Zephania Meek Account
of the Jenny Wiley Capture

From the Connelley Reprint

Forward -
by Russell L. Whitlock

In the last issue of the newsletter, we printed a version of the Jenny Wiley story written by Mr. James Hayden Van Hoose of Fayetteville, Arkansas, which was written in 1895.  Mr. Van Hoose obtained his information from his grandmother who had been an acquaintance of Jenny Wiley some 90 years previously.  The account which we include in this issue (here), was written by Zephania Meek who was owner and editor of "The Central Methodist", a small news paper located in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.  As in the last issue, any notations made by this writer will be clearly identified as such.

The most romantic history in the early settlement of the Big Sandy Valley is that of Jenny Wiley.  This history we proceed to give from the most reliable sources at our command, drawing our facts mainly from Hardesty's Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia.

There is hardly a man or woman in Eastern Kentucky who is not familiar with the story of the life of this remarkable woman.  The facts of her capture by the Indians, escape from them, and return to her home, have been handed down from parent to child, and they are well remembered.  Her maiden name was Jenny Sellards.

NOTE:  There is considerable reason to believe Jenny's given name was in fact Jean.

She married Thomas Wiley, a native of Ireland, who had emigrated and settled on Walker's Creek, in Wythe, now Tazwell County, VA., where they were living at the time of the capture by the Indians.  She had a sister living nearby, the wife of John Borders, Sr., who was the father of John Borders, a noted Baptist preachers, Hezekiah Borders, Judge Archibald Borders, and several daughters.  Several families named Harman lived in the same neighborhood, some of whom were noted Indian scouts.

NOTE:  John Borders, Sr. was a native of Germany who had served in the Hessian army, a mercenary group employed by the British during the revolutionary war.  Following this conflict, he asked permission to, and was allowed to, remain in the United States.  There is some reason to believe he may have deserted British service and joined the Continental Army serving with the colonists against the British.  The Harmans, mentioned above, were also of German descent and can be traced to the valley of the Danube River.  The leader of the Harman family was Heinrich Adam Herrman, later known as Adam Harman, who migrated to America about 1727.  Adam was the father of noted Indian fighter Matthias Harman, Sr., the builder of Harmans Station, where Jenny fled following her escape from captivity.

At the time of the capture of Jenny, Thomas Wiley, her husband, was out in the woods digging ginseng.  This was in the year 1790.

NOTE:  I have no explanation for the use of this date.  It is almost certainly incorrect, and William Elsey Connelley says concerning this article by Mr. Meek:  "With the exception of the date, this brief sketch is singularly accurate."

The destruction of the Wiley family, as hereafter recorded, was the result of a mistake on the part of the savages.  Sometime previously, in an engagement with a party of Cherokees, one of the Harmans had shot and killed two or three of their number, and a party of five returned to seek vengeance on the Harmons, but ignorant of the location of their cabin, fell upon Wiley's instead.  John Borders warned Mrs. Wiley that he feared Indians were in the neighborhood, and urged her to go to his house and remain until Wiley's return, but as she had a piece of cloth in the loom, she said she would finish it and then go.  The delay on the part of Mrs. Wiley was a fatal one.  Darkness came on, and with it came the attack upon the defenseless family.  The Indians rushed into the house, and after tomahawking and scalping a younger brother and three of the children, and taking Mrs. Wiley, her infant (a year and a half old), and Mr. Wiley's hunting dog, started toward the Ohio River.  At the time the Indian trail led down what is now known as Jennie's Creek, and along it they proceeded until they reached the mouth of the stream, and then down Tug and Big Sandy rivers to the Ohio.

NOTE:  The Indians and Jenny reached the Big Sandy River near the point where it divides into the Levisa or Louisa Fork and the Tug Fork.  This is near to the location of the present day community of Louisa, Kentucky.  The Big Sandy is known as being the shortest river in the United States (if not the world) since it's total length is approximately 30 miles, reaching from Louisa to near Catlettsburg where it flows into the Ohio. 

At the time the Indian trail led down what is now known as Jennie's Creek, and along it they proceeded until they reached the mouth of that stream, and then down Tug and Big Sandy rivers to the much larger Ohio.

No sooner had the news of the horrid butchery spread among the inhabitants of the Walker's Creek settlement than a party, among whom were Lazrus Damron and Matthias Harmon, started in pursuit.  They followed on for several days, but failing to come up with the perpetrators of the terrible outrage, the pursuit was abandoned, and all returned to their homes.  The Indians expected that they would be followed, and the infant of Mrs. Wiley proving an encumbrance to their flight, they dashed out its brains against a beech tree when a short distance below where Mr. William C. Crum now resides, and two miles from Jennies Creek.  This tree was standing and well known to the inhabitants of this section during the first quarter of the present century.

