The story of Jenny Sellards Wiley is one of great Appalachian lore. She was a pioneer woman who with her husband Thomas Wiley resided in what became Bland County, Virginia, was taken captive by American Indians in 1789 and taken to Kentucky. According to the story, several of her children and her brother were killed at the time. She then lost 2 more children while in captivity before she could escape.
Her story, in the past, has sparked a popularity that has mythical proportions especially in Kentucky where she and her husband moved to after her release. She has been written about in so many ways, from plays to fictional and non fictional books. There are various accounts that try to tell the facts, while others border on the plausible but really embellished.
|Cover Letter of Lt. J.D. Smith of Russell County, VA to Gov.|
Beverly Randolph, dated July 4th, 1790, that states Jenny's
captivity was only a few months.
Todd Pack in his book, "The Stories of Jenny Wiley: Exploring the History and the Legends", states there are at least 20 versions of the Jenny Wiley story. In researching the various accounts I found that most accounts rely on oral histories, historical books written from oral histories and stories handed down from generation to generation. I was shocked that not many rely on actual primary documents to tell her story. Elias Howard Sellards, "The Sellards through two Centuries" tried in 1949, but even his version didn't research land documents.
In many instances various works about Jenny Wiley can be categorized in what is known as "captivity narratives". They embellish the factual story with elements that create a sort of horror, romance narrative, that sounds great and plausible, but very rarely rely on historical research.
I began this search when I was still employed by Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum. The county's goal was to have a marker placed at the site of the cabin and have the museum create a display about Jenny Wiley and the different people of the frontier, which included the Native Americans in that story.
The problem started for me at the very beginning with reading the various stories and just trying to create a display map of her journey from Bland and the supposed route her captors traveled to take her to Kentucky. Not only were there extremely different embellished accounts of her journey, that didn't agree on the details of her journey at all, the accounts did not agree with where her cabin was located either.
|Lt. J. D. Smith July 4th, 1790 letter to Gov. Randolph|
The accounts also differ in how long she was in captivity. William Easley Connelly's version in his History of Kentucky and the founding of Harman's Station, has her held captive about 11 months. Connelly claims one of his main sources was Adam Wiley, Jenny and Thomas Wiley's son, and it is this claim that gave his version more weight. While other versions has her held captive until 1792. (see the newspaper article photo) Hint: neither of those are true. I've posted J.D. Smith's correspondence to Governor Beverly Randolph dated July 4th, 1790 that states Jenny Wiley was only in captivity a few months.
In some versions she is led to the blockhouse at Harman's Station by a dream vision of a man that was killed while she was in captivity. In other versions she escaped with a man named Samuel Lusk and followed the river as in Mary Ingles escape in 1755.
In some versions Jenny Wiley is wading and swimming rivers to escape, resettles in Kentucky years after her capture, and is buried there. Other versions have her in a canoe paddling down a river, towards home, then settled and buried in Giles County, Virginia.
The easiest solution would have been to just pick a version, the more popular one I guess, and just build a display around it. I decided that Connelly's version could possibly be relied on since he said he based most of it on the son's account his mother Jenny had told him. Our own Historical Society had used excerpts of Connelly's in their History of Bland County in 1961. This being a county project I thought that would be acceptable, less controversial (at least to those who believed his version) and easy.
|Lt. J.D. Smith July 4th 1790 letter to Governor Beverly Randolph|
So I decided that there needed to be more research and that if I at least searched primary documents for the location of the cabin then they could use that for the documentation for the marker if they asked for it. Little did I realize that just performing that research was going to tell an entirely different story than Connelly's version. I was performing this work while very ill, but I loved the researching part of my job. I didn't get to do that part often in my job duties. It was my passion and really this research kept me on the job longer than I think I should have stayed.
What I discovered in the primary document research I did get accomplished were most all the versions, especially Connelly's, were very fictionalized, embellished versions of the actual event. Trying to discover just what is true and what is .....well...forgive my reference... plain old BS...is going to take a lot more research.
