The Capture of Jenny Wiley
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By Luther F. Addington
INDIAN ATROCITIES ALONG THE CLINCH, POWELL AND HOLSTON RIVERS OF
SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA, 1773-1794
From the unpublished manuscript, Indian Atrocities Along the
Clinch, Powell and Holston Rivers, pages 183-196.
Jenny Wiley that rainy day October 1, 1789, (1) was busy at her
loom in a big, two-story log house situated in Upper Clinch River
valley. When John Borders, a brother-in-law, on his return from
hunting lost sheep, told her that he had heard in the woods what
sounded like owls hooting.
But Jenny, I never heard owls hooting around here in the day
time, even though it's rainy and foggy. I believe its Indians doing
the hooting and I think they're planning an attack on this house.
Better take the youngins and go with me.
In the house with Jenny were five youngsters. Four of them were
her own children, the youngest of which was fifteen months old. Her
brother often stayed with her while her husband, Thomas, was away
from home. On this particular day he had set out for the trading
post on New River with a load of ginseng. He'd be gone for several
days, Jenny knew.
Jenny showed to Borders no great fear. She said, As soon as I get
this piece of cloth made I'll do up the chores and go.
John Borders left the house and Jenny continued with her weaving,
believing that the Indians would not dare strike until nightfall, if
Jenny was not easily stirred to fright; she was the daughter of
Hezekiah Sellards, who, together with some families of Harmans and
Wileys, had come from Strausburg, VA, to settle on the Virginia
frontier, in a region where they knew hardships and dangers would be
The piece of cloth finished, Jenny went about feeding the
chickens and livestock, although it was not later than four o'clock.
She got the children ready to travel and concluded she'd go to the
house of Matthias Harman because his house was but a half mile
distant. Matthias, she knew, was an old Indian fighter and because
of his exploits the savages had named him "Skygusty", (2)
which meant to say he was a dangerous man.
Jenny and the youngsters, however, had not yet left the house
when the Indians burst their way inside, yelling and beating the
little ones with tomahawks. Although a gun lay cradled in a rack at
a joist, she couldn't reach it with the baby in her arms.
Within a moment her brother and all her children, save the one in
her arms, lay bleeding on the floor, dead. Some of the savages
lunged at the baby in her arms, bent upon killing it also, but a
Shawnee Chief grabbed her and claimed her as his captive; he told
the attackers not to harm her or the baby.
The Chief was an old man with a grave countenance. A string of
silver brooches hung about his neck. Rings adorned his fingers. He
had ornamental bands around his arms and ankles. Rings hunt to his
nose and ears.
When the Shawnee Chief seized her, a Cherokee chief who was also
in the party, showed he was jealous. He gave signs to indicate that
he wanted Jenny for his squaw. This Cherokee chief (so Jenny
described him later) was about fifty years old. He wore buckskin
leggins, and beaded moccasins. His shirt was red. In his belt he
wore a long, sharp knife. From a shoulder hunt a shot pouch and
powder horn. He carried a rifle. A fierce mien was on his wrinkled
The two chiefs quarreled over her. She surmised from their talk
that they thought they were at the home of Skygusty Matthias Harman,
whom they greatly feared, for she could understand the name
Matthias. She knew that these Indians despised old Matthias, who had
hunted some of their tribe down and killed them. So, she explained
that it was not the home of Matthias Harman, but the home of Thomas
The attackers scalped Jenny's dead children and her dead brother.
The Shawnee chief said something which led her to believe that he
was fearful that Matthias might soon be after them, and that they'd
better flee. To this the Cherokee chief agreed, but let it be known
that they'd not be able to escape with prisoners. Yet, she could see
that the Shawnee was determined to take her captive. He explained in
a few words of English that he had saved her life and that she
should take the place of his daughter who had recently died.
After leaving the house, the Indians set it on fire but rain was
falling so hard the blaze was slow in consuming the building.
Leaving it ablaze, the party started out in the rain and the fog.
Jenny's dog followed and the Indians did not try to kill it or drive
The savages traveled to the head of Walker's Creek, crossed
Brushy Mountain to the source of Wolf Creek, where, after night was
well along, they camped at a rockhouse. A rockhouse was nothing more
than a shelter under a projecting ledge on a cliff. Many of these
are found in the Alleghany Mountains. Not only Indians used them as
dwelling, but many first white settlers also temporarily occupied
At this overhanging rock the savages made a fire and broiled some
venison which one of the number was carrying by means of thongs
fastened to his shoulders.