When the savages, with their captive, reached the Ohio, it was very much swollen;  with a shout of O-high-O, they turned down the stream, and continued their journey to the mouth of the Little Sandy.  Up that stream they went until they reached the mouth of Dry Fork, and up the same to its head, then they crossed dividing ridge and proceeded down what is now called Cherokee Fork of Big Blain Creek, to a point within two miles of its mouth, where they halted and took shelter between a ledge of rocks.  Here they remained for several months, and during that time Mrs. Wiley was delivered of a child.  At this time the Indians were very kind to her;  but when the child was three weeks old they decided to test him, to see whether he would make a brave warrior.  Having tied him to a flat piece of wood they slipped him into the water to see if he would cry.  He screamed furiously, and they took him by the heels and dashed his brains out against an oak tree.

When they left this encampment they proceeded down to the mouth of Cherokee Creek, then up Big Blaine to the mouth of Hood's Fork, thence up that stream to its source;  from here they crossed over the dividing ridge to the waters of Mud Lick, and down the same to its mouth, where they once more formed an encampment.

About this time several settlements were made on the headwaters of the Big Sandy.

NOTE:  These settlements were actually on the Levisa or Louisa Fork of the Big  Sandy and not on the Big Sandy itself.  As noted previously, the Big Sandy proper extends only from Louisa to Catlettsburg or about 30 miles. 

The Indians decided to kill their captive, and accordingly prepared for the execution;  but just when the awful hour was come, an old Cherokee chief, who in the meantime had joined the party, proposed to buy her from the others on condition that she would teach his squaws to make cloth like the gown she wore.  Thus was her life saved, but she was reduced to the most abject slavery, and was made to carry water, wood, and build fires.  For some time they bound her when they were out hunting;  but as time wore away they relaxed their vigilance, and at last permitted her to remain unbound.

NOTE:  This last statement is at variance with most stories pertaining to Jenny's escape, which indicate she soaked her rawhide bonds in rain water until she was able to slip free from them.

On one occasion, when all were out from camp, they were belated, and at nightfall did not return, and Mrs. Wiley now resolved to carry into effect a long-cherished object, that of making her escape and returning to her friends.  The rain was falling fast, and the night was intensely dark, but she glided away from the camp-fire and set out on her lonely and perilous journey.  Her dog, the same that had followed the party through all their wanderings, started to follow her, but she drove him back, lest by barking he might betray her into the hands of her pursuers.  She followed the course of Mud Lick Creek, journeyed up a stream) ever since known as Jennies Creek) a distance of some miles, thence over a ridge and down a stream now called Little Paint Creek, which empties into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy.  When she reached its mouth it was day-dawn, and on the opposite side of the river, a short distance below the mouth of Johns Creek, she could hear and see men at work erecting a block house.

NOTE:  Most accounts indicate that only Henry Skaggs, a few women and some children were present at the fort when Jenny arrived there.

To them she called, and informed them that she was a captive escaping from the Indians, and urged them to hasten to her rescue, as she believed her pursuers to be close upon her.  The men had no boat, but hastily rolling some logs into the river and lashing them together with grape-vines, they pushed over the stream and carried her back with them.  As they were assending the bank, the old chief who had claimed Jenny as his property, preceded by the dog, appeared upon the opposite bank, and striking his hands upon his breast, exclaimed in broken English, "Honor, Jenny, Honor!" and then disappeared into the forest.

That was the last she ever saw of the old chief or her dog.  She remained here a day or two to rest from her fatigue, and then with a guide made her way back to her home, having been in captivity more than eleven months.  Here she rejoined her husband, who had long supposed her dead, and together, nine years after--in the year 1800--they abandoned their home in the Old Dominion, and found another near the mouth of Tom's Creek, on the banks of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy.  Here her husband died in the year 1810.  She survived him 21 years, and died of paralysis in the year 1831.

I'm sure readers will notice many differences between the above account and the one provided by Mr. Van Hoose, which we published in the last issue of the news letter.  It is not for me to say which of these accounts, or of the numerous others, is the correct one, but I believe it will benefit all of our members to have the different versions of the story at our disposal.  After a time lapse of more than 200 years, I doubt that we will ever be able to determine the correctness of every single detail of Jenny Wiley's capture and escape, and I'm sure each of us will have a favorite version of the story--I certainly do!

Historical statements are always based on the knowledge extant and available as to the matter under discussion.  The discovery of new or unknown information renders necessary the modification of texts previously written, and the true historian is always ready and anxious to make such corrections, even though they overturn his own record.

-Mr. Edward Hazlett:  The Founding of Harmans Station and the Wiley Captivity, page 17, introduction to the Connelley reprint.

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