Lewis Wetzel: Heroic Virginia Frontiersman And Implacable Enemy Of The Redskins

“Boys, watch your mother and grandfather for a few hours, because I am going out fishing. There is no danger of attack from redskins, for none have been seen for six months. If, however, any one comes to our cabin with news of prowling bands, shoot off your rifles three times. This will warn me of any danger to you, and I will hasten home.”

So spoke John Wetzel, whose cabin was upon the far western Virginian frontier, and, turning from his two little boys, he plunged into the wilderness. This was the last that he ever saw of his wife and her aged father. He had not been three days in the forest before his cabin was attacked.

Stealing carefully through the brush, a marauding band of savages suddenly made a sortie upon the isolated house of logs. There was not time to warn the inmates of the stealthy approach before the tomahawk and scalping-knife were at work. In an hour’s time all of the inmates had been dispatched, except Lewis Wetzel and his little brother, Martin, both of whom were carried off into captivity. Lewis was about thirteen years of age and Martin was eleven.

“We will soon escape,” whispered the older youth. “Wait until evening arrives and then I will show you how to creep away from these horrible savages.”

Lewis had been severely wounded by an arrow, but he stoically bore the pain, and trudged behind his captors with no show of ill humor. The Indian prisoner who lagged, or who made a cry of distress, would be speedily dispatched by the savages, and this he knew. The other boy went bravely ahead and said nothing.

Through the wilderness walked the red men, and on the night of the second day they camped twenty miles beyond the Ohio River.

“Ugh!” spoke a brave. “These children cannot escape us now. We will not bind them with thongs this evening, but will allow them to go free.”

The savages had underestimated the daring courage which was in the heart of Lewis Wetzel. No sooner were the red men fast asleep, when, touching his brother with his hand, Lewis warned him to keep absolutely silent and to follow him away into the darkness. They were barefoot.

“It is impossible for us to escape without moccasins,” said Lewis, after they had gone some distance. “This ground is full of stones, and our feet will be ruined. You wait here for me and I will return to the camp and get a pair for each of us, and then we can easily travel through the wilderness.”

The brave boy not only secured the moccasins but also returned with a gun and some ammunition. Then on they plunged through the forest. Just as the first streaks of dawn began to light up the gloomy depths, behind them echoed the shouts of their enemies, the red men.

“Walk backward upon your trail, brother,” said Lewis Wetzel. “Then turn to the right and secrete yourself in the dense undergrowth. These red men will soon catch up to us and we must be thoroughly hidden.”

This advice was followed, and it was well, for the boys had lain in the covert but a few minutes when their captors came bounding past. They were yelling to each other and were furious with anger at having lost their prisoners. The two Wetzels waited until they were out of sight. When the yelping had ceased they crept from their hiding-place and ran away to the right. In a few hours they heard the Indians again returning, and, secreting themselves in some underbrush, saw some savages dash by on ponies. They were not the same red men whom they had first seen, but these, also, could not find them. When the redskins were well beyond hearing, the terrified children ran to the river, fastened two logs together, and succeeded in crossing it. Not long afterwards they reached the house of a frontiersman and knew that they were safe. When they told him their story, he showed great surprise.

“Bully for you, boys!” cried the man of the clearing. “You, Lewis, showed particular courage and daring. You are a credit to your poor father, who is, I hear, terribly overcome by this butchery of the redskins. I trust that you will both live long and useful lives upon the border.”

“Thank you!” cried the boys. “We will do our best, anyway, to avenge the terrible injury which the red men have inflicted upon our family.”

Thus early was implanted in the breasts of the two Wetzels an implacable hatred for the savages.

It is said that Lewis was the strongest and most active of all of the youths upon the western borderland of Virginia, and by long practice had gained the ability to load his rifle while running at full speed. This was an immense advantage to him in his numerous affrays with the red men.

Not long after the terrible defeat of Colonel Crawford, in which John Slover was a participant, a pioneer named Thomas Mills arrived at Wheeling, West Virginia, where Lewis Wetzel was temporarily residing.

“I have left my good horse at Indian Spring, some five miles away,” said he. “The country was so rough that I could not ride him here, for some redskins were upon my trail. Wetzel, I wish that you would accompany me to where he is, for I want to be able to hold my own with the savages, should we meet any of them.”

“Mills, I’m your man,” said Wetzel. So, upon the day following, they were on their way towards the spring.

