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Women in History

feature stories in honor of Women’s History Month

 The Journey of Mary Ingles

Walking in Their Footsteps

By Kathy Cummings

Do you ever look around and realize that you might be standing on the same ground as a famous historical figure.

To me, growing up in Cincinnati in the 50’s - going to Kentucky meant one thing. My great Aunt and Uncle had a farm near Petersburg, KY. To us the adventure meant crossing the Ohio River on the Anderson Ferry. Once on the Kentucky side we followed the curvy mountainous roads to “The Farm.” The journey took about an hour. Today with the addition of I-275 you could make it in less than half that. The remodeled old farmhouse sat on a hillside high above a bend in the Ohio River. We lazed in the hammock and watched riverboats go by far below. The property reached down to the river but aside from a stray cow (we could hear the cowbells) no one ever traversed the hillside all the way down.

After a recent trip to Big Bone Lick State Park a strange thought occurred to me. Mary Ingles and The Old Dutchwoman must have crossed the very land where I played as a child. I ran my finger along the map and traced the route from Big Bone Lick along the Ohio River and sure enough it crossed the property.

The beautiful Ohio

 The Story of Mary Ingles

Mary Draper Ingles was captured by Shawnee Indians from Draper Meadows in 1755. Draper’s Meadow was in Virginia and was one of the first settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains. Of those present at the settlement that fateful day, 4 were killed, 2 wounded and three were captured along with two children. Although pregnant, Mary Ingles along with her children - 4-year-old Thomas and 2-year-old George and sister-in-law Bettie were taken by the Indians. Another settler named Henry Lenard was also captured. Bettie Draper’s infant child was pulled from her. The baby was killed. Bettie suffered a broken arm. The captives were taken back along the New River to the Kanawha to the Ohio River to the Shawnee towns.

Although some accounts differ most agree that Mrs. Ingles bore her third child, a daughter along the trail. In a true testament to her courage and fitness, she continued on the trail shortly after the birth without causing any delay to the Indians. For many a captive such an event would have spelled imminent death. Babies who cried or women who could not keep up the pace were often killed along the trail. Mrs. Ingles was permitted to ride a horse, along with her children for much of the way. It is believed that this concession was granted her to increase her value as a captive – either for ransom or for the adoptive value of her three children. Shortly after arriving into Ohio at the Shawnee towns her two sons were separated from her and adopted into other families. The infant daughter that she had borne along the trail remained with her.

William Ingles, her husband, saw the flames from the burning settlement and knew of his family’s fate but was powerless to do anything about it. Arriving on the scene unarmed and way outnumbered would have been certain death for him.

The life decisions we make today pale in comparison to the life and death decisions made by our ancestors. 

Mary Ingles managed to stay alive although Henry Lenard did not. She helped to care for Bettie’s broken arm and the Indians allowed her to bind it and apply a poultice to it.

From the Indians plunder of the homes in Draper’s Meadow she managed to salvage her sewing basket. By indicating to them through signs that she would mend garments for them they had returned the basket to her. It was this same skillful sewing that kept her alive when they reached the Ohio country. There were two French traders in the camp. From them she got cloth and she sewed the white man’s hunting shirts that the Indians favored.

While in captivity she continually contemplated escape. She knew that her older children were lost to her - but her husband remained. She did not want to become the wife of a Shawnee Indian. On hearing that she was to go with a party of Indians on a salt expedition she was excited. To be back on the Ohio River meant she was that much closer to home. But to her dismay the party turned westward going instead to the area we know today as Big Bone Lick. Here the ancient mastodons had become mired in the heavy salt bogs and only their bones remained. The Indians came to this area to boil the water to obtain the salt.

Accompanying the party was a young Indian woman. She cared for the Ingles’ baby while Mary cooked and worked. There was also another, older woman whom history remembers only as “The Old Dutchwoman.” Spending several weeks at the site the two who were responsible for cooking the meals managed quite a bit of freedom. Although there was a language barrier between them, as the only two white women they did manage to communicate.

Mary Ingles still had two great decisions to make. Taking her infant daughter on the journey she was contemplating was certain death to the infant. If she could survive the hardships, which would be doubtful there was still the chance of being recaptured. That too would be certain death to both of them. But if she left the baby behind she would be raised by the young woman who obviously cared greatly for her. This infant would never know any other life or any other family. It was a heart wrenching decision but probably the wisest choice she could make.

Some accounts fail to mention this third child, born along the trail. Some of the Ingles descendants say they had no proof of it. That the family never talked of another child. Others said that maybe it was simply easier never to talk about that child left behind for her own safety. 

