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West Virginia History Journal, Volume 23, Number 4 (July 1962), pp. 287-296

A Captive of the Shawnees, 1779-1784

By John H. Moore

In the early 1840's a little old lady living in Lewisburg gathered her descendants about her. For years Margaret Handley Erskine (1753–1842) had regaled countless friends and relatives with the tale of her captivity by the Shawnee Indians, 1779–1784. Now, nearly ninety, she said she would tell her story for the last time. If anyone wanted to retain it, they must take notes. For, she sighed, she was growing weary, it distressed her greatly to relive those hectic days, and she did not intend to repeat her adventures again. Fortunately, her grandson, Allen T. Caperton, was among those present and her words have been handed down to succeeding generations.1

It was in the fall (23'rd September, 1779) that Margaret Paulee with her husband, John Paulee, with one infant (female) about one year old, set out from the County of Monroe, Virginia, for a journey to Kentucky for the purpose of establishing themselves. They were attacked by a party of Indians, who, as it was conjectured, had some notice of the projected trip and waylaid them for the purpose of making captives. There were six Indians, and the party in company with Mr. Paulee consisted of Mr. Paulee and wife, Robert Wallis, Brice Miller, and James Paulee. Each man was armed with a rifle, but there being no cause to apprehend an attack only one was loaded at the time of the attack.

It was about 12 o'clock when I was riding in front of the cattle we were taking with us with my baby in my arms. We were about five miles from the mouth of East River when I was alarmed by the report of a gun which seemed to have been fired from behind a log, at which my horse took fright, and at the same moment I heard my husband's voice calling to me repeatedly to ride back.2 I turned to obey the summons when one of the party of Indians came from behind a tree, pulled me from my horse, and struck me senseless with his club. What took place during this state of insensibility I never knew except what I could gather from the Indians, but the scalp of poor Wallis and my husband's gun were objects that met my eyes upon recovering, bearing witness of the scene what must have been enacted.

There was also in our company the wife of Wallis and also the wife and child of John Paulee. The latter were taken prisoners and placed on the log beside me after I had been restored to consciousness. It was while we sat on the log that an Indian came with the recking scalp of poor Wallis, who, of course, had been killed. My husband, when he saw me dragged from the horse, ran up and fought over my body with three of the Indians, using nothing but the hilt end of the gun, when one of the Indians put his gun to his breast and shot him through. He, thinking that his wife and child were both dead and that he had received a mortal wound, left the strife and started on his way back. He fainted several times and I observed the Indians watching him attentively expecting him to fall from the effects of the shot.

Coming to a turn in the road, he left it, probably thereby effecting his escape. He had lost his gun in the scuffle but took another which he carried with him. After going some distance in the woods he lay down expecting to die, but after resting he felt revived and leaving his gun set out again for Wood's Fort on Rich Creek.3 When he came to New River he waded it and by the guidance and assistance of John Woods he was enabled to reach the Fort where he died in a short time under the full belief that his wife and child had fallen under the tomahawk of the merciless Indians.

After recovering from the stunning effects of the blow which I received, I observed my infant lying a short distance from me, which I took into my arms fondly hoping to afford it a shelter; but, all my care was soon arrested by the approach of an Indian who tore my child from my arms, dashed its head against a tree, and barbarously threw it on the ground. The child of James Paulee afterwards met with the same fate. The party who went in pursuit of the Indians found the body of my child, which had been protected from the wolves by a fierce little dog that was lying by its side. The body of the other child had been almost entirely destroyed by the wolves.

The five Indians and one white man named Morgan, who seemed more barbarous than the Indians, after possessing themselves of whatever of the baggage they could conveniently carry and taking twelve of the horses, placed me on my horse and Mrs. Paulee on hers and set out. The beds were ripped open, the feathers emptied, and the ticking taken. We started up the north fork of East River, an Indian leading my horse. We continued on our way, traveling in the middle of the water for a mile or more and then went in the direction of the Blue Stone, traveling all day and all night.4 When we encamped, our captors took care to build their fires in a sink hole. I suffered much during those two days having had repeated falls from my horse caused by the savage Morgan who seemed to take malicious pleasure in cutting my horse and causing him to throw me over his head.

