The Men in Jenny Wiley's Life

by Olive Smith Stone

Excerpt from the Jenny Wiley Association Newsletter, July, 2002

Much has been written about my great, great, great grandmother, Jenny Wiley, as her story of capture, captivity and escape has been told historically and traditionally. Each family branch has kept the story alive with slightly different versions, but it is basically the same. The books and printed versions of the story varies, too.

A Kentucky State Park near Paintsville, Johnson County containing Dewey Lake has been named the Jenny Wiley State Park in her honor.  An overpass across Kentucky Route 23 has been named after her as well. A marker has been placed at the overlook of Harmon's Station, where she hailed the inhabitants to bring a raft across from their side of the Big Sandy to her after her escape from the Indians. A marker on Route 23 directs those who wish to visit her grave at River, Kentucky, and there is a marker that directs any who would wish to visit the rock house or cave where she was believed to have been held captive.

There Is an annual Jenny Wiley Festival held in Prestonsburg, Floyd County, the second weekend of October each year when the town assumes a carnival atmosphere with the courthouse and many businesses closing as a parade is held and music fills the air. The Jenny Wiley Association meets at this time for food and fellowship as they trade family stories and history. There are many points of interest in the area including the cabin home of Loretta Lynn. Two of Jenny's granddaughters married Webb brothers and two married Smith brothers.  I am descended from Jane who married Richard Williamson and lived in Wyoming County, West Virginia and whose daughter, Marinda Catherine, married William Thomas Smith. The census of 1850 show Jane as being 55 years old, showing she could not have been the first born after Jenny's escape or at least, the result of Jenny being pregnant at the time as some believe.

During the summer months there is a theatrical production telling the Jenny Wiley Story as a musical at the amphitheater near the park lodge that attracts many tourists.
Although many stories have been written about Jenny Wiley, and have given accounts in newspapers and magazines, we know accurate records were not kept during that period of the early settlement of the region. Many records that were kept give conflicting accounts and many records have been destroyed by fires. The little everyday things we would like to know about the way our ancestors lived could only be told by people of the time and early folks were too busy living to tell the small details. Those who could give accurate details are long since dead and they were often misquoted to make a good story sound better.

 As we compare stories and try to sort out the inaccuracies that have been printed,
we want to learn the truth about our early ancestors and the region that is so rich in the history of this countries early settlement. It is easy to be interested In others who were involved in Jenny's story.

Finding it hard to come across any new, verifiable information about Jenny, I know she had innumerable descendants who would like as much as much of a whole picture of her life as we  to provide. I have tried to draw a picture of the men she came In contact with and who might have been an Influence in her life. Some of my information is rumor, some has been written to be truth and some is documented information. Since I know that any printed word is often taken for truth I will welcome corrections by anyone who has proof of a different version.

The father of Jenny Wiley was Hezekiah Sellards, the grandson of John Peter Sellards.  Hezekiah’s wife's name is not known, nor is her nationality.  There has been speculation that she might have been a Brevard, as her son Adam was given the name Adam Brevard Wiley. The Sellards were Scotch Presbyterians who came to this country at the time the conventors, or the followers of John Knox, who taught that souls were saved by God’s grace, not by their good works, were fleeing the old country to escape persecution. Many Irish were fleeing at this time, also. That might have been why Thomas Wiley’s family, who were Irish, came to Virginia, too. Many of Knox’s followers were sold as bound slaves to the ship’s captains who then sold them into bondage once they arrived in the colonies.

Evidentially the Sellards had been prosperous in the settlements as Hezekiah is said to have been a merchant in Pennsylvania. It is believed that he lost his wife and some of his children before he came to the frontier. I do not know where Jenny was born but it is rumored that his second wife was an Indian and many have said that Jenny was part native American. It is thought that the son that is named Andrew in one of the books about Jenny was nicknamed "Batt: - the one who was killed at the time she was captured and her children murdered, was his son by the Indian marriage.

Thomas Wiley, Jenny’s husband, had an interesting history.  He, Robert Wiley and Robert Wiley Jr. were first brought to my attention as Rangers fighting in Dunsmore’s Wars. He fought under George Rogers Clark in 1774, when Clark was building his military reputation. (Clark is my husband Howard’s ancestor through his great grandmother, Rachael Clark, who was born in Vincennes, Indiana in 1835). I believe Robert Wiley was his brother, and Robert Jr. his nephew, as boys became men at an early age in those days.  He left a brother, John, in the New River section of Giles County, Va. in a section that is now known as Tazwell County.  I believe, but have no proof, that Phillip Wiley of that place, was their father.

