Growing up, I listened to the story of Jenny Wiley as told by my Grandmother Lowther.
Jenny lived with her husband, Thomas Wiley, a native of Ireland, who had emigrated and settled on Walker’s Creek, in Wythe, which is now Tazewell County, Virginia. This was where she lived when her capture took place in 1790.
Jenny’s cabin was never supposed to be targeted by the Indians in the first place. She and her family were victims of a tragic mistake.
Tom, Jenny’s husband, was away digging ginseng. A few days previously, the Harmon men had attacked a group of Cherokees and killed two or three of them, not knowing that one of the dead was the son of the Cherokee chief. A party of five Cherokees set out to find the Harmon cabin and destroy it, but they did not know exactly where the cabin stood and they came upon the Wiley cabin instead.
Jenny had been warned earlier in the day by her brother-in-law, John Borders, that Indians were in the vicinity, and that he would like for her and her brother and children to come stay with him and his wife, Catherine. Jenny was a great weaver, and as she had a piece in the loom, she told John that she would finish it and then they would come. Her delay proved to be fatal.
As darkness came over the area, the Indians attacked the cabin, tomahawking and scalping three of Jenny’s children, and her young brother, Batt. The Indians caught the cabin on fire and destroyed everything.
They took Jenny, her 18 month old baby boy, and Tom’s hunting dog. They headed for the Ohio River. They followed Jennie’s Creek and the fork of the Tug to the river. As soon as the others heard, a rescue party was sent, headed by Matthias Harmon. They followed tracks for three days, but had to turn back when there was a thunder storm that blinded them and the Indians began to travel in the water, leaving no tracks.
Jenny’s young baby became trouble for the Indians, and they killed him by dashing out his brains against a beech tree.
The Indians traveled along waterways until they reached the Cherokee Fork of Big Blaine Creek, and they sheltered under a ledge of rocks. They stayed here for several months.
It was here that Jenny Wiley gave birth to a baby boy. The Indians were very kind to her, but when the boy was three weeks old, the Indians wanted to test him to see if he would be a brave warrior. They tied him to a flat piece of wood, and slipped him into the water to see if he would cry. When he screamed, they took the newborn and dashed his brains out against an oak tree.
The Indians traveled on with Jenny, to the waters of Mud Lick, down its mouth, where they formed an encampment. Several settlements were being made on the headwaters of the Big Sandy (the river that crosses between Kentucky and West Virginia on I-64 today).
The Indians decided that it was time to kill Jenny Wiley. One night they tortured and burned to death a male captive, and they were in a frenzy to burn Jenny at the stake. All preparations were made and a fire was lit, but in a few minutes the Cherokee chief stopped the fire because of Jenny’s bravery.
The Cherokee chief offered to buy her to teach his children how to weave. Up until this time she was slated to marry an old Shawnee chief to be his “White Squaw”, but he deferred to the Cherokee chief and Jenny’s life was saved.
She was reduced to the most abject slavery, carrying wood, water, and building fires. They kept her bound with deer leather when they were away, but sometimes allowed her to stay without being bound.
One evening, when all the Indians were away from camp, they were late and did not return by nightfall. The rain was falling and the night was intensely dark, but Jenny made her way and set out to escape and return to her family. Her dog, who had followed Jenny from the beginning of the trip, joined her, but she waved him back, fearing that his bark might attract the attention of the Indians.
Jenny traveled to the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. She reached the mouth of the fork at dawn, and could see some men working near John’s Creek. She called to them for help. They did not have a boat, but rolled some logs into the river and tied them with grapevine. They crossed to get her, and as they were about halfway back, the Cherokee chief appeared at the bank with her dog. He called out, “Honor, Jenny, Honor” while striking his chest, and then he and Jenny’s dog disappeared into the forest, not to be seen again.
She had been away eleven months, and her husband assumed she was dead. But she returned to him after a couple days’ rest.
They were reunited and had five more children. They moved to the mouth of Tom’s creek and settled near the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy.
I am related to Jenny Wiley: she is my sixth-generation grandmother. Jenny had Jane (Williamson) , who had Isabelle (Perry), who had Amanda (Cobb) who had Lucy(Roberts) who had Velma (Lowther) who had JoAnn (Speas) who had Jan (Veal). Me.
White Squaw, the Story of Jenny Wiley by Arville Wheeler, is a book for upper elementary children. Dark Hills to Westward, by Harry Caudill, is a detailed account for adults. It does contain some disturbing descriptions of Indian torture.