Mary Draper Ingles' story is legendary in the history of colonial America. In her day, she was one of the most well known women in the colonies. Her story is a triumph of the human spirit in its quest for survival.
On the frontier
In 1748, the Draper and Ingles families settled at Draper's Meadows on land now part of the campus of Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, Virginia. This land must have seemed a paradise to Mary's parents, George and Eleanor Hardin Draper. They were immigrants from County Donegal, Ireland, landing at Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania colony in 1729. Their daughter Mary was born in Philadelphia in 1732.
The Drapers were among the first white settlers to scale the Allegheny mountains, which in the 1740s were the western edge of colonial exploration and settlement. They, along with Colonel John Patton, Thomas Ingles and his sons William, Matthew, and John and a few others, settled a natural glade with few trees and which was well watered by natural springs and streams. The area was home to herds of deer and other game. The area was also attractive as it required much less effort to farm than that required to clear more heavily forested land. The land they chose became known as Draper's Meadows.
The young Mary Draper was known for her energy and fine appearance, crowned with flowing auburn hair. Some regarded her as being the most beautiful woman in frontier Virginia. She had grown up the only daughter in her family and had therefore spent her early years in the company of her brother John. She had learned to run and jump as well as her brother and was remarkable for her athleticism. These were traits which would become essential for her survival not much later.
With the marriage of William Ingles (21) to Mary Draper(18) in 1750, the young couple became the first white couple wed west of the Alleghenies, and their son Thomas became the first white child born west of the Alleghenies (1751).
By 1755, Mary and her husband William Ingles had become the parents of two young sons, Thomas (4), and William (2). Mary was pregnant with her third child, expecting delivery any day. Living there also was Mary's mother Eleanor, now a widow, having lost her husband to Indian attack while he was hunting in Kentucky. Another resident of the settlement was John Draper, (Mary's brother), and his wife Elizabeth (Bettie) Robertson Draper and their infant child. They, along with the few other residents of Draper's Meadows, completed the sparse population of the settlement.
Draper's Meadows was at that time the westernmost settlement in America. Their homestead was built on land which had long been part of the traditional hunting grounds of various Indian tribes. They however maintained a peaceful relationship with the natives, even providing food and shelter to parties of Indians as they passed by.
All that changed with the French and Indian War which began in 1755. The Shawnee indians had allied themselves with the French in opposition to the English settlers. Several battles had already been fought to the north in New York and Pennsylvania. The settlers at Draper's Meadows were oblivious to these occurrences, living on the isolated fringe of the frontier.
On July 8, 1755, a band of Shawnee under the leadership of a ranking subchief called Captain Wildcat attacked the Draper's Meadow settlement. The war party killed four, wounded two, and took five captives. Mary's widowed mother Eleanor was scalped in the raid, as was Bettie Draper's infant child after having it's head dashed against the cabin wall. Colonel James Patton died defending the settlement. Casper Barger, an elderly widowed man was also killed and beheaded in the raid.
Mary and her two children were captured, along with Mary's sister-in-law Bettie Draper. Bettie herself suffered a broken arm in the attack. Also taken captive was Henry Lenard. They saw their homes and the settlement plundered, and were forcibly taken to the main Shawnee village far to the north on the Ohio river. The husbands of the two women were away from the settlement tending their crops, so survived the attack unharmed.
On the third day of the forced trek, Mary gave birth to a daughter. She impressed the Shawnee with the way she dealt with the pain of giving birth, and she was subsequently accorded more respect. On about the twentieth day of the march, they arrived at present day Point Pleasant, West Virginia on the Ohio River. They went down river, crossing several days later at current Portsmouth, Ohio where the Scioto river meets the Ohio. They then went north along the Scioto to the main Shawnee settlement located at present day Chillicothe, Ohio.