I could learn nothing of their purposes but through Morgan who informed me that they intended to take us to a Shawnee town and make squaws of us. They took no other precaution to secure us at night than to place us pretty well in their midst, taking our shoes which were returned to us the next morning. I frequently thought of attempting to make my escape, but every time I raised my hand an Indian raised his. I ate nothing for two or three days. The savages seemed desirous that we should partake of whatever they got to eat. Those that killed my child were now kinder than the rest. I had prepared myself with a little dried beef, biscuits, and cheese, which I partook of. I also had a bottle of spirits to use in case of sickness which was still hanging to the horn of my saddle; but, becoming alarmed lest they might get drunk and become more barbarous, I loosened it and let it fall in the weeds where it may remain to this day.

The next day we continued our route in a westward direction through a wilderness, nothing occurring until we reached the Ohio River, where they placed our saddles in a canoe and crossed it, the Indians swimming beside the horses and then across the Scioto and thence to the Miami.5 The Scioto we crossed at the old Chilicothe town. We forded the Miami and came in sight of the Shawnee town, where we camped, and the next morning the Indians gave signal, by firing the guns, and giving a peculiar yell that they had returned with prisoners, plunder, and scalps.6 The object in stopping was to prepare for some ceremonies attending those whose lot it was to be prisoners.

They came shouting and rejoicing, and one of them approached me and held out his hand. I offered mine in return, when he struck me a blow that brought me to the earth. The chief of the gang that had taken us seemed enraged at this treatment and interposed for my protection. The sympathy created by this treatment probably saved me from the necessity of running the gauntlet, which all prisoners have to undergo and which the savages call a welcoming.

The manner of it is a large number of squaws and Indian boys place themselves along a line armed with clubs and switches. The prisoners are required to run an appointed distance and to undergo all the blows that can be inflicted. I saw two boys named Moffit, who were brought in and forced to run the gauntlet. They were started and one turned upon the first blow and returned it, which pleased the Indians so that he escaped the balance and was adopted.

Through the interference of the chief, I escaped running the gauntlet, but my fellow prisoners were forced to undergo it and suffered severely. We were then taken before the council and through an interpreter questioned closely. They inquired particularly if my husband was not a captain, and upon my replying in the negative they cautioned me not to tell a lie, being assured he was a captain by the courageous manner in which he had behaved. Upon further consultation it was determined that I should be adopted in a family Wa-ba-kah-kah-to, into which family, having been gifted with a wampum belt, I entered. This chief was king of the tribe and had been at the Battle of the Point where he was wounded.7 After my adoption, Wa-ba-kah-kah-to ["White Bark"] told me that I must be contented, to fear no one, and not to be ordered by any of the women. My greatest and most distressing apprehension was that they should take it into their heads to compel me to marry one of the Indians, and that apprehension was rendered stronger by the conduct of a white female prisoner who had intermarried. Hearing that it had been proposed to me, she came to me and urged me to the course, saying that if I did not consent I would be murdered.

I communicated my uneasiness to Wa-ba-kah-kah-to, who informed me that I need not fear anything, that there would never be any compulsion if I were unwilling. I was likewise further relieved by Simon Girty, who soon after I was captured came to see me and informed us that we need not fear on that score, that they were not the people to compel any one to such a course.8

The Indian who killed my child seemed particularly desirous to atone for his barbarity by various acts of kindness, such as sending for me to partake of anything he got. I suffered greatly more than I otherwise would have done from being in a delicate condition.

I saw McKee and Girty often – the former was a gentlemanly man, and there were Simon, James and George [Girty], all three had Indian wives. The Indians thought a great deal of McKee and Girty.9 There was an Indian chief named Blue Pocket who had married a half French woman of Detroit, who lived in great style, had curtained beds and silver spoons.10 I was fond of visiting this house; they always seemed kind and desirous of giving me tea, &c. He had his negro slaves; so had McKee.

