Mary “Polly” Alley & Jane Whitaker
The Capture of Jane Whittaker and Polly Alley By Emory L. Hamilton
From the unpublished manuscript, Indian Atrocities Along the Clinch, Powell and Holston Rivers, pages 46-51.
This story has become the most widely known of any Indian story in Southwest Virginia. It was told around so many firesides that it has almost taken on the aspect of a folk tale.
No doubt it is true for the names used in the tale are those of pioneer settlers of the area, while I have not been able to find any supporting documentary evidence to confirm it. There were, however, many Indian killings and captures on the frontier that never found their way into official documents.
Charles B. Coale, an early newspaper writer for an Abingdon paper was perhaps the first to bring this story into print in his book “Wilburn Waters”, and he gives no authority for his source. It is from the above book that this version is taken, with footnotes added.
During the spring of 1777 – several years before the capture and murder of the Livingston family on the North Fork of Holston, the same half-breed Benge and a savage white man by the name of Hargus, crossed the range of hills north of Clinch at High Knob, and made their way to Bluegrass Fort (1) on Stoney Creek, which is not far from what is known as Osborne’s Ford (2), in Scott County.
The white man Hargus had been living in the neighborhood, but had absconded to the Indians to evade punishment for crime, and became an inhuman persecutor of his race.
The Indians having cautiously and stealthily approached the river down Stoney Creek, and fearing they might be discovered, crossed some distance below and came up in the rear of a high cliff south of and opposite the fort, concealing their main body in some bushes at the base, in order to command a view of the fort, they sent one of their number to the summit of the cliff to spy out the condition of the fort and to act as a decoy.
He ascended in the night, and climbed a tall cedar (3) with thick foliage at the top, on the very verge of the precipe, and just at break of day began to gobble like a wild turkey. This imitation was so well executed it would have been successful but for the warnings of an old Indian fighter present by the name of Matthew Gray (4).
Hearing what they supposed to be a turkey, and desiring him for breakfast, some of the younger members of the company proposed to go up the cliff and shoot him, but Gray told them if they wanted to keep their scalps on their heads they had better let that turkey alone, and if they would follow his directions he would give them an Indian for breakfast.
Having promised to obey his instructions, he took several of them with them to a branch which he knew to be in full view of the Indians, and told them to wash and dabble in the stream to divert the attention of the enemy for half an hour, while he went to look for the turkey; which still continued to gobble at short intervals. Gray having borrowed an extra rifle from David Cox, (5) crouched below the bank of the stream, an in this manner followed its course to where it emptied into the river half a mile below, at a place known as Shallow Shoals.
Here he took the timber, eluding the vigilance of the Indians by getting into their rear. He then crept cautiously up the ridge, guided by the gobbling of the Indian in the top of a cedar on the cliff. Getting within about seventy-five yards of the tree, and waiting until his turkeyship had finished an extra big gobble, he drew a bead upon him and put a ball in his head. With a yell and spring the Indian went crashing through the tree tops and over the precipe, a mangled mass of flesh and bones.
Then commenced a race for life. Gray had played a desperate game, and nothing but his fleetness and his knowledge of savage craft could save him. He knew that the Indians in ambush would go to their companion on hearing the report of the rifle, and that they were not more than two hundred yards away. He did his best running and dodging, but they were so close upon him that he would have been captured or killed, had not the men of the fort rushed out to his rescue.
The Indians finding that they had been discovered, and that they were not strong enough to attack or besiege the fort, started in the direction of Castle’s Woods. The persons at Bluegrass knowing that the settlement at Castle’s Woods was not aware that the Indians were in the vicinity, determined to warn them, but the difficulty was how this was to be done, and who would be bold enough to undertake it, as the Indians were between the two forts.
When a volunteer for the perilous expedition was called for, Matthew Gray, who but an hour before had made such a narrow escape, boldly offered his services, and, getting the fastest horse and two rifles, started out through the almost unbroken forest.
Moving cautiously along the trail, he came near Ivy Spring, about two miles from the fort, when he saw signs that satisfied him that the Indians had halted at the spring. There was no way to flank them, and he must make a perilous dash or fail in his mission of mercy. Being an old Indian fighter, he knew that they seldom put out pickets.
The trail making a short curve near the spring, he at once formed the plan of riding quietly up to the curve, and then, with a shot and a yell, to dash through them. This he did, and before they had sufficiently recovered from their surprise to give him a parting volley, he was out of reach.
He arrived at the settlement in safety, and thus in all probability saved the lives of all the settlers. The Indians, however, captured two women on the way – Polly Alley (6) at Osborne’s Ford, as they went up the river and Jane Whittaker near Castle’s Woods.
