pennsylvania. His son, Wa-ba-pusito, was involved in the raid that initially captured Margaret. White Bark himself would die in 1783, of an illness. He was a leader of the Chalakatha (spelled other ways as well, such as “Chalagawtha,” sept of the tribe. The Chalakawtha originally resided primarily in a village of that name in the Chillicothe, OH area, along the Scioto River. But they later removed west towards the Miami River due to hostilities with Kentuckians, led by George Rogers Clark, who were within striking range of the old villages – especially given the number of horses now associated with the white settlements in Kentucky. Margaret mentions being taken across the Miami after being captured, so presumably she was taken to the spot where the Chalakathas relocated near the Miami River.

“Wabakah Kahtoo was king of the Tribe, had been at the battle of the Point & had been wounded. [Battle of Point Pleasant] After my addoption he told me that I must be contented not to fear any one & not to be ordered by any other woman. My greatest & most distressing apprehension was lest they Should take it into their head to Compell me to take up with or marry one of the Indians & this apprehension was rendered Stronger by the Conduct of a White female prisoner who had intermarried & who hearing that it had been proposed to me to marry & that I had refused, came to me & urged me to this course Saying that if I did not So consent I would be murdered.”

How the Chalakatha Shawnee Village in the Ohio Country may have appeared in 1779.

“I communicated my uneasiness to Wabakah Kahtoo, who informed me that I need not fear anything, that there would never be any compulsion if I was unwilling. I was likewise further relieved by Leon Girty who So often, after I was taken, came to see me & informed me that I need not fear on that Score, that they were not the people to compell any one to Such a course.

She’s referring to “Simon” Girty, who was an infamous character on the late 18th century frontier. He was an unparalleled frontier scout and warrior, but has been portrayed as a villain to America – both then and now. He was originally from Pennsylvania. After his father was killed by Indians, fifteen year old Simon was adopted into the family of a Shawnee Chief named Guyasuta. He was thus raised partially as a Shawnee, and under the direction of a well-respected and successful native leader. He lived with Guyasuta from 1756-1764, eventually returned to the British commander as part of a prisoner exchange at the age of around twenty three. Then being a well-experienced expert on the Shawnee-inhabited Ohio frontier, he became a guide, working with famous frontiersmen, such as Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and George Rogers Clark. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, he eventually defected to the British and lived among the Shawnee, once again. He was thereafter branded as a scoundrel, traitor, and “white savage.” However, much of the criticism has been unfair or untrue, but that’s for another post.

Simon Girty, “the White Savage,” etching from Thomas Boyd’s 1928 book by the same title.

The Indian who had killed my Child was particularly desirous to atone for his barbarity by Various acts of kindness, Such as Sending for me to partake of any thing which he might have. I Suffered greatly more than I would otherwise have done, from the Knowledge that I Should be Confined in the course of a few months. I Saw McKee & Girty often, the former was a gentlemanly man & there were Simon, Jas & George & all these men had Indian wives. The Indians thought a great deal of McKee and Girty.

Alexander McKee and Simon Girty had known each other from childhood. McKee became an Indian Agent for the British, who eventually had his own town, McKee’s Town, or “McKee’s Station,” which I’ve seen it called, as his base of operations along the Mad River in the Ohio Indian country. His primary home was an eight room log “mansion” along the Ohio River at “McKee’s Rocks,” which is still the name of the place today (McKees Rocks, PA). It was called “FairView,” and was part of a 1,200 plantation awarded to him for his service in the French and Indian War by Col. Bouquet. George Washington dined there in 1770. Although it was destroyed in 1902, here is a surviving photo of the home:

Pipe tomahawk found at McKee’s Rocks, Pennsylvania, below Fort Pitt on the Ohio River.

Alexander McKee was initially recruited as a British Indian Affairs agent by the legendary British Indian Agent, George Croghan. Here’s his original signature we acquired on a document:

There was an Elliot likewise among them, also an Indian Chief named Blue Jackett who had married a half French woman of Detroit & who lived in great Style, had curtained beds & Silver Spoons I was fond of Visiting this house, they always Seemed kind & desirous of giving me tea &c. He had his negro Slaves & So had McKee.”

