Mary Draper Ingles, was a true heroine of the pioneer days in West Virginia.
Mary's story is one of incredible courage, strength, and determination that is astounding enough to make one think only a woman of 'make believe' could have accomplished what she did. Yet real she was and true is her story.
Mary Draper was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1732. Her parents, George Draper and Elenor Hardin Draper had immigrated from Donegal, Ireland in 1729. When Mary was sixteen, the family moved to what was then the western frontier, near today's town of Blacksburg, in Southwest Virginia, west of the Alleghanies. Along with other families who joined them, they established a small community and called it Draper's Meadow. It was a small farming settlement of just ten families.
Mary and William Ingles, a fellow settler, were married in 1750. William was born in London in 1729. They had two sons. Thomas was born in 1751 and George in 1753. Life was not easy in the small settlement, but hopes and determination to succeed is what kept the people working hard and finding simple joys in their new life.
Being in the path of the French and Indian War was a constant source of tension for the Ingles and their neighbors. Draper's Meadow was a tiny settlement and unprotected. Rising tensions due to the war affected both the tribes and the settlers of southwest Virginia.
The summer of 1755 put an abrupt and horrific end for some of the lives at the small settlement. For the survivors, the life of happiness they had carved out of the wilderness for themselves suddenly changed forever. On July 8 of that year a band of Shawnees attacked Draper's Meadow.
The vulnerable little settlement was not prepared for what happened that day. Colonel James Patton (visiting that day) was killed. Elenor Draper (Mary's mother), Casper Draper (Mary's infant nephew), and an elderly man, Philip Barger were also killed. Mary, her two sons, George (two years old) and Thomas (four years old), her sister-in-law Betty Draper (Casper's mother), and others were taken as captives by the Shawnee. William Ingles, Mary's husband, was not in the settlement that day, he was out in the fields working at the harvest. John Ingles, William and Mary's son, wrote an account of the attack many years later. In his report he said that his father, William, had heard the attack and came running back to the settlement. It being a harvest day, William was away from the houses. When two Shawnee men saw him, they took off to capture or kill William. "By the grace of God", John had written, William outran the Shawnee. At one point he tripped and fell behind a fallen log, where he stayed hidden till the Shawnee gave up looking for him.
After being taken away from their homes and seeing their family members and friends killed, the captives would have been numb with horror with thoughts of what their own fates were. They were taken away down the New River, going north (the New River flows south to north and crosses the mountains from east to west) until they came to the Kanawha where they made camp.
A month later the party reached their Shawnee village on the banks of the Scioto and Ohio rivers in Kentucky. A mother's worst fear is to lose a child. Both of Mary's boys were taken away from her. Thomas was traded to an Indian tribe near Detroit and George was traded to a family from another tribe in Ohio. With Bettie, her sister-in-law, being adopted by a chief, Mary was then alone with the tribe who captured her. One elderly Dutch woman was also a captive in that village. There are different versions of what happened to Mary during her time of captivity. The account written by John Ingles, her son, has been considered by many as the most accurate story.
Again Mary was moved further from her home when she and the Dutch woman were taken to Big Bone Lick, 150 miles north of the village. There they were put to work to make salt. Mary must have had less attention at this place, for she convinced the Dutch woman to escape with her. They must have believed that rather than live a life of captive slaves, it would be far better to die free in the wilderness.
On an October afternoon in 1755, Mary and her friend were in the woods gathering nuts and wild grapes. When they felt it safe, they slipped deeper into the woods and began their journey home. In worn, tattered clothes and one blanket each, they disappeared.
Mary knew not what she now faced, but her determination to get back home motivated her to face any unknown threat. She had one tomahawk and that was her only weapon. Mary and her friend avoided any established trails and stayed in the forests until they came to the New River once again. In John Ingles account, what the women ate during their journey was "such as black walnuts grapes pawpaws etc. & very often so pushed with hunger that they wood dig up roots & eate what they knew nothing of."
The season was changing fast and winter would be upon then before long. Their clothes, tattered when they escaped, were now in shreds. Starving, nearly naked, barefoot, and weak, they finally reached the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Somewhere along the way, Mary left the old Dutch woman with people they had met.
The last two days of Mary's treacherous journey home was spent climbing a steep 1000 foot elevation mountain called Anvil Rock. Coming down the other side, she saw Adam Harmon and his two sons who were out in their cornfield, gathering the last of the year's harvest. The men heard a weak voice calling to them, and again, another call for help. They ran over and found Mary, naked and nothing but skin and bones. She was taken inside their cabin and cared for till reunited with her husband.
It was late November, 1755, when Mary reached home. It had taken her nearly two months to travel over 800 miles by foot.