Nothing of moment occurred until the May after my capture when my little boy was born. An old Indian squaw took a chunk of fire and conducted me to the woods, where I was left alone with nothing but a shelter of bushes over me for the space of ten days, when I was permitted to return to the town. The squaws seemed very much delighted with my child, carrying it through the town, showing it with great joy, seeming to think it a great beauty. There was a string of corn brought me and a mortar to pound it with, but luckily a man from Detroit who had engaged me to make him a shirt came with a kerchief of flour.

About a year after I had been taken, I met with a young man named Thos. McGuire who had been previously taken by the Indians, but got out of their hands by joining a company of rangers, who informed me all about the defeat and death of my husband.

Nothing of importance occurred until the summer of 1780 when Col. Clark made his incursion upon the Indians.11 The Indians knew of Clark's advance from the time he crossed the Ohio, and they seemed very much alarmed. I was taken, with other prisoners, and secreted in the woods within hearing of the firing.12 After the battle was over, we returned to the town (Pickaway), which was entirely laid waste, where we stayed about a week – gathered some corn and dried it, when I was taken with the fever and ague. We then left and went on fifty or one hundred miles. I had my horse and saddle which I was permitted to ride, while the squaws carried large packages. We went where the hunting was good, and we lived the whole winter on meat. I suffered with fever and ague for about eight weeks. At this place we settled, lived in camp during the winter and afterwards built a town which was called McKeestown.13 I employed myself in sewing, got two shillings a shirt, and made four a day.

In the summer of 1782 there arose a difficulty which nearly put an end to my career. A party of Indians, headed by the same individual who had taken me prisoner and killed my child, agreed upon an expedition into Kentucky for the same purpose that had formerly taken them into Virginia, which expedition terminated in the death of the chief, Wa-ba-pus-ito, the son of Wa-ba-kah-kah-to. The news of his death was received with sorrowful lamentations by all the tribes. His father was inconsolable and required something to appease him for his loss.

There had been taken in Kentucky two boys, Jacky Calaway, nine years old, and Dicky Hoy, about twelve, who were placed with us and lived in Wa-ba-pus-ito's house. The old chief, notwithstanding all the partiality he had shown for me, was so grieved by the death of his son that he conceived the horrid idea of avenging his loss by burning within his own house the prisoners that he had made – the two boys and myself.

I had observed a considerable commotion for several days before I was able to ascertain its cause; when, by accident as I passed a blacksmith's shop, I overheard a white man inquire if that was the woman to be burned. This made me inquire, and to my surprise and horror I learned that the old chief had resolved upon our destruction. I however learned further that the greatest exertions had been made to avert our doom, that a number of Indians had interceded in our behalf, that McKee had been sent for to exert his authority, and that preparations had been made to steal us off in the event of a failure with the old chief by every other means. There was an assembly of nearly all the tribe of Shawnees. Wa-ba-kah-kah-to and another chief of considerable character sat over the council fire the whole of the night consulting upon the place of our death, the chief using every argument to defend, and Wa-ba-kah-kah-to intent upon burning us. This I ascertained through my own ears; for, having learned enough of the Shawnee language to understand the principal part of what was said, I concealed myself in their vicinity and heard all that passed between them.

The morning after this, however, a message arrived from McKee with a wampum belt and talk the substance of which was that he would not suffer the execution. The old chief, I suppose finding himself opposed by so many and so violently, proposed at length that if the interpreter would give him a handsomely mounted rifle which he had in his hand, that it would all be forgotten. The interpreter immediately acceded, and thus a rifle appeased what no argument of prudence or mercy, aided by an acknowledged partiality, failed to effect.

After this took place, the old chief's manner and treatment was the same. Following the advice of McKee, I disguised my knowledge of what had been in contemplation. The two boys were adopted, and little Jacky Calaway was placed with me.

