October 1, 2018
Jenny finished weaving her material as quickly as possible. Her brother-in-law, John Borders, warned her that natives were close after hearing their owl calls, which they used to communicate. Borders insisted Jenny and the children spend the evening with them as her husband, Thomas, would be gone until well after dark. Being only mid-afternoon, however, Jenny believed she had time until the Indians would arrive. She knew they never attacked in the daytime.
Jenny was wrong.
As she prepared to leave, the door burst open. In flooded eleven Indians, who immediately began attacking those inside. Before she knew it, four of her children and her 15-year-old brother lay dead and scalped. She stood there, 8 months pregnant, desperately clinging to her 15-month old. As the natives argued amongst themselves, she could pick out words here and there. Then Jenny recognized one that explained it all: Harman.
Matthias "Tice" Harman and Thomas Wiley came to Walker's Creek in 1777. Wiley settled next to Jenny's family and two years later, they were married. By 1789, the couple had five children with another on the way.
Harman had a wondering soul, entering Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap or by the Ohio River with his fellow Long Hunters, such as Daniel Boone. (see ) After several hunts in the area, he decided to make a settlement, which included the Wiley’s homestead. Now that the British were gone and America was a country with its own , Harman believed the hostilities were over with the Indians. (see ) However, during some of Harman’s outings, he engaged in confrontations with the natives. As the Indians stood in her home, holding the scalps of her children, Jenny remembered hearing that Harman had shot a brave just a few days before they tried to kill his brother, Henry. That brave, many believed, was the son of a Cherokee chief.
The natives hated Harman and tried to kill him several times. Upon that realization, Jenny began yelling, “You got the wrong home. We are the Wiley’s. Harman lives elsewhere.” The two leaders, a Cherokee chief and a Shawnee chief, looked at her in surprise. Then they realized their mistake as they both spoke some English. One approached her, informing the party, “I save this one to replace my dead daughter.” Though the Cherokee chief, who was obviously in charge, was not pleased, the deed was done. With that, she was thrust out the door with her infant in her hands and her dog at her feet.
Before leaving, the natives set fire to the house. The party quickly trudged through the muddy terrain as they fled into the woods knowing Harman would be on their trail soon. Jenny's captors consisted of two Cherokees, three Shawnees, three Wyandots and three Delawares. This was not uncommon as a similar band attacked a group, which included Boone’s son, James, in 1773, killing them all. (see )
As the Indian party pushed towards the Ohio River, Borders returned to the Wiley house with a neighbor. Like Jenny, he wanted to complete another task before going home, where his wife, Jenny’s sister, informed him the family had not arrived yet. Fearing the worst he went to check on them. Ahead of his arrival, heavy rains extinguished the flames before they engulfed the cabin. The sight Borders saw when opening the door seared itself on his memory, making him wish the homestead was completely destroyed.
When Borders could not find Jenny or the baby, he quickly organized a search party. Harman led a group that followed the natives’ trail while sending a second group with the distraught and irate husband in the wrong direction. Knowing Harman would be driven by vengeance, the Indians pressed forward as the pregnant Jenny desperately struggled to keep up with the pace. Her pregnancy and the weight of her infant made every step an agony. The Cherokee grew frustrated with the infant impeding their escape, but the Shawnee prevented its murder. As the rain continued to fall, the party finally sought shelter under a rockhouse as they took time to eat some venison.
Jenny collapsed as the party finally decided to stop and rest. She observed her captors gathering green branches from trees and forming them into hoops. Watching in horror, they stretched the scalps of her precious children and brother over those hoops. Jenny’s mind swirled with the rush of the events over the last 24 hours. Every time she closed her eyes, visions of her children being slaughtered ended in her screaming out. Taking pity on his new daughter, the Shawnee untied her before disappearing into the woods to retrieve some leaves. Jenny watched him prepare an infusion, which she drank. While her sleep was fitful, she at least slept.
Over the next few days, the group woke before dawn, fled towards the Ohio River in the rain, then stopped for the evening. By the fourth day, Jenny was mentally and physically exhausted. To add to her stress, she feared for the life of her infant, who continually caused her to fall behind in their march. As they were preparing to depart camp, Jenny heard a scout inform the Cherokee that a large search party on horseback was close. Upon the news, he turned to look at the infant, suggesting dispatching the child and changing course. Jenny pleaded with the Cherokee, “I will keep up, I promise,” as the Shawnee once more intervened on her behalf.