Blue Jacket was an important Shawnee war chief. If you read the Allan Eckert books, Eckert described him as initially being a captured white child, Marmaduke Van Swearingen, who was adopted by the Shawnee, ultimately becoming a great war leader. However, that apparently has been debunked since then by DNA testing. In any event, Blue Jacket was a real person who successfully led his army to defeating one of the first armies of the brand new United States at the Battle of the Wabash, or St. Clair’s defeat – a devastating defeat for the somewhat incompetent early American military. However, America was having none of that, and Blue Jacket’s progress was quickly erased with the Battle of Fallen Timbers, this time under the competent leadership of Revolutionary War hero, “Mad” Anthony Wayne.

“Nothing of moment occurred until the May after my capture, when the period of my confinement came on. After making known that the time had arrived an old Squaw took a chunk of fire & conducted me to a woods, where I was left alone with nothing but a Shelter of brush over me for the Space of ten days, after which I was permitted to return to the Town. The day after the birth of my Child, which I by the aid of my Sister in Law, had dressed, the Squaw came & Seemed Very much delighted, took my Child & Carried it through the town, Seeming to think it a beauty. There was a String of corn brought me, & a mortar for me to pound it, but luckily a man from Detroit who had engaged me to make him a Shirt, came with a handkerchief of flour. The Indian women think nothing of being confined. I have Known a Squaw to have a Child one day & be in the woods the next digging herbs.”

“Almost a year after I had been taken, I met with a young man whose name was Thomas McGuire, who had previously been taken by the Indians, but escaped from their hands by joining a company of negroes, who informed me all about the defeat & death of my Husband. Nothing of importance occured until the Summer of 1780 when Colonel Clarke made his invasion upon the Indians. They knew of his advance, having learned it from two he captured on the Ohio & Seemed Very much alarmed. I, with the other prisoners, was taken & Secreted in the woods within hearing of the firing between Clarke & the Indians.”

A painting by artist John Buxton, showing Clark and his force attacking. August 8, 1780: Engaging the Shawnee Village, by John Buxton. http://www.greenwichworkshop.com/ebooks/buxton/BuxtonA/files/assets/basic-html/page25.html
An original George Rogers Clark signature we acquired.

“After the battle as over, we returned to the town, Pickaway which we Entirely laid waste, Staid about a week, gathered Some of the corn & dried it. Here I was taken with fever & ague & left about 50 or 100 miles. I had a horse & Saddle which I was permitted to ride, while the Squaws carried large packages. We went where the hunting was good, & lived the whole winter on meat. I Suffered from the fever & ague about Eight weeks at this place & here we Settled, lived in Camp during the Winter & afterwards built a town, which we called McKees Town, I employed myself Sewing, got two (2) Shillings a Shirt & made four (4) Shirts a day.”

“In the Summer of 1782 there arose a difficulty which very nearly put an End to my Cause. A party of Indians headed by the Same individual who had taken us prisoners & Killed my Husband, went upon an Expidition into Kentucky, for the Same purpose that had formerly taken them to Virginia. which Expedition terminated in the death of the Chief Wabapusito, Son of Wabakah Kahtoo. The news of his death was received with Sorrowful lamentation by all the Tribe. His Father was inconsolable & required Something to appease him for his loss. There had been taken in Kentucky two boys, Jackey Calaway about 9 years old and Dickey Hoy about 12, who were placed with me and lived in Wabapusitos house. The old Chief·not withstanding all the partiality he had shown for me, was So grieved by this death of his Son, that he conceived the horrid plan of burning in his own house the prisoners he had made, the two (2) Ky boys & myself. I had observed a considerable commotion for Several days before I was Enabled to ascertain its cause, when by accident as I passed a blacksmith shop I overheard the White man inquire if that was the woman who was to be burned. This led me to make inquiry & to my Surprise & horror I learned that the old Chief had resolved upon my destruction.”

