Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Phebe Cunningham: A Courageous Frontier Woman

I am going to take the liberty of wandering off topic today and make an entry unrelated to the Civil War. The story I am going to tell today comes from America’s colonial period, and it is the true story of a brave, courageous young woman, my 5th Great Grandmother, Phebe Tucker Cunningham. Phebe was born in England in 1761 and her family moved into the western counties of Virginia when she was a teenager. In 1780, Phebe, who is described as having been 5 feet 2 inches tall, with long auburn hair, beautiful green eyes, and a lovely fair complexion, met a young man named Thomas Cunningham. Within weeks, she fell in love with the frontier farmer and they were married that spring at Prickett’s Fort, near what is now Fairmont, West Photo-1Virginia. At that time of their wedding, the area was still a rough, untamed land, subject to sudden Indian raids, primarily by the Wyandot and Shawnee, and the stockade was built as a refuge for local homesteaders. William Haymond, leader of the Pricketts Fort Militia, performed the ceremony. Stories passed down form the time say that the wedding was “well attended” and a good time was had by all.

The newlyweds initially settled on Thomas’ farm near Ten Mile Creek, where their first child, Henry, was born in 1781. Soon, however, they moved further southwest to land owned by Thomas’ brother, Edward, near Bingamon Creek, somewhere between the current towns of Peora and Shinnston, West Virginia. There, Thomas and Edward built cabins for their respective families and began to farm the land together. Over the next four years, Thomas and Phebe would have three more children, Lydia, born in 1782; Walter, born in 1784; and Thomas, Jr., born in 1785.

During the summer of 1785, some six months after little Tommy’s birth, Thomas left Phebe, now a young woman of 24, and their four children to travel to Pittsburgh to purchase supplies for the farm. One soft, warm evening, Phebe finished washing a red and white coverlet, placing it on the fence to dry, and made a dinner of bear meat, new potatoes, fresh peas, applesauce, a fresh baked vinegar pie, and sweet milk for her children. Her husband was expected home at any time, so she set his place at the table. Twenty yards away, Phebe’s sister-in-law, Sarah, also cooked dinner for her family and, soon, both families were seated for dinner in their respective cabins, not knowing that danger was hovering nearby.

That danger came from a raiding party of Wyandot Indians, who were at that moment crouched in the woods, watching and waiting for the right moment to move from their hiding place and attack the farm. As the Cunningham families ate dinner, the Indians crept out from the woods and hid behind the coverlet drying on the fence. Then, one of the Wyandot, a tall, heavy man painted for war in red, yellow, and black, crossed the yard and crept toward Phebe’s cabin. As she was eating her dinner, Phebe turned her head and saw the shadow of a tomahawk crossing the threshold of the cabin door. The Wyandot warrior, who was carrying a musket in addition to his tomahawk, quickly entered the room and closed the door behind him. Apparently, he knew Edward was in the other cabin and likely was armed. Knowing that this cabin was occupied by a woman and her young children, it seems he decided to seek a safe place from which to observe and fire upon the other cabin.

Photo-2As Phebe and her children sat frozen in their chairs, the Wyandot helped himself to their food, eating a potato, all the pie, and drinking down much of the milk. He then turned to the small window and firing port in the cabin wall that faced Edward and Sarah’s cabin, and peered across the yard. Edward, who had seen the Indian enter Phebe’s cabin, had quickly grabbed his loaded musket and watched as the warrior came to the window. Seeing that Edward was watching him and was even now taking aim with his rifle, the Wyandot quickly raised his musket and fired at Edward. Phebe’s brother-in-law saw the Indian’s rifle being raised just in time to avoid the shot, as the bark from the log close to his head was knocked off by the ball and flew into his face. He quickly returned fire and the warrior ducked below the window.

As Edward rushed to reload, another of the raiding party jumped from hiding and ran across the yard toward Edward and Sarah’s cabin. Hearing his war cry, Edward turned the now reloaded musket and took aim on his new target. As soon as the warrior saw the weapon pointed in his direction, he turned and tried to get out of range. However, just as he was about to spring over the fence, Edward fired and the Wyandot fell forward. The ball hit him in the leg, fracturing his thigh bone, and he hobble over the fence, taking shelter behind the coverlet before Edward could reload.

