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Mary Draper Ingles: The Pioneer Woman Who Walked to Freedom

Christy is an award-winning storyteller and author who tells how to experience history in the upcoming podcast "History Road Trips."

A statue of Mary Draper Ingles stands in front of the Boone County (Kentucky) Library, near Big Bone Lick

A statue of Mary Draper Ingles stands in front of the Boone County (Kentucky) Library, near Big Bone Lick

What was your last road trip? Close your eyes and picture it. Was it easy? Did you just hop in the car and drive?

Now, imagine going without a GPS. Or a map. Or a car. Or roads or bridges.

Nothing but trees, seemingly impassable mountains, and 145 rivers, creeks, and streams to cross.

Could you do it? That was the challenge facing the courageous pioneer woman Mary Draper Ingles after she was captured by the Shawnee during the French and Indian War. Without a map or even a road, she walked more than 500 miles to her place in frontier history.

The Draper's Meadows Massacre

In July 1755, Shawnee warriors attacked the settlement at Draper's Meadows, a cluster of cabins in what's now Blacksburg, VA. Mary's sister-in-law, Bettie Draper, tried to run away, carrying her infant. A bullet broke her arm, causing her to drop her child. A warrior scooped up the baby and bashed his head against the cabin logs.

Colonel James Patton springs at a Shawnee a swings his sword. The colonel is a huge man, 6'4" tall. He killed two Shawnee before a bullet took him down.

Mary's husband was away from the cabin, working in the fields. She tried to hide with her two children, Thomas, 4, and George, 2. Unfortunately, the attackers found them.

They killed Mary's mother and several other people, and they took five people captive: Mary, her two boys, Bettie, and Henry Leonard, their neighbor. They also stole the settlement's horses and loaded them up with guns, powder, ammunition, and whatever other goods they could carry.

Please, Mary likely prayed, let my husband catch us before we go over the mountains.

Even more than the other captives, she had good reason to fear the Shawnee would kill her.

She was nine months pregnant.

Why Her Husband Didn't Come

What Mary didn't know was that her husband wasn't coming.

He heard the gunshots and sprinted toward the settlement. By the time he arrived, the Shawnee were already leaving with their captives. There were too many for William to take on alone, so he sprinted into the woods to go for help.

Two Shawnees spotted him and chased after him. The only reason he escaped is he tripped over a log. The pursuers didn't see him fall. He was still lying in the weeds when they raced by.

By that time, the attackers were gone, and so was William's family.

Mary Gave Birth in the Woods

Three days later, when they stopped for the night, Mary gave birth to a daughter.

Maybe.

Most of what we know about Mary’s story comes from two primary sources: an account written by her son, John, and another written by Letitia Preston Floyd. Both are based on family oral histories. They’re similar in most respects, but John Ingles’ manuscript doesn’t mention a baby. Letitia Floyd’s does.

Floyd wasn’t one of the captives, but her father barely escaped being a victim himself. He would have known if Mary was pregnant.

In 1886, Mary's great-grandson, John P. Hale, wrote Trans-Allegheny Pioneers. He included a number of additional details, which he said came from interviews with Floyd and other people who had first-hand knowledge of the attack.

So was Mary pregnant, and did she give birth to a daughter in the woods?

We don’t know. (But it makes the story even more interesting!)

A captive runs the Shawnee gauntlet.

A captive runs the Shawnee gauntlet.

The Prisoners Ran the Gauntlet

The prisoners were taken to Lower Shawnee Town, near present-day Portsmouth, OH. This was one of the largest Shawnee towns, home to approximately 1,200–1,500 people and the capital of the Chillicothe Division of Shawnee. Raiding parties returning from other colonies gathered to distribute captives and loot.

To determine which prisoners were worthy of becoming Shawnees, they were forced to run between two lines of Native Americans. And not just warriors, either. Women, children, and elderly all picked up sticks, clubs, or whatever they could find and stood in line, waiting to beat the prisoners as they ran the gauntlet.

Those who fell and couldn’t get up were tortured and killed, but those who succeeded were adopted into the Shawnee Nation. Adoptions were one way Native Americans dealt with the terrible population loss of the time. The prisoners were adopted into families who had lost loved ones, not as slaves, but with the same privileges, status, and wealth as the family member who’d been lost.