The other decision facing Mary Ingles concerned “The Old Dutchwoman”. Should she tell her of her plans? If the woman did not want to risk the escape, would she give her secret away. But although “The Old Dutchwoman” did not have as driving a need to return as did Mary, she longed for the German cooking, big meals and the familiar life she remembered. A lifetime with the Shawnees was not appealing to her.

So while out gathering wild grapes, walnuts and hickory nuts the two women risked their escape. They had managed to secure a tomahawk from one of the Frenchmen. After using it to crack nuts the day before, they had carefully hidden it for their journey along with a blanket.

At first the Indians merely thought they had gotten lost in the woods. The two women only had one plan - to follow the river. Whatever else they did, they must stay along the course of the river to reach home. The harrowing account of their journey has been chronicled in many writings. Follow the River by James Alexander Thom is the most notable although it is historical fiction. Trans-Allegheny Pioneers by John Hale includes narratives by Ingles’ descendants.

It is estimated that Mary Ingles and “The Old Dutchwoman” traveled over 1,000 miles to return home to Draper Meadows. By the end of their harrowing journey they were starved, nearly naked and half crazed. The final days included scaling the rock walls along the New River. Even for an experienced climber this is difficult. For a woman who had been traveling without hardly any provisions for weeks it seems next to impossible. But the force driving Mary Ingles was strong. Her will overcame her circumstances.

The most amazing thing to me was that neither woman could swim. When they came across a. creek or stream that emptied into the river they had to cross it. If it was too deep or too wide they backtracked up that creek until it was shallow enough to cross. This added days and mile to their journey. After a harrowing 43 days with little food they both managed to make it back to Virginia. Although in the final days they had parted ways. The old Dutchwoman had become so starved, that half out of her mind, she had

Each small creek had to be forded...

attacked Mary Ingles. Fighting her off Ingles had managed to find a canoe and crossed to the other side of the river. They finished their journey on opposite sides of the river but both did survive.

Ingles stumbled into a camp belonging to Adam Harmon, a former neighbor. He recognized the starved and naked woman in amazement. It had been four months since the attack at Drapers Meadow. He and his sons tended to her carefully before taking her back to the nearest fort. Her long awaited reunion with her husband was still a few days off. He had traveled down to Cherokee country to see if he could learn any news of his family. The Cherokee Indians were friendlier to the settlers at that time and it was thought that they might be able to negotiate for prisoners from the Shawnee.

 Mary Ingles was reunited with her husband Will and they continued to live in the area. They started a ferry, aptly named Ingles Ferry where they lived for many years. She long outlived her husband who died in 1782. Mary Ingles lived to be 84 dying in 1815. They had 4 more children after her return from captivity.

Her sister-in-law Bettie Draper spent 6 years with the Shawnee before they could arrange her release. From her, the Ingles learned that their youngest son, George, had died shortly after his adoption into the tribe. Their son Thomas was found and bought back from the Shawnees for $150. But he had spent almost 13 years in the native environment. He was never completely at ease in either culture. He continually moved and lived on the edge of the frontier. Ironically his own wife and children were taken in an Indian raid years later.

The road to my Aunt and Uncle’s farm is mostly grown over now. It really ceased being a working farm after my Uncle died in 1959. Although he was an architect that made the trip to and from his office in Cincinnati every day he managed the help that kept the property running. He was also restoring the 150 year old farmhouse at the time of his death of a heart attack.

My Aunt kept the farm until she died in 1999. She spent weekends there with her sisters well into the late 1970’s. It was then that the house was burned down one cold night to hide a robbery on the vacant property. By the time the flames were noticeable to the nearest neighbor, over a mile away, even the stonewalls and chimney had buckled under the great heat.

It seems somehow fitting to me that the property has returned to nature. For these were the hills walked by the Shawnee Indians. This was the path that the first white woman in Kentucky traversed. I wonder if I could stand on that hillside today would I still see the passing riverboats – or would my mind now see instead the ghosts of the past. Hear the footfalls of Mary Ingles and the Old Dutchwoman on their long journey back to Virginia. Would I hear the echoes of the settlers on flatboats as they were ambushed by Indians. Or would I see the spirits of George Rogers Clark and his men coming from Ft. Pitt. Across the river on the Indiana side just a bit further south Archibald Lochry and his men were ambushed while going ashore to feed their horses.

And so the thought remains - who has walked before us on this land we call Kentucky.

For further reading:
Follow the River by James Alexander Thom

Trans-Allegheny Pioneers by John P. Hale edited by Harold J. Dudley

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