Adams County History & Genealogy

Adams County, Ohio History

Israel Donalson's Narrative of His Captivity

I am not sure whether it was the last of March or first of April I came to the territory to reside; but on the night of the 21st of April, 1791, Mr Massie and myself were sleeping together on our blankets (for beds we had none), on the loft of our cabin, to get out of the way of the fleas and gnats. Soon after lying down I began dreaming of Indians, and continued to do so through the night.

Some time in the night, however, whether Mr. Massie waked of himself, or whether I wakened him, I cannot now say, but I observed to him I did not know what was to be the consequence, for I had dreamed more about Indians that night than in all the time I had been in the western country before. As is common, he made light of it, and we dropped again to sleep.

He asked me next morning if I would go with him up the river, about four or five mi!es to make a survey, and that William Lytle, who was then at the fort, was going along. We were both young surveyors, and were glad of the opportunity to practice.

Taken Captive

Accordingly we three, and a James Tittle, from Kentucky, who was about buying the land, got on board of a canoe, and were a long time going up, the river being very high at the time. We commenced at the mouth of a creek, which from that day has been called Donalson creek. We meandered up the river; Mr. Massie had the compass, Mr. Lytle and myself carried the chain. We had progressed perhaps one hundred and forty, or one hundred and fifty poles, when our chain broke or parted, but with the aid of the tomahawk we soon repaired it.

We were then close to a large mound, and were standing in a triangle, and Lytle and myself were amusing ourselves pointing out to Tittle the great convenience he would have by building his house on that mound, when the one standing with his face up the river, spoke and said, "Boys, there are Indians. " "No," repiled the other, "they are Frenchmen." By this time I had caught a glimpse of them; I said they were Indians. I begged them to fire. I had no gun, and from the advantage we had, did not think of running until they started.

The Indians were in two small bark canoes, and were close into shore and discovered us just at the instant we saw them; and before I started to run I saw one jump on shore. We took out through the bottom, and before getting to the hill, came to a spring branch. I was in the rear, and as I went to jump, something caught my foot, and I fell on the opposite side. They were then so close, I saw there was no chance of escape, and did not offer to rise. Three warriors first came up, presented their guns all ready to fire, but as I made no resistance they took them down, and one of them gave me his hand to help me up. At this time Mr. Lytle was about a chain's length before me, and threw away his hat; one of the Indians went for ward and picked it up. They then took me back to the bank of the river, and set me down while they put up their stuff, and prepared for a march. While sitting on the bank of the river, I could see the men walking about the block-house on the Kentucky shore, but they heard nothing of it.

They went on rapidly that evening and camped I think on the waters of Eagle creek; started next morning early, it raining hard, and one of them seeing my hat was somewhat convenient to keep off the rain came up and took it off my head and put it on his own. By this time I had discovered some friendship in a very lusty Indian, I think the one that first came up to me; I made signs to him that one had taken my hat; he went and took it off the other Indian's head and placed it again on mine, but had not gone far before they took it again. I complained as before, but my friend shook his head, took down and opened his budget, and took out a sort of blanket cap, and put it on my head.

We went on; it still rained hard and the waters were very much swollen, and when my friend discovered that I was timorous, he would lock his arm in mine and lead me through, and frequently in open woods when I would get tired I would do the same thing with him and walk for miles. They did not make me carry anything until Sunday or Monday. They got into a thicket of game and killed, I think, two bears and some deer; they then halted and jerked their meat, eat a large portion, peeled some bark, made a kind of box, filled it, and put it on me to carry. I soon got tired of it and threw it down: they raised a great laugh, examined my back, applied some bear's oil to it and then put on the box again. I went on some distance and threw it down again; my friend then took it up, threw it over his head and carried it. It weighed, I thought, at least fifty pounds.

While resting one day, one of the Indians broke up little sticks and laid them up in the form of a fence, then took out a grain of corn, as carefully wrapped up as people used to wrap up guineas in olden times; this they planted and called out squaw, signifying to me that that would be my employment with the squaws. But, notwithstanding my situation at the time, I thought they would not eat much corn of my raising. On Tuesday, as we were traveling along, there came to us a white man and an Indian on horseback; they had a long talk, and when they rode off, the Indians I was with seemed considerably alarmed; they immediately formed in Indian file, placed me in the center and shook a war club over my head, and showed me by these gestures that if I attempted to run away they would kill me.