After the meal they set out again, ever fearful that a pursuing
party of settlers might overtake them. By daylight they were at the
headwaters of Bluestone River. The tributaries of this river were
swollen by rain; however, the travelers waded them an discontinued
at a steady pace northward. Soon Jenny became quite fatigued because
she had to carry her baby, but when she'd falter she was scolded by
her captors and told that she must keep up or be killed.
Crossing the Great Flat Top Mountain, they came out on a long
ridge which extended between the Guyandotte and Tug River. At the
end of this day they camped again under a large shelving rock and
once more ate from the supply of venison that was being carried
Jenny was tired and hungry. Already she had been walking
continuously for twenty-four hours. The baby had become ill and
fretful, which annoyed the Indians for they knew that a crying child
could reveal their hiding place to whites who might be following
This camping place became a scene of terror for Jenny: what she
saw take place there aroused in her a deeper state of despair. She
saw the Indians make hoops of green boughs and over them stretch the
scalps of her dead children and brother, and hang them up to dry.
When it was time for the Indians to lie down and rest, they bound
Jenny's hands and feet with strips of raw deer hide. She could not
sleep, but she dozed into a state of nervous delerium; now and then
she would scream out. It seemed to her she could still see her
children being tomahawked and scalped.
Her cries so disturbed the old Shawnee chief, who claimed her as
his captive, that he got up, went into the woods and brought back
some leaves which he crushed in a small vessel and made some tea;
this he had her drink. She didn't know whether the concoction was
from a poisonous plant or not, but she drank it nevertheless. It did
put her to sleep, although it was a restless sleep.
Next morning after a scanty meal of venison and some parched
corn, the party set forth once more. Rain still fell and it was
necessary to continued walking along the Indian Ridge, which ran
away toward the Ohio River.
Jenny was yet so sore from walking and fatigued from carrying the
child, that she found difficulty in keeping up. But when the savages
would threaten to kill the child in order to relieve her of her
load, she summed up all her energy into use and doggedly plodded
onward, foot past foot.
This day the Indians sent out back spies, fearing that they were
still being pursued, although the heavy rain had washed out all
traces of their tracts. Had it not been for the Shawnee chief, the
Cherokee chief, who was in great fear of Matthias Harman's catching
up with them, would have killed the child. The Shawnee chief seemed
to have a little more compassion than the Cherokee chief and so far
he had defended Jenny's wish to save the child. A slow march
continued all through the wet day and at nightfall the party went
into camp again; as usual a great rock shelf under a cliff was
chosen. On the way one of the hunters had killed a fat bear and
every one, save Jenny, was ready for feasting.
Jenny had no appetite; her suffering and fear that the child, now
very ill, might die, affected her emotionally and physically. The
Shawnee chief again showed interest in the child and told Jenny to
grease it with bear fat, and, also, to have it swallow some. This
she did and the child soon seemed to improve.
Upon seeing that Jenny's feet were blistered, the Shawnee chief
made a concoction from white oak bark and had her bathe them; next
morning she repeated the application. A night's rest and the lotion
helped, and she felt more able to set out on another day's journey.
Now the bedraggled Jenny was not the beautiful, vivacious woman
she had been before starting. A description of her left by her son,
ran as follows: She had coal black hair, she was strong and capable
of great exertion and endurance. She was of fine form and her
movements were quick. Her eyes were black with heavy overhanging
brows. She was above medium height. Her face was pleasant and
indicated superior intelligence. She was persistent and determined
in any matter she decided to accomplish. She was familiar with
woodcraft and was a splendid shot with a rifle. (3)
When night came on they camped as usual under a cliff. The back
scouts came in and reported that they'd seen no whites pursuing
Yet the whites were pursuing; they just hadn't come into sight
yet. Back at the headwaters of the Clinch River, John Borders had
become very uneasy about Jenny when she didn't come to his house by
nightfall, got a neighbor and went to see what had happened to her.
He found the dead bodies but he saw nothing of the Indians.
Next morning a company of men, among them Skygusty Matthias
Harman, had gathered at the Wiley home and made plans for following
the savages. Thomas Wiley, Jenny's husband, had not yet returned
from New River; however under Skygusty's leadership the party set
out on horseback in pursuit of the savages.
Skygusty was so confident of the direction the Indians had gone
that he took near cuts across the ridges and came out at the
headwaters of Tug River. There they found signs of the Indian party
and the men continued on the trail.
