Jenny Wiley, a young American pioneer woman, was captured by Indians in the fall 1789 and witnessed the murder of her brother and five children. She escaped after several months of captivity and, while pursued by her captors, made her way through many miles of wilderness to safety.
Jean “Jenny” Sellards, the daughter of Hezekiah Sellards, was born in Pennsylvania about 1760. She met and married an Irish immigrant, Thomas Wiley, in Walkers Creek, Tazwell (now Bland ) County, Virginia in 1778 or 1779. Thomas built a small log cabin in the Upper Clinch River valley and the couple set about raising a family.
Jenny’s sister lived near by with husband John Borders. Several families named Harman also lived in the area.
On October 1, 1789 a small group of Cherokee and Shawnee Indians came into the valley to seek vengeance on Matthias Harman who had shot and killed several Indians sometime past. Uncertain of Matthias’ whereabouts, the raiding party fell upon the Wiley cabin by mistake.
Thomas was away on a trip when the attack came. Jenny, her 4 children and her younger brother were at home alone. John Borders stopped by to warn Jenny that Indians were in the area, and urge her to go to his house for safety. She told him she would finish some chores and then be right over.
Sometime after Borders had left, the Indians rushed the cabin and brutally beat, scalped and murdered her brother and three of her children. Jenny, who was 7 months pregnant, and an infant child were taken captive and led down what was later called Jenny’s Creek, along the Tug and Big Sandy rivers toward the Ohio.
News of the massacre spread fast through the tiny settlement and a party of men, including Lazarus Damron and Matthias Harmon, started pursuit. When the Indians realized they were being followed and that Jenny and the baby were slowing them down they killed the infant by bashing it’s head against a tree. The settlers chased them for several days but were never able to catch up and finally lost the trail.
Jenny became very ill and the Indians were forced into camp until she could travel. Sick and alone, she prematurely gave birth to her son in a primitive rock shelter. The Indians brought food and kept a fire going until she and the baby were well enough to travel.
William Ely tells us “when the child was three weeks old [Addington says three months] they decided to test him, to see whether be 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.”
Luther F. Addington gives us a slightly different account in his unpublished manuscript The Capture of Jenny Wiley: “In desperation Jenny dashed into the stream, recovered the child and returned to the rock house with it. She had no more than arrived when one of the savages came with a tomahawk, killed the baby and scalped it. Then, carrying the scalp, he turned away, not bothering Jenny. And there, alone, the weeping Jenny buried her child at the edge of the rock house.”
The group then moved on to the area of Mud Creek in what is now Johnson County, Kentucky, and set up a permanent camp.
Here Jenny’s life 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 the weeks passed the Indians relaxed, and at last permitted her to remain untied. One rainy night when the warriors were out of the camp Jenny slipped away from the fire and set out on a perilous journey.
Jenny followed Mud Creek to it’s mouth, then crossed Main Paint Creek, journeyed up a stream (also known later as Jenny’s Creek) for several miles, over a ridge and then down Little Paint Creek to the Levisa Fork of Big Sandy River. As daylight broke Jenny could see and hear men working on the opposite side of the river at Harmons Blockhouse in Floyd (now Johnson) County, Kentucky. She called out, and informed them that she was a captive escaping from the Indians. Not having boats, the men rolled logs into the river and lashed them together with grape vines to form a raft, then crossed over and carried her back to safety just as the pursuing Indians came into sight.
The brave Jenny was reunited with her husband in the summer of 1790. The couple eventually settled near Paintsville in Johnston County, Kentucky and raised 5 more children. In later years, Jenny professed that God had blessed her by replacing the children she had lost. Thomas died in 1810 and Jenny in 1831. Both were buried in Johnson County not far from their last home.
To learn more about this tragic story, please visit the descendants of Thomas and Jenny at the Jenny Wiley Association – http://www.natchezbelle.org/jenny/.
- Arville Wheeler, White Squaw: The True Story of Jennie Wiley (Paintsville, Ky., 1958).
- Henry P. Scalf, Jenny Wiley (Prestonsburg, Ky., 1964).
- Luther F. Addington, The Capture of Jenny Wiley , unpublished.
- William Ely, The Big Sandy Valley: A History of the People and Country From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Catlettsburg, Kentucky, 1887; rpt. 1969. p. 450-458.