There are some who fear I am going to make the colonist look bad and that I should realize we can't project our thoughts today with what the people of the frontier did or thought in their time. I'm not trying to do that. I'm trying to correct the records and identify each person in this story. The settlers and the Indians. We have the advantage today to look back on an event and can pull primary documents to look at the accounts of all sides of the people living through them. Hind sight is 20/20. That is not to judge them but to understand what happened by what was occurring at the time that caused this event. You cannot do that with what I call, hit and run history.
|Beckley Post Herald, Beckley, WV Tues. April 17, 1956|
Article ties Jenny Wiley to Samuel Lusk to escape in 1792
Two cars collide. One of the drivers, even though his car is damaged, doesn't stop and drives away. What you have left is the damage of one car but with no understanding as to what happened, how it happened or why it happened. What was going on with the other car that caused this to happen? Telling the story of Jenny Wiley from the perspective of only the settlers is a hit and run history.
There are accounts that say one of the chiefs that attacked Jenny Wiley was the Shawnee Black Wolf, one of the sons of Chief Cornstalk. If this is true, his own family had it's own tragic loss of family members in this war. The Jenny Wiley accounts do not go into the death of Black Wolf's father Chief Cornstalk and his brother, at the hands of the militia under a flag of truce. For more information Click Here or Here
The point being made that both sides committed atrocities and both sides had their own reasons and beliefs for doing so. Both sides believed they had a right to the land and in that conflict it was a war.
There are even those that believe that Jenny Wiley had a Native American child by Black Wolf, when she returned from captivity. I first posted a link explaining their research and beliefs, but the page has since been removed. So here is another link for Chief Cornstalk and his ancestry. Click Here. This part of the story in the day of DNA testing would not be hard to prove or disprove. I would love for the descendants of Jenny Wiley and the people on this website to get their DNA tested for their common ancestor.
In the story of Jenny Wiley, the length of her captivity, is going to play a role as to when this would have happened. Very few cite the true amount of time she was held captive. In reality it was only a few months. In that short time period she had one baby and became pregnant again? If these two groups have a DNA test or begin a Thomas and Jenny Sellards Wiley DNA data bank, that could weed out the truth and also show how they are related.
It is examples such as these that mean each component in the Jenny Wiley story (s) has to be questioned in my mind and proven to get at the real Jenny Wiley story. In Connelly's version of the story Jenny Wiley was pregnant when she was captured. She had the child prematurely. The Indians treated her well during her childbirth and afterwards but then the story says they gave the baby a test by strapping him to a board and placing him in cold water. The child cried and the warriors supposedly killed him and scalped him. She supposedly buried him in the rock shelter she was staying in.
First, whose tribal tradition is that? Secondly, I've read where the rock house location is thought to be known. How about an archeology dig to prove or disprove this? The remains, if found could be reburied next to his parents a few miles up the road. Leave no stone unturned.
What if the child she had in captivity wasn't killed but left behind? According to the story, Jenny was carrying another baby at the beginning of her capture and it was killed on the path because they were on the run and she was falling behind. So she knew how hard it would be to escape with another child. Come on folks get that DNA tested!!
I will be taking sections of the Jenny Wiley story and breaking it down using the primary documents and the research yet to be accomplished. So please bear with me.
The next post will be where the cabin was located. This will deal with land claims and grants of the Wiley family on the frontier. It's amazing how much the process for the Wiley's and other settlers on the frontier to claim land and get a deed had to do with land speculation, Indian treaties, the Indian wars, Proclamation of 1763 and the Revolutionary War. It took Henry Harman 45 years to get his land grants.
I believe I have real definite primary document proof the cabin was NOT on Walker's Creek but was in fact as some stories claim on Clear Fork Creek. I welcome all the proof to say otherwise. If you have proof to refute anything in these posts...PLEASE for all the Jenny Wiley descendants and family, let's get it on here and tell her true story. You won't hurt my feelings a bit!
The time period in which Jenny Wiley lived was a pivotal time period in American history and definitely Appalachia. The story of her capture was a true story and she was a very STRONG woman to have survived and still thrived on the frontier. I know through her real story we can get a better understanding of this time period in Appalachia, who she was, and the people connected to this story through the events in her life.
Click here for the post," Where was-cabin-of Thomas and Jenny Wiley"
For a overview of captives and the captivity narratives this YouTube video on a Search for History is a good view.