In the hands of the Shawnee
Upon arriving at Chillicothe, the captives were forced to endure the gauntlet. The Indians formed two long lines and the captives were forced to pass between the rows while their captors flailed them with sticks, clubs, whatever was available. Those who were felled in the passage were forced to start over, while those who endured the passage with bravery and endurance were regarded as fit candidates for Shawnee adoption. Cowardice or weakness earned the offending party a trip to the stake, where they were burned alive. Mary, who had become the object of Captain Wildcat's interest, was spared this cruel ordeal.
Chillicothe was the collection point for prisoners taken all along the frontier, not just the Draper's Meadows captives. Mary met 'the old Dutch woman", who was to soon accompany her in her escape. She may have been Frau Stumf, a captive taken from the vicinity of Fort Pitt during a battle at Fort Duquesne, near present day Pittsburgh, Pa. There the French and Indians had routed the English forces under General Braddock, taking many prisoners.
The gauntlet weeded out the unfit and the survivors were parcelled out to the captors. These adoptive Shawnee were replacements for dead Shawnee, and became the possessors of the worldly goods, title, and prestige held by the deceased. Mary's sister-in-law Bettie became adopted by a widowed Shawnee and was taken to another village, separating the women.
Mary came to the attention of two French traders in the village. They possessed several bolts of flannel cloth which, coupled with Mary's skill as a seamstress, created an opportunity for profit. Mary agreed to the deal in exchange for some badly needed cloth to make clothing for herself and her baby daughter. She started making shirts from the flannel, a skill which considerably enhanced her prestige with the Shawnee. Proud owners of these new flannel shirts were known to parade them through the village upon the staffs they had formerly used to flaunt the scalps taken from vanquished foes.
Captain Wildcat still had designs on Mary, intending to adopt her as a wife. She wanted nothing to do with that idea, but the subchief was insistent. Part of his plan was to also take her two sons into his sept and raise them to become leaders, which in his eyes was a great honor.
Captain Wildcat was a subchief in the Kispokotha sept, the war leaders for the Shawnee nation.
Chillicothe was the base of another sept, the Maykujay, the religious and spiritual leaders of the tribe.
Captain Wildcat, angered at Mary's rebuff, took the two little boys away to his home village, far to the north of Chillicothe in a location near Detroit.
A plan is born
After this event, Mary was still engaged in the shirt making venture. The Indian wife of one of the French traders had recently lost her own newborn child, so aided Mary as a wet nurse to her infant daughter. This woman, Mary, the two French traders and other Indians left on a salt gathering expedition to Big Bone Lick, about 30 miles down river from Cincinnati, Ohio on the Kentucky shore. The site was remarkable in that it contained thousands of mastodon bones imbedded and preserved in the salt deposits for over 10,000 years, The site is present day Big Bone Lick State Park. While at the site gathering salt for several days, Mary started to plan her escape. She intended on returning to her husband far to the south in Virginia.
One day Mary and the old Dutch woman left the camp, giving the reason as a food gathering expedition. They left a false trail and headed for the Ohio River, equipped with 2 blankets and a single tomahawk.
Mary made the decision to leave her infant daughter with her captors. This decision should be seen as a move to preserve the child's life, rather than as an abandonment. The two women were inadequately clothed and supplied for the journey on foot. It was October, and snow might fly before the trip was completed. The days would be cool, the nights freezing, no environment for a newborn little girl. An infant would have slowed them or even given them away with its cries, a giveaway to every indian they encountered and an opportunity to be recaptured. Mary knew the child would be well cared for by her captors and made the heartbreaking decision to escape without her baby.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
The women followed the Ohio upstream, backtracking the route Mary's captors had used in July. The trip would be almost 450 miles on a direct route, but neither woman could swim and had to detour up every major tributary until it became shallow enough to wade across. This added mileage and time to the trip, making it an exhausting 800 mile trek. The women foraged for food along the river, eating nuts, berries, fruit, roots, whatever they could scrounge from the land. They couldn't devote much time to looking for food, being pressed to arrive at their destination before hard winter set in. Lack of proper food, along with the strain of the trip, had both women almost at death's door as they neared their destination.