White Bark apparently decided to burn all of his son’s possessions, including the prisoners taken by him, of which Margaret was one.

“I however learned that the greatest exertions had been made to avert our doom, that numbers of the Indians had interceeded in our behalf, that McKee had been Sent for to Exert his authority, & that preparation had been made to Steal us off in the Event of failure with the old Chief by Every other means. There was an assembly of nearly all the Tribe of the Shawnees. Wabakah Kahtoo, & another Chief Sat over the Council the whole of the night, & consultations were held as to the place of our death, the Chief using Every argument to dissuade & Waba intent upon burning us. This I ascertained through my own ears, having learned Enough of the Shawnee language to understand the principal part of what was Said. I had concealed myself in the Vicinity & heard all that passed between them.”

“The morning however after this a messenger arrived from McKee with a Wapen [wampum] belt & a talk, the Substance of which was that he would not Suffer the Execution of Wabakah-Kahtoos Scheme. The old Chief finding himself thus opposed by So many & So Vehemently, proposed at length that if the Interpreter would give him a handsomely mounted rifle gun which he had in his hand, that it all Should be forgotten. To this propostion the Interpreter immediately acceded & thus a rifle gun appeased that which no argument of providence or mercy by acknowledged partiality could Effect.”

“After this took place the old Chiefs manner & treatment continued the Same as before , & I, following the advice of McKee I disguised any knowledge of What had been in contemplation. The two Boys were addopted & little Jackey Calaway was placed with me.

The children were abducted during the Shawnee attack on Hoy’s Station, about six miles from Fort Boonesborough. The boys were found playing in a watermelon patch. John Holder took seventeen men in pursuit, and caught up with the war party. However, as was often the case in such situations, the rescue party was led into an ambush, and suffered substantial casualties. Apparently the Shawnee captain, and son of Chief White Bark, was killed as well in the fighting. Jones Hoy and Jack Callaway were about age 7, the children of William Hoy and Richard Callaway, early settlers at Fort Boonesborough. They were then transported to the Shawnee village in the vicinity of modern day Piqua, Ohio. Little Jack Callaway’s mother, Elizabeth, was one of the children abducted by Shawnee in 1776, and famously rescued by Daniel Boone – an incident partially responsible for creating the legend and fame surrounding Boone. Jack would be rescued, “against his will,” two years later. Little William Hoy was actually Elizabeth Callaway’s grandson.

The capture of Jemima Boone and the Callaway girls, from the Kentucky River near Fort Boonesborough. Little Jack Callaway would be the son of one of them.

“I heard through the Indians of Crawfords defeat, capture & death, Saw them upon their return from the fight with Scalps. The reason which they gave for treating Crawford So barbarously was retaliation for the death of Corn Stalk a Shawnee King, who had commanded at the battle of the Point, & who had surrendered himself & Son as hostages & were So treacherously & cruelly murdered by Arbuckles men, who were detained at that time at the Point, contrary to their Commanders orders, & under the pretex that Corn Stalks friends had murdered one Gilmore & two others. It is Stated in a Book called Border Warfare, that an Indian by the name of John Hollis, & who pretended friendship towards Captain Arbuckle, but betrayed him, was recognized as one of the Slain at Donnellys Fort. This was a mistake, as I saw Hollis during my Captivity among the Shawnees & talked with him about his Exploits in Greenbrier.”

Donnally’s Fort, in the Greenbrier Valley, was attacked in 1778, by one of the largest war parties ever to attack a Virginia fort – upwards of 200 warriors. This was in response to the murder of Chief Cornstalk and his son, Elipsco, at Fort Randolph, a Virginia Militia post at Point Pleasant (West) Virginia. However, the attack on Donnally’s Fort, though the second largest settler/Indian battle in modern day West Virginia, was largely unsuccessful from the Indian perspective. It resulted in nominal casualties for the Virginians, and upwards of fourteen, more or less, Indian casualties, which was a great loss for a population with extremely limited manpower.

The site of the attack on Donnally’s Fort, near Lewisburg, Greenbrier County, West Virginia.