Meanwhile, the Wyandot who had fired from Phebe’s cabin saw his comrade’s misfortune and apparently decided to make an escape. He turned from the window and moved to the back wall of the cabin, where he began to cut a hole large enough to crawl through. While he hacked at the wall with his tomahawk, Phebe made no attempt to get out. She feared any escape attempt would be easily seen and draw the warrior’s anger. Plus, even if she managed to escape, she would likely be killed by others from the raiding party before she could make it to Edward and Sarah’s cabin. Worst of all, however, she knew that it was impossible for her to take the children with her, and she could not simply leave them alone with the Wyandot warrior. As she watched him chop a hole in the cabin wall, Phebe held the forlorn hope that he would simply withdraw as soon as he could, without molesting any of them. Tragically, that would not be the case.

Once the hole was complete, the Wyandot grabbed another potato and shoved it in his mouth, then proceeded to set fire to blankets from the nearby beds. Thick smoke began to fill the room and pour out the doors and windows, masking the view from Edward and Sarah’s cabin. Once he was sure he would not be seen escaping, the Wyandot grabbed Phebe’s two-year old son, Walter and smashed his skull with the tomahawk before his mother’s horrified eyes. He jerked Phebe up from her chair, put the infant, Tommy, in her arms and ordered her and the other two children to climb out through the hole in the wall. The Wyandot, who continued to drag Walter’s lifeless body with him, then led her away from the house with the baby in her arms and Henry and Lydia hanging onto her skirts. She and the children were hidden from Edward's view because of all of the smoke as they were taken into the woods where the remainder of the raiding party waited. The warrior promptly took Walter’s scalp, tossed his body aside, and the raiding party watched as the flames from Phebe’s cabin jumped to the roof of her in-law’s home.

Their hope was that the flames would drive the family from the house, but, soon, they could see that Edward and his oldest son had ascended to the loft, threw off the loose boards which covered it, and were attempting to extinguish the fire. The raiding party opened fire on them in an attempt to stop them from putting out the blaze, but this effort failed. The two men soon had the fire out and began to return the warriors’ shots. Seeing this was target was going to be too hard to take, they elected to withdraw, taking their wounded comrade and captives with them. But, before they traveled more than a few yards, the raiding party decided to lighten their load. Whether out of anger for their lack of success or merely because they saw little value in Phebe’s two oldest children, the Wyandot murdered Henry, age four, with a tomahawk blow and then did the same to little Lydia, age three. Phebe watched motionless in horror, and expected to receive the same fate, along with Tommy. But, for some reason, the raiding party decided to spare them for now. We can only guess what their reasons may have been for allowing Phebe to live, but one theory is that they were fascinated by her auburn hair and believed she would make a good trade with another tribe. With their wounded comrade carried on a rough litter, the Wyandots and their two surviving captives crossed the nearby ridge to Bingamon Creek, where they took shelter for the night in a cave. After nightfall, the raiding party returned to the farm, and seeing that the rest of the Cunningham family had fled, they plundered the cabin before setting it ablaze.

Edward Cunningham and his family had actually been hiding in the woods nearby and watched helpless as their home burned to the ground. In the morning, they made their way to the nearest house and gave the alarm. A company of men was soon raised to go in pursuit of the raiding party. When they came to Cunningham's farm, they found both houses now in ashes, and soon discovered the bodies of Phebe’s three children. After a quick burial, they set off in an attempt to find the Wyandot's trail. Unfortunately, the raiders had covered their tracks well and, initially, no traces of them could be discovered.

However, within a few days, evidence of their trail was eventually found. The search party was able to follow their path to within a short distance of the cave in which the Wyandot were hiding, but could track them no further. Inside the cave, a warrior stood over Phebe with an upraised tomahawk to prevent her from crying for help. Phebe held her infant son close to her breast fearing he might cry and the warriors would kill them both. At times, she could hear the search party walking on the rocks over their heads, but there was no way she could call to them. Hearing the whites so come close, the raiding party elected to leave that night. The wounded Wyandot had died during their stay in the cave, and they hid his body in a deep pool of water near the cave.

