- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2008

Most people today would be horrified reading about the bloody exploits of frontier scout and Indian hunter Lewis Wetzel, but in the late 1700s, settlers living along the Ohio River considered him a great hero. In fact, in 1846, Virginians still held his memory in such high regard that they named a county after him.

Wetzel was born In 1763 in Lancaster County, Pa., to John and Mary Wetzel. Not long afterward, the Wetzels began moving their large family west, finally situating themselves in 1770 on a homestead beside Wheeling Creek, just 14 miles from its confluence with the Ohio.

John taught Lewis and his four brothers frontier survival skills and, above all, self-reliance. As they grew into men, each became an expert fighter, hunter and tracker.

On the warpath

On Oct. 9, 1774, Virginia militia defeated a confederation of Ohio Valley Indian warriors at the battle of Point Pleasant, Va. In the subsequent 1775 Treaty of Pittsburgh, those same Indians promised to remain neutral in the hostilities then brewing between the Colonists and the Crown. However, two years later, British promises of presents in return for captives and scalps sent the Indians back on the warpath.

In late July 1777, with Indian raiders prowling about in the vicinity, John took his family to Fort Henry - modern Wheeling, W.Va. Approximately a week later, though, he returned home with three of his sons to work the fields.

On Aug. 7, the quartet were hoeing weeds when John told Lewis and Jacob to go back to the cabin and check on some venison strips that were curing over a slow fire. While they were there, seven Wyandots surprised and captured the boys, but not before shooting Lewis in the chest.

The Indians quickly moved off, taking the boys, three horses and two rifles with them. Not long afterward, they were across the Ohio. Painfully but not seriously wounded, Lewis knew that failure to keep pace would mean a swift, deadly blow from a tomahawk.

In the meantime, John and son George ran to Fort Henry for help. When they arrived, however, Capt. Sam Meason refused to weaken the fort´s garrison to go after the boys. There would be no rescue attempt.

Two nights later, when the Wyandots were sleeping, the boys escaped, even taking their father´s rifles with them. Although hotly pursued by their captors, they reached Wheeling Island and safety about a day later. From that time on, Lewis was determined to kill Indian warriors, no matter friendly or hostile, whenever he got the chance.

A rescue

Over the next year, the teenager practiced constantly with his long rifle and, as a result, became a crack shot. More important, he became adept at shooting and loading his weapon on a dead run. Soon, his training paid off.

One morning in early May 1778, Wetzel met Frazier Forrest along a woods trail. Forrest, just back from a successful turkey hunt, invited Wetzel to come to his cabin and meet Rose, his lovely new wife.

Probably relishing a good meal, the boy agreed. By the time they reached the cabin, though, the building was in flames, and Rose was missing. Reading the signs, Wetzel quickly determined that four Indians had taken the woman.

With Wetzel in the lead, the duo promptly followed the warriors’ tracks to the Ohio, crossed it, and struck their trail again. Later that night, they silently crept up on the raiders’ camp.

The next morning, as the Indians began to stir, Wetzel and Forrest shot one Wyandot each. While Forrest ran to untie his wife, Wetzel chased the others.

Not far down the path, his prey, tomahawks in hand, turned to face him. Immediately the boy shot one and sped away promptly, reloading his rifle as he ran. As his pursuer closed in, Wetzel turned and calmly blasted him into eternity.

Frontier skills

When he returned home with three scalps, Wetzel’s reputation among the border dwellers began to grow. Over the next two years, he added to it, killing six Indians in two incidents - three near the family farm and three across the Ohio. In both skirmishes, he used surprise and his reloading trick to vanquish the enemy.

On many occasions, Wetzel showed off his frontier skills, such as shooting, running or throwing tomahawks, to the spectators at Sunday matches. Standing 5 feet 10 inches, swift afoot and very powerfully built, he usually emerged victorious from these highly competitive contests.

Unlike other young men, Wetzel never took up farming or married. He preferred slipping across the Ohio alone and hunting Indians. Over the years, he tallied up quite a score, killing some in combat but murdering others as they slept.

Wetzel´s first brush with authorities came in the spring of 1781. On April 26, after returning to Fort Henry from a successful expedition into Indian Territory with Col. Daniel Brodhead and the local militia, Lewis murdered a friendly Delaware chief named Killbuck.

The scout thought he recognized Killbuck as one of the Indians who had captured him and Jacob four years earlier. Although Jacob did not agree, that same night, Lewis and a friend entered the chief´s cabin and buried his tomahawk in Killbuck´s skull.

Many suspected Lewis Wetzel of the deed, and before long, some soldiers collared him and brought the teenager to Brodhead. The colonel eventually freed Wetzel, however, after the boy continued to declare his innocence despite being cruelly tortured with a thumbscrew.

Corpse in the mud

For the next year, vicious fighting continued unabated along the border as bands of British rangers, Canadian and Tory militia and their Indian allies continued attacking isolated homesteads and outposts.