For some reason, Mary wasn’t forced to run the gauntlet with the other prisoners. Nor were her sons. But the result was the same: her sons were taken away and sent to different towns elsewhere in the Ohio country. So was her sister-in-law, Bettie.

Mary and her daughter remained in Lower Shawnee Town, along with captives taken in other raids on the border.

Mary Made Salt at Big Bone Lick

Mary stayed alive because she was useful. When a French trader brought checked cloth to town, she sewed it into shirts. The Shawnees loved the shirts so much they tied them to poles and paraded them around town, like flags.

Next, Mary was taken to Big Bone Lick in northern Kentucky, west of present-day Cincinnati, Ohio. Mary Draper Ingles’ job was to make salt for the Shawnee. She filtered briny water through baskets to remove leaves, twigs, and other solids. Then, one pot at a time, she boiled the saline water until it evaporated and left a crusty residue on the bottom. She scraped it off and boiled another pot. She had to boil about 500–600 gallons of brine to get one bushel of salt.

Enormous Prehistoric Bones Have Been Found at Big Bone Lick

Since time immemorial, mastodons, mammoths, musk-oxen, and other ice-age animals had come to lick salt that settled out of the brackish water. Occasionally, they sank into the swampy land and became stuck. Their enormous skeletons gave name to the place: the salt lick where early explorers found big bones.

These bones were one of the reasons later President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory. He’d previously sent his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to gather bones, which the president spread out in the White House to study. He instructed the Louisiana expedition to look for living mastodons, mammoths, or elephants, which he thought might still be living in the newly purchased American west.


A mastodon (Mammut americanus) skull is displayed at Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky.

A mastodon (Mammut americanus) skull is displayed at Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky.

Escape!

In October, Mary decided to run away. She urged an older German woman, who’d been captured in Pennsylvania, to join her. (Contemporary accounts describe her as a “Dutch” woman. She was most likely was German, or “Deutsch,” which Pennsylvanians at the time called “Dutch.” It matters because we don’t know her name—the surviving accounts call her simply “the old Dutch woman.”)

But what of the baby?

Mary had to make a choice to parent should face. If she stayed with her child, she feared the Shawnee would kill them both as soon as she was no longer useful. If she ran away with the baby, however, they’d hear the baby cry and kill them both. She must have lain awake at night agonizing over the dilemma.

In the end, she seems to have believed she couldn’t save her daughter, no matter whether she stayed or ran. Her only hope was to flee, to get home to safety, and then ransom her baby, just like she'd have to ransom her two sons.

The next morning, Mary and the German went to gather grapes and nuts for the camp. This was one of their duties, so it didn’t around suspicion. They took light blankets, which also didn’t alarm the Shawnees, because it was October and the days were getting cooler.

Once they were out of sight of the camp, they walked to the Ohio River and turned east. It was only the first step—they still had more than 500 miles to go!—but it was the most important step.

They were going home.

Mary’s route to Kentucky and back

Mary’s route to Kentucky and back

They Begin Their Long Walk Home

They followed the Ohio River upstream for several days. They crossed a dozen or more creeks and streams each day. Most were easy to wade across. Occasionally, they had to walk a mile or two upstream to find a place to ford.

They ate wild grapes, walnuts, and paw-paws they found along the way. At night, they covered themselves with their blankets and a layer of leaves. As they tried to sleep, they listened for a twig snap or a rustle of leaves that would indicate the Shawnees were coming after them. Any minute, they might pounce on the women and murder them in their sleep.

Wild animals were another danger. Every twig snap could be a bear. Every howl, a wolf about to attack. Every growl, a panther about to spring, teeth bared and claws extended.

Yet the animals didn't attack, nor did the Shawnees. The women walked safely east until they found a cabin and a cornfield across the river from what’s now Cincinnati. They feasted on corn that night, the best meal they’d had since they left. Even better, the next morning, they found a horse!

The horse had a bell tied around its neck to alert its owner if it wandered off. The German woman wouldn’t let Mary remove the bell, so they stuffed dirt and leaves inside it so it wouldn't jangle. They loaded the horse up with as much corn as it could carry, and they were off once again.

Take Took Long Detours to Cross Rivers

Soon, they came to the Licking River. This one was too broad to wade across, and neither woman could swim. They went upstream for about two days until they finally found a place to cross.

Unfortunately, disaster struck as they were crossing: they lost the horse. They saved only as much corn as they could carry and—the German woman insisted, for some reason—the bell.

