Tales from Childhood

Written by: Sue Thompson

By the time our ancestors came to Coal River the threat of Indian attacks was virtually over. The defeat of the Shawnee and Miami Indian tribes in 1791 on the Maumee River had virtually opened up the area west of the Alleghenies to settlement. In fact, there are no known Indian attacks or massacres in what we know as present-day Raleigh County. However, that does not mean that small parties of white hunters or trappers did not encounter war parties in the mountainous area we know as Raleigh County. In fact, that heavily forested area was one of the last areas of the state to be settled by the white man.
This is not to say that there were no Indians in Raleigh County. Indians used the trails through southern West Virginia going to and from their attacks on white settlements in western Virginia. Many of the roads that we have in the state were initially Indian or animal trails.
The rugged mountains of Raleigh County, and particularly our part of the county, were favorite areas for early hunters, trappers and fur traders. There are some indications that they may have named some of our local landmarks - consider “Trap Hill” and “Beaver Creek”. The area abounded with wild game. According to Raleigh County historian Jim Wood, as late as 1872 the Raleigh County Court was paying a $50.00 bounty on the scalps of grown wolves. This is truly amazing when we consider that one could purchase an acre of land in Raleigh County for mere pennies.
By 1815 there were early settlers in Raleigh County, but they were not plentiful. Some of the early families on Coal River were: Jacob Stover, Elijah Stover, John Scarbrough, Reason Wriston, Lemuel Jarrell, Gibson Jarrell, John Harper, and John Farley.
My grandmother used to tell me a story that her grandmother had told her. I regret that I was never curious enough ask which of her grandmothers related this to her, but it would have been either Martha A. Thompson who married Commodore Perry (C. P.) Stover, or it could have been Mary Jane Ewing who married James Moles. (Mary Jane was born in 1835, Martha was born in 1855.) At any rate, as a small child I loved hearing this story. It was better than the “cowboys and Indians” stories on television because I knew this one was true.
When our ancestors first came to the Coal River area they faced many hardships. One of the most difficult tasks they encountered was just surviving. Virtually every male head of household identified himself as a farmer in the early 1800s. It was absolutely imperative that families raise their own food and preserve enough to sustain their large families throughout the long winter months. This required them to dry food, smoke meats, make butter, etc. Indeed, even the soap was made at home. The summer months were a very busy time for everyone.
My grandmother told me how they also had to concern themselves with making warm clothing. Few people knew the luxury of store-bought clothing in those days. If they owned something that was store-bought, they were very proud of it and took special care to make it last. There was a lady in the White Oak community who owned a store-bought winter coat. It was a beautiful coat; it was warm and colorful. Whenever she wore it, she received many compliments. My grandmother always called her ‘Grandma’ when she told this story, but she was not related our family. She was a neighbor and beloved family friend of our ancestors.
It was the fall of the year; the harvest was over. The nights were starting to get nippy. The men in the community decided it was time to bring home some venison to put in the smokehouse for the winter months. Several families got together and the men eagerly planned their hunting trip. There was an abundance of game in the mountains of West Virginia in those days. It wasn’t difficult to find deer, wild turkeys, and small game for the dinner table. The men were to be away for a couple of days.
One day, while the men were on their hunting trip, was in the late afternoon and well before nightfall the young girls were sent out to the chicken house to gather the eggs. The mother in the family sent the young boys out to bring in wood for the fireplace or stove. She had intended take care of the milking the cow later that evening. As the children were completing their chores, they heard a commotion in the yard and their dogs began barking excitedly. They soon discovered that a stray band of Indians, probably a small hunting party, had entered the yard without invitation. There were probably ten to twelve of them in the group as I recall.
The Indians discovered almost immediately that the women and children were home alone, and they took full advantage of this opportunity to harass the families in the area. They demanded food and began rounding up the livestock. They stole the quilts off from the beds. They took whatever they wanted because there was no one there who could stop them.
When they finished with the first family, they moved downstream and raided the next home. They stole from all the families in the immediate vicinity. One of the items that attracted their attention was the neighbor’s store-bought winter coat. An old Indian in the group decided that he wanted it. You may be assured that ‘Grandma’ did not give up her coat willingly. However, the women were defenseless because the men had taken all the guns on their hunting trip.
Fortunately, the men were having a successful hunt, and they returned home only a few hours after the raid to discover that the Indians had looted their homes and barns. The decision was made to go after what belonged to them. The Indians had a head start, but it was obvious they wouldn’t be able to travel very fast with the livestock and all the things they had stolen.
Now, many of the women in these families were as good a shot with a gun as their husbands. Some of the women had grown up on horseback, and they insisted on going along to “even out” the numbers. There was no time to waste. They set out shortly before dawn the next morning, and immediately picked up the tracks of the Indians. It was not a difficult trail to follow. They were heading up the creek, toward Spruce Mountain. They were following the wagon trail, and making no effort to hide their tracks. Of course, the livestock was leaving droppings along the way.
Long before the settlers could see the Indians, they could smell the smoke from their wood fire. They came into sight of them as they topped the hill at Clear Creek. The Indians had made camp the night before at the exact location where the Clear Creek Presbyterian Church now stands.
As they stood behind trees and watched, they could see that the Indians were breaking camp. They were taking care of their particular chores, oblivious to the movement beyond their camp. Some were busy preparing the animals to move along. A couple of the braves were carrying water to put out the fire.
It had been a dry summer and early fall and the little creek, which runs out of Toney’s Fork, was hardly a trickle that year. A tree had fallen across the little stream, and perched upon that log was an old Indian man wearing ‘Grandma’s’ coat. The old Indian man sitting on the log was “doing his business!”
The area was heavily wooded, and the settlers moved in as close as they could get before they opened fire on the Indians. One of the first to be shot was the old Indian on the log. After the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared away, ‘Grandma’ ran forth to retrieve her winter coat. She rolled the old guy over, jerked her beloved coat off him, shook it, and snuggled into it.
My grandmother never got over the shock of this. “Can you believe that?” she would say each time she told me the story. Somehow I got the idea that her grandmother, too, had an equally difficult time with the idea of someone wearing an article of clothing that a dead Indian had previously been wearing.
There was no great massacre at the mouth of Toney’s Fork that morning. Several of the Indians were shot, and the rest ran off into the woods.
The men (our ancestors) rounded up the livestock while the women retrieved the personal belongings of the families, and they returned to their individual homes. The women were especially happy to get back their blankets and quilts. Of course, ‘Grandma’ was delighted to have back her coat.
So far as it is known, the settlers on Coal River were never troubled with pillaging Indians again.