I heard through the Indians of Crawford's defeat, capture, and death, saw the Indians upon their return from the fight with scalps. The reason they gave for treating Crawford so barbarously was in retaliation for accounts of the death of Cornstalk, a Shawnee king who had commanded at the Battle of the Point and who had surrendered himself and son as hostages and was treacherously murdered by Arbuckle's men who were stationed at the Point.14

This was contrary to their commander's orders and done under the pretext that Cornstalk's friends had murdered one Gilmore a short time before. It is stated in a book called "Border Warfare" that an Indian calling himself Job Hollis pretended friendship toward Captain Arbuckle, but betrayed him and was recognized as one of those slain at Donally's Fort.15 This is a mistake, as I saw and talked with Hollis during my captivity among the Shawnees about his exploits in Greenbrier.

The marriage ceremony among the Shawnees consists of boiling a large vessel of dumplings which were served out by the chief squaw in small vessels that every guest is expected to bring to the wedding. This dumpling the guest takes home and eats, and the day following the bridegroom goes out and kills a deer which he presents to his wife who takes it to her mother. She gives him bread and he gives her meat. The squaws do the principal part of courting, the men being for the most part modest even to bashfulness.

From the time of his adoption little Jacky Calaway lived with me and was a great comfort and relief. He had to take his morning plunge with the other Indians winter and summer, and frequently has he come into the cabin with icicles hanging to his hair. I always had a fire on hand for him.

Between the period of Crawford's death and that which an attempt to ransom me was made, nothing occurred worth transcribing. I lived as comfortably as one could among savages and apart from friends without any tolerable probability of ever meeting with them. The hostile feelings between the Shawnees and the Americans had not subsided. In the summer of '82 there were strong but ineffectual attempts made to redeem me. The old chief replied to all these proposals that I was not a slave to be sold and that he would not part with me. I was adopted and became one of his. family.

A Mr. Higgins, whose generous exertions in my behalf can never be forgotten, tried hard. The old chief's feelings were sincere and I do not think that any price could have overcome them. Indeed, there seemed on the part of all the Indians – the squaws especially with whom I had been living – an attachment toward me as ardent and affectionate as any I have ever known among my own friends and kindred. My feeling toward the old chief was anything but affectionate after I discovered his desire to sacrifice me and my child to appease his anger on account of the death of his son and when I perceived that the only obstacle to my redemption was his will. It will not be wondered that I wished, nay, that I prayed fervently for his death. My prayer, however sinful it may seem, was followed by his death.

On the day before he died, I was summoned to attend him; and, when he expressed a consciousness that his end was nigh, directing my attention to a point in the sky, he informed me that when the sun reached that place, his spirit would take its flight. This presentment was correct, for precisely at the time appointed he expired. He expressed great concern for my situation, was fearful that my cabin would not be supplied with wood, and manifested a regard for me that he could not have felt had he known my anxiety for his death. My friend, Mr. Higgins, immediately after the old chief's death, commenced negotiations for my ransom with the son of the old man into whose custody I had gone, and after a short time succeeded by paying the sum of $200.

Yet, there was an obstacle – the Indians were desirous of detaining my child, having taken it into their heads that it was not included in the bargain. A general council of the Shawnees was assembled, before which I was summoned and their views made known regarding my child. They alleged that if they were to keep the child they would thereby have a pledge that I would occasionally visit them – to all of which I replied that I would never go without my child, that if it remained that I would do likewise. After this reply and a short consultation, it was announced to me that I should be permitted to go and take my child with me.

When I made known my determination to the squaws of leaving, their demonstrations of sorrow at parting with me were truly affecting. Notwithstanding a prospect of again meeting with my friends, I could not but shed tears upon parting with the poor creatures who seemed so sincerely attached; and, I shed both tears of joy and sorrow. Poor little Jacky! What would I not have given to have taken him with me when he was exclaiming, "What shall I do now?"