Wildlife Surrounded Them, but They Had No Way to Catch It

They became hungrier after the corn ran out. October turned to November, and fruit and nuts became harder to find. Wildlife was all around them—bison, elk, deer, and smaller game such as squirrels—but the women had no way to catch an animal.

They resorted to eating frogs, tree roots, and mushrooms, without knowing whether they were poisonous. Occasionally, they ate a dead snake. Once, they found a deer head, probably cast aside by a Shawnee hunter. It was already rotting. They ate it anyway.

And they were cold and nearly naked. Their dresses were in tatters. They didn’t have shoes, only strips of cloth they tied around their feet with tree roots, and even those had long since worn out.

The German woman, who was more despondent every day, blamed Mary for bringing her out to the woods to die.

That's why she tried to kill Mary.

Sandstone Falls was only one of the many difficult places Mary and the German woman had to pass.

Sandstone Falls was only one of the many difficult places Mary and the German woman had to pass.

The Women Faced the Impossible at the New River

The women faced the most formidable leg of the journey in present-day West Virginia.

They turned southeast at the Kanawha River and followed it to the New River. This was the road to home! Draper's Meadows lay not far from the New River.

Even the Shawnee knew the New River Valley wasn’t passable. When they took the prisoners to Lower Shawnee Town, they wound through a series of creek valleys and ridge paths.

Unfortunately, the women didn’t know that route, so they went the only way they knew: the New River Gorge.

It Wasn't the Way Home for the German Woman

She was kidnapped in Pennsylvania. Her route home continued up to the Forks of the Ohio, at present-day Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the Forks were still held by the French and guarded by Fort Duquesne. The German woman had to travel up the Kanawha and New Rivers with Mary.

The Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians Formed a Nearly Impassable Barrier

The mountains were a barrier to east-west travel in colonial times, and the most daunting section was the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians.

These aren’t the up-and-down humps of the Smokies; they’re long ridges, sometimes 200 miles or more, fairly straight, and difficult-to-impossible to climb. They rise almost straight up from the valley floor, and they stretch from horizon to horizon. And they follow one after another, in roughly parallel lines, like continental-sized corduroy pants. Seriously, check it out in Google Earth.

The long, steep, parallel Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians created an almost impassable barrier for colonists.

The long, steep, parallel Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians created an almost impassable barrier for colonists.

The New River Cuts Directly Across the Ridges

Most Appalachian rivers follow the valleys, winding around the base of the mountains, especially in the Ridge-and-Valley section.

The New River is different. Its cuts directly across the ridges.

How?

Because the river was there first.

It's older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves. (Yes, “New River” is an ironic name for a river that’s older than the hills.) When the mountains rose slowly up hundreds of millions of years ago, the river stayed its course, constantly eroding its bed deeper into the new mountains.

The women hiked through the New River Gorge, which cuts a deep chasm through West Virginia.

The women hiked through the New River Gorge, which cuts a deep chasm through West Virginia.

The New River Gorge Is Called the Grand Canyon of the East

Where the New River cut across the ridges, it cleaved those hundred-mile-long mountains in two, carving out a canyon with walls 800–1,200 feet high. That’s the height of a seven- to ten-story building! It’s no wonder the New River Gorge is called the Grand Canyon of the East.

This makes for breathtaking scenery. The New River Gorge offers some of the best whitewater rafting in the eastern United States, complete with rapids, boulders, and waterfalls.

It’s not so lovely for two half-starving women who weren’t rafting. They were walking. Upstream!

The bluffs in some sections plunged straight into the water. The women had to walk in the water itself. Other times they had to climb over hills, pulling themselves up by tree roots and tumbling down the other side.

All while the November weather turned colder and their shredded clothes left them half-naked.

And don’t forget they were starving.

The steel arch bridge spanning the New River Gorge is a modern marvel of engineering and a stunning work of art.

The steel arch bridge spanning the New River Gorge is a modern marvel of engineering and a stunning work of art.

Mary’s Companion Attacked Her

The German woman decided it was better to eat Mary than starve to death.

They were only about 50 miles from Draper's Meadows, but it was beginning to look like they wouldn't make it over the mountains. Blaming Mary for leading her into the wilderness to die, Mary’s only companion turned against her. The German woman attacked her and tried to murder her.

