“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.” — Yann Martel, Life of Pi
When Mary Draper Ingles woke up on Sunday morning, July 8, 1755, she had no reason to think that the day would hold anything more extraordinary than the possible arrival of her third child, but as she commenced with the morning’s chores, Shawnee warriors attacked the Virginia settlement of Draper’s Meadow, brutally murdering her mother, infant nephew, and several other members of the small community. Mary along with her two young boys, Thomas and George; her sister-in-law, Bettie Robertson Draper; and a neighbor named Henry Lenard were taken captive and marched several hundred miles down the New River to the Ohio River to Lower Shawneetown, not far from modern-day Cincinnati. Mary’s husband and brother, who had been away working in the fields at the time of the massacre, were powerless to recover them. And so it would seem that, if allowed to survive, this group of captives would assimilate into American Indian culture.
With the strength of a true pioneer woman, Mary gave birth along the way, and upon their arrival in Lower Shawneetown, Mary and her children were the only ones of the captured party not made to run the gauntlet. She was, however, soon separated from her children as they were adopted out to Indian families. She worked sewing shirts out of the material bought from French traders, and at one point, she was taken about 100 miles farther down the river on a salting expedition to “Big Bone Salt Lick” in modern-day Kentucky, so named for the many fossilized bones of mammoths and other large Ice Age animals. Away from the busy hum of ever-present human activity at Lower Shawneetown, Mary decided to risk an escape. With nothing more than two tomahawks and two blankets, Mary and another captive, an older Dutch woman, set off on their 500-to-600-mile journey, with the Ohio River and Mary’s remarkable memory as their only guides. It was October, which meant a scarcity of food and continually chilling temperatures, but it also meant that the many streams and small rivers feeding into the Ohio were at their lowest levels — a critical point for women who could not swim and had to make countless diversions up these rivers to find fords.
James Alexander Thom’s novel Follow the River details the incredible and unlikely survival story of these two intrepid pioneer women who simply refused to give up in the face of both the figurative and the literal insurmountable cliffs that came in their way; it is also the story of the relentless love of parents determined to recover their children. In the author’s note, Thom writes that Mary’s capture was but one of about 2,000 kidnappings of white settlers during the French and Indian War. The Shawnees did not look very hard for the missing women, assuming that they had been killed by wild animals when they did not return from their berry-picking expedition. Thom writes, “It was not until a certain meeting of Virginians and Shawnees some years later that the Indians learned of their long walk home. They were thrilled and awed by the account, which became something of a legend among the Indians.”
Trans-Allegheny Pioneers by John P. Hale details Mary Ingles’ story as related by the people who knew her — her son, John Ingles; and her neighbor, Letitia Preston Floyd. Mary, like most pioneers, was most likely illiterate, but the same spunk that took her home from captivity in her 20s remained with her until her death at 83. Apparently in her youth she was quite athletic and could clear a tall-backed chair jumping from standing right behind it, and in her 80s, she would saddle her horse and make journeys alone without telling her family where she was going. This is an excellent resource for those wanting to know more details about her story.
Based on her condition upon finally finding her community again, it could easily be argued that Mary would not have lasted one more day in the wilderness as she was very nearly past recovering as it was. But based on the fact that she climbed the most dauntless summit of her journey the day before she reached home, emaciated and practically naked, I think she would have yet continued on. An indomitable human spirit is a remarkable thing, defying both logic and the laws of physics. In the words of the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
Editor's note: Thank you to Lucy Hart for this superb recommendation!