“Follow the River” by James Alexander Thom ★★★★

Follow the River Mary Draper Ingles and Shawnee

Illustration of Mary Draper Ingles and other captives of the Shawnee, July 1755

Excellent fictionalized account of the true-life story of 23yo Mary Draper Ingles, who survived a Shawnee attack on her Virginia settlement on July 3, 1755.

[I apologize in advance.  I do include spoilers in this post.]

After witnessing the murders of the majority of her people in Draper’s Meadow (including her mother and her brother’s infant son), she was captured along with a few others, including her two young sons.  She gave birth to her daughter on the trail of the nearly 1000-mile journey to present-day Ohio.

She earned the respect of the chieftan leading their party and was eventually offered his protection for herself and her children if she agreed to become his wife.  She refused and was shocked when she was then sold into slavery, while the chieftan, Wild Cat, kept her sons to raise as his own.  Her sister-in-law was given to another warrior.  She was then separated from them when the French trappers who bought her took her away from Lower Shawneetown at the Ohio and Scioto Rivers.

She quickly took the chance of escaping when an opportunity presented itself, and an older Dutch woman agreed to go with her.  They were desperate and unprepared for their journey and left with only a small ax and a knife (both were eventually lost), two blankets, and the clothes on their backs.  Mary had to rely on her memory of landmarks in order to get back to her husband, whom she wasn’t even sure had survived the massacre.

The two women walked over 800 miles from an area in Northern Kentucky where they were making salt for the Frenchmen (the area now known as Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, home to a lot of prehistoric bones of ice age mammals), back to Draper’s Meadow (present-day Blacksburg), Virginia, crossing rivers multiple times as well as the Appalachian Mountains.  Some accounts say that during their journey, they crossed at least 145 creeks and rivers—remarkable as neither woman could swim.  By the end of their 42-day return trek, their clothes and shoes were worn to nothing.  They were walking naked and barefoot through the forests and wading through rivers in December!

Follow the River map

Their journey was incredible, their stamina was epic, as they were literally starving (their return saw them as skeletal, teeth falling out, and 23yo Mary’s hair had turned white) while walking around 20 miles a day.  The older Dutch woman (called Gretel in this account) started losing her mind, was obsessed with her hunger, and eventually attempted to kill Mary so she could eat her.  With only a week or so to go, Mary crossed a river to escape her and they finished off their journey separately, although Mary sent a search party out to locate her after she herself found safety.  Gretel was found alive but it is assumed she was eventually sent back to Holland as she had no family left in America and news of her attempted cannibalism tainted opinions against her.

Years later, William and Mary Ingles were reunited with one of their sons, who was raised as a Shawnee for over 13 years.  Ironically, he faced a similar fate as his parents when his own settlement was raided and his family was captured.

There was an interesting afterword by the author which explained that there were nearly 2000 similar captures during the French Indian War (Seven Years’ War).  The tribes would often capture white men/women/children in order to take the place of people who were killed and taken from their people.

Even though this account does not favor the Shawnee tribe or native peoples in general as their accounts of brutality are described freely (murder of infants, taking scalps, making captives run the gauntlet and/or eventually being burned alive) without an equal accounting of the atrocities also performed by white settlers to them, there is mention of the reason some Indians took the side of the French colonialists instead of the British colonialists during the Seven Years’ War.  They felt they could live in harmony with the French trappers/traders because they lived in a similar way as the indians.  It was the encroachment of the white settlers (and government regulations) which forced them to move from lands where they previously had a good life.

Follow the River running the gauntletExample of a captive being forced to run the gauntlet, where they ran from one spot to another, getting jeered and beaten by their captors. This was a way for captives to earn respect. If they failed, they could be killed.




Follow the River by Alexander Thom



Follow the River by James Alexander Thom
Audio read by David Drummond




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