On the morning after the evening when the back scouts reported no
white men following them, the Indians started out once more. This
day Jenny began to lag more noticeably than on any previous day.
Noticing her lagging the Shawnee chief warned her that the Cherokee
chief was complaining about her inability to keep up and that
something must be done about it.
At the end of the day, scouts were agin sent back; soon they
returned to camp, saying they had sighted a large party of white men
on horseback following them. This brought the Indians into a huddle.
They talked about the best course to take. Some wanted to waylay the
white men and kill them. The Cherokee chief proposed they
immediately slay the child so the woman could keep up. Jenny cried
out that she'd keep up and the Shawnee chief demanded that they let
her try it again. So, they continued their journey. In an attempt to
throw the pursuing white men off the trail, the Indians turned
westward toward the Tug River, intending to cross it, and blot out
their trail. Jenny exerted all the energy she had in an effort to
keep up and thereby save the life of her baby, but soon she began to
falter again. Meanwhile she prayed that the pursuing white men might
overtake her and rescue her and the child.
Coming to a small stream, the file of Indians plunged into it and
followed it down, wading. Jenny was hindermost in the line, save the
Shawnee chief who was behind her. She couldn't carry the child and
keep up; it was utterly impossible. And when she saw the Cherokee
chief stop and move back toward her, she felt she knew it would be
the end of the child's life and maybe hers also. Desperate to save
herself and the child, she waded from the stream and ran back up the
The old Shawnee chief hurried after her and caught her just as
the Cherokee chief came back. The Cherokee chief grabbed the child's
legs, dashed its brains out against a tree, drew his knife and took
the youngsters scalp, while Jenny looked on in despair.
Grief was no help to the young mother. The cruel Cherokee chief
shoved her back into the river and motioned her to go on. So, on she
went, her feet dragging on the rugged bottom, while the swift, cold
water beat against her. She'd heard someone say that the Big Tug
River lay at the mouth of this creek and that they must cross it
Night was laying its inky shadows over the valley when they
reached Tug River, which was swollen out of its banks from the
incessant rain. But, the Indians knew, their getting across this
stream was their only way to elude their white pursuers.
Jenny was shocked with fear when she was told that she must swim
this river along with the Indians. It was madly rushing onward,
carrying logs and brush. Above hung a rain cloud from which
lightening flashed now and then. The pursuing party came upon the
body of Jenny's child, which, with new fury in their hearts, they
buried. They then set out on the trail, following the small stream
since, they assumed, the advance party had gone down it. Just a
short distance ahead of the pursuers, Jenny still stood on the bank
of the wild Tug River, screaming in terror because her captors yet
insisted she must swim it.
In spite of her protests, two of her captors caught her by the
arms and dragged her into the water. Within a moment they were out
in the stream. A savage on either side of her held to her arms, and
drifted with the current, treading water in an almost upright
position. After being carried downstream a considerable distance,
they were washed into the mouth of a stream where the water was
Now they wade dup the creek into the higher mountain which was
covered with dense laurel. At the headwaters of this creek they
topped the mountain and turned down the western slope.
Before nightfall the fleeing Indians found another big rockhouse
and made a camp fire under it. At dawn they left this camp and
continued toward the Levisa River, larger than the Tug, but like the
Tug, a tributary of the lower Big Sandy. This was the largest stream
they had yet encountered, but they swam it as they had the Tug and
continued on toward the Ohio River. Back at the Tug river the party
of pursuers led by Skygusty Harman crossed on a raft. They made
their horses swim.
On the west bank of the Tug river they picked up the Indian
trail, but they found traveling in the rough mountain difficult for
their horses and little by little they fell further behind the
Upon reaching the Levisa, also swollen from the heavy rain, they
could see that the savages had already crossed. After a council was
held the party decided that further pursuit would be futile, and,
discouraged, they turned upriver. They traveled to the mouth of
John's Creek where Skygusty had built a hunting lodge several years
before. Here they went into camp. (4)
After crossing the Levisa the Indians, believing they had eluded
their pursuers, traveled more leisurely. On the ninth day after
Jenny's capture they reached the Ohio River, but ti was so flooded
they dared not try swimming it as they had the Tug and the Levisa.
