Digital Storytelling and Visitor Analytics for City and Cultural Institutions
The storyline has the literary elements that writers and directors rarely find all together—physical danger, heart-wrenching emotion and beautiful, sweeping landscapes. In the 250-plus years since Shawnee warriors dragged the young frontierswoman away from her New River Valley home, scads of articles and books, two outdoor dramas and several movies have been written about Mary Draper Ingles, the preeminent colonial heroine.
And it shouldn’t be any surprise that such a story of enduring spirit resonates with all ages from school children to tour buses of seniors even in the day of supersonic transporters and GPS gadgets. Mary represents hundreds, maybe a thousand or so women who survived capture and returned to their log cabin homes during the early settlement of the region west of the Alleghenies. Perhaps the infatuation continues because she is not Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, but instead a woman who showed undeniably great courage and incredibly fine scouting as she trekked and scaled her way over some of the most inhospitable miles of frontier wilderness.
Hers is the saga of the great westward migration of European immigrants who first landed in the northeastern United States. She begins life in 1732, a few years after her parents, William and Elenor, arrive in Philadelphia from County Donegal, Ireland. Like many others, the Drapers press westward through the valleys of Virginia in search of affordable land and a better future. Along the way her father is killed, and Mary with her mother and brother join an expedition of families who establish the settlement of Draper’s Meadow on land that is now part of the Virginia Tech campus. There 18-year-old Mary marries 21-year-old William Ingles, an Englishman, in 1750.
Although isolated from civilization, the Ingleses and a growing number of settlers begin to lay a foundation for what they hope will become a prosperous community. Other parts of the frontier are in the grips of the French and Indian War, but the Draper’s Meadow residents, according to historical accounts, didn’t have reason to fear the parties of Indians, from the Ohio Valley, who passed by periodically on their way to fight the Catawbas farther south. At least, not until a warm, sunlit Sunday in July 1755.
That day William and his brother-in-law, John Draper, were cutting wheat in the fields, some distance from the main cabin when the attack came. By the raid’s end, the body count was four dead: a male neighbor, Colonel James Patton, who was visiting the settlement, Mary’s mother, and the Drapers’ infant son. Mary, her two children and her wounded sister-in-law, Bettie Draper, were prisoners.
In the book, Trans-Allegheny Pioneers, published in 1886, Mary’s great-grandson, Dr. John P. Hale, offers a riveting account of the month-long march to the Shawnee’s capital town at the mouth of the Scioto River (at the present site of Portsmouth, Ohio). There she faced her greatest fear to date. “It was but a few days until there was a meeting of the Indians who had made the last raids, to divide out the spoils. The prisoners were all separated, as was the custom, and allotted to different owners, and not again allowed to see or communicate with each other,” Hale writes. Like the stolen kettles in which the Indians allowed Mary to cook and make salt, her children, four-year-old Thomas and two-year-old George, were the spoils of war. Her boys were soon taken away.
Although “obliged to bear these circumstances,” Mary’s resolve to escape must have begun to burn within every inch of her body and soul. In fact, her determination is well-documented in a manuscript penned in 1815 by a future son, John Ingles, and preserved in the University of Virginia Library in Charlottesville. As months pass, and the Indian party moves their captives farther north toward another salt lick near what is today Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, Mary decides she will get home or die trying.
Thus begins the daring escape and a 43-day odyssey that became the literary seed for novelist James Alexander Thom’s “Follow the River,” a national bestseller. Much of the power of Mary’s story comes from the power of her antagonist, the wilderness, says Thom. “Europeans were afraid of nature and uncomfortable in it.” Amazing as the story was, it took a second element to convince Thom he had enough material for a novel. Joining Mary in the escape was an Old Dutch woman from western Pennsylvania, and together they faced the great power of the wilderness—little food, sometimes berries, a few kernels of corn but usually roots and shrubs, cold frosted mountain ridges, wild beasts and the swirling waters of the Kanawha, Bluestone, Ohio and New rivers. Neither could swim.
On top of that, Mary soon grappled with a woman losing control of her faculties. The Old Dutch woman’s breakdown gave Thom the extra tension and danger he wanted for his 1981 novel. ABC Television liked the concept, too, and in 1995 produced a made-for-TV movie. Thom’s book still sells thousands of copies annually, proving its drawing power.
The drama reaches one of its climaxes at a point some 40 or 50 miles from Draper’s Meadow as the old woman attempts again to murder Mary, according to the Ingles manuscript. Mary outruns her attacker, hides until dark and fortunately discovers a canoe. Ingles recalls how his mother regretted leaving the old woman, but it was a necessary decision. He describes Mary’s physical state: “…although the little clothing which she had started with was nearley or entierly worn out or dragged off of her by the Brush on her long Journey and her mocosans intierly worn out that she had become litteralery naked and the weather growing cooler that her prospect of succeeding was almost a Hopeless one. However, her resolution bore her up…”
Four or five days later as a light dusting of snow fell on the cliffs near Eggleston’s Springs, the starving young woman with swollen, frost-bitten limbs cried out. She had reached the farm of Adam Harmon, a former neighbor at Draper’s Meadows. He immediately recognized her voice. Within several days, after cups of “beef tea” and fresh meat, the young woman regained her signature strength, and she and Harmon set out on horseback for her home, some 10 or so miles away. There an Indian alarm had forced the settlers to a fort at Dunkard Bottom on the west side of the New River.
Happy as she was to be reunited at the fort with her friends, “the two for whom her heart had yearned with deepest love,” her beloved husband and brother, were not there. Instead the two men had gone to the Georgia and Tennessee region seeking assistance from the Cherokee nation in hopes of recovering their lost families. It was a fruitless expedition, and great-grandson Hale offers this account of the men’s return: “They…arrived at the Fort to breakfast, and to find, to their inexpressible joy and surprise, that Mrs. Ingles had arrived the night before. Such a meeting, under such circumstances, and after all that had occurred since they last parted, nearly five months before, may be imagined, but can not be described. I shall not attempt it.”
Imagine the bitter sweetness of the moment. William and Mary now reunited after months but without their children. Their son George died in captivity, but Thomas returned some 13 years later. John Draper finally secured his wife’s freedom in 1761. And yes, the Old Dutch woman survived.
After spending some time at a fort in Bedford County, the Ingleses returned to land they owned along the New River and began operating Ingles Ferry located in what is now Radford City limits.There they raised four more children, and there the couple is buried. William died at age 53, but Mary lived until 1815, well into her eighties.
The homestead, now on the Virginia Landmarks and National Register of Historic Places, remains in the family, and for almost three decades was the site of the outdoor drama, The Long Way Home, which commemorated Mary’s legendary journey. About a mile away, in West View Cemetery, stands a 22-foot obelisk constructed of the chimney stones from the Ingles cabin and erected by her family in 1909. In addition, three years ago, a new play about Mary premiered in Radford, and a new monument soon will be dedicated to her and other outstanding women at Virginia’s state capitol grounds.
Perhaps even more remarkable, though, is how individuals and groups outside Virginia continue to celebrate this woman’s heroics. There is a statue of her in front of the public library in Boone, Ky., identical to the one that stands on the grounds of Glencoe Mansion in Radford. A bridge and trail are named for her in West Virginia.
Each year thousands of visitors attend a celebration or festival for Mary Draper Ingles somewhere in one or more of the four states—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio—through which she journeyed.
Cover photo credit: aestories.com