In 1782, Col. William Crawford, a retired Pennsylvania veteran of the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War, was persuaded to come out of retirement to lead a US military expedition against the Indians in the Northwest territory of modern day Ohio and Indiana. But it was doomed to fail, and ended disastrously, with his army routed, and with himself being captured. He was viciously executed by being burned and tortured at the stake, which quickly became the talk of the entire country.

Painting showing Col. Crawford being tortured and burned at the stake.

“From the time of little Jackey Callaways addoption into Wabas family, he lived with me, & and was a great Comfort & relief to me. He had to take his plunge with the young Indians Winter & Summer & frequently has he come into the Camp with icicles hanging from his hair. I always had a fire for him.”

It was a tradition for Shawnee boys to go through a rite-of-passage type experience, where they dive to the bottom of a cold creek during winter, and retrieve an object from the bottom of a creek, which then provides some significance for the individual as he comes of age.

“From the period of Crawfords death, & the time when an attempt was made to ransom me, nothing occurred worth transcribing. I will mention here a Simple custom among them. In their marriage Ceremonies, they the Shawnees bake a large Vessel of dumplings, which are Served out by the Chief Squaw, in Small Vessels which each guest is Expected to bring to the wedding. These dumplings, they carry home with them and eat, & on the day following the bridegroom goes out & Kills a deer, which he presents to his Wife. She takes it to her mother. She gives him bread & he gives her meat. The Squaws do the principal part of the Courting, the men being for the most part modest even unto bashfulness.”

Among these Savages I lived as comfortably as one could, apart from friends & with only a tolerable probability of ever meeting them again. The hostile feelings & predatory fare between the Shawnees & Americans had not Subsided.

“In the Summer of 1782 there were Strong but ineffectual efforts made to ransom me, the Old Chief invariably replying to all their proposals that I was not a Slave to be Sold, & that he would not part with me, that I had been adopted by him & had become one of his family. A Mr. Higgins, whose generous Exertions in my behalf can never be forgotten, tried faithfully. The Old Chiefs feelings were Sincere, & I do not think that any price could have overcome them. Indeed there Seemed on the part of all the Indians, the Squaws especially with whom I had been living, an attachment towards me as ardent & affectionate as any I have ever known, among my own kindred & friends. My feelings towards the Old Chief were of course anything but kind & affectionate, after I had discovered his desire to Sacrifice me & my Child to appease his anger on account of the death of his Son; and when I became fully Satisfied that the only obsticle in the way of my redemption was his Will, it will not be wondered at that I wished, nay that I fervently prayed for his death. My prayers however Sinful they may Seem were followed by his death.”

“On the day before he died I was Summoned to attend him, when he felt a consciousness that his End was nigh. Directing my attention to a point in the Sky, he informed me that when the Sun reached that place his Spirit would take its flight. This presentement was Correct, for precisely at the time he appointed he Expired. He expressed great Concern for my Situation, was fearful that my Claims would not be Supplied with wood, and manifested a regard for me which he could not have felt, had he known my anxiety for his death.”

“My friend Mr. Higgins immediately after the old Chiefs death, recommended negotiating for my ransom with the Son·of the old man into whose custody I had gone, & after a Short time Succeeded by paying the Sum of Two Hundred (200.00) dollars. But there was still another obsticle, my child the Indians were desirous of detaining, they having taken it into their heads that he was not included in the bargain.”

I’ve been trying to ascertain the identity of “Mr. Higgins.” I’m still not sure, but I have figured out, that Simon Girty and Alexander McKee had an associate, or employee, named Higgins, who defected with them on the same night from Fort Pitt back in 1778. It has been said that Girty spent a considerable amount of his own money, behind the scenes, to ransom American captives. So it is possible that he arranged, and possibly even paid for, the ransom of Margaret and the others.

“A general Council of the Shawnees was assembled before which I was Summonded, & their Views made known regarding my Child. They alledged that they were to keep this child, that they would thereby have a pledge that I would occasionally return to Visit them; but to all of this I replied that I would never go without my Child, that if it remained I would likewise. After this reply & a Short Consultation, it was acceeded to me that I should go & be permitted to take my Child with me.”