When they arrived at the place where Mills had left his horse, they found the animal tied to a bush.

“That looks mighty suspicious,” whispered Wetzel to his companion, “because I understand that you left him untied. Do not go near the animal until I circle around him and see if any savages are in our front.”

The pioneer, however, neglected to heed this sage counsel and proceeded to untie the pony. As he reached down towards the bridle-rein, the head of an Indian appeared from behind a rock.

“Mills! Mills! Take to a tree!” yelled the scout. “There’s a redskin drawin’ er bead on yer!”

The warning was unheeded. The frontiersman continued to work on the bridle-reins; then a sharp crack was heard, and the red man fell back, shot through the forehead by Wetzel. At the same moment a series of quick reports came from the brush, and Mills sank to the ground, pierced by a half dozen bullets.

Wetzel started away on the run, for a number of top-knots rose from the bushes. Their owners hastened after him, but were uncautious enough to drop their own guns so that they could run all the faster. Knowing that he had discharged his piece, they expected to soon overtake him, tie his hands behind his back, and remove him to their own camp, to run the gauntlet and be tortured. They had counted without their host.

The lithe and sinewy trapper raced onward, exerting his utmost speed, and, finding that he could not get away from his pursuers, turned about and fired upon the nearest red man. The art of loading upon the run, which he had learned, was of tremendous assistance to him, for he was thus able to place a bullet in his adversary’s chest, which stretched him upon the ground. Again he started forward, loading as he ran, and, turning a second time, was about to fire, when his nearest pursuer seized the muzzle of his rifle.

“Hah! Paleface! I have you!” cried the red man, for he had often been to the settlements and had learned how to speak excellent English.

“Not yet,” answered the trapper, and he grappled with his antagonist. They were very evenly matched. By the greatest exertion, the white man succeeded in wresting the redskin’s hold from his rifle, and in shooting him dead. It was a short struggle, but during it two Indians gained upon the man of the frontier, so that they were very close indeed. He now turned and ran as fast as he was able—loading as he went.

The Indians were whooping wildly, but they had knowledge of his skill in loading on the run. When he turned again in order to fire, they took hasty departure to the shelter of some large trees. He kept on going—the red men still after him. But he was a crafty fellow, as the following will show:

Having reached a clearing in the forest, he purposely stumbled and fell, as if exhausted by his race for life. The redskins thought that they now had him. They bounded forward with exultant shouts, but as they came nearer, the bold trapper rolled upon his side, raised his rifle, and brought one of them to the earth before he could get behind a tree. The second Indian turned and fled as fast as he was able, howling out in loud tones:

“No catch dat feller. No catch him at all. He gun always loaded. He devil with the shooting stick.”

At this the crafty trapper rose to his feet with a loud guffaw.

“These redskins have yet to learn a trick or two,” said he, chuckling. “They should remember that some trappers can load their rifles when on the run. My fine fellows—Au revoir!”

So saying, he started upon his way to the settlements, lighting a corn-cob pipe on the way, and still chuckling softly to himself.

Not long after this affair, the father of the two Wetzel boys was returning from a hunting excursion into the Ohio wilderness. With him were his sons Martin and Lewis. The latter had just shot a brown bear, and carried the skin with him in the bottom of the canoe. As they were gliding down the river, a band of Shawnees suddenly appeared upon the bank.

“Come ashore, palefaces!” said one. “It is not good for you to go down the river!”

“Paddle to the other side of the stream,” whispered the older Wetzel. “Hasten, boys, or their bullets will reach us.”

Quickly they turned towards the opposite bank, but a volley of lead pursued them. They kept on doggedly. A missile struck the old pioneer, inflicting a mortal wound.

“Lie down, Martin!” cried he. “They will get you also, if you do not do so.”

Then the heroic old man paddled forward, his life-blood ebbing at every stroke. Volley after volley zipped around the frail barque. Again and again the frontiersman was struck, so that when well beyond range of the Indian rifles he fell fainting to the bottom of the canoe. That evening he expired.

Standing over the body of their parent, both Wetzels took a solemn oath to avenge his untimely end.

“From now on,” said Lewis,” I will use every endeavor to slaughter the red men. They have killed my dear father. Death shall be upon their own heads. Death and no quarter.”

