Escape and Survival on the Borderland

Jadon Gibson
Jadon Gibson

We are fortunate that individuals from pioneer America had the foresight to keep journals or to look back on their life experiences and write about them. It gives us many interesting stories to look back on and ponder.

John Wetzel and his wife Mary Bonnet were German immigrants who settled in the northern panhandle of presentday West Virginia in 1770. It was a relatively isolated area, away from the Ohio River.

Wetzel taught his sons, Lewis and Jacob, to load and fire a rifle while they were young, knowing it could eventually save their lives and the lives of others. Times were much different then. After the boys became proficient at handling and shooting a gun he had the lads practice loading and firing while running. The elder Wetzel had a friend who was run down and killed by Indians while holding an unloaded rifle in his hands. At that time the guns would fire only once before reloading.

When Lewis and Jacob were 13 and 11 years old respectively, they were working in the field when a shot rang out. The shot struck the older lad. Although it was a glancing blow, it took a small part of Lewis’ breast-bone, therefore it was a serious wound.

Instead of dispatching the two brothers with their tomahawks the Indians decided to take them captive. In that era the Indians often made captives of the children, feeling they somehow took on the spirit of one of their own lost loved ones . That night one of the Indians prepared a poultice and applied it to Lewis’ wound and the following day it was secured to his chest as they traveled.

The Indians didn’t confine the boys. Due to the youthfulness of the lads and Lewis’ injury, the Indians felt they weren’t a threat to escape. On the second night the lads proved them wrong.

“Wake up Jacob, we’ve gotta go,” Lewis whispered to his younger brother after the Indians were asleep.

“Lewis, I’m too tired,” Jacob whispered once he was awake. “I can’t.”

“We need to get away while we have a chance,” Lewis reasoned with him. “If we wait it might be hard for us to find our way back. We’ll be too far away.”

By this time the younger lad was wide awake and was gungho about the escape plan. The boys slipped into the brush to begin their return trek.

“We can’t walk home barefooted,” Lewis told Jacob. “You sit here by this log and I’ll go back and get us some moccasins.”

When Lewis returned with the moccasins he had also retrieved his father’s gun which the boys had with them when they were captured. Then they embarked on their journey with the older brother cautioning Jacob not to speak lest they be heard and captured.

“Whisper if you must speak,” he told him.

Meanwhile one of the Indians awoke and found the boys gone. Soon several of the braves were racing along the trail in order to overtake and recapture them.

“What’s that noise,” Jacob later whispered to his brother. “I’m afraid it’s a bear and it sounds like it’s chasing us.”

“No Jacob, I believe that’s Injuns,” Lewis answered. “Let’s hide in here.”

Lewis and Jacob left the path and stepped amidst some rhododendron bushes and hunkered down. Soon the Indians passed.

After several minutes lapsed the boys proceeded to follow the path the Indians had taken since it was the direction to the settlement. Lewis cautioned his brother to watch and listen for Indians and to be ready to take cover if need be. Less than a hour passed before they heard the Indians returning and they hid within another thicket of rhododendron.

Again they were successful in evading the Indians and were soon back on the trail going home. Lewis became weaker and weaker as his wound again began to bleed but they continued their travels. After awhile they heard what sounded like horses approaching them from the rear.

“We’ve got to hide a’gin, Jacob,” Lewis whispered.

As the boys peered from behind the thick bushes they saw two Indian horsemen ride by. Lewis began to feel faint but he didn’t want to worry Jacob so he simply suggested that they rest. After awhile they were back on the trail heading homeward.

The boys made a crude raft the following day by tying pieces of deadwood with vines before climbing aboard and pushing off in an effort to cross a river. They drifted over a half-mile downstream as they paddled with makeshift oars.

The energy of both of the boys was spent when they reached the opposite shore. They struggled to climb the bank to a place where they thought it would be safe to rest. Lewis’ wound was very painful, sapping his energy.

“You stay here and rest and I’ll get help,” the younger Wetzel said after awhile.

Lewis nixed the idea knowing better than to let the youthful Jacob travel alone. After resuming their travel they were soon found by acquaintances that were out hunting. They were taken back home where their father prayed tearful thanks for their safe return.

Lewis recovered from his wound after two or three weeks and accompanied Thomas Mills to look for his horse that was lost when his party was routed by an unusually large band of Indians.

Everyone expected that the Indians had left the area following the skirmish but as Lewis and Thomas Mills neared a watering hole they came upon several Indians who were still in the area. The Indians spotted them at about the same time.

The initial shots resulted in an Indian being killed and Mills being struck in the foot. The injured Mills was soon overtaken, killed and scalped as Wetzel ran, reloading his rifle as he went. Several Indians took up the chase after Wetzel. After running for a half mile, one of the Indians nearly caught Lewis who turned and fired a shot, dispatching the Indian to the proverbial happy hunting ground.

Lewis continued running and began reloading his rifle again just as he did before. The reloading while running was nearly second nature to him since his father taught him this as a young lad.

He struggled to stay ahead of the Indians who were chasing him. He glanced back periodically to see if the Indians were gaining on him.

The drawing depicts Lewis Wetzel reloading his Pennsylvania Longrifle after shooting an Indian while on the run. The rifle later became better known as the Kentucky Longrifle.‏
The drawing depicts Lewis Wetzel reloading his Pennsylvania Longrifle after shooting an Indian while on the run. The rifle later became better known as the Kentucky Longrifle.‏

Sure enough, one of them was getting close. When Lewis wheeled around to fire his shot, the Indian was so close he grabbed the muzzle of the gun. The rifle was aligned in the proper direction when Lewis discharged the rifle, shooting the red man in the chest and leaving him prostrate on the ground.

Wetzel immediately began running again, reloading his rifle as he ran. He looked back and saw two remaining Indians chasing him.

Lewis started feeling very tired and he hoped the Indians would abort the chase but each time he looked around they were still running after him and gaining ground.

He looked back again and the Indians were about 15 to 20 feet behind him so he turned to shoot. When he did the two Indians scampered and took up hiding behind trees. Lewis took off running again and soon the Indians were hot on his tail again.

A short time later the path went through an open field and chance had it that one of the two Indians was gaining ground on him. He turned to shoot the Indian who looked about for a tree to hide behind. Not finding a tree he took cover behind a sapling. Lewis shot the Indian through the leg, breaking his thigh bone. The wound bled profusely and later proved fatal to the Indian.

Lewis turned on his heels and began running again, reloading his rifle as he ran. He then looked back toward the lone remaining Indian.

“No can catch,” the Indian said to him. “Your gun is always loaded.”

The Indian then disappeared into the woods and Lewis Wetzel, nearly exhausted, was pleased the chase was over.

As a young man, Lewis helped a neighbor chase after a small group of Indians who abducted the man’s wife. Within four days they returned with four scalps and the wife who was unhurt.

Wetzel killed numerous Indians along the frontier settlements of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Famous western novelist Zane Grey wrote about Lewis Wetzel in no less than three of his works. Some mentioned him in the same breath with Daniel Boone yet Lewis credited any and all of his successes and longevity to John Wetzel, his father.

The senior Wetzel had his sons learn special survival skills. He had seen men lose their lives by not being prepared.

It helped Lewis and Jacob escape and survive. copyright 2015 jadon gibson

Editor’s note; Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings, From the Mountains, are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at

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