“When I made Known my determination to the Squaws of leaving them, their demonstrations of Sorrow to part with me were terribly affecting & notwithstanding the prospect I then had of once again meeting my relatives & friends this occasion Seemed the happiest moment of my life. I could not but Shed tears upon parting with the poor creatures, who Seemed thus So Sincerely attached to me. I Shed tears of joy & Sorrow, & poor little Jackey Calaway what would I not have given to have taken him with me, as he Exclaimed, what Shall I now do?”

“I was taken to Mr. McComicks where I lived until the following Spring & then Set out for home the following Spring in Company with eight other Captives. I had a tedius travel thro the wilderness the greater part of the way, during which time we Suffered much for water & Something to Eat. For three days we had nothing whatever to Eat, & my poor child would have died, had it not been for the nourishment afforded by a few Seed, with which I had provided myself before leaving the Indian Settlement, & the good fortune to rescue from a hawk, a pheasant that I did, which enabled both myself & Child to Stand it better. The Hunters had been unsuccessful.”

“After Eight (8) days we reached Pittsburg, where I was made Sensible of the Effects of habit, by being placed in a feather bed, in which it was impossible for me to Sleep. From Pittsburg home we had a pleasant journey.”

There was a Betsy McCormick, taken prisoner in Washington County, PA in 1782, and returned to McCormick’s Fort, following the close of the Revolutionary War. This could have been one of the captives, with whom Margaret stayed until Spring. If it took eight days to travel to Pittsburgh from the McCormick’s place, it must not have been all that far away – certainly not in Kentucky. To return to the Greenbrier Valley from Pittsburgh, the easiest route would have been via boat down the Ohio, and then up the Kanawha, to the point at which a road was being built from the Kanawha Valley to Lewisburg, West Virginia. Roughly modern day US Route 60.

Pittsburgh circa 1795.

“My Son John Paulee grew up with Every promise & prospect of doing Well, in after years went out as Secretary of a Fur Company, had Succeeded in laying in a fine quantity of furs, with which he & his company were decending the Yellow Stone River, when they were attacked by a party of marauding Indians, who murdered nearly all of them he among the number.”

Little Jackey was redeemed about a year after I left him & went to Ky. where he lived to a good old age, &: died about 18 months ago. Polly Paulee my Sister in law who belonged to a Couple of Indian Squaws, Succeeded in making her escape about a year before I was redeemed. She had been permitted to go on a Visit to Detroit, for the purpose of trading, & while there gave them the Slip. She was protected by the Govenor of Detroit, at whose house She Soon afterwards married an Officer named Mergers. This Officer tried hard for my redemption, but failed. With him She went to England & afterwards returned to Georgetown where She was murdered.

John “Jack” Callaway thereafter had ten children, and died in 1825, at the age of 50, in Henry County, Kentucky. So, she wasn’t quite right about that, but she was quite a ways away from Kentucky. Jones Hoy remained in captivity with the Shawnee until 1789, being with them a total of seven years. He married in 1805, had twelve children, and in 1827, moved to Platte County, Missouri, dying there in 1845.

Col. John Callaway’s grave in Henry County, Kentucky

Margaret Erskine died June 3, 1842 in the 90th year of her age.

Margaret married Michael Erskine within a year of returning to the Greenbrier Valley. As the wife of Michael Erskine, she lived much of the rest of her life in Union, Monroe County, West Virginia. When her husband Michael died in 1812, she moved to Lewisburg, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, until her death in 1842. It is said that she frequently visited her family in Monroe County during that time. They had five children: Jane Erskine, who married Hugh Caperton (father of Allan T. Caperton, who transcribed the story; Henry Erskine, a successful merchant, William Erskine, who became the proprietor of the Salt Sulphur Springs resort; Alexander Erskine, a physician in Huntsville, Alabama; and Michael Erskine, a planter in Texas.