Not a week had elapsed after the sudden end of this staunch man of the frontier, when news was brought into Wheeling that the Indians were again upon the war-path. A scout came running into the settlement, crying:

“The Shawnees and Wyandots are approaching. They have slaughtered one man, and are burning, killing and scalping. Every able-bodied settler is needed to drive them away.”

Immediately all turned out with rifle and powder-horn in order to repel the invaders. But before they started, a purse of one hundred dollars was made up, to go to the first individual who should take an Indian scalp. The trail of the marauders was soon struck; was followed for several miles; and was found to be very fresh. Then the advance scouts returned with the information that a large body of the enemy was encamped a few miles ahead.

“They are too many to be attacked,” said the soldiers of the advance. “We must go back to Wheeling, or they will surround and annihilate us.”

They set off upon the return, but they noticed, as they did so, that Lewis Wetzel did not move.

“Are you not going to accompany us?” asked some of the trappers.

The frontiersman scowled.

“I set out to hunt Indians and thought that this had also been your purpose,” said he. “My object in hunting Indians is to kill them, and now that we have treed our game I do not intend to run off without a shot. As for you, I consider you to be a band of cowards.”

“It is too bad about you,” said they. “As for ourselves, we intend to return home.”

Wetzel gazed after them with an amused smile, then stooped and examined his arms, for he was a man of caution.

“I will get a scalp of my own,” said he. “Perhaps more. These fellows will see that I mean what I say.”

There were plenty of Indian signs, but he could find no large bands of the red men; instead, he stumbled upon a camp with only two braves in it.

“There must be more in the encampment,” thought he. “I will creep away; will come back this evening; and will then have an opportunity to get what I am after.”

Turning again into the forest, he was soon out of hearing, and, by great good fortune, came across a red deer, which he killed. He had a fine feast. As night fell he hastened towards the Indian camp, crept close to it, and found only one red man, instead of a dozen or more, as he had expected. He waited until the redskin was fast asleep and then made good his boast. As he started upon the back trail for the settlement, a fresh scalp hung at his girdle.

Owing to his great strength and agility, he reached Wheeling just one day behind his companions, instead of three. They were delighted to see him.

“My boy,” cried they, “you have certainly made good and are entitled to the greatest possible credit. Bully for you!”

The trapper in fact was more than a match for many redskins, as the following will show:

Not long after his return to Wheeling he went out into the forest in order to get some venison to dry and salt for winter use. He saw no game, but suddenly stumbled upon a camp of four Shawnees, who were busily engaged in tanning some deer hides. They did not see or hear him, so he determined to return at nightfall and single-handed to attack the party of braves. This he did.

First, resting his rifle against a tree so that it would be close at hand for any emergency, he drew his tomahawk, uttered a wild yell, and dashed in among the savages, cutting down one of them in a moment. Two more fell beneath his unerring weapon. The fourth darted off into the woodland with Wetzel close upon his heels. He was a good runner and got safely away, while the man of the frontier returned for the scalp-locks of the three. He was back at Wheeling before two days were over.

“What luck did you have, Lewis?” asked a companion.

“Not much,” answered the man-of-the-woods. “I treed four of th’ pesky varmints. But one slick-ez-lightnin’ feller got away. He had er close call.”

At Marietta, Ohio, was a frontier fortification where a number of troops were stationed to protect the settlements from Shawnee invasion. Here General Harmer summoned several tribes to meet him in conference, and here Lewis Wetzel and a scout called Dickerson ambushed themselves near the Indian encampment with the intention of killing the first warrior who might pass. Wetzel, you see, was a vindictive fellow and did not even fight in the open.

The two assassins had not long to wait, for a redskin soon came by on the gallop without show or sign of fear, because a flag of truce had been delivered to the whites but a short time before. As he passed, both men fired, and, although the warrior reeled in his saddle, he clung to the mane of his horse with a tenacious grip and rode on into the fort. Here he dropped exhausted to the ground, and, before dying, cried out:

“My white brothers, I demand vengeance upon these hidden men who have driven me to the Great Spirit. You who have true hearts, see that I get what I desire, and my soul will then rest in peace.”

When news of this was brought to General Harmer, he said, with much heat:

“Justice shall be done to this poor redskin. I hear from some of my men that Lewis Wetzel was responsible for this affair. Captain Kingsbury will therefore take his company and scour the woods for the rascal. Let him be brought to me, dead or alive.”