A historic account of the French and Indian War tells of their returning from battle by way of the Big Sandy River with Captain Daniel Smith’s troops (my Smith family?) Smith was in charge of Fincastle’s militia. The book, “Virginia’s Colonial Soldiers” gives Thomas’s service record as participating in the French and Indian War and list him as a private. Since the soldiers were granted their land in Virginia according to their rank, he was eligible to draw fifty acres of land. His grant was in the Walker Creek section.
In one account he was listed as reporting for muster with Colonel Preston’s military group and listed with twenty-nine other men from an area bounded by Rich Creek Mountain under Preston. Thomas, Robert, Alexander and John Wiley were listed on the Mason County, West Virginia web site as having fought in the Battle of Point Pleasant, with the Indian Chief, Cornstalk. (Auldin Williamson, Jane Wiley’s father-in-law, fought there, too).

Another man who was important in Jenny’s life was her brother-in-law, John Border.  It was John who had ridden by the Wiley cabin in the evening, a short time before a band of Indians from various tribes invaded her home and killed her brother and children, taking her and a small son captive. It was said they had mistaken her cabin as being that of Matthias Harmon whom they hated, feared and hoped to kill.  John had tried to persuade her to go to his home where she would be welcomed by his wife who was her sister, Sally. John knew there were indians in the vicinity and nephew Thomas was away from home exchanging the ginseng they had harvested for the things they would need for the approaching winter.

It was October and a drizzling rain was falling in the evening but Jenny wanted to finish the piece of weaving she had in the loom before she left. They were dressed to leave when the savages invaded the home. Borders remembered later his horse had shied at his approach to the cabin. When she hadn't reached his cabin by dark, he organized the search for her after he had seen the smoke of her burning cabin and found the children's bodies. He was sorry he had not Insisted more strongly on her going with him.

One early historian reports that Borders was a Prussian soldier hired by the British. Another report is that he was an English soldier under Cornwallis in the Revolution. When the defeat of the "redcoats" was imminent it is said he decided that a free country and land almost free for the taking was better than returning home. Being equipped as a soldier with a gun and perhaps a horse, he had as much or more than many of the other early settlers had at the time.

John married Elizabeth (Sally), one of Hezekiah Sellard’s daughters, Jenny’s sister, and they had a family of their own by the time Jenny was captured. Later they decided to move their family to the Scioto River Valley in Ohio. When they had reached the Big Sandy River Valley section that is now Johnson County, Kentucky, John became ill and died, leaving Sally with four boys and four girls. The  family settled near the mouth of Tom’s Creek where they remained for a time. Perhaps this is the reason for the Wiley’s to leave their home in Virginia and relocate in this section of Kentucky near her sister.

The Borders later moved to Lawrence County where the family became renowned as farmers and merchants. The youngest son, Archibald, became a well known judge in that region of Kentucky and Virginia. Although he did not enter politics to any great extent during Jenny’s lifetime, his many other business ventures were enough to make her proud of him.  He was born in 1798 and married Jane Preston in 1820.  Besides operating a big plantation in Lawrence County, he had a general store, a shoe factory, and a saddle shop. He developed a big timber business and furnished tanning bark for the whole region.  He first became a justice of the peace and later a judge of the county court until 1858. He built a steamboat, “The Big Sandy”, in 1880 and I am sure it saw service during the Civil War.  His support was for the North during the war and he died in 1880.

During her captivity Jenny was treated better by some of the savages than by others. It has been said that Chief Benge, a Cherokee warrior, was sometimes with the band and claimed her as his possession.  David Webb, a Wiley descendant, wrote in the book, “The Webbs of Bear Wallow Ridge” that she was pregnant by Benge when she escaped and that the daughter Jane is that child.  I think the records disprove that.  He tells of Benge’s death in North Carolina on a certain date but the National Geographic had an article about Benge leading a band of Indians on the ‘Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma after that date.  There is much conflicting history about this period of American history.  It is rumored that she was traded to a Shawnee known as “Cap John.”

It was the Indian, John, who spoke English and had taught Jenny some of their language, that led a group on her trail and was close behind her when she reached the Big Sandy and the safety of Harmon’s Station. It is said that he stood on the river bank and shouted, “Honor, Jenny, Honor’, for in his mind she was his possession.

Although I found a marriage license issued to a Thomas Wiley and another woman during the time Jenny was a captive, I do not know any more than that, except that Jenny and Thomas were reunited and had another family of children: Hezekiah, Jane, Nancy, William, and Adam.

In her later years she made her home with Adam and it was an elderly Adam that has been quoted by many who wrote the accounts that have later been attributed as being factual. One fact that has escaped us is the burial place of Thomas Wiley. The burial place of Jenny is well marked and we know he was not buried beside her, but although we are told he is buried in the vicinity, we don’t know where.

- Olive SmithStone

Jenny Sellards Wiley, Jane Wiley Williamson, Merinda Williamson Smith, Aley Lawrence Smith, Pricy Smith Smith, Olive Smith Stone.



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