Jenny gathered all her strength as she was determined to keep her promise, but after a few miles she felt herself fall behind again. Her blood ran cold as the Cherokee turned and headed towards her. Desperate, Jenny spun and ran with the two chiefs on her heals. She screamed as the Cherokee grabbed her baby by his legs and smashed his head against a big beech tree. Jenny stood there, mortified, as he scalped her last living child. He tossed the body aside before shoving Jenny towards the stream, demanding, “Faster!”
That evening, they reached Tug Fork, which by now was flooded due to days of rainfall. As more storms approached, the natives decided to cross there. Hysterical, Jenny protested before two Shawnee grabbed her and dragged her down in the water. The group pushed their way across as the current pulled them downstream several miles.
Harman had been close on their trail, yet the Cherokee’s plan of choosing rough terrain over easy paths greatly hindered the rescuers on horseback. Harman and his men discovered Jenny’s infant beside the stream, pausing to bury him before continuing their search. Upon reaching Tug Fork, they set up camp and prepared rafts to cross in the morning. Harman picked up the trail on the other side, only to loose the track at Levisa Fork.
The Indians had crossed the swollen Levisa Fork the night before in the same manner as Tug Fork. Confident in their escape from their pursuers, everyone except Jenny enjoyed a restful evening out of sight of the river in a rock house. As their captive slave, Jenny gathered wood and cooked game for the natives as they rested and ate until the afternoon. As they continued their journey, Jenny busied her mind by calculating the time since her nightmare began on October 1, 1789, which she estimated to be nine days. Shouts of “O-hi-yo! O-hi-yo!” by the younger Indians brought Jenny out of her trance.
The flooded river was too dangerous to cross, so the party headed downriver. However, it remained uncrossable. Jenny sat while natives held council, after which six Indians left. The three Shawnee, a Wyandot and a Delaware gathered Jenny before heading off in another direction. As they walked, Jenny felt her contractions starting. Fearing she would be killed, Jenny continued on without saying a word. However, the pain eventually overtook her. To Jenny’s surprise, her remaining captors found her a small rock house and left her to give birth all alone. After her son arrived, the Indians shared their food and built her a fire.
Despite her ordeal, Jenny was grateful to be given a few days to rest before she was forced again to gather firewood and perform other tasks. However, Jenny realized her captors also stopped tying her up. With a baby, Jenny concluded they didn’t fear her running. As the group remained at the camp for some time, Jenny began to feel more at ease. She had been made their slave, but at least they were leaving her and her son alone. Or so she thought.
As Jenny completed daily chores, a Shawnee appeared at the entrance of her rock house. He motioned to the baby, stating that he was three moons now. Jenny gently picked up little Robert Bruce as the Shawnee waved for them to follow. When they reached the creek, Jenny wondered if they wanted to perform some sort of native ritual. Unfortunately, she was correct.
The other natives took Robert from Jenny's arms as she stood there confused. They tied him to a piece of bark, pushing him out into the water. Almost immediately, Robert began to cry causing the natives to raise their tomahawks as they let out their own warlike cries. Rushing into the creek, Jenny grabbed Robert and ran up to the rock house. Yet she was too weak to overcome the Wyandot, who ripped the little baby from her arms and killed him. After scalping the innocent child, he dropped its limp body at Jenny's feet. Numb, Jenny quietly dug a grave for her last child in the back of her little shelter.
Soon after, the Shawnee informed Jenny they were moving on. She gathered her things, said goodbye to her son, and followed. Their journey ended at the mouth of Little Mud Creek. Jenny surveyed what looked like an old Indian town where the group decided to wait out the winter. Life was quite for weeks until a war-whoop pierced their solemn camp. The Cherokee chief was on the warpath again and arriving with a prisoner. Jenny was instructed to cook for the band of about two dozen Indians who dragged in a badly beaten 20-year-old white man. While she prepared bear and venison, they took the young man to the plateau above. Their howling was interrupted only by their gunfire. When the natives arrived in the camp later that afternoon, Jenny noticed the young man was not with them, concluding he was killed.
The natives returned to the plateau after grabbing their meat to eat, which provided Jenny a false sense of security. Following nightfall, several of the war party returned and bound Jenny, leading her to the plateau. She pleaded with the Shawnee who had saved her before, but this time he was vastly outnumbered and the Cherokee chief was obviously furious. So, as they tied her to a tree to burn her, Jenny found peace in her faith. She stood, resigned to her fate and displaying no emotions, which oddly impressed the Cherokee. To Jenny’s enormous surprise, he stopped the execution. After a short council, the Cherokee informed Jenny he had bought her. Her head spun as she was told of her new duties of teaching his wives to write and weave cloth.
