Editors’ Note: This is the second in the VoxFairfax series honoring the Virginia women in history memorialized by their statues in Richmond. The author, Nancy Alexander Simmons, is a descendant of Mary Draper Ingles.
By Nancy Alexander Simmons
It was an ordinary summer day in July 1755 in the frontier settlement of Draper’s Meadow in western Virginia. William Ingles and his brother-in-law, John Draper, were harvesting crops in the fields near their log cabin homes. Their wives, Mary Draper Ingles and Betty Draper, were working in the homes and caring for the children. But the day was soon to become anything but ordinary for the settlers.
A Shawnee raiding party, exercising its part in the ongoing French & Indian War, attacked the settlement and killed Mary’s mother, Betty’s infant daughter, and several others. The raiders then took Mary and her two young sons, Betty, and several other settlers as their captives and started down the New River back toward their homes. Mary eventually escaped from captivity and walked an estimated 600 miles to return to her Virginia home.
In 1824, John Ingles, Mary & William Ingles’ son, wrote an account of this horrific family event after having heard his parents tell it repeatedly. It is his manuscript that has kept this story and the journey of Mary Draper Ingles alive. But for me, my Aunt Draper, who was named after Mary, was the one who brought this story alive. I heard about Mary’s capture and return from a very young age, and heard it repeatedly. As a child, the story seemed interesting, just like many other stories; but as an adult, I have really come to appreciate Mary’s ordeal.
From the beginning of her capture, Mary Draper Ingles was determined to survive and to look for a way to get back home to her husband. She noticed landmarks along the New, Kanawha, and Ohio rivers as the Shawnee took her farther and farther from home. She did not try to escape near the beginning of her captivity because she was concerned for her sons and sister-in-law. However, once the Shawnee arrived at the juncture of the Scioto and Ohio rivers, they separated her from her friends and family. At that point, Mary had only herself to save.
It was now October 1755. Mary put her cooking and sewing skills to use in the Shawnee village and gradually earned their trust enough to be away from their camp for several hours, searching for berries, grapes, and nuts. She hatched a plan to escape and she and another captive left the Shawnee camp armed with two blankets, a knife, and a tomahawk.
John Ingles wrote that the women “for fear of being suspected took no other kind of clothing, only what was on them, and those a good deal worn.”
Using the rivers as their guide back to freedom, the women faced many hardships. They had to forage for food and often ate things that made them sick. They lost the knife and hatchet, which would have helped them catch food or build shelter. The changing weather rendered some of the landmarks Mary had remembered nearly unrecognizable; plus the terrain was rough with no clear paths and steep rocky cliffs.
As her son recorded, “There was a little river emptied into the Ohio . . . on the side they were, and was too deep for them to wade. All their chance was to travel up it until they could find passage. . . . And thus was the course they had to pursue at every stream of water that came in their way of any size.” But the women continued on, walking about 600 miles until they made their way back to Virginia, where Mary was reunited with her husband.
I like to think that—as her fifth-great granddaughter—some of her genes are in me. When faced with today’s challenges or harsh weather conditions, I’m thinking in the back of my mind, “If Mary could walk 600 miles in the winter, I can survive this.”
Mary’s journey has been chronicled in books and movies and much has been done to honor this pioneer woman. Most recently, a statue of Mary Draper Ingles was unveiled in October 2019 at Capitol Square in Richmond, Virginia, as part of the Virginia Women’s Monument, which commemorates the contributions of the women of Virginia over its 400 years of history.
To me, Mary exemplifies the resourcefulness and persistence of pioneer women and an ability to overcome emotional and physical obstacles. I like to think that—as her fifth-great granddaughter—some of her genes are in me. When faced with today’s challenges or harsh weather conditions, I’m thinking in the back of my mind, “If Mary could walk 600 miles in the winter, I can survive this.”