The Wyandotwarriors traveled west for over 10 days, and, during the long journey on foot, the only food Phebe was given consisted of the head of a wild turkey and three papaws. Oppressed by fatigue and hunger, she walked with the raiding party, carrying her infant in her arms. Little Tommy nursed at her breast for milk in vain for, without nourishment or water, Phebe’s breasts soon could not provide it and only blood came instead. Seeing this, the Wyandots must have decided the infant was no longer worth keeping and, as Phebe held Tommy, they killed him with the tomahawk, ripped him from her arms, and cast his body into the brush.

The group then continued the journey, dragging Phebe with them. The pain, grief, and utter despair she must have felt can only be imagined. In addition, she also suffered physically, as one might guess. Her feet soon became so badly torn that she could barely walk and the Wyandots refused her requests to remove her stockings so she could attend to her wounds. Soon, however, they arrived at a Delaware village, where they permitted her to rest. While she rested, one of the Delaware women took pity on her, applying an herb mixture to her swollen, bleeding feet, which finally relieved the pain.

Photo-3At last, the raiding party arrived at their home village, located in an area that is now Madison County, Ohio, having journeyed over 200 miles on foot. The Wyandot who had captured Phebe turned her over to the family of the warrior who had died. Her clothes were not changed, and she was compelled to wear them, dirty as they were. Phebe feared this was a bad omen but the chief of the village, a kindly man named "Darby,” ordered that she not be molested or treated unkindly in any way. In addition, the women of the village, having heard what the warriors had done to her children, could not help but sympathize with her plight and also became her allies. Phebe would spend the next three years living among the Wyandot, acting as a servant to the dead warrior’s family. She became well acquainted with all the inhabitants of the village during this time, as well as other white captives, some of whom became lifelong friends. But, while she was not mistreated, she longed to go home and to see her husband again.

In January 1786, while Phebe was a captive of the Wyandot, a treaty was concluded at the mouth of the Great Miami River between the United States government and both the Shawnee and Wyandot tribes. Article 1 of that treaty provided that three Indian hostages would be taken by the Americans until “all the prisoners, white and black, taken in the late war from among the citizens of the United States, by the Shawanoe nation, or by any other Indian or Indians residing in their towns, shall be restored.” As a result, a series of conferences began between the Wyandots and American treaty commissioners. One evening in what was probably late 1787 or early 1788, she noticed an uncommon excitement in the village and learned that the notorious American traitor and renegade, Simon Girty, had arrived in the village in preparation for acting as a translator at a conference to be held in a few days at the foot of the Maumee Rapids near Lake Erie.

Photo-4 Girty was born in Pennsylvania, but was captured and adopted by the Senecas as a child. After seven years in captivity, he returned to his family, but soon decided that he preferred the Native American way of life. During the American Revolution, he initially sided with the colonial revolutionaries, but later elected to change sides, serving with the Loyalists and the British army. During the war, he became infamous among Americans for commanding a group of Delawares that ambushed and massacred American forces near Dayton, Kentucky, opposite Cincinnati. Girty was also present during the torture and execution of Continental Army Colonel William Crawford by the Delawares. Two witnesses of this torture and execution survived and were later interviewed regarding these events. While one suggested that Girty was a pitiless instigator and complacent in Crawford;s death, the other claimed that Girty pleaded with the Delawares on Crawford's behalf until threatened with death himself. Of course, the former account was popularized and later served to vilify Girty during and after his lifetime. Further, Girty is also credited with saving the lives of many American prisoners of the Native Americans, often by buying their freedom at his own expense, and Phebe would be one of this fortunate group.

She determined to ask Girty to intercede for her liberation, and, the next day, as he passed nearby on horseback, she ran to him and grabbed his stirrup, begging for his help. For a while he seemed to make light of her request, telling her that she seemed to be well treated, and that, if “he were disposed to do her a kindness he could not as his saddle bags were too small to conceal her.” But soon he was overwhelmed by her pleas and decided to act on her behalf. He paid her ransom to the Wyandot, and had her conveyed to the commissioners for negotiating with the Indians. There, another ransom was paid and she was taken by the commissioners to Kentucky.