Mary escaped and ran

She found a hiding place and covered herself with branches and leaves. She waited until she heard the woman pass by, then searched along the river for a way across.

Luckily, she found a canoe, which she used to cross the river. She couldn't canoe up the river—not against the rapids and waterfalls, especially as weak as she was. Instead, she canoed across to the other side, putting the river between herself and her attacker.

Mary Finally Came to the End

Finally, starving, freezing, and nearly dead, Mary came to Gap Mountain, the only barrier between herself and home. Unfortunately, this was one mountain she couldn’t climb, and the bluffs plunged straight into the water.

Nor could she walk in the water because of the waterfall and rapids at the Big Falls Water Gap. She’d never make it—not in her weak state.

And, anyway, the water was cold. It was late November, and it was snowing.

More than 500 miles she’d walked, and it appeared her journey would end here. Yet, somehow, she managed to grab a tree root and pull herself up. Then another root. And another.

It took her all day, but she made it to the summit, where she collapsed for the night.

The next morning, she made her way down the other side, half walking, half tumbling, and stumbled into her neighbor’s cornfield.

Finally, she was back to safety.

Mary lived out her life at the Ingles cabin in Radford, Virginia.

Mary lived out her life at the Ingles cabin in Radford, Virginia.

The Rest of the Story

It took her 42½ days to cross 145 rivers, creeks, and streams and walk well over 500 miles. (We don't know the exact number because of the detours she had to make to cross rivers.) Even though she was only 23 years old, stress had turned her hair competely white.

Her neighbor took her into his cabin, warmed her up, and fed her.

Unfortunately, her husband wasn’t home—he was in North Carolina, trying to get the Cherokee to find his family. He returned from North Carolina the day after Mary arrived at the local fort for the most joyful reunion imaginable.

Their Fort Was Attacked

Mary’s husband took her to Fort Vause for safety. She was still terrified so close to Indian country, however, so the next spring, they left Fort Vause and moved east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It's a good thing, too. Six months later, Shawnee attacked the fort and killed or captured all the colonists inside.

They Ransomed One of Their Sons

Thomas, who was four years old when they were kidnapped, was adopted by a Shawnee warrior and became his son. He lived with the Shawnee for 13 years.

After the war ended, Mary’s husband William ransomed Thomas. By then, he was fully assimilated into the Shawnee way of life. He no longer spoke English. He didn’t remember his white family. When he was brought “home” at 17 years old, he was forced to live with a family he didn’t know.

Soon after his rescue, he ran away and returned to the Shawnee. His family ransomed him a second time and sent him to live with Dr. Thomas Walker to be reassimilated into the colonial way of life, but he was never comfortable with them.

His brother, George, who was two when they were taken, was never found. He is believed to have died in captivity.

Nor was the baby ever found. It’s not known whether she was killed or lived with the Shawnee—or if she even existed.

Bettie Draper Became a Shawnee Chief’s Daughter

Mary’s sister-in-law Bettie was adopted by a chief who’d lost a daughter. Soon after, she ran away, but she was recaptured and condemned to death. Her adoptive father intervened and saved her life.

She spent the next six years working as a healer and teaching the Shawnee everything she knew about herbal medicine. Eventually, she was ransomed by her husband and returned to Virginia.

Mary Lived The Rest of Her Life by the New River

The original Draper’s Meadows settlement was destroyed, so Mary and William moved to a farm closer to the New River in present-day Radford, Virginia, only a few miles from their first cabin. They operated the Ingles Ferry and had four more children.

She died at the age of 83. Her son eventually built her a “proper house,” but she preferred the windowless log cabin her husband built her. She felt safer there.

The Old German Woman Was Rescued, Too

Mary sent someone to look for the German woman, no matter that she tried to kill Mary. The woman had come across a hunter’s abandoned cabin, where she ate well, warmed up, dressed in the hunter’s leather clothes, and rode away on his horse.

And to that horse, she tied a bell—the same bell she removed from the horse they’d lost in Kentucky. The same bell she’d carried hundreds of miles through the wilderness.

Her rescuer found her, in part, because he heard the jangling of that darned bell.

The monument to Mary Draper Ingles at Radford's West End Cemetery is built from the stones from Mary's original cabin.

The monument to Mary Draper Ingles at Radford's West End Cemetery is built from the stones from Mary's original cabin.

Where to Read Mary’s Story

Where to Walk in Mary’s Footsteps

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.