Wetzel, meanwhile, had returned to his home in the Mingo Bottom settlement and was engaged in a shooting match for a turkey. When the soldiers arrived, and the frontiersmen learned what they were after, they gathered around their comrade with the remark that:

“Whoever touches Lewis Wetzel will have tew fight th’ hull gang uv us.”

Captain Kingsbury therefore withdrew, but Lewis Wetzel was not careful to keep beyond the clutch of his arm. Some time afterwards he paddled down the river to an island opposite Harmer’s Fort in order to spend the night with a friend, and news of his presence was brought to the soldiers within the stockade. A company of men was soon headed for the island: the frontiersman was surrounded at midnight; was thrown into the guard-house, heavily ironed, and was not only deprived of open air, but also of exercise. He quickly sickened and grew pale. When told that he would shortly be hung, he sent for General Harmer, and said:

“General, I am not ashamed of my deed, for ever since the day that my people were brutally slain by the children of the forest, I have considered it perfectly justifiable for me to do unto them what they have done unto me. If you will grant me one request, it is that you allow me to go loose among the savages armed only with a tomahawk. Then I will have one chance in a thousand to escape, but I will take that chance.”

The General shook his head.

“The scaffold is the proper death for you,” he replied. “As an officer of the law I must see that you receive the fit punishment for your crimes. But, as I see that you are growing pale under strict confinement, I hereby order that the irons be taken from your legs. Your handcuffs must remain.”

The trapper bowed his head, but as soon as the General had gone and he was allowed to move in the open air, he frisked about like a young colt. A number of soldiers guarded him closely, but as he walked and jumped around in front of them, he continually experimented with his handcuffs, in the endeavor to wrest his arms from their grip. Gradually he edged farther and farther from the guard. Finally he had moved to a position from which he felt that he could safely get away. With one mighty bound he had turned and was off into the forest. Volley after volley came from the soldiers, but he escaped untouched.

Wetzel knew well the woodland in which he found himself, and hastening to a dense thicket pushed through a close tangle of briars to a fallen tree. He wedged himself beneath this, and none too soon, for within a very few moments a number of Indians and soldiers approached. Twice some redskins sat upon the very tree beneath which he was crouching, and he heard one say:

“Ah, but the white dog would make good running through the ranks of our red brothers. We must stick our knives into him when we find him.”

At last darkness came. The trapper heard his pursuers returning, so he crept stealthily from his hiding-place and made for the river. He reached it in an hour, and by the light of the half moon, saw a frontiersman fishing from a canoe. He was afraid to call to him, for the woods were full of Indians, so he attracted his attention by beating upon the water with a stick. The fellow saw him; picked him up, and paddled him to the other shore, where his handcuffs were cut from his wrists. Next day he stood among his own friends.

Not long after this remarkable escape the trapper was at a fort on Wheeling Creek from which a number of pioneers had mysteriously disappeared.

“They have been killed by the redskins,” said one of the backwoodsmen, who resided there. “How, where, and when, no one seems to know; but, my friend, there have been mysterious calls of turkeys in the woods. Turkeys, mark you, my friend,—wild turkeys!”

Wetzel pricked up his ears. He remembered that each of the men who had been killed had heard turkey calls near the fort: had gone out to shoot one for supper: and had never returned. The turkey calls had all come from one direction and here was a high hill covered with boulders. A small cave-like depression could be seen from the camp. Putting two and two together, he decided that Mr. Redskin had produced the call of Mr. Turkey and that it was Mr. Redskin’s unerring aim that had put an end to the lives of so many good frontiersmen. “I shall soon stop the twaddle of the fascinating tongue of Mr. Gobbler,” said the scout to himself.

Setting out one morning, before day had broken, he soon drew near a hill, on the top of which was a small cave. It was an excellent spot in which to hide one’s self, and, placing himself in ambush, he watched it narrowly. At sunrise he saw the tufted head of a Shawnee appear in the narrow opening, and the “gobble, gobble, gobble” of a turkey, sounded from the throat of the savage. The trapper bent low and watched the performance, for it was an exact imitation of the male bird. “Gobble, gobble, gobble,” echoed again from the gloom of the cave, and, “crack” sounded the rifle of the bold pioneer. A wail of anguish arose from the cavern’s mouth. Then all was still. The Shawnee gobbler had gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.

Well pleased with himself, Wetzel started back to the fort with the scalp-lock of the enterprising brave, and, as he neared the stockade, met a soldier hastening towards him.

“Did you hear that turkey call?” said the enthusiastic sportsman. “I’m going out to get him, sure.”