Once south of the Ohio River, she met two men named Long and Denton who had been at the treaty conference in an attempt to obtain information about their children taken captive years before. They had been unsuccessful and, as they were about to journey home into the interior of Kentucky, they offered Phebe use of a horse. She soon found a group headed for Virginia and joined them. Within a few weeks, she proceeded by the way of Shenandoah to Harrison County and, finally, to her home. When she arrived, she learned that Thomas, having heard she was free and in Kentucky, had set out to find her. Luckily, while he was enroute, he received word that Phebe was headed home, and he galloped back to Virginia. In May 1788, after over three years of separation, Thomas and Phebe were reunited. During that time, many would tell Thomas that Phebe was likely dead, but he never gave up hope and never stopped searching for her.

Thomas and Phebe Cunningham would have seven more children in the years that followed and, in 1807, they would move to a new homestead in what is today Ritchie County, West Virginia. Thomas would become a Methodist minister and, in 1810, he established one of the first Methodist churches in westerPhoto-5n Virginia. He died in 1826 and Phebe moved to live with her daughter, Rachel (my 3rd Great Grandmother), and her husband, Isaac Collins, in the village of Freed in Calhoun County. There, she would live to the age of 84 and become the respected and beloved family matriarch. After her death, she was buried in the Snider-Gainer cemetery in Freed. Years later, the courage and fortitude of this frontier woman would be formally recognized with a monument erected at her grave by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

20 comments:

  1. Wow. This is an incredibly story, and one that hits so close to the Author's front door. When you say you are writing something a little different, you really mean you are going off topic. Thank you for sharing this with the heartfelt passions that are expressed by your words!

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  2. people like Phebe who have that kind of fortitude are what America was founded on and for

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    1. She is my great grandma. I feel bad for her though. Well at least she is with her kids in heaven now!

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  3. She was my 5th great grandmother also. I've heard most of the story before, but you did a fantastic job pulling the story together. I liked the pictures too.

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  4. How amazing, she is my 5th great grandmother as well. She later had a son, Benjamin, he was my 4th great grandfather. You did the best job of describing her story. She is the ancestor I absolutely admire the most for her courage. I wish more than anything I could find a picture or painting of her, I haven't found one yet. Thank You, SW

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    1. Pheobe was my 5th great grandmother as well, and Benjamin was my 4th great grandfather. This is a wonderful, detailed telling of her story. Thanks to Bob for sharing.

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    2. Another 5th great grand-descendant of Phoebe here! Very proud of her courage and strength!

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  5. I also am a decendant of her my husband and I now take care of the cemetery where she is buried .

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  6. Bill Morgan, Phebe was my 5th great grandmother also.

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  7. Jackie SchreiverJune 17, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    Phoebe was my 5th great grandmother, also. Any thoughts of a Phebe Cunningham ancestral reunion? My mother occasionally goes to the Hardman reuinions in WV

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  8. I just returned from a 'family roots' trip with my daughter to look for Phebe.

    I, too, am a descendent, she's my 4th great grandmother (my family tended to have their kids very late) and I could tell how moved my 15-year old daughter was by Phebe's story.

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  9. wow.... she was my 5th great grandmother... and to think I'd not be here if this had not happened.. Just wow.

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  10. Phoebe Tucker was also my 4th great grandmother. My grandfather was Franklin Hezijiah Richards and he was married to Elizabeth Collins, her parents were Isaac and Rachel Collins. Her parents were Phoebe and Thomas Cunningham. December 27th 2012. I am only 51 years old. My father was Carl Allen Richards ane he was born in 1895. Know lots about the rest of this family line.

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  11. For those interested, I have been commissioned to write a book about Phebe and her experiences. It should be available some time late next summer.

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    1. Is there an update on the book? Is there a title I can look for?

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    2. The book was released last March and is available via both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The title is: "A Woman of Courage on the West Virginia Frontier: Phebe Tucker Cunningham

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  12. Phoebe was my 5th great grandmother also. Bob,is your book still planned to be released late summer 2013? What is the title of your book So that I can find it easily when it becomes available.

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  13. Phoebe was my 4th great-grandmother, through her daughter Sira Leah. It's a fascinating story and I'm very proud to be her descendent!

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  14. This story moved me and I can't imagine her heartaches when her children were killed. She is an amazingly strong woman and I wish I had one-tenth of her courage to endure such hardships. She definitely is worthy of a book.

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  15. I descend from William, first born after Phebe's return from captivity. Has anyone done a DNA test to see if some of us have Native American blood in our veins?

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