The Shawanee Camp

We soon after arrived at the Shawanee camp, where we continued until late in the afternoon of the next day. During our stay there they trained my hair to their own fashion, put a jewel of tin in my nose, etc., etc. The Indians met with great formality when we came to the camp which was very spacious. Oneside was entirely cleared out for our use, and the party I was with passed the camp to my great mortification, I thinking they were going on; but on getting to the further end they wheeled short round, came into the camp, sat down -- not a whisper. In a few minutes two of the oldest got up, went round, shook hands, came and sat down again; then the Shawanees rising simultaneously came and shook hands with them. A few of the first took me by the hand, but one refused, and I did not offer them my hand again not considering it any great honor.

Soon after a kettle of bears' oil, and some craclins were set before us, and we began eating, they first chewing the meat, then dipping it into the bears' oil, which I tried to be excused from, but they compelled me to it, which tried my stomach, although by this time hunger had compelled me to eat many a dirty morsel. Early in the afternoon an Indian came to the camp and was met by his party just outside, when they formed a circle and he spoke, I thought, near an hour, and so profound was the silence that had they been on a board floor I thought the fall of a pin might have been heard. I rightly judged of the disaster, for the day before I was taken I was at Limestone, and was solicited to join a party that was going down to the mouth of Snag creek where some Indian canoes where discovered hid in the willows. The party went and divided, some came over to the Indian shore and some remained in Kentucky, and they succeeded in killing nearly the whole party.

Two White Men

There was at this camp two white men; one of them could swear in English, but very imperfectly, having I suppose been taken young; the other, who could speak good English, told me he was from South Carolina. He then told me different names which I have forgotten, except that of Ward; asked if I knew the Wards that lived near Washington, Kentucky. I told him I did, and wanted him to leave the Indians and go to his brother's, and take me with him. He told me he preferred staying with the Indians, that he might nab the whites. He and I had a great deal of chat, and disagreed in almost everything. He told me they had taken a prisoner by the name of Towns, that had lived near Washington, Kentucky, and that he had attempted to run away, and they killed him.

But the truth was, they had taken Timothy Downing the day before I was taken, in the neighborhood of Blue Licks, and had got within four or five miles of that camp, and night coming on, and it being very rainy, they concluded to camp, There were but two Indians, an old chief and his son; Downing watched his opportunity, got hold of a squaw-axe and gave the fatal blow. His object was to bring the young Indian in a prisoner; he said he had been so kind to him he could not think of killing him. But the instant he struck his father, the young man sprung up on his back and confined him so that it was with difficulty he extricated himself from his grasp. Downing made then for his horse, and the Indian for the camp. The horse he caught and mounted; but not being a woodsman, struck the Ohio a little below Scioto, just as a boat was passing. They would not land for him until he rode several miles and convinced them that he was no decoy. and so close was the pursuit that the boat had only gained the stream when the enemy appeared on the shore. He had severely wounded the young Indian in the scuffle, but did not know it until I told him.

But to return to my own narrative: two of the party viz., my friend and another Indian, turned back from this camp to do other mischief, and never before had I parted with a friend with the same regret. We left the Shawanee camp about the middle of the afternoon, they under great excitement. What detained them I know not, for they had a number of their horses up and their packs on from early in the morning. I think they had at least one hundred of the best horses that at that time Kentucky could afford. They calculated on being pursued and they were right, for the next day, viz., the 28th of April, Major Kenton with about ninety men was at the camp before the fires were extinguished; and I have always viewed it as a providential circumstance that the enemy had departed, as a defeat on the part of the Kentuckians would have been inevitable.

I never could get the Indians in a position to ascertain their precise number, but concluded there were sixty or upward, as sprightly looking men as I ever saw together, and well equipped as they could wish for. The Major himself agreed with me that it was a happy circumstance that they were gone.


We traveled that evening I thought seven miles and encamped in the edge of a prairie, the water a short distance off. Our supper that night consisted of a raccoon roasted undressed. After this meal, I became thirsty, and an old warrior to whom my friend had given me in charge, directed another to go with me to the water, which made him angry; he struck me, and my nose bled. I had a great mind to return the stroke, but did not. I then determined, be the result what it might, that I would go no farther with them.

