The “Singing Cave” of Indian Creek and the making of gunpowder by frontier settlers

A local historian friend sent me this scan of an original 1777 document, signed by early frontiersmen of the Greenbrier Valley, where they are leasing the mineral rights of property belonging to one Jacob Mann, containing a cave with valuable saltpeter, which was used to make gunpowder.

From the best that I can read it, it appears that the lessees, Michael Woods and John Pursell?, are purchasing the right to mine saltpeter out of the “Singing Cave” from Jacob Mann, Jr., and its dated February 10, 1777. Adam Caperton, John Woods, Jacob Miller and Michael Handley? appear to have signed the document as witnesses.

The deal calls for Jacob to receive “ten pounds of saltpeter out of every hundred pounds of saltpeter” they “make or cause to be made in the cave called the Singing Cave,” to be paid every month. It further requires Pursell and Woods to “cut the wood as it is commonly cut in the country, reserving the rail? timber to the use of Jacob Mann . . . .” Lastly, they agree to pay to Jacob Mann the sum of one thousand pounds, lawful money of the State of Virginia.

This is actually the same cave system that I’ve already posted about previously, known today as the “Saltpeter Caves,” of the Indian Creek valley of Monroe County – near present day Greenville, West Virginia.

Historical marker for the Saltpeter Caves on the main road through Greenville, WV

I had always driven by the historical marker for the Saltpeter Caves, along the beautiful road through Greenville, and wondered where they actually were, since there’s no obvious cave you can see from anywhere near the marker – as is usually the case with historical markers.

One day I set out to find these caves, and was eventually directed to the home of the owner of one of the cave entrances. Fortunately, he offered to ride out there with me and let me explore the cave entrance.

The mouth of the first cave in the chain of three caves collectively referred to as the Saltpeter Cave, known as Laurel Creek cave, I believe. At one time they were one big cave, but erosion has apparently changed that over time.

Here’s the YouTube video, made from the original Facebook video, I made about seeing the spot, which was actually really cool:

Of course, being interested in the local frontier history of this particular area, I also recognize some of the names here, especially the cave’s owner, Jacob Mann – a well known early frontier settler of Indian Creek valley. It’s been documented, that later in the early 19th century, he was involved in the production of gunpowder using his cave and his mill on Indian Creek, and a trade network he set up with the lead mines to the south, in Wythe County, Virginia.

Another early maker of the article [saltpeter] was Jacob Mann, whose mill stood near where the Thomas Mill now is. He opened up a trade with the North Carolina people, who supplied him with lead brought from the mines in Wythe. This Carolina trade was large enough to give name to a road that passed by Singing Cave. Mann’s boys would sprinkle powder along an old race, fire it at one end, and then see who could first hit the other end of the trail. The father used for his blacksmith shop a cavern 150 yards below the mill at Hunter’s Springs.

A History of Monroe County, West Virginia, by Orem Morton, p. 285

There’s a book written about him, and the Mann family, written by a descendent, which is available online. Upon moving to Indian Creek from the Shenandoah Valley, Jacob arrived sometime between 1770 and 1775 and brought his farm and blacksmith tools with him. Jacob set up a blacksmith shop under a cliff along the creek, which is still there today.

What is believed to be the site of Cook’s Fort.

He set up a powder mill on the creek near his home, and made gunpowder by mixing sulphur obtained from North Carolina, with charcoal from Willow trees, and saltpeter from the cave on his property. Then, he traded his blackpowder for lead from the lead mines in Wythe County, Virginia.

Nearby where Jacob Mann settled, Cook’s Fort was built, which was large by frontier standards, and is believed to have enclosed half an acre of ground, which according to records of the similarly-sized Fort Boonesborough, in Kentucky, is believed to have required the use of 1,000 trees. It’s believed that Jacob may have assisted with the fort’s construction. Jacob and his wife, Mary, built their own log cabin with double chimneys. It’s gone today, but a photo does survive.

This photo was included in the Jacob Mann book, and is also included on one of the historical markers nearby. It certainly looks consistent with an 18th century log cabin. Probably in several phases. It was completely gone, except for two lumps on the ground, by 1999.

JACOB MANN came from Albemarle County, near where the city of Charlottesville now stands. He assisted in the construction of Cook’s Fort and was one of the most outstanding Indian fighters of the settlement. Indians killed an entire family living near the settlement. Jacob Mann, in command of five men, started in pursuit of the Indians. They came upon them at the close of the day, campedon the bank of the river. Afterholding a council of war, it was decided to wait until morning before attacking the Indians who were 7 in number. Jacob Mann’s instruction to his men was that each one should select his Indian so that no two would shoot at the same one. At the first fire six Indians were killed. The 7th dropped his gun and jumped into the river. Jacob Mann, being a great swimmer and possessed of unusual physical strength, leaped in and caught the Indian about midway of the river and killed him with his hunting rifle.

