A Woman of Courage on the West Virginia Frontier

BOOK: A Woman of Courage on the West Virginia Frontier
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Published by The History Press

Charleston, SC 29403


Copyright © 2013 by Robert Thompson

All rights reserved

Front cover:
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

First published 2013

e-book edition 2013

Manufactured in the United States

ISBN 978.1.62584.011.0

Library of Congress CIP data applied for.

print edition ISBN 978.1.60949.922.8

: The information in this book is true and complete to the best of our knowledge. It is offered without guarantee on the part of the author or The History Press. The author and The History Press disclaim all liability in connection with the use of this book.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form whatsoever without prior written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

For my mother and father, who always believed in me



Introduction. A Frontier Wedding

1. Settlers on the Allegheny Plateau

The Wilderness

The Politics of Empire

The Early Settlers of Northwest Virginia

Life on the Allegheny Frontier

2. The Native Americans

A Clash of Cultures

Warriors, Tactics and Morality

Anglo-American-Indian Relations and the Allegheny Plateau: Germs, Treaties and Lies

3. The Raid


Forting Up

Terror and Tragedy

The Wyandot Come to Cunningham’s Run

4. A New World

The Journey

The Wyandot

Village Life

5. Two Traitors: Simon Girty and Alexander McKee

Excitement in the Village: Simon Girty Arrives

Girty and McKee

6. Homeward Bound

A Plea and a Ransom

Kentucky, the Wilderness Road and Home




About the Author


Phebe Tucker Cunningham is my fraternal fifth great-grandmother, and I first learned of her story in the early 1980s when reading a series of genealogical monograms written in 1979 by my great-uncle Colvin Snider. I found the story fascinating and one that only grew more so with the passage of time. Then, in May 2012, I had a chance to visit Prickett’s Fort, near Fairmont, West Virginia, the site of Phebe’s marriage to Thomas Cunningham. It was a beautiful, warm spring day, and my visit coincided with a workshop for musicians who played early American instruments sponsored by the Prickett’s Fort Memorial Foundation. As I wandered about the fort’s grounds and listened to the wonderful music being played by those attending the workshop, I found myself imagining what Phebe and Thomas’s wedding must have been like, thinking that it was almost certainly a joyous day. In turn, I also pondered the unforeseen tragedy and challenges that lay ahead for both of them. At that moment, Phebe started to become someone other than just a name on the family tree, and the idea for this book had its genesis.

Later, as the book was underway, I decided to seek out the location of Phebe and her husband’s frontier Virginia homestead. However, all I had that provided a clue as to its location was a bad Xerox copy of a photo my great-uncle had taken in the 1970s of a monument that marked the farm’s site and a rough description made by another ancestor in a book written in the late nineteenth century. Using those two small pieces of evidence, I turned to a tool of the twenty-first century: satellite imagery. Using a commercial image, I scanned down the road discussed in the book, looking for some sign of the stone marker. As I peered closely at the image, I finally found a small object indicated by its shadow at a curve in the road located about where my ancestor had described. Armed with that evidence and some hope, I set out for West Virginia, where I found the monument exactly where I thought it might be.

As I stood there, I was overcome by emotion, especially when I touched the sandstone rock on which the memorial plaque rests. The stone came from a cave where Wyandot warriors hid Phebe and her infant son, as friends and neighbors searched in vain for them. I closed my eyes, and I could imagine her kneeling on the cave floor, holding her baby close to her breast as a warrior stood over her, ominously holding a tomahawk at the ready. I also could imagine what she must have been feeling: hope that her people would rescue her mixed with intense fear that her captors might kill her and her little boy before that rescue would come. At that moment, Phebe became a very real person to me and one whose story I was committed to telling.

I had always found Phebe’s story to be tragic, inspiring and utterly compelling. She was clearly a woman of remarkable courage and determination, and I wanted to share what I could learn about her experience as well as the world that shaped not only her life and but also the lives of everyone who lived on the colonial frontier. Therefore, my approach to this book involved telling Phebe’s story by also painting a broader picture of the people, politics, wars and events that led to the raid on the Cunningham farm and her three years as a member of the Wyandot tribe in central Ohio.

To make this story complete, however, I also knew that I needed to describe the culture and society of the Native Americans who lived on the Allegheny Plateau and in the great Ohio Country beyond its borders. As I researched and studied these peoples, often referred to as the woodland Indians, I realized what a key element they were in Phebe’s story. While I had some knowledge of the western plains nations, particularly the Comanche, I found these peoples to be very different and the Wyandot, with whom Phebe lived, to be especially remarkable. Of course, most early works on these Native American peoples, including those written as recently as the 1950s, are filled with Euro-centric depictions of their cultures that are, frankly, very racist and highly inaccurate. Luckily, however, there are numerous more recent works by historians, ethnologists and anthropologists that cast a brighter light on these peoples and their lives, providing a far clearer and unbiased view of them and the societies in which they lived.