I was taken to a Mr. McCormick where I lived until the following spring when I set out for my home in the company of eight other ransomed captives and had a tedious travel through a wilderness the greater part of the way, during which time we suffered much for the want of something to eat. For three days we had nothing whatever to eat, and my poor child would have died had it not been for the nourishment afforded by a few seed with which I had provided myself before leaving the Indian settlement. I had the good fortune soon afterwards to secure a pheasant from a hawk, which enabled myself and child to stand it better.

After eight days we reached Pittsburgh, where I was made sensible of the effect of habit by being placed in a feather bed in which it was impossible for me to sleep. From Pittsburgh home, we had a very pleasant journey.

My son, John Paulee, grew up with every promise and prospect of doing well. He went as Sect. to a fur company, and he had succeeded in laying a fine quantity of furs, with which he and the company were descending the Yellowstone River when they were attacked by a tribe of Mandan Indians who murdered nearly all, he being among the number.16

Little Jacky was redeemed about a year after I left him and came to Kentucky where he lived to a good old age and died about eighteen months ago. Polly Paulee, my sister-in-law, who belonged to a couple of squaws, succeeded in making her escape about a year before I was redeemed. She had been permitted to go on a visit to Detroit for the purpose of trading, and while there she gave them the slip. She was protected by the Governor of Detroit at whose house she afterwards married an officer named Myers. This officer tried hard for my redemption. With him she went to England and afterwards returned to Georgetown where she was finally murdered.

Thus, abruptly ends the narrative. A year after her return to civilization, Margaret Paulee married a Scotchman named Michael Erskine. They had five children – Jane, Henry, William, Alexander, and Michael. Her husband, Michael Erskine, died in August, 1812, and Mrs. Erskine died in May, 1842, at the home of her son, Henry, in Lewisburg. Their descendants include many outstanding citizens, not only of West Virginia, but of Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Texas as well.17