That night, an image of the young white man entered Jenny’s dreams. In the dream he took her to a new blockhouse that was built by Harman nearby. Believing she was given a vision to escape, Jenny slipped out of the camp and took off down the creek. Her dog wanted desperately to accompany her, but Jenny feared his barking would alert her captures. She reached the mouth of another creek, which she waded through until dawn. Certain that the natives were after her, Jenny exited the creek and began traveling down the bank at a quicker pace. Then suddenly, on the other side of the river, she saw her salvation. Not knowing the territory, Jenny had taken a convoluted path that not only eluded her captors, but led her in the right direction. In the distance was Harman Station.
Only a raging river blocked her freedom.
Jenny began hollering until Henry Skaggs, another Long Hunter and an acquaintance from Virginia, heard her cries and came to help. Quickly assembling a makeshift raft, he crossed the river to retrieve Jenny as the natives closed in. Jenny clasped the raft as tightly as she could as the rough waters threatened to obliterate their tiny craft. The current whisked the couple about a mile downstream before they touched shore again.
As Jenny and Skaggs reached the gate of the fort, the natives arrived across the river. The Cherokee was visibly disgraced by his slave, whom he purchased only the night before. All Jenny could see was the image of her six dead children as the Cherokee cried, “Honor, Jenny, honor!” His words meant nothing to her. As the natives left, Jenny watched her dog depart as well.
News quickly spread that Jenny Wiley was alive. Thirty miles downriver, Harman heard the report as he nursed a whiskey in Charles Vancouver's fort. He quickly arranged to travel to his fort, Harman Station, and retrieve Jenny as Vancouver gathered supplies for her. Harman escorted Jenny back to Walker’s Creek where she was reunited with her husband.
The Wiley’s rebuilt their home and their family, having five more children. However, the torment of her children’s brutal deaths along with months of captivity understandably left Jenny mentally scarred for the rest of her life. Yet, she survived and lived to tell her tale.
About a decade after her horrific ordeal, the family settled close to Levisa Fork, very near where Jenny had been held captive. She made sure her children knew her story well, even taking them to the areas where their siblings were murdered. Those in Eastern Kentucky kept her legend alive for generations orally, but it was not written down for decades.
William Ely’s The Big Sandy Valley: A History of the People and Country from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (1887) presents one of the first printed accounts of Jenny’s story. Ely credits Rev. Zephaniah Meek, who grew up hearing Jenny’s story, most likely from people who knew her as her main source. Like most legends, elaborations, omissions, and confusion with similar tales started distorting Jenny’s account. Therefore, her son, Adam Brevard Wiley, wanting to preserve the truth, recounted the events to William Elsey Connelley, who published the story in his book Eastern Kentucky Papers (1910). Despite some inconsistencies, these two renditions are highly credible of the true Jenny Wiley story.
Thomas Wiley died in 1810 at roughly 60 years of age. He was buried in a grave lost to time. Jenny Sellards Wiley continued on another 21 years before passing in 1831 at the advanced age of 71.
In a show of honor, the final stream Jenny waded through was renamed Jennie’s Creek. Encompassing the areas where Jenny was once held captive, Kentucky’s Dewey Lake State Park was renamed for Jenny Wiley in 1958. Her final homestead and resting place are in Johnson County, Kentucky, where a monument was dedicated on November 27, 1965 after a descendant located her burial site. Shortly after, a veteran’s stone was also erected, facing Jenny’s, with Thomas’ information. Thomas Wiley had fought in the Battle of Point Pleasant and was a part of the 1st Virginia State Regiment. (see )
Liberty, modern historians often paint our country in the simple colors of whites killing Indians and enslaving blacks. But the truth is a tapestry with far more complexity. Indian tribes enslaved each other long before the first white traders appeared on American shores and not all tribes were peace-loving people. (see ) Not far removed from people today. Although you should treat people with gentleness and respect, seeking always to serve your neighbor, not everyone has such values. Always be alert. Jenny Wiley’s story is one of enduring spirit and the quest for freedom. Faced with overwhelming heartbreak and unimaginable odds, Jenny overcame physical and mental obstacles that few will ever encounter.
That’s my 2 cents.