As I researched and wrote, I also discovered that finding original primary source material from the eighteenth century is a somewhat daunting task when compared to later periods in American history. However, I found that, while it required more effort than researching events of more recent eras, the results could be very rewarding. Still, once this material was located, I often encountered great disparities between accounts of the same events, and even accurately determining dates was sometimes difficult. In those cases, my approach was, first, to grant extra weight to information agreed on by a majority of sources. Next, I tried to lean toward data provided by a primary source, and then, when all else failed, I attempted to apply large quantities of common sense. I hope the results satisfy you, the reader.

One important lesson I learned during this process is that no author develops a good product in a vacuum, and I want to acknowledge some people and organizations that were a key part of my work. First, I must thank my commissioning editor at The History Press, J. Banks Smither, who successfully ran my proposal for this book through the publishing gauntlet and then provided invaluable advice and insight as it worked its way toward reality. Further, I want to thank the Prickett’s Fort Memorial Foundation, not only for its tireless efforts in preserving a wonderful re-creation of the fort, but also for its continuing good works in educating the public about the people who lived their lives along colonial Virginia’s frontier. I also wish to acknowledge the excellent work underway to provide online source material and images at the Ohio Historical Society, Virginia Historical Society, Pennsylvania Historical Society, New York Public Library, Library and Archives Canada and the Library of Congress. Without them, this book would not have some of the excellent artwork it now contains.

In conclusion, I must acknowledge Phebe Tucker Cunningham, who has long been a symbol of courage, determination and love for generations of her descendants and now, through this book, might become an example for thousands more outside our family. My dearest hope is that I have done her justice and honored her memory, as she so richly deserves.


A Frontier Wedding

Spring had arrived in all its glory along the banks of the Monongahela River. Filled with the remains of rapidly melting mountain winter snows, the river flowed gently northward through the Allegheny Plateau as wildflowers bloomed, birds sang out announcing their return and the trees of the dense forest surrounding Prickett’s Fort exploded in new, green life.

It was April 1780. The American Revolution was going into its fifth year, and as yet, the end could not be seen. Many of the local men had served in Monongalia County’s various militia companies, most spending their enlistments patrolling the woods for signs of Indian activity, while a few went east of the Allegheny Mountains to fight the British as members of the Continental army.

For most residents, the return of spring meant that it was time to begin planting the small fields they had worked to carve out of the forest and start another year of farming in the hopes of harvesting enough for their own subsistence with perhaps a little left over to sell across the mountains in the Shenandoah Valley. However, spring also meant the return of another more deadly kind of activity: Indian raids.

Attacks on farms and settlements were an unpleasant fact of life on the Virginia frontier, and that was why Prickett’s Fort had been built. Erected in the summer of 1774, the fort was one of many such structures built for the protection of local settlers. Named for the family on whose land it stood, the fort was located on a small hill above the confluence of Prickett’s Creek with the Monongahela. Typically, when militia scouts sighted signs of an Indian raiding party in the vicinity or when raids became either numerous or persistent in nature, settlers would arrive to “fort up” until the danger subsided. However, on this particular April day, while the network of trails leading to the fort saw many local families heading toward it, they were not seeking shelter from Indian attacks. Rather, they were making the trek via horse, mule or on foot for a much more pleasant reason. There was to be a wedding at the fort, providing a much-needed cause for celebration and merrymaking after a long, hard winter.

Modern re-creation of the site where Phebe and Thomas Cunningham were married in 1780: Prickett’s Fort at Prickett’s Fort State Park, West Virginia.
Photo by the author

The couple being married was twenty-four-year-old Thomas Cunningham and his bride, nineteen-year-old Phebe Tucker.
Phebe was born in England in 1761 to John Tucker and his wife, Jane Allen Tucker. Her parents were Scots, and her father was born about 1735, while her mother was born around 1740. Beyond that, little is known about her family history. The Tuckers left England for the colonies in 1774, just before the onset of the war for American independence, and family history documents indicate they traveled directly to the frontier of the upper Monongahela Valley. Phebe, who was later remembered by her granddaughter Leah as being “a tiny women and always very charming,” is described as having been a truly lovely young woman with dark red hair, blue-green eyes and a flawless, pale complexion.

BOOK: A Woman of Courage on the West Virginia Frontier
11.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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