To his dismay, Wetzel missed the Second Siege of Fort Henry, the last frontier battle of the Revolutionary War. However, on Sept 16, 1782, two days after the fight ended, he showed up at the fort and solved a serious problem for the settlers.

Told by Col. Ebenezer Zane that one Indian remained lurking about and already had wounded three hunters, Wetzel immediately slipped out into the forest to bag him. The next morning, he showed up ready for breakfast and carrying one scalp.

The end of the war brought some peace to the frontier for a time. With their British sponsors at Fort Detroit unable to pay for pioneer scalps or prisoners, the Indians lost a ready supply of war materials. Nevertheless, over the next few years, as thousands of settlers poured across the Allegheny Mountains searching for their own land, more fighting became inevitable.

In the late summer of 1785, Indians hiding along the Ohio shot Wetzel’s father, John, as he and William Miller paddled along close to shore. Hit in the side, John fell into the water, jumped up and tried to run to safety. Unfortunately, he became mired in deep mud, and an Indian killed him. The incident was reminiscent of the death of John’s son George in May 1782.

The next day, Lewis Wetzel, aided by directions from Miller (who had barely escaped) found his father’s scalpless corpse still standing erect in the river a few yards from the bank. He set off to even the score. Not long afterward, he came upon the camp of three Wyandots, and while they were sleeping, dispatched them with his knife and tomahawk.

Infamous act

For a man who always came out best in a fight, it seems odd that Indians almost killed him by accident. In the fall of 1785, land speculator John Madison, brother of future President James Madison, employed a reluctant Lewis Wetzel to guide him to dangerous areas up the Big Sandy River along the southwestern border of present-day West Virginia.

The scout worked for Madison the next seven months. One morning in mid-May 1786, however, some Shawnee Indians ambushed the pair as they were on their way to check beaver traps. Madison fell mortally wounded as Wetzel shot one Indian and sprinted for the river. Stopping to gun down two more along the way, he jumped in a canoe and narrowly escaped.

This episode and the brutal death of his father may have been the incidents that pushed Wetzel over the edge. Many friends began questioning the 23-year-old’s sanity.

By then, the hunter looked just like the men he hunted. Usually dressed in a long hunting shirt, breechcloth and leggings, with a rough, tanned face, long black hair tied into a ponytail, and sporting tassels hanging from his pierced earlobes, he easily could have been mistaken for an Indian.

In the fall of 1788, while employed as a hunter for the community of Marietta, Northwest Territory, Wetzel committed his most infamous act: the murder of a Seneca chief named Tegunteh. That November, many tribes sent representatives to attend a peace conference at nearby Fort Harmar - named after its commander, Gen Josiah Harmar.

On Nov.6, Wetzel surprised Tegunteh - also called George Washington - on a secluded path, shot and scalped him and ran away. Before he died, however, the Indian minutely described his smiling assassin, even mentioning his tricolor hat.

Soon arrested and hauled before Harmar, Wetzel readily admitted the killing, supposedly saying, “I´ll shoot ‘em down like the worthless dogs they are long as I live.” He later looked on incredulously when the general vehemently pronounced he would hang for the deed.

The scout cheated the hangman, however. A few days later, while exercising in front of some soldiers, he sprinted away. This startling escape started an improbable series of adventures in which Wetzel only added to his fame.

Saved by friends

Helped out by sympathetic locals who were able to clothe, feed and rearm him, he stayed on the run less than two weeks before being recaptured and returned to the fort. Back in the guardhouse, Wetzel, incredibly, escaped that same night after clubbing a guard with his chains.

Now, being pursued not only by soldiers, but Indians as well, Wetzel shot two braves from a canoe in the Muskingum River. Finally, on Dec. 13, a patrol arrived at a shooting match in Mingo Bottoms to arrest the murderer. His numerous friends, however, threatened the soldiers and forced them to leave.

Not long afterward, at Maysville, the Army once again arrested Wetzel and marched him off to nearby Fort Washington. Soon, 200 well-armed, enraged frontiersmen showed up and demanded Wetzel’s freedom. Confronted by overwhelming numbers, a crestfallen Harmar grudgingly issued his backwoods nemesis a pardon.

Although Wetzel fought the Indians a few more times, he eventually headed down the Ohio and ended up in New Orleans. Arrested and found guilty of counterfeiting, he was imprisoned by Spanish authorities in 1791. Although sentenced to life, Wetzel, with the financial help of some friends, gained his release five years later.

The official version of Wetzel´s death is that he died in 1808 from fever while living at a relative’s home near Natchez, Miss. In fact, in 1942, Dr. Albert Bowser, a Wetzel researcher, exhumed a skeleton purported to be that of the Indian fighter from a grave on the property. Today, these remains rest in a cemetery in Moundsville, W.Va.

Nevertheless, author Allen Eckert, who studied the life of Wetzel while writing the book “That Dark and Bloody River,” claims Wetzel moved west, eventually settling along the Brazos River in Texas. According to Eckert, he died in 1839.

• Steve French is the author of “Imboden’s Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign.” He can be contacted at [email protected].

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