Near the small town of River, Kentucky is the gravesite of Appalachian folk legend Jenny Wiley. Her captivity at the hands of Native Americans and her eventual escape became a popular story among Appalachian residents and has been passed down for generations. Her grave is located down a small trail to the left of River’s Volunteer Fire Department. The original stone, now deteriorated, has been replaced with a larger monument detailing Jenny’s ordeal.
Jenny Sellards was born
in 1760 in Pennsylvania. Her family later moved to the Walkers Creek area in
Bland County, Virginia. In 1778 she married Irish immigrant Thomas Wiley, with
whom she would have four children over the next eleven years. In October of
1789 Thomas left on a trip to barter for supplies. Jenny, who was pregnant with
her fifth child, was staying in their cabin with her children and fifteen-year
old brother. Around that same time a local family, the Harmons, had gotten into
a skirmish with some Native Americans that left two or three natives dead. A
band of natives soon returned seeking revenge. They ended up attacking Jenny
Wiley’s cabin, mistaking them for the Harmon family. In the ensuing struggle
Jenny’s brother and all of her children except for a one-year old were killed.
The natives fled, taking Jenny and her child with them as captives.
Accounts differ as to
how long Jenny Wiley was in captivity, ranging from a few months to eleven
months. Her captives forced her on a long and grueling journey through Virginia
and towards Kentucky. At some point her toddler died but two different versions
have emerged. One is that the child fell ill and the natives killed it while
Jenny was asleep. Another is that while being pursued by search parties, the
natives feared that the child was slowing them down, so they took it from Jenny
and bashed its head against a tree. Soon afterwards Jenny gave birth to her
fifth child. Her captors decided to test the baby’s strength by placing it on a
raft in the river. If the baby cried it would be killed, but if it remained
silent then it would grow up to be a great warrior. The baby promptly cried
upon being placed in the water and was then killed. The party eventually
stopped at Little Mud Lick Creek in Johnson County, Kentucky, where they stayed
for several months.
While captive in
Johnson County Jenny was forced to perform many tasks such as carrying water
and collecting firewood. She was kept under constant surveillance but eventually
her captors began to loosen their restrictions on her. Seizing the opportunity Jenny
managed to escape one night and make her way to a nearby trading post. From
there she was escorted back to Virginia and reunited with her husband Thomas.
They would go on to have five more children. Around 1800 the family left
Virginia and settled in Johnson County where Jenny had been held captive a
decade prior. She lived many more years and died in 1831. Her story of tragedy
and perseverance would become a popular Appalachian legend. A stream in Johnson
County is named Jenny’s Creek in her honor, as well as the Jenny Wiley State
Resort Park near Prestonsburg and the annual Jenny Wiley Stakes horse race in
Below is a link to a video of Siddie Moore Perry, she is the great great granddaughter of Jenny Wiley. She is recounting the story as told to her by Jenny Wiley's granddaughter Charlotte Williamson Web, Siddie's grandmother. According to the family account in the video the youngest of Jenny's children was killed just outside her house when she was captured. The natives took the baby from her arms and slung it against a beech tree. She also says that there were only 3-4 natives that were involved in the raiding party. One of the reasons that her captors did not kill Jenny on the spot is because the leader of the party thought that she had native blood; as well as she could weave clothing for them. During her escape she came out at a place called Marrowbone, WV where a stranger helped her across the river there. While they were crossing the river the natives saw them crossing and began shouting at them. The stranger then got his musket and fired at them scaring them away. Jenny was later reunited with her husband Tom.