So, hoping they could sooner or later find a way to cross, they
traveled down the river and eventually came to the mouth of Little
Sandy, which some of the Indians swam; the rest started up its bank,
headed into the mountain again for they yet saw no way to cross the
From the headwaters of the Little Sandy they crossed the divide
to the Cherokee Fork of Big Blaine Creek. On the way down this creek
Jenny became very ill. It being impossible for her to go further,
the Indians went into camp and put Jenny in a small rockhouse a
short distance away and left her. At this rockhouse a son was born
to her prematurely. For some time she was near death. The Indians,
though, were considerate enough to bring her food and keep a fire
going. But as soon as she recovered they left her alone most of the
time for now they felt she would not try to escape.
The Indians went into winter camp at the mouth of Cherokee Creek.
For three months Jenny hardly knew one day from another, and all the
while she was uneasy about the newborn babe lest the Indians destroy
Then one day the Shawnee chief came to the rockhouse, said that
the baby was three months old and that it was time to give it the
test a boy was supposed to have. Without explaining what he meant
the chief left.
But soon the chief returned, told her to pick up the baby and
follow him. With fear tearing at her nerves, she picked it up and
followed. She was led to a creek where all the Indians were
gathered. Then the Shawnee chief tied the baby to a dry piece of
bark and set it adrift in the water.
As soon as the cold water struck the helpless infant it began to
cry, which condemned it in the opinion of the savages. They shook
their tomahawks and grunted, looking at each other. In desperation
Jenny dashed into the stream, recovered the child and returned in
the rockhouse with it.
She had no more than arrived when one of the savages came with a
tomahawk, killed the baby and scalped it. Then, carrying the scalp,
he turned away, not bothering Jenny. And there, alone, the weeping
Jenny buried her child at the edge of the rockhouse.
Soon after the atrocious event, the Indians put Jenny on the
trail again. They crossed into the present bounds of Johnson Co.,
KY, and wandered about until they settled at the mouth of Mud Creek,
selecting once more a great shelving cliff for a temporary home.
Soon the savages went out to hunt. When they brought animals in
it was Jenny who had to cook them. Also she had to gather wood to
use in cooking.
By this time Jenny had learned enough of the Shawnee language to
converse in it with the Indians; also she had learned a few Cherokee
words and phrases. Now she began to plan running away and trying to
get back to her homeplace on the upper Clinch River, but always she
decided that she might not be able to find the way. But one day when
she was told that sometime during the next summer, when the rivers
were low, she'd be taken to the Indian towns north of the Ohio
River, she began to think more strongly about trying to escape no
matter what the consequences.
NOTE: In his recital of the Jenny Wiley story told to him many
years later by a son of Jenny, Mr. Connelly says that Jenny remained
at the last mention rockhouse until sometime in October, 1790. But
this point is disproved by a statement of J. D. Daniel, then County
Lieutenant of Montgomery Co., (which then embraced the present
Tazewell Co., VA) to Governor Randolph of Virginia. In an appeal to
the Governor to send more militia out onto the Virginia frontier, he
said,"I doubt not but your Excellency has been informed of Mrs.
Wiley's oath, who was taken prisoner last fall and run away from the
Indians late in the winter. I am credibly informed her deposition
was taken in Montgomery Co., and reports the Indians informed her
they would bring four hundred Indians against the Clinch and
Bluestone Rivers this summer." The letter was dated July 4,
While at the Mud Creek rockhouse the Shawnee and Cherokee chiefs
had some sort of a pow-wow with their band of savages on top of the
cliff. When Jenny ventured atop the cliff herself, she learned that
another band of Indians had brought in a prisoner, a young man.
Seeing her, the Cherokee chief told her to go back to the
rockhouse and cook a pot of meat. Fearful not to obey, she silently
and hastily returned and filled a pot with bear meat, and put it to
Later the party that had captured her brought the strange band of
Indians to the rockhouse. They ate from the pot, danced and then
threatened to kill her. However, they returned to the cliff top
without harming her.
But after dark they came back, built a bonfire and again became
boisterous. They grabbed her and tied her with rawhide to a tree.
Now she learned that the prisoner whom they'd brought to the cliff
top had been burned at the stake. And it appeared that her fate
would be the same. She appealed to the once considerate Shawnee
chief to save her, but this time he ignored her.
Her courage appealed to the savages and they didn't build a fire
about her. But there was perhaps another reason for not burning her;
they went into council and she could see the Cherokee chief
gesturing, and talking and the Shawnee chief listening.
Upon termination of the pow-wow the Cherokee chief approached her
and told her that he had bought her from the Shawnee chief, and that
right away he would start with her to the Cherokee towns on the
Little Tennessee River where she could teach his wives how to write
and weave cloth. He counted out from a buckskin bag many brooches
and gave them to the Shawnee chief. Then her new owner loosed her
from the tree and followed the others to the cliff top.
