With the festival carrying her namesake right around the corner on October 7-10th in downtown Prestonsburg, we take a look back at who exactly the pioneer woman was and the trail she blazed. For more information on the 2020 Jenny Wiley Festival, visit jwfestival.com.
Jenny Wiley’s capture by and ultimate escape from a band of Native Americans seems near impossible to believe. Though in the early days of young America, it was not all that unusual due to constant feuding between the new settlement communities and the Native Americans defending their territories and resources. It was “an eye for an eye” kind of system with the local natives.
On a rainy day in October, Jenny Wiley sat in her cabin weaving cloth while her four children played on the dirt floor nearby. Her husband, Tom, left hours ago, weighed down with ginseng to sell at the trading post and wouldn’t be back until after dark. Her teenage brother was staying with the family, so Tom felt better about leaving his family alone. At one point, Jenny’s brother-in-law was working in the field nearby and heard a series of hoots in the surrounding woods. He thought it odd to hear hoot owls during the day and knew immediately what it meant. He ran as fast as he could to warn Jenny, pregnant with her fifth child, that Indians were lurking in the nearby woods. Instead of immediately getting her family to safety, Jenny took a gamble. She thought surely they wouldn’t attack until it got dark outside, so she stayed at the cabin a little longer, hurriedly finishing her chores.
Unfortunately, the band of 11 (two Cherokee, three Shawnee, three Wyandots, and three Delaware) didn’t waste any time and were on her doorstep in broad daylight. Bursting through the door, the Indians scalped and killed Jenny’s brother and three children right before her eyes. In the midst of the chaos, she clutched the 1 year-old in her arms and luckily heard the attackers say someone’s name: “Harmon.”
The band of Indians had mistakenly attacked the Wileys’ cabin, looking for revenge directed at another settler named Tice Harmon, who had killed two Cherokee.
She tried to get them to understand: TOM WILEY’S CABIN! TOM WILEY! The Indians realized their mistake and considered their options. They decided to take Jenny and her young child with them for now because the older Shawnee in the band wanted Jenny to replace a daughter he recently lost.
They then burned her cabin to the ground and took pregnant Jenny and her remaining child into the wilderness. Over the next few weeks, they mercilessly trudged through the dense forests of Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio and back again. Jenny was mentally and physically exhausted and had trouble keeping up. She and her child continually slowed the group, which was trying to stay one step ahead of the settler’s search party. They eventually killed her young child because of it. Later, Jenny prematurely delivered her fifth child in captivity, and obviously exhausted, struggled to keep the frenetic pace. She, again, had to watch in horror as her last child was brutally murdered.
During her captivity, Jenny learned some of their language and was valued for her weaving skills. Life wasn’t easy as her captors treated her as a slave, but she did teach a few of their squaws how to weave cloth. Exactly how long she was kept prisoner is up for debate, but by most accounts she escaped her captors and was found in the spring of 1790, at Harmon’s Station, near Louisa. After months of captivity, she was reunited with her husband, and they went on to have five more children together. Surprisingly, Tom and Jenny eventually came back to Kentucky to make their home in Johnson County, right outside of Pikeville. There she lived out the rest of her days. A marker stands near her grave and pays tribute to Jenny’s incredible frontier life.
Her resilience in the face of her unsympathetic captors, as well as her courageousness in the face of her grief and terror, is astonishing. The people that settled this land had to be strong, mustering a force as mighty as the rocks jutting out of the ground. Jenny Wiley embodies the spirit of our landscape and the strength of heart it took to survive here.
Dewey Lake State Park opened its gates in 1954, eight years after construction on the Dewey Reservoir began. Just a few years later, there was a name change to highlight the area’s famous captive: Jenny Wiley State Resort Park. More than 9,000 acres of wilderness lure visitors and locals alike, to search for the most spectacular views in eastern Kentucky. Visit this outstanding park and take in a performance at the Jenny Wiley Amphitheatre as you explore history in the Star City.