Sunday, March 25, 2007

Revenge On Clear Fork

This is chapter two of a multi-part story. To start with Chapter One, "The Harmans of Clear Fork", go here.

Chapter Two
Revenge On Clear Fork

One of the many tributaries of Walker's Creek in Bland County is Wolf Creek. Wolf Creek flows out of Burke's Garden, in Tazewell County, down through the beautiful Grapefield valley of Bland County and past its dozen or so houses, it meanders past the Wolf Creek Golf Course and the Boy Scout Camp and into the tiny community of Bastian, just north of the town of Bland. If you follow Wolf Creek upstream you will come to the top of Rich Mountain and a breathtaking view of the valley between Rich Mountain and Buckhorn Mountain. Through this valley flows Clear Fork of Wolf Creek, a small stream with its head at Gratton. After flowing north through this valley Clear Fork joins Wolf Creek at Rocky Gap in Bland County. Even though both streams begin within a mile or so of one another, they run along opposite sides of Rich Mountain before joining. From there they eventually meet the New River somewhere in Giles County and continue on to the Ohio River to ultimately mingle their Appalachian spring water with the saltiness of the Gulf of Mexico.

It was somewhere in the Clear Fork valley that Thomas Wiley built his cabin on land he purchased from Mathias Harman. Thomas had moved into the area from Strausburg Virginia along with several other families, including the family of Hezekiah Sellards. Sometime in the early 1780s Thomas married Jean Sellards, the eldest daughter of Hezekiah Sellards. Jean was called "Jenny" by all who knew her.

The settlements at what was then known as Walker's Station, somewhere near the confluence of Wolf Creek and Clear Fork mentioned earlier, were scattered widely about, on both sides of Rich Mountain. The Wiley's nearest neighbor was Mathias Harman, living less than a mile away. (Many accounts put the Harman cabin in Abbs Valley, near present day Bluefield, but I doubt that. I have found records of a Thomas and Virginia Wiley in old Tazewell County documents placing them in the Clear Fork Valley. It's true, Jenny's given name was not Virginia, but I mark that off to a careless clerk's error. At any rate, that's where I'll place them in this account.) Jenny Wiley's sister, Catherine and her husband John Borders lived further out, more than five miles away, perhaps even on the Bluefield side of East River Mountain.

Indians were often seen, and even battled, in the widely scattered settlement, but the skirmish fought by the Harman men during the previous winter had been largely forgotten. At least that fight was no longer news in the early fall of 1789. Winter was coming on and the Shawnee and Cherokee were traveling less and less along their warpath between North Carolina and the Ohio River.

Early on the morning of October 1, 1789 Thomas Wiley left on an expedition into the New River Valley and the settlements there in order to trade ginseng, star anise and other herbs he had gathered through the year, and animal pelts for much needed winter supplies. The trip down into what is now Wytheville would keep him away from home for several days. He left Jenny and their five children in the care of Jenny's fifteen year old brother. He wasn't too concerned that his absence would place Jenny and his children in danger, he knew that this time of year Indian activity was slowing down, besides, his wife's brother-in-law John Borders and the other men of the settlements, including Mathias Harman, would check on her periodically.

Mathias Harman was well known for his adventures during the French and Indian Wars, as well as during Lord Dunmore's War. He was a "long hunter", the forerunner of the 19th century Mountain Man of the Rocky Mountain West. A small man, he stood barely five feet tall and weighed less than 120 pounds, yet he was fierce beyond his stature. The Shawnee and the Cherokee both hated him and feared him for the damage he had done to their tribes, having killed many of each. The Indians had named him "Skygusty", meaning a dangerous man.

The first day of October in 1789 was a cold, damp, foggy and rainy day. The evening before several of John Borders' sheep had not come in from the pasture and he was out searching for them when he heard the calls of several owls. Now it's not unusual for owls, especially barred owls, to call out on dark foggy days. But Mr. Borders did not feel comfortable with the calls he heard. He knew that the Indians would often use bird calls and other natural sounds to communicate over distance. Since he was close by the Wiley cabin, and knowing that Thomas was away in the Valley, he detoured by there to check on Jenny.

John found his sister-in-law working at her loom, weaving cloth for the family's clothing. He told her about the owl calls and asked her to gather up her children and her brother and come to his house for their safety. While Jenny was not overly concerned, she agreed and said she would finish the web she was working on, feed the livestock, and be at the Borders cabin as soon as she could get there. If not tonight, then early the next morning.

John, relieved that he had not had to argue the point with her, left for his own cabin to see to the safety of his wife, Catherine.

Jenny finished her weaving some time later, and as dusk was rapidly approaching because of the inclement weather, she hurriedly finished her chores and made the children ready, but she decided to go instead to the cabin of Mathias Harman, at least for the night, since he lived less than a mile away, before going on to visit her sister and her husband.

Suddenly, the door to the cabin was violently knocked open, and several Indians burst in. Jenny had her youngest child in her arms and could not get to the rifle cradled in its rack near the doorway. Before her eyes her four other children were murdered and scalped along with her young brother.

As the Indians rampaged through the cabin she heard the names Harman and Mathias mentioned often. It became obvious to Jenny that these Indians were bent on avenging the death of their chief the previous winter at the hand of Mathias Harman. Trying to explain in English to these Shawnee and Cherokee that they had attacked the wrong cabin was futile.

As she tried to communicate, one of the Indians lunged at the baby still in her arms, intent on killing him as well. A Shawnee chief stopped him, telling them all that she was to be his captive.

This Chief was an old man, with a serious demeanor. A string of silver brooches hung about his neck. Many rings decorated his fingers. He had many ornamental bands around his arms and ankles, all indicating great power and stature among his people.

A Cherokee Chief was also in the party, and he showed some signs of jealousy at the idea that the Shawnee would take this woman as his own. He was also old, 50 or more years. He wore leather leggings, a red shirt, and many pieces of jewelry as well. In his belt he carried a long, sharp knife, and he was also armed with a rifle.

Finally the Shawnee and the Cherokee stopped arguing, and the Shawnee explained in a few words of english that she was to take the place of his daughter, who had recently died.

Still fearing the return of Mathias Harman, and still not realizing that they had chosen the wrong cabin, the Indians took Jenny and her infant son and left the cabin. As they left they set the cabin ablaze, but because of the weather the fire was slow to start. They left with the cabin partially ablaze and the only other survivor of the attack, Thomas Wiley's hunting dog, following them.

Chapter Three
Tragedy On Tug Fork