Mary Draper Ingles - Courageous Pioneer Woman Escaped Captivity by the Shawnee in 1755
Mary Draper Ingles Statue at Boone County Public Library, Burlington, Kentucky
A True Heroine
There are so many heroines, a plethora of them actually, in the legends of folklore. There are libraries full of them, from every culture in the world. Yet, women of this stature often are on the pages of history in real life -- one of these women is Mary Draper Ingles, courageous pioneer woman, 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's father, George, disappeared in 1748 while hunting -- no trace of him was ever found.
Ingles Cabin, c. 1890
The original 7,500 acre tract was awarded to James Patton, an Irish sea captain turned land speculator. Bordered by Tom's Creek on the north, Stroubles Creek on the south and the Mississippi Watershed on the east, Draper's Meadow sat in a lovely area. To the west, the settlement went as far as the New River. Nearby what was once a small farming settlement with hopeful pioneers brave enough to face the wilderness, is the campus of present day Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
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.
Attack From Shawnee
Being in the path of the French and Indian War was a constant source of tension for the Ingles and their neighbors. Great Britain and France each had their Native American allies. With fighting between the two countries going on in other areas, this basically left the settlers of Draper's Meadow unprotected. There seems to have been no previous problems with the Shawnee tribe as they passed through the settlement often. Yet, 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.
Torn From Their Homes
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. The torment Mary must have gone through about the safety of her little boys is unimaginable. 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, so the history is based mainly on the account John wrote.
Slave Life or die Free
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 was safe, they slipped deeper into the woods and began their journey home. In worn, tattered clothes and one blanket each, they disappeared. When the captives were taken to the Shawnee village, Mary must have somehow marked the time and landmarks along the way and kept this information in her mind.
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 that they knew nothing of."
New River Gorge
Determination to Make it Before Winter
The season was changing fast and winter would be upon them 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. According to one family story, the Dutch woman had become so deranged from hunger and cold that she threatened to kill and eat Mary. According to this legend, it became necessary for Mary to cross the river to stay safe from any attack by the older lady -- yet they kept in sight of each other during the day, yelling back and forth to keep in touch and journeyed on till they met the people who took the Dutch woman in. Mary was determined to reach home and did not linger. She continued following the Ohio, Kanawha and New rivers towards home.
Mary Ingles had to Climb a Similar Cliff at Endless Wall
Just two More Days
The last two days of Mary's treacherous journey home was spent climbing a steep 1000 foot elevation mountain called Anvil Rock, not an easy climb for anyone, especially a barefoot, weak woman suffering from starvation.
Coming down the other side, Mary 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. It was a miraculous journey for Mary, who managed to avoid further attacks from Indians and wild animals.
Mary's youngest son, George, never returned home -- he died while in captivity in Ohio. Thomas stayed with the Shawnee for many years and learned their way of life. In 1768, Thomas was ransomed and returned to his parents. He spent several years in the Castle Hill rehabilitation center, under the care of Dr. Thomas Walker.
Mary died at the age of 83, in 1815.
Follow This River
Mary Draper Ingles Monument of Chimney Stones
The reconstructed cabin Mary and William lived in still stands in the same location, near what is now Radford, Virginia. Mary and William lived there the rest of their lives and had four more children, three daughters and one more son.
In 1762, William and Mary established a ferry across the New River. The Ingles Ferry Tavern is still there. It is now a living history historical preserve where enactors portray life during the time of the Ingles family.
There is a monument to Mary in Radford’s West End Cemetery -- it is made from the original chimney stones of William and Mary’s cabin.
A statue of Mary stands in front of the Boone County Public Library in Burlington, Kentucky.
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Site of Draper's Meadow in what is now Blacksburg, Virginia.
Ingles cabin near New River.
Captives were taken to Lower Shawneetown in Kentucky.
© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns