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Women in History

feature stories in honor of Women’s History Month

Jenny Wiley

Frontier Captive

By Kathy Cummings


One of the distinguishing factors of Indian warfare on the American frontier was that this war was not fought by only soldiers. Families were often the target of marauding bands of Indians. Driven from their lands by white settlers – they fought back

The story of Jenny Wiley is one such story. Even though it is a story of mistaken identity. A group of Indians from several tribes had come upon hunters from a nearby settlement. The story of how 80 year old Henry Harmon and his sons killed a young Indian is a complete story in itself. But when it happened the group of Indians vowed vengeance and attacked a cabin that they mistakenly thought was the Harman cabin.

Jenny Wiley was at home with her children and step brother. Her husband Thomas Wiley had gone on a day trip to another settlement to sell ginseng. Ginseng was a popular market commodity among the early settlers of Kentucky. He was not expected home before midnight.

Jenny's brother in law John Borders had become aware that there might be Indians in the area. Both Borders and Wiley were recent emigrants to the continent and not the seasoned woodsmen that many of the other men of the settlement were. But Borders had heard the hooting of owls during the daytime and rightly suspected the sounds were signals being made, not by nocturnal owls, but by Indians.

Borders went to the Wiley cabin and encouraged Jenny to bring the children to his cabin. But she insisted that there were chores to finish and that they would be along later in the day. As a child of the frontier she told Borders that the Indians would not attack before dark. It was a fatal mistake.

The Indians approached the cabin. Within minutes her step brother and children were dead. And with her infant son in her arms Jenny Wiley was taken captive. The Indians ransacked the cabin and then set it ablaze. The small dog that Jenny had raised since a pup followed her at a careful distance.

The Indians knew that the settlers would start out after them and the pace they kept was blistering. But Jenny Wiley was a woman of the frontier. She had been born in Pennsylvania, raised in the mountains of Virginia. She could shoot as well as any of the frontiersmen. She was by all reports a strong woman.

It should be noted the year that all of this took place was 1789. This was 6 years after the end of the revolutionary war when Indian raids were supposed to be over. Lexington, Kentucky was a “thriving city” and boasted 10 carriages by 1787. It was only 3 years before Kentucky became the 15th state. And although the mountains of eastern Kentucky were the last area in Kentucky to be settled, this was not early in the frontier years. The settlers in these remote cabins of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee knew many of the Indians by site. The Indians, especially the Cherokee, traveled the route through the mountains frequently – visiting the Shawnee in the towns north of the Ohio and returning to their own towns in Tennessee. That is not to say that they were friends. Many of the settlers including the Harmans were known for their hatred of the Indians.

So when Henry Harmon engaged the Indians during their longhunt, and when his son Tice Harman shot the son of the Cherokee Chief Dull Knife – Jenny Wiley's fate was sealed. The Indians thought they had found the cabin of the Harman family. In truth it was just over the rise in the next valley. When they entered the cabin Jenny was caught defenseless. She scooped up her youngest but had no time to grab a weapon. Her step brother Andrew tried to defend them until a tomahawk took his life and his scalp. The younger children followed. Jenny could make out enough of the Indians conversation to know that they were looking for the Harmans. She tried to convince them that she was not of that family. Her insistence saved her life. Instead of killing her, the Shawnee Chief Black Wolf decided she would be the replacement for a daughter he had lost. The fact that Jenny was obviously pregnant had no effect on the decision to force her to travel through the woods.

Through the rain soaked evening and well into the night the Indians pushed on. Jenny's feet in her homemade shoes were no match for the terrain. But this was only the beginning of her ordeal. For months she became a slave to the Indian camp. She cooked meals, built fires, cleaned game. She had seen her surviving toddler killed on the march to speed up their progress. She gave birth to her son alone in a rock shelter in the mountains. After three months the Indians decided to test his spirit. They wanted only the strong to be adopted into their tribes. They placed the baby on a piece of bark and floated it out into the icy water. The baby let out a scream and his life, too was over.

