Saturday, August 8, 2015

Astonishing, True but Legendary Pioneer Adventure of the New River Region: "Follow the River" by James Alexander Thom

I found the book at the ranger station at the restored depot at Thurmond, WV. It re-tells in detail the amazing situation a young pioneer lady found herself in when she and a party of fellow settlers (including her two young sons) were captured from their remote western Virginia farm by a Shawnee war party in 1755. They were force-marched along the New River to the Ohio River and finally by canoe to a Shawnee town in Ohio. On the way, our heroine, Mary Drapper Ingles, gives birth to a baby girl and carefully watches the route taken along the rivers. (It is not certain whether the historic Mary had that baby.) In the village of the Shawnee, she witnesses other prisoners' torture; a Shawnee leader is smitten with fictional Mary, and shelters the new mother from these ordeals. Mary does not succumb to his advances, so he takes her sons from her and gives her and the baby to  French traders as slaves: Mary spends a few months creating European style shirts of French fabric for her master to sell to the Shawnee.

The real adventure begins when the French trader takes several white captives and a few Shawnee guards back across the Ohio to a make salt at Big Bone Lick in Northern Kentucky. The white captives, mostly women, are forced to do the hard labor of boiling salty water to produce the salt. No one has ever escaped from the salt lick, so the Shawnee are loose with security; Mary and another woman captive are able to walk away at the end of a hard day making salt in October.
(In order to make her escape, she is forced to abandon her new baby to the care of a young squaw, mistress of one of the French traders.)

The author says he researched his book by retracing on foot the route taken by the two women. He had tents and proper equipment for the ~1,000 mile hike, but the pioneer ladies did not. Neither did they have a good supply of food or weapons. In aching detail, day by day, he tells of their likely experiences, severe ordeals with cold, hunger and terror. Historically, we know they made it back alive; the fictional re-imagining is a page-turner. I loved this book.

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