An Account of the sufferings of Massy Herbeson1, and her family, who were taken Prisoners by a party of Indians. Given on oath before John Wilkins, Esq., One of the Justices of the Peace for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
On the 4th of November, 1791, a force of Americans under General Arthur St. Clair was attacked, near the present Ohio-Indiana boundary line, by about the same number of Indians led by Blue Jacket, Little Turtle, and the white renegade Simon Girty. Their defeat was the most disastrous that ever has been suffered by our arms when engaged against a savage foe on anything like even terms. Out of 86 officers and about 1400 regular and militia soldiers, St. Clair lost 70 officers killed or wounded, and 845 men killed, wounded, or missing. The survivors fled in panic, throwing away their weapons and accoutrements. Such was “St. Clair’s defeat.”
The utter incompetency of the officers commanding this expedition may be judged from the single fact that a great number of women were allowed to accompany the troops into a wilderness known to be infested with the worst kind of savages. There were about 250 of these women with the “army” on the day of the battle. Of these, 56 were killed on the spot, many being pinned to the earth by stakes driven through their bodies. Few of the others escaped captivity.
After this unprecedented victory, the Indians became more troublesome than ever along the frontier. No settler’s home was safe, and many were destroyed in the year of terror that followed. The awful fate of one of those households is told in the following touching narrative of Mercy Harbison, wife of one of the survivors of St. Clair’s defeat. How two of her little children were slaughtered before her eyes, how she was dragged through the wilderness with a babe at her breast, how cruelly maltreated, and how she finally escaped, barefooted and carrying her infant through days and nights of almost superhuman exertion, she has left record in a deposition before the magistrates at Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh, May 28, 1792,
Massy Herbeson, on her oath, according to law, being taken before John Wilkins, Esq., one of the commonwealth’s justices of the peace in and for the county of Alleghany, deposeth and saith, that on the 22d day of this instant she was taken from her own house, within two hundred yards of Reed’s blockhouse, which is called twenty-five miles from Pittsburgh; her husband, being one of the spies, was from home; two of the scouts had lodged with her that night, but had left her house about sunrise, in order to go to the blockhouse, and had left the door standing wide open. Shortly after the two scouts went away, a number of Indians came into the house and drew her out of bed by the feet; the two eldest children, who also lay in another bed, were drawn out in the same manner; a younger child, about one year old, slept with the deponent.
The Indians then scrambled about the articles in the house; when they were at this work, the deponent went out of the house, and hollowed to the people in the blockhouse; one of the Indians then ran up and stopped her mouth, another ran up with his tomahawk drawn, and a third ran and seized the tomahawk and called her his squaw; this last Indian claimed her as his, and continued by her. About fifteen of the Indians then ran down towards the block-house, and fired their guns at the block and store house, in consequence of which one soldier was killed, and another wounded, one having been at the spring, and the other in coming or looking out of the store-house. This deponent then told the Indians there were about forty men in the blockhouse, and each man had two guns; the Indians then went to them that were firing at the block-house, and brought them back. They then began to drive the deponent and her children away; but a boy about three years old, being unwilling to leave the house; they took by the heels, and dashed it against the house, then stabbed and scalped it. They then took the deponent and the two other children to the top of the hill, where they stopped until they tied up the plunder they had got. While they were busy about this, the deponent counted them, and the number amounted to thirty-two, including two white men that were with them, painted like the Indians.
That several of the Indians could speak English, and that she knew three or four of them very well, having often seen them go up and down the Alleghany river; two of them she knew to be Senecas, and two Munsee, who had got their guns mended by her husband about two years ago. That they sent two Indians with her, and the others took their course towards Puckety. That she, the children, and the two Indians had not gone above two hundred yards, when the Indians caught two of her uncle’s horses, put her and the youngest child on one, and one of the Indians and the other child on the other. That the two Indians then took her and the children to the Alleghany River, and took then over in bark canoes, as they could not get the horses to swim the river. After they had crossed the river, the oldest child, a boy of about five years of age, began, to mourn for his brother; one of the Indians then tomahawked and scalped him. That they travelled all day very hard, and that night arrived at a large camp covered with bark, which, by appearance, might hold fifty men; that the camp appeared to have been occupied some time, it was very much beaten, and large beaten paths went out in different directions from it; that night they took her about three hundred yards from the camp, into a large dark bottom, bound her arms, gave her some bed clothes, and lay down one on each side of her. That the next morning they took her into a thicket on the hillside, and one remained with her till the middle of the day, while the other went to watch the path, lest some white people should follow them. They then exchanged places during the remainder of the day. She got a piece of dry venison, about the bulk of an egg; that day, and a piece about the same size the day they were marching. That evening, (Wednesday, the 23d,) they moved her to a new place, and secured her as the night before. During the day of the 23d, she made several attempts to get the Indian’s gun or tomahawk, that was guarding her, and, could she have got either, she would have put him to death. She was nearly detected in trying to get the tomahawk from his belt.
The next morning (Thursday) one of the Indians went out as on the day before to watch the path. The other lay down and fell asleep. When she found he was sleeping, she stole her short gown, handkerchief and a child’s frock, and then made her escape. The sun was then about half an hour high. That she took her course from the Alleghany, in order to deceive the Indians, as they would naturally pursue her that way; that day she travelled along Conequenessing creek. The next day she altered her course, and, as she believes, fell upon the waters of Pine creek, which empties into the Alleghany. Thinking this not her best course, took over some dividing ridges, fell in on the heads of Squaw run, she lay on a dividing ridge on Friday night, and on Saturday came to Squaw run, continued down the run until an Indian, or some other person, shot at a deer; she saw the person about one hundred and fifty yards from her, the deer running and the dog pursuing it, which, from the appearance, she supposed to be an Indian dog.
She then altered her course, but again came to the same run, and continued down it until she got so tired that she was obliged to lie down, it having rained on her all that day and the night before. She lay there that night; it rained constantly. On Sunday morning she proceeded down the run until she came to the Alleghany River, and continued down the river till she came opposite to Carter’s house, on the inhabited side, where she made a noise, and James Closier brought her over the river to Carter’s house.
This deponent further says that, in conversing with one of the Indians, that could talk English very well, which she suspects to be George Jelloway, he asked her if she knew the prisoner that was taken by Jeffers and his Senecas, and in jail in Pittsburgh. She answered no; he said, you lie. She again said she knew nothing about him; he said she did, that he was a spy, and a great captain; that he took Butler’s scalp, and that they would have him or twenty scalps; he again said that they would exchange for him; that he and two more were sent out to see what the Americans were doing; that they came round from Detroit to Venango. The Indian took paper, and showed her that he, at fort Pitt, could write and draw on it; he also asked her if a campaign was going out against the Indians this summer; she said no. He called her a liar, and said they were going out, and that the Indians would serve them as they did last year; he also said the English had guns, ammunition, &c. to give them to go to war, and that they had given them plenty last year; this deponent also says that she saw one of the Indians have Capt. Crib’s sword, which she well knew. That one of the Indians asked her if she knew Thomas Girty; she said she did; he then said that Girty lived near Fort Pitt; that he was a good man, but not as good as his brother at Detroit; but that his wife was a bad woman; she tells lies on the Indians, and is a friend to America. Sworn before me the day and year first above written.
Massy Herbeson was also known as Mercy Harbison ↩