1: Allen Taylor Caperton (1810–1876) was born in Monroe County, educated at the University of Virginia and Yale, and studied law with Judge Briscoe Baldwin of Staunton, Virginia. He soon became a member of the legislature and won a seat at the state constitutional conventions held in 1850 and 1861. Although a strong Union man, he eventually went with the South and served in the Confederate Senate, 1863–1865. In 1875 he was elected to the United States Senate from West Virginia, Upon his death, his colleague, Henry G. Davis, noted in his eulogy, "His great-grandparents on both sides were among the earliest settlers on the headwaters of the Kanawha, then overrun by hostile Indians, and the fact that his grandmother was captured by hostile savages, her infant child butchered before her eyes, and she detained in captivity for four years, will give some idea of the courage it took and the dangers that had to be encountered in opening to civilization that fertile and beautiful mountain region."Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Allen T. Caperton (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1877), p. 5. This account is reproduced with the kind permission of Mrs. Joseph Allen Wheat of Charlottesville, Virginia. Mrs. Wheat, a descendant of Margaret Erskine, has two versions of the captivity. One, apparently much revised, was privately printed by the Lord Baltimore Press of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1912. The other, which is cited here, is said to have been written by Senator Caperton and printed in a Union (W. Va.) newspaper shortly after his death.
2: They had traveled only a short distance when the attack occurred.
3: Wood's Fort, built by Captain Matthew Wood in 1773, was located about four miles from Peterstown. It had a small stockade against Indian attacks but was not a government installation.
4: Mrs. Paulee refers here to the "Bluestone" River in Mercer County.
5: They apparently crossed the Ohio River in the deep bend between Point Pleasant at the mouth of the Kanawha and Portsmouth, Ohio, at the mouth of the Scioto.
6: This was the "Little" Miami, This Indian town was located on the north bank of Mad River, five miles west of Springfield in Clark County, Ohio.
7: The Battle of Point Pleasant (October 10, 1774) was a major event in Dunmore's War and of great importance to the frontier. The Indians were beaten and a general peace continued until 1777.
8: Simon Girty (1741–1818), the "Great Renegade," was one of the most colorful figures on the frontier. He grew up in Pennsylvania, torn between white and Indian ways. In 1778, after serving briefly with colonial forces, he, Alexander McKee, Robert Surphlit, Matthew Elliot, a man named Higgins, and two Negroes went over to the British. Although much maligned, one should remember that (1) many frontiersmen shifted from side to side with ease during the Revolution; and, (2) the colonials were rebelling against constituted authority, Girty was, at times, savagely cruel to American prisoners. His two brothers, James and George, eventually went completely "Indian." Simon vacillated back and forth; and, after the United States took Detroit in 1796 he lived in Canada. A third brother, Thomas, a hardworking storekeeper in Pittsburgh, suffered greatly because of the exploits of his family. See "Simon Girty," Dictionary of American Biography, VII, 323; C. W. Butterfield, History of the Girtys (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1890); and Russel B. Nye, A Baker's Dozen (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956).
9: Alexander McKee, as Mrs. Paulee indicates, was a man of considerable ability. He later became a major in the British Army.
10: Mrs. Paulee may mean Chief "Blue Jacket," a celebrated Shawnee warrior. However, he presumably lived at Wapakoneta, some sixty to seventy miles to the north.
11: On August 8, 1780, George Rogers Clark burned both old Chillicothe and the town on the Little Miami where Mrs. Paulee was living. A report by McKee cited in The History of the Girtys (p. 121) says George and James Girty stood their ground after most of the Indian warriors fled, but they eventually had to withdraw. Clark destroyed the crops and on the 10th of August marched away. At least six Indians and seventeen whites were killed. With destruction of the corn fields, Kentucky could breathe easier for a time. See Milo M. Quaife, The Conquest of the Illinois by G. R. Clark (Chicago: R. R. Donnelly & Sons Company, 1920).
12: Perhaps it is well that Mrs. Paulee did not try to escape. A nephew of Clark's who was also a captive eluded the Indians and ran toward the American lines only to be fatally wounded when mistaken for a savage.
13: Apparently the Shawnees relocated near Piqua (Pickaway) on the Miami River in Miami County, Ohio. Some sources state this was the site ravaged by Clark in 1780; however, Mrs. Paulee's account is substantiated by the most scholarly research on this matter. Thus, it appears she first was held captive near Springfield, Ohio, and later moved some thirty to fifty miles to the northwest near present-day Piqua which was, according to this memoir, once called "McKeestown."
14: In 1777, Cornstalk, a shrewd chief who honestly tried to keep peace, went to Point Pleasant to warn the commander, Captain Matthew Arbuckle, that the British were stirring up trouble, Arbuckle decided to retain Cornstalk as a hostage. When his son came to visit him, a soldier was shot from ambush. In the melee which ensued, Cornstalk was murdered. Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia, was furious, but a local court quickly acquitted those who were involved. See "Cornstalk," Dictionary of American Biography, IV, 447–48. This incident plus the prodding by the British created the unrest which resulted in the captivity of Mrs. Paulee. William Crawford (1732–1782) commanded some 400 Virginia and Pennsylvania volunteers in a battle fought in Wyandote County, Ohio, June 4-5, 1782. On the second day he was captured, cruelly tortured, and burned to death. See "William Crawford," Dictionary of American Biography, IV, 587; and C. W. Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition Against Sandusky (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Company, 1873).
15: The book was Alexander Scott Wither's Chronicles of Border Warfare. . . . (Clarksburg: Joseph Israel, 1831). Donally's Fort, located some eight miles from Lewisburg, was a large, two-story log house with a stockade.
16: There is a tradition that the Mandans were the descendants of a Welsh prince who came to America in the 16th century. See Reuben T. Durrett's Traditions of the Earliest Visits of Foreigners to North America (Louisville: Filson Club Publication No. 23, 1908).
17: Oren F. Morton's History of Monroe County, West Virginia (Dayton, Virginia: Ruebush-Elkins, 1916) contains considerable information on the Erskine family and their relations.