The scout pointed to his girdle.

“There is Mr. Gobbler,” said he. “He was the kind of a bird that shoots a rifle. My boy, you should thank your lucky stars that I saw him first.”

Not long after this event the frontiersman made a journey to the Kanawha River with John Madison, brother of James Madison, at one time President of the United States. They were busy surveying some land, and one day came to a hunter’s cabin, which appeared to be deserted.

“No one is here,” said Madison. “Let us take some of this jerked venison and also a pailful of this coffee. I do not believe that the camp will be again visited, and we may as well have the food, as to let the wood-mice eat it.”

“All right,” answered the trapper, and, without more ado, they appropriated what they wished, and continued upon their journey.

Early the next day, as they were crossing a small valley, many shots rang out, and wild war-whoops sounded from every side. Cries of “You give back our venison!” were heard above the din, and Madison reeled in his saddle, falling head-long to the ground. Wetzel did not wait to see what had happened to him, but, digging his heels into his horse’s flanks, dashed off into the brush.

Now was a furious chase. Although well mounted, the scout soon saw that the red men also had good ponies, and he feared that they would catch him. Over the mountain paths they flew, for hour after hour. At last they neared a broad river, and leaping his horse into it, the scout swam to the other side. The red men had not the courage to follow where he had led, and thus he made good his escape.

The pioneer had a generous heart in spite of his vindictiveness to all savages, and not long afterwards had an opportunity to display his good feeling towards the weak and distressed. Going with a friend one day to pay a visit to a frontier house belonging to the Bryans, they found indications that the Indians had just been there, for the home was burned to the ground. Tracks in the moist earth led into the forest, and besides those of the redskins were the print of a woman’s feet.

“Miss Betsy Bryan has been carried off, I fear,” said Wetzel sorrowfully, pointing to the footprints. “We must rescue her even if it costs us our lives. Comrade, let us hasten to the chase.”

His companion nodded, and, without more ado, the two men of the frontier followed the well-marked trail of the savages. Towards evening they crossed the Ohio River. Not far from the bank was a camp-fire, and, going towards it with great caution, they saw the girl seated near the flames. A white renegade and three Indians were her companions.

“Lie down, comrade,” whispered Wetzel to his friend. “I will tell you when to rouse yourself, for we cannot attack until these redskins are asleep.”

His companion obeyed, and waking him about two o’clock in the early morning, the scout told him to fire at one of the red men and then to rush into the camp in order to protect the captive. “I, myself, will attend to the renegade,” said he.

Both frontiersmen fired at about the same time. The renegade was done for, as was one Indian, also. The two remaining savages took to their heels. Wetzel was after them in a jiffy, but, as they soon hid in the brush, he fired his rifle off, thinking that they might pursue him if they believed that his weapon were empty. He was not mistaken. The savages rushed from their hiding-places, gave close chase, and gained rapidly upon the running plainsman. They began to yelp wildly, as they thought that they had him cornered, but they did not know that this was the famous trapper who could load while on the run.

Turning about, Wetzel now shot the nearest red man, but the other kept on after him like a flash. The scout loaded while darting forward, as usual, then wheeling quickly, he dispatched this second assailant. His wonderful ability to load when at full speed had made it thus possible for him to thoroughly avenge the assault upon the frontier settlement and the capture of the inoffensive girl. Taking the scalp-locks of the two fallen braves and tying them to his girdle, he was soon back at the camp, where he was tearfully greeted by the rescued maiden. In a short time they were at home in the settlement.

Wetzel continued his life of hardship and adventure after this; made a journey south, where he was imprisoned at New Orleans, and, in 1803, joined Lewis and Clark in their expedition up the Missouri River. He left them after two months, and spent about two years near the headwaters of the Yellowstone, engaged in trapping and in hunting. From now on, until his death in 1818, he was a trapper and fur trader; his hatred for the redskins remaining unabated until his demise. He was camping near Natchez, Mississippi, when this occurred.

A braver man never lived than this famous scout, who could load while on the run, and who had probably experienced more hairbreadth escapes than most of the pioneers. His one great failing was his dislike for the red men and desire to put them out of the way, but, after one considers the distressing circumstances attending the death of the members of his family, when he was a mere youth, one can pardon this bloodthirstiness. There was much good in Lewis Wetzel; the valorous frontiersman of the early days of the settlement of the United States.


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