With hindsight more facts about the unusual captivity of Jenny Wiley have became known. It would have been customary for the Indians to return across the Ohio to their towns. There the whereabouts of Jenny Wiley would have probably been lost to obscurity as were many settlers taken captive. But in this particular winter the Ohio River was unusually high. It was impossible for the Indians to cross and they decided to winter on the Kentucky side of the river. It was to that fact that Jenny Wiley probably owed her life.

During her time with the Indians the old Cherokee Medicine Man Black Wolf looked out for Wiley. He mixed her herbs and helped her through the final months of her pregnancy. Early on, he fixed salves for her blistered and torn feet. But as spring began to arrive some boredom must have set in among the camp. The Indians captured a young white man and tortured him to death. A death that came too soon to their liking. They turned on Wiley instead and were preparing to burn her at the stake also. And this time Black Wolf did not come to her aid. Only when the Cherokee Dull Knife offered to “buy” Wiley for real silver was her death averted.

But seeing the death of the young man and fearing a life with the much crueler Dull Knife, gave Jenny renewed vigor. When the Indians left to go hunting the next day they again bound Jenny's hands and feet while leaving her in the rockhouse. But a rain had begun. Jenny had had awful dreams through the night – some say visions – of the young man encouraging her to escape. She also saw white settlers along a creek bank in her dreams. Although she had thought about escape for months she realistically knew the Indians would be after her almost immediately.

Now it was different. Her life was about to take a change for the worse and it was time to take the chance. She loosened her bounds in the dripping rain and headed out. She stayed to the creeks and streams hiding her tracks in the waterways the best she could. Much to her regret she had tied up her dog back at the rock house. His presence would only give her position away. And it nearly did.

When the Indians had returned from their hunt and found Jenny gone they followed her. And the now freed dog had come along. After hours of traveling Jenny had sought shelter in a hollowed log. She had carefully crawled in leaving the cobwebs that covered the entrance undisturbed. She slept for a while, only to awake to the sound of native voices. They had gathered in the clearing, clearly perplexed at having lost the white woman's trail. They were only a few feet away from the hollowed log. Just then her little dog began barking excitedly and Jenny's heart sank. He would follow her scent and give her hiding place away. But her luck prevailed. The dog was barking at a passing rabbit and went off on the chase. The Indians drifted off. She waited for hours in the hollowed tree lest they return. Finally she crept from her hiding place. Now speed was critical.

Tradition says that the young man in her vision directed her way. Soon she came upon a river and across it saw the new blockhouse built by Tice Harman. There were women working about and old Henry Skaggs was keeping watch with his rifle. Jenny called out to the settlers. She did not realize the site she made. Her months of captivity with the Indians had made her look more Indian than white. Her already dark hair and complexion had darkened with her months in the elements. Her clothes had been replaced with more practical native made garments.

At first, the settlers thought it was a trick. Often the Indians would put a captive out along a river to entice settlers to pull up to shore when they would attack. But fate was still with her and the settlers soon discerned that is was the captured woman. They fashioned a crude raft out of fallen tree limbs and vines and Skaggs paddled across to get her. She begged for him to hurry and met him in the shallow water. She was not wrong, for the Indians had heard the shouting and were soon upon the river bank. Although the raft reached the other side in safety it had floated far down river. Jenny and Skaggs had to scramble back along the bank almost a quarter of a mile to reach the block house.

Settlers gathered around to welcome Jenny. But they knew the fate of their newest settlement was doomed. Within hours the settlers and a newly dressed Jenny Wiley moved out to return to a more populated area. From there Jenny Wiley was taken back to Walker's Creek and reunited with her husband Thomas. The couple rebuilt both their house and their family having 5 more children. In 1800 they moved once again – this time to Johnson County, Kentucky only miles from where Jenny had spent the longest part of her captivity.


Jenny Wiley lived until 1831. Today her gravesite in Johnson County is marked with a plaque telling her story. A Kentucky State Resort Park was named in her honor.

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