Some accounts say the old Dutch woman became mentally deranged near the end of the trip, even attempting to kill Mary to devour her flesh. Early verbal accounts did not include that detail, so are suspect. For whatever reason, the two women parted ways, probably near the Bluestone river. Mary continued her journey alone through the wilderness.
Home at last
In early December Mary managed to crawl toward the cabin of an old friend of her family, that of Adam Harmar (Harmon, Harman alternate spellings). The frontier was now on alert due to Indian hostilities. Mary was almost shot on her approach, being mistaken for a stealthy Indian. She returned naked, a virtually skeletal figure, with long snowy hair. Upon being recognized, the Harmars took her in, and started the long slow process of restoring her to health. The sons of Adam Harmar went out in search of the old Dutch woman, and succeeded in finding her and bringing her back several days later. Upon her recovery, she returned to Pennsylvania, leaving Draper's Meadows and any further mention in history behind.
Mary's reunion with her husband William had to be delayed. He and John Draper (Bettie Draper's husband) had gone to Tennessee to enlist the aid of the respected Cherokee Indian tribe in the recovery of Mary and Bettie. The brother's return was one of near despair, failing in their attempt with the Cherokee. William was truly shocked to discover his wife upon his return to Draper's Meadows.
Mary Draper Ingles recovered remarkably well from her harrowing ordeal. She had lost her teeth during the ordeal and her formerly luxurious auburn hair had turned completely white at the age of 23. She and William had four more children and survived other Indian raids. William founded a ferry service which was chartered in 1762 at what would become known as Ingles' Ferry, fording the New River. He also founded an inn to service the increasing flow of settlers into the region. The ferry remained in service for almost 200 years. There was an interruption in the service subsequent to the first bridge which crossed the New River, but the ferry service was later resumed and continued until just after WW II. William continued in his business ventures and acquired considerable land holdings in the area. William Ingles served in the American Revolution and died in 1782 at the age of 53. Mary never remarried but managed to live comfortably until she passed away in 1815 at the advanced age of 83.
Mary's youngest son George died while still a young child in the care of Captain Wildcat.
The older son, Thomas, was ransomed back by his father 13 years after his capture. The lad, now 17, was completely integrated into life as an Indian and had trouble acclimating himself back into colonial society. He never lost his respect for the Shawnee nor his love of their culture. Thomas was sent to school at an academy which later was to become the University of Virginia, where he was befriended by Thomas Jefferson. Thomas later married but his family was almost obliterated in yet another Indian raid. He lost two children in the raid and his wife was severely wounded.
He served with the American forces in the Battle of Point Pleasant. Thomas gave up on Virginia and moved to the Holston River in Tennessee. In a later attempt to float down the Tennessee River to the Mississippi, the boat was wrecked at Muscle Shoals. The adventurers were saved by friendly Indians. Thomas was to finally stop roaming and settle at Natchez, Mississippi.
No mention of the infant daughter which Mary left with the Shawnee is recorded.
sister-in-law Bettie, who had been adopted by the Shawnee widower, was ransomed back to her husband 6 years later, in 1761. She had tried to escape, but had failed in the attempt and resigned herself to life among the Shawnee. She had gained a reputation among the Shawnee for her knowledge of medicine. Upon her ransom, she returned to husband John at Draper's Meadows where she lived out the rest of her life, becoming the mother of seven more children.
The tragic saga of Mary Draper Ingles is memorialized in the outdoor drama The Long Way Home, presented each summer in the area where she lived near Radford, Virginia. The drama is the creation of Earl Hobson Smith.
Mary Draper Ingles found her way through 800 miles of untracked wilderness over a period of forty two days, making her journey one of the most courageous in American history.
Mary Draper Ingles' son John built her a 'proper house', but she continued to live in the windowless log cabin she had shared with her husband William, saying she felt safer there. A monument to her was erected from the chimney stones of that old farmstead at nearby West Radford Cemetery.
The descendents of William and Mary Ingles still own and inhabit the land settled by their forebears so long ago. They are a part of the landscape, part of the heritage of endurance exemplified by Mary in her journey.