On another occasion the food supply at the fort became almost exhausted. Jacob Mann started up Cook’s Run across into the Flatwoods on a deer hunt. He succeeded in killing a deer and had begun the return trip with the animal on his back, when enountered by Indians. Jacob started on the run for the fort, the Indians were consistently gaining on him. When about 3/4 of a mile from the fort, he saw that he either had to leave the deer and let those at the fort suffer or be captured himself. Just then he saw a depression in the ground. Jacob threw the deer into the cave and crawled in calling his dog in also. He held the dog’s mouth tight shut while the Indians came so close that he muzzles of their rifles brushed the weeds above the cave. After the Indians departed, he was successful in reaching the fort with the precious venison. John Ellison lived intermittently at Cook’s Fort for several years.

GLEANINGS OF MONROE COUNTY WEST VIRGINIA HISTORY, Written and/or Edited by Charles B. Motley, 1973, Commonwealth Press, Inc., Radford, VA 24141 pp 111-112

Driving the ‘ole Power Wagon through the muddy field to the site of Cook’s Fort

In 1780, Steel Lafferty, living at the mouth of Indian, was killed and so was a wife of a Bradshaw. On this or another occasion, one of the Laffertys heard what seemed to be a turkey, but found the noise came from an Indian peering from behind a tree that is yet standing. Lafferty shot the Indian and trailed him by his blood to a deep pool in Indian Creek. William Meek, who lived near by, saw the Indians, mounted a horse, and rode to a neighbor’s house. No people were there except two women. They opened the door for him, and he fired on two Indians crossing a cornfield, wounding one of them. On the third day of the following March, eight of the Indians and two of the Canadian French burned Meek’s house and corn, killed the parents and infant child, and carried away the other two children.

Some hunters brought the news next morning to Jacob Mann. He at once set out in pursuit with Adam Mann, Jacob Miller, and three other men of Woods’ company. After going 50 miles, they overtook the foe, killed one, wounded several, and recovered the children and “plunder.” The pursuers were “extremely scarce of lead,” a common handicap during the Revolution. The account we have given is from the official report. A tradition in the Miller family has it that the six whites pursued the foe to the bank of the Ohio, arriving there at dusk and waiting till dawn to attack. Their six shots laid low six of the seven Indians. The seventh took the river, but one of the assailants swan after him and inflicted a fatal knife wound.

A History of Monroe County, West Virginia, by Orem Morton, p. 50-51

The mouth of the cave

When in 1778 the settlers on Indian were beleaguered in Cook’s fort, Jacob Mann volunteered to go out after food. He shot a buck in the Flatwoods, but being seen by the Indians on his return, he threw his game into a cavern at the bottom of a sinkhole, and then went in with his dog. He pulled weeds over the entrance and held the dog’s mouth.

After nightfall he regained the fort with his venison. It is related that on another occasion he was chased while he had three deerskins strapped to his back. There was no time to get them loose, but he succeeded in reaching the fort. He had just shot a bear and the savages had observed the circumstance.

A History of Monroe County, West Virginia by Orem Morton,, p. 52

Indian Creek, from what was called by the Indians, “Elk Rock.”

At the 1899 Centennial celebration for Monroe County, the local newspaper, The Watchman, still in business here today, published the following story about Jacob:

In the history of our State, replete as it is, with the deeds of daring and brave endurance of the men who wrested it from the grasp of the savage and converted it into a land of smiling plenty, perhaps there is no instance of more unequalled heroism recorded than that displayed by the subject of this sketch.

JACOB MANN, whose name will be remembered by those who heard, or have since read, the address of Hon. Virgil A. Lewis on the occasion of Monroe county’s centennial celebration, was one of the very earliest settlers of Monroe county; and one among the earliest settlers of what is now West Virginia. The exact place or date of his birth is unknown to the writer, nor is it possible, we believe, to obtain any information on that point; but that he was born where Charlottesville, Va., now stands, seems to be an established fact, and his emigration to this country as one of its earliest settlers is equally certain.

To realize the extent of the fortitude and unselfishness of this man and his brave companions – of whom his brother, Adam, was one, we must look backward over the lapse of more than a century and, in our imaginations, meet face to face the dangers and hardships that confronted them.

At that time nearly the whole of the region between the Alleghany Mountains and the Ohio River was an unbroken wilderness; and the part that is now Monroe county was one vast solitude whose sombre stillness was broken only by the cries of the wild denizens of the forest and the occasional crack of the savage’s rifle as he plied his daily vocation.

“Reader, imagine yourself standing upon the rock crested summit of Peters Mountain 125 years ago. Pause and think and look. Behind you is civilization. On your shoulder is the old-time “flint-lock” rifle that has been your faithful companion through the many days that you have journeyed through the trackless woods. Look to the west and you see an illimitable wilderness . . . .