Finding the fort at Castle’s Woods fully prepared for their reception, the band had to abandon their murderous purpose and pass on with their captives, without permitting themselves to be seen. Reaching Guess’ Station (7) they remained part of the night, but finding it well prepared for defense, they continued their journey to the Breaks (8) where the Russell and Pound Forks of Big Sandy pass through the Cumberlands.
Here, tradition says, they tarried half a day, and loaded themselves with silver ore. This tradition has led some to suppose that this was the place where Sol Mullins (9), the noted maker of spurious coin, obtained his metal, as he long inhabited that region.
After this they traveled every day, resting at night, until they reached the Ohio at the mouth of Sandy. Crossing the river on a raft of logs with their prisoners, who suffered more than can be described or conceived on the long march, they reached their destination at Sandusky.
The two young women were closely confined for some time after their arrival, though they were eventually stripped and painted and allowed the liberty of the village, closely watched for a month or more, but seeing they made no attempt to escape, the Indians abated their vigilance.
Observing this the girls determined to make an attempt to escape. Having been permitted to wander about at pleasure from time to time and punctually returning at night, the Indians were thrown off their guard. Having wandered one day from the village farther than usual, and being in a dense forest, they started out on the long journey home.
After traveling all night, they found themselves only about eight miles from the village, and finding a hollow log, they crept into it, with the determination of remaining concealed during the day. They had been in it but a few minutes when Hargus and two or three Indians came along in pursuit and sat down upon it, and the girls heard them form their plans for the next day’s search.
Returning late in the afternoon, having lost the trail, the Indians sat down upon the same log to rest, and again the occupants beneath them heard their plans for pursuit. These were, that a party should pass down each of two rivers which had their sources near their village and emptying into the Ohio. They became very much enraged at having been baffled by two inexperienced girls, and threatened their victims with all kinds of torture should they be recaptured.
Hargus, more furious than the Indians themselves, striking his tomahawk into the log to emphasize his threats, and finding it return a hollow sound, declared the girls might be in it, as they had been traced thus far, where the trail was lost, and sent one of the savages to the end of the log to see. The savage went and looked, but seeing that a spider had stretched its web across the aperture, he made no further examination. This web, which had probably not been there an hour, saved them from recapture, and it may be from a cruel death.
After the Indians left, the girls, having heard their plans, left the log and resumed their weary journey, taking a leading ridge which ran at right angle with the Ohio and led them to it not far from opposite the mouth of Sandy. Could hear the yells of the Indians in pursuit each day and night until they reached the river, when, from a high promontory they had the satisfaction of seeing their pursuers give up the chase and turn back toward their village.
They had nothing to eat for three long days and nights but a partially devoured squirrel from which they had frightened a hawk, and on the night of the third day after the Indians had relinquished the pursuit, they ventured to the river, where they were fortunate enough the next day to see a flat-boat with white men in it descending the stream, who, on being hailed, took them aboard, set them across the mouth of Sandy, and furnished them with a sufficiency of bread and dried venison to last them two weeks, and a blanket each, in which time they expected to make their way back to one of the settlements on the Clinch. They took their course up Sandy on the same trail they had gone down some months before, but in one of the rapid and dangerous crossings of that stream, they lost all their provisions as well as blankets.
This, though a great calamity, did not discourage them, but pushing on, with the blessings of kindred, friends and home in view, they found their way through Pound Gap (10) and reached Guess’ Station about the middle of September, having been on the journey about a month, after encountering hardships and dangers under which many of the sterner sex of the present day would give way.
(1) A seldom used name for Blackmore’s Fort
(2) The present Dungannon in Scott Co., VA
(3) Cedar trees still grow on the precipe today
(4) The Grays were early settlers on the Clinch River
(5) David Cox settled at the mouth of Stoney Creek where he died February 28, 1828, aged about 80 years.
(6) Thought to be the daughter of James Alley, Sr., who along with his brother, James, lived in that area.
(7) An early name for Coeburn, VA. The writer has been unable to find any data on this Station and the above remark is the only known source that gives in inkling that it was manned for defense. The log remains and chimney stones were still on the spot in 1838, but the purpose of this station is unknown, as is the name of the builder, and for whom it was named. The fort was in operation in 1780.
(8) The Breaks, now the Breaks Interstate Park, was one of the familiar warpaths used by the Shawnee Indians in attacking the Clinch settlements.
(9) Sol Mullins was an early settlers in now Dickenson Co., VA convicted for counterfeiting coins
(10) The pass through Cumberland Mountain from Wise Co., VA, into Letcher Co., KY and in frontier days a well known Indian war path. The earliest name for it was “Sounding Gap.”