One night early in 1790, Jenny, still planning to try to escape,
dreamed that the prisoner, burned at the stake atop the cliff came
to her with a sheep skull filled with tallow, in which was a burning
wick. She thought that he made signs for her to follow to safety.
She set out. On the way the wick flamed so bright and high that she
could see the whole country below. She asked the man holding the
lamp in her dreams who lived there. No answer came but the light
flickered and went out.
Next day the Cherokee chief told Jenny that in a few days he
would be starting out with her. On the following night the Cherokee
chief bound her, seeming to fear she might try to leave him. Then
the whole band of savages left the rockhouse.
Soon a rain came up, and as it fell she definitely made up her
mind to escape.
So, she rolled out to where the rain would drip from the cliff
onto her bound wrists and ankles. Soon the rawhide, soaked with
water, was easy to stretch. Eventually she slipped herself free.
Grabbing up a tomahawk and scalping knife and she set out in the
dark down the hollow through which Little Mud Lick flowed. It was so
dark that she had to go slowly and feel her way along, but foot past
foot she kept making the distance between her and the rockhouse
Next day she came to Big Paint Creek but found she could not
cross it. Night was coming on again but she kept walking. At the
mouth of a creek, alter named Jenny's Creek for her, she crossed
Paint Creek and then started walking up Jenny's Creek. Leaving the
creek, she crossed over ridges, and next came out upon the Levisa
Looking out across the river, she saw a Blockhouse, or fort. She
hallowed and waved her arms until she was seen. Then Henry Skaggs, a
man whom she'd seen in her home settlement, came down to the river
bank opposite her.
There was no canoes on the river bank since hunters had taken
them down stream, but Skaggs went to work and made a raft, which he
Jenny had no more than set foot to earth on the side of the fort,
when a band of Indians appeared on the bank she had just left. They
had probably known about the fort and had got the idea she'd heard
of it also and they had come to look for her. Among the Indians was
the Cherokee chief who had been planning to take her to Tennessee;
also over there was her dog, but she could do nothing about it; it
would have to go back with the Indians.
Henry Skaggs (6) shot a gun to warn the men who were down the
river. Soon they came running, their guns in their hands; the
Indians, seeing them, slunk back into the forest and disappeared.
Jenny stayed in the blockhouse a few days, recuperating from her
ordeal. Then a company of men, led by Skygusty Harman, for whom the
fort (7) had been named, escorted her back to her home at the
headwaters of the Clinch River.
After being united with her husband, Thomas, they settled down to
making a living there on Walkers Creek. But in 1800, ten years after
her return home, they moved to the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy
River and built a cabin about fifteen miles from the blockhouse.
Here they lived out the remainder of their lives.
Thomas died in 1810, but Jenny came to a long widowhood. During
the time she often visited her brother John, a resident of Buffalo
Fork of Johns Creek in the present Floyd Co., KY. She died in 1831.
Both she and her husband were buried in the present Johnson Co., KY,
not far from their last abode. (8)
The descendants of Thomas and Jenny Wiley are many, and today
their homes are scattered throughout the Big Sandy Valley. They are
upstanding and respected citizens. Now and then reunion of the
Wileys of the valley are held in memory of the courageous pioneer
woman. And thus the story will always be kept fresh in the hearts of
(1) Virginia State Papers, Vol. V, page 42.
(2) The title of Skygusty had been applied to both Matthias, and his
older brother, Henry Harman. That they were both great hunters and
Indian fighters is unquestioned, but it is the belief of the author
that Henry, who was ten years the senior of Matthias was really the
one so branded by the Indians. In an old land suit in 1804, Henry
Harman stated that he was in the habit of collecting the men and
fighting the Indians.
(3) Connelly, William E., The Wiley Captivity.
(4) NOTE: Connelly states that on this site the Harman Fort was
built in the winter of 1788-89. However, the correct date was the
winter of 1789-90 for Jenny Wiley had been captured in the fall of
1789 as proved by the Virginia State Papers; therefore there could
not have been a fort here when Skygusty and his party reached the
place after pursuing the captors of Jenny - only a hut.
(5) Virginia State Papers, Vol. V, page 181.
(6) Henry Skaggs was one of the Long Hunters
(7) Harman's Station in Kentucky.
(8) Scalf, Henry, History of Floyd County, Kentucky, page 24.
This file contributed by: Rhonda