They tied me and laid me down as usual, one of them lying on the rope on each side of me; they went to sleep, and I to work gnawing and picking the rope (made of bark) to pieces, but did not get loose until day was breaking. I crawled off on my hands and feet until I got into the edge of the prairie, and sat down on a tussock to put on my moccasins, and had put on one and was preparing to put on the other when they raised the yell and took the back track, and I believe they made as much noise as twenty white men could do.

Had they been still they might have heard me, as I was not more than two chains' length from them at the time. But I started and ran, carrying one moccasin in my hand; and in order to evade them, chose the poorest ridges I could find; and when coming to treelogs lying crossways, would run along one and then along the other. I continued on that way until about ten o'clock, then ascending a very poor ridge, crept in between two logs, and being very weary soon dropped to sleep and did not waken until the sun was almost down; I traveled on a short distance further and took lodging for the night in a hollow tree. I think it was on Saturday that I got to the Miami. I collected some logs, made a raft by peeling bark and tying them together; but I soon found that too tedious and abandoned it. I found a turkey's nest with two eggs in it, each having a double yolk; they made two delicious meals for different days.

Arrives at Fort Washington

I followed down the Miami, until I struck Harmar's trace, made the previous fall, and continued on it until I came to Fort Washington, now Cincinnati. I think it was on the Sabbath, the first day of May; I caught a horse, tied a piece of bark around his underjaw on which there was a large tumor like a wart. The bark rubbed that, and he became restless and threw me, hurting me badly. How long I lay insensible I don't know; but when I revived he was a considerable distance from me. I then traveled on very slow, my feet entirely bare and full of thorns and briers.

On Wednesday, the day that I got in, I was so far gone that I thought it entirely useless to make any further exertion, not knowing what distance I was from the river; and I took my station at the root of a tree, but soon got into a state of sleeping, and either dreamed or thought that I should not be loitering away my time, that I should get in that day; of which, on reflection, I had not the most distant idea. However, the impression was so strong that I got up and walked on some distance. I then took my station again as before, and the same thoughts occupied my mind. I got up and walked on.

I had not traveled far before I thought I could see an opening for the river; and getting a little further on, I heard the sound of a bell. I then started and ran (at a slow speed undoubtedly); a little further on I began to perceive that I was coming to the river hill; and having got about half way down, I heard the sound of an axe, which was the sweetest music I had heard for many a day. It was in the extreme out-lot; when I got to the lot, I crawled over the fence with difficulty, it being very high.

William Woodward

I approached the person very cautiously till within about a chain's length undiscovered; I then stopped and spoke; the person I spoke to was Mr. William Woodward, the founder of the Woodward High School. Mr. Woodward looked up, hastily cast his eyes round, and saw that I had no deadly weapon; he then spoke.

"In the name of God," said he, "who are you?"

I told him I had been a prisoner and had made my escape from the Indians. After a few more questions he told me to come to him. I did so. Seeing my situation, his fears soon subsided; he told me to sit down on a log and he would go and catch a horse he had in the lot and take me in. He caught his horse, set me upon him, but kept the bridle in his own hand. When we got into the road, people began to inquire of Mr. Woodward, "Who is he -- an Indian?" I was not surprised nor offended at the inquiries, for I was still in Indian uniform, bare headed, my hair cut off close, except the scalp and foretop, which they had put up on a piece of tin, with a bunch of turkey feathers, which I could not undo. They had also stripped off the feathers of about two turkeys and hung them to the hair of the scalp; these I had taken off the day I left them.

Mr. Woodward took me to his house, where every kindness was shown me. They soon gave me other clothing; coming from different persons, they did not fit me very neatly; but there could not be a pair of shoes got in the place that I could get on, my feet were so much swollen.

An Encyclopedia of the state: History both general and local, geography with descriptions of its counties, cities and villages, its agricultural, manufacturing, mining and business development, sketches of eminent and interesting characters, etc., with notes of a tour over it in 1886.
The Ohio Centennial Edition
- Henry Howe, LL.D. [© 1888]