Unappalled by the dangers that threatened them JACOB MANN and his companions established homes for themselves and their families in the new land; and it was not long until their humble effort grew into a flourishing settlement. At first they were unmolested by the Indians; but after a while, alarmed by the reports of their depredations committed upon the Greenbrier and other frontier settlements, they deemed it essential to their safety to build a fort where all might take refuge in time of danger. This was done, and “Mann’s Fort” (Cook’s Fort on the land of Valentine Cook), as it was called, was erected on Indian Creek on the land now owned by J.M. Ballard. None too soon was the fort completed, for hardly had they set up the last “puncheon” of the palisade that surrounded it, when a runner came to inform the men at work that a body of hostile Indians was on its way thither.

The Watchman, by F.T.M., Sept. 16, 1899, Greenville, W. Va., Watchman Sept. 28, 1899. Film 1017648

The view from inside the first cave entrance, looking out. Laurel Creek is flowing in.

All the families of the settlement were at once collected and brought into the fort and everything was made ready for the expected attack. They did not have long to wait; for, though the Indians never attacked the fort enmasse, they could be seen lurking in the vicinity by twos and threes, and thus were a constant and terrible menace to the lives of those within the fort.

So long as their stock of provisions held out the besieged did not suffer. Indeed they enjoyed themselves in true frontier style; the older ones by the side of their cheerful log fires for it was autumn, telling their stories of hunting and Indian fighting; and the younger ones passing away the time as young people of every age and clime know how to pass it. But this state of things was not to last always. Food soon grew scarce and it became evident that unless some of the hunters could elude the vigilance of the savages and obtain a supply of venison, starvation must ensue.

JACOB MANN volunteered for this dangerous duty; and slinging his faithful rifle across his shoulder he crept from the postern gate under cover of the darkness and by a circuitous route reached the region then and since known as the “Flatwoods”. At a point somewhere near where the post office of Wikel now is, he was successful in quest and was soon on his way back to the fort with the carcass of a fine buck slung across his shoulder. His plan was to reach the vicinity of the fort and there wait until nightfall and then enter the stockade as he had left it under cover of darkness.

But alas! As Burns tells us, the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft aglae”; and when the veteran hunter was toiling along the rocky hillside just across Indian Creek from where the Primitive Baptist Church now stands, he was seen by the Indians. He heard them making signals to each other, and knowing that his presence was discovered he started to run. The savages gave immediate pursuit and owing to the hindrance of the weight upon his back, gained rapidly from the start. Nearer and nearer they came and he saw that he must either throw down his venison and run for his life or be overtaken and tomahawked. Neither of these expedients was very pleasing to his mind, as the loss of the deer just then might mean starvation – a worse death than that by the tomahawk or scalping knife even.

While he was in this predicament and casting about in his mind for an escape from both these fates, if possible, his eye caught sight of a depression in the ground and running to it he found it to be a “suck-hole”. Hastily throwing the deer from his shoulders into the cave, he jumped in after it and secreting himself as best he could, awaited the coming of his enemies.

Whilst he was lying there scarcely daring to breathe lest he be discovered, he was horrified to see his little dog which he had forgotten standing at the mouth of the cave looking calmly down on him. The Indians were not far away, by this time, and he knew that if they saw the dog, his fate was sealed. Calling to him in a whisper he was delighted to see the little fellow wag his tail and descend into the cave. He then pulled the weeds that grew about the entrance around so as to form as good a screen as possible, and holding the dog’s mouth to keep him from betraying their presence by barking, lay still.

The Indians came very close to his hiding place; but as good luck would have it, he remained undiscovered, though once during the time one of the savages came so close that he brushed the weeds that covered the cave’s mouth with the muzzle of his gun. After waiting until after nightfall he emerged from his hiding place and reached the fort in safety.

Some time after this, a runner came to the fort with news of the massacre of a family named Weeks on Bradshaw’s Run, in what is now Forest Hill district, Summers county. JACOB MANN with five others went in pursuit of the Indians, seven in number, who after taking the property and scalps of the unfortunate settlers, had decamped with the usual savage celerity. After a weary march of several days through the wilderness the settlers one evening came in sight of the Indians encamped on the bank of the Ohio River. It being already twilight the settlers decided to defer the attack until morning.

Just as day was beginning to appear, the men under the direction of MANN each picked his Indian and fired. Six of the savages fell dead and the seventh not knowing where to look for his enemies, and terrified beyond measure by the death of his comrades, jumped into the river without his arms, and started to swim to the Ohio side. Knowing that if he once reached the woods on that side of the river his escape would be assured, and not having time to reload his rifle MANN sprung into the water armed only with his hunting knife, and swam in pursuit. Being a powerful man and a good swimmer, he soon overtook the savage foe, and after a brief struggle dispatched him with his knife.

These are only a few of a long series of wonderful exploits and thrilling adventures of this remarkable man, but they serve to illustrate the character of the man who settled our country and gave us the opportunity to be what we are and enjoy the blessings that we do enjoy. JACOB MANN was only one of the many heroes of pioneer days; and the stories of adventure that sound to us so much like the workings of a romance, were nothing more than every day occurrences to our forefathers of but a few generations ago.

The Watchman, by F.T.M., Sept. 16, 1899, Greenville, W. Va., Watchman Sept. 28, 1899. Film 1017648