Margaret’s tombstone in Green Hill Cemetery
Green Hill Cemetery, overlooking Union, WV

Margaret is buried in the Green Hill Cemetery, overlooking Union, West Virginia. Her story is one of the most important and interesting surviving historical narratives told by Virginia Indian captives. But to find her unassuming grave, you’d have to know where to look. There are no historical markers about her, but there should be. Her story is important history for the State of West Virginia, as well as the Greenbrier Valley – both Monroe and Greenbrier counties . . . .

10 thoughts on “Grandma’s Story About Being Captured by Indians in 1779

  1. Enjoyed your story,My mother’s family is from Monroe county and she has a mystery to solve in her blood line,My grandma was born a Persinger,my great grandmother was an Allen she was my grandfather Persingers 2nd wife ,mom has been trying to find the Indian connection in her family,I have tried but can’t afford the expensive genealogy website any suggestions on where else I may find any information,I have the book Greenbrier Pioneer ‘s and their homes but it’s no help ,not one mention of Allen’s,Persinger,or Hedrick my grandmother ‘s married name.

  2. Greatly enjoyed this story about Margaret Erskine and her legendary exploits, Her story would be a great book and/or a movie as it gives real perspective to the early frontier of the US. Now if Tinsel Town would only quite the superhero venue and turn to something which has real and significant meaning. My family, the Packs, of which both progenitors were named Samuel were also very early (circa 1740+/-) hunters and trappers along New River and eventually settled there, in what is Monroe, Greenbriar, and Summers counties. Their home and plantation were on their land at the convergence of the Greenbriar and New Rivers according to family lore. My grandfather told me of using one of the old cabins along the New River in the 1920’s and 30’s to fish, hunt and raise a summer garden. Normally we lived in nearby Raliegh County. Other than that, I know a little bit about their history and e3xploits other than they served in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. Should you ever come up with any written history or tales of their lives, I would be most pleased to hear about them. Keep up the great work! You are making history come alive and you are honoring the lives of these people as most probably no one else has or could.

    • There’s a Pack’s Ferry on the New River here, which must be your family. I’m sure I have come across Pack information. I’ll keep a lookout for the name….

  3. I suspect “Mr. McCormick” might be Alexander McCormick, a white trader who lived in a village just a short distance north from the Wyandot Half King’s town on the Sandusky river in Wyandot County Ohio. (where state route 67 crosses the river) A map drawn by a Delaware Indian at fort Pitt in 1782 lists Half King’s town as 30 houses and McCormick’s town as 30 houses. Old Upper Sandusky Wyandot town was abandoned and then became listed as Half King’s town when it moved to this spot just before the Crawford Expedition of 1782, from a mile south of modern Upper Sandusky, but I haven’t read how long McCormicks town was in it’s last location.
    If they could make about 3 miles an hour on horses? an 8 day trip to Fort Pitt seems about right, I guess?

    • Maybe you’re confusing “Mr. Higgins” with the McCormick prisoner? It sounds to me as if the McCormick was kidnapped from a settlement. And Mr. Higgins sounds much more likely to have been a trader, is my guess.

  4. If they traveled your route #2, the Scioto Trail, they would go right through McCormick’s town on the Sandusky (assuming it was in that same location a few years earlier than when the 1782 map was made).

  5. i enjoyed this story very much. My ancestors are from Monroe Co. After reading this, i looked in my collection of family info. turns out, one of my ancestors, Michael Bickett Jr., married Mary Jane Erskine. She was a sister to the Michael Erskine Jr. that married Margaret Handley after she returned to Monroe Co. She must have been a very strong woman. Thanks for the story.
    Helen Coen Groves

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve metal detected a site where Michael Erskine lived…. I may have found something which belonged to Margaret now that I think about it….

  6. Thank you so much for posting this gem of a story! For me, it’s the personal stories that bring History to life. I can imagine Margaret down-played the harshness of her treatment during her capture and imprisonment. The psychological torture alone would’ve been too much for many. She surely was a strong survivor. What did you find that belonged to Margaret?

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