Pikeville has Hillbilly Days. Paintsville does the Apple Festival. Prestonsburg celebrates the Jenny Wiley Festival.
I’ve been a huge fan of Jenny Wiley since moving to the P’burg 12 years ago. I’ll give you some highlights…
At this very time of the year around 1798, Jenny’s husband, Tom, rode horseback to a trading post 20 miles away, leaving her alone with her children and half-brother. Though Jenny was seven months pregnant, Tom knew she was strong. He would not be back until late that night. With some apprehension, he left, asking a neighbor to check on her and the kids before he returned.
A short time later, with Tom away, a band of Indians raided the Wiley’s cabin by mistake. They had intended to attack the home of Tice Harman, a known enemy of the Cherokee and Shawnee.
Jenny’s children: George-10, Elizabeth-seven, and Hezekiah-five, along with her 15 year-old half-brother-Andrew, were killed and scalped before her very eyes. The Indians took Jenny hostage and burned her cabin. She begged to take her fifteen-month old boy, Adam, with her. Carrying a toddler along mountain paths with a swollen stomach was tough. And it was raining. Soaked to the bone, she and her baby were close to pneumonia. All that was just the first day!!!
From rocky ridges to low-lying creek beds, Jenny packed Adam. When her captors thought she was moving too slowly, they killed her baby boy. Pregnant and heart-broken, each minute, day and week was physically and emotionally exhausting. When she thought her mind would snap and she would surely collapse, she whispered, “Not now! Not now!” …keeping it together for just a little longer.
Tom Wiley returned from the trading post to find the ruins of his home and family. The odds were against Jenny being alive, but he and a small group of neighbors tracked her and the Indians as best as they could, heading out as soon as possible.
While still in captivity, Jenny gave birth in a cave to a baby boy. She longed for the comfort of her cabin and the midwives who had helped her deliver in the past. A Shawnee chief, Black Wolf, had helped her along her nightmarish way. That night, he fed her broth from a deer carcass along with a concoction of roots, herbs and berries. It was good medicine for Jenny.
After regaining her strength, she watched for an opportunity to escape with her young child. In a horrible ritual to see if her three-month old son was worthy to be an Indian warrior, he was nearly drowned and then scalped. Her fifth child had been murdered! After digging a grave with her hands, she buried him. (Even while typing this, I’m horrified. I wonder what she was made of! How did she make it?!)
Once, it was determined that Jenny would be burned at the stake. Young braves dragged her from her shelter and piled a heap of wood at her feet. She faced them without fear, squaring her shoulders and her resolve. Just before the flame hit the timber, the most sinister of her captors came to her rescue. Dull Knife, a Cherokee chief, yelled above all the voices. “This squaw is too brave to die. Too strong.” He told them all that he had watched her for almost a year and she had worked more than any Indian woman he had known. She had given birth to a child and seen all her other children die. Still, she had been calm and steadfast through all of it. That night, Dull Knife, the scariest Indian she had met bought her from Black Wolf. “White squaw die if she run away!” he growled at her.
In the fall of 1799, Jenny did escape! But the Indians tracked her. At one horrific moment, Dull Knife stood inches away as she hid in a hollow tree! Just when she thought she had been found, a ground squirrel skitted from the brush, distracting her hunters and saving her life.
After miles and hours of racing through forests, hills and streams, Jenny stumbled upon a small settlement called Harman’s Station (in Johnson County). After a year of captivity, Jenny’s skin was as brown as her captors. When she yelled across the river to Henry Skaggs, he thought she was an Indian woman-not the Jenny Wiley they had given up hope of ever finding. It was a tense rescue with Indians so close.
All the other men at the settlement were gone in their boats. Henry and Jenny were on their own! He made a makeshift raft and fought the flooded river losing control of it again and again. When Jenny and Henry finally made it to safety, four Indians came rushing out of the trees toward the river. They carried rifles and tomahawks!
A few days later, Jenny was re-united with her beloved Tom. Can you imagine their reunion?! The men at the fort told her he had never given up hope of finding her.
The Saga of Jenny Wiley by Harry M. Caudill tells that Jenny threw her arms around him and whispered, “O Tom, Tom Wiley! I have come back to ye! I have come home again!” (I always cry at that.)
Yes, Pikeville has Hillbilly Days. Paintsville does the Apple Festival. But, Prestonsburg celebrates the Jenny Wiley Festival…and so do I! She’s one of my heroes! She makes me want to be strong!