Lewis Wetzel, Dark Hero of the Ohio

by James P. Pierce

A boy learns to hate when his society encourages it. When his friends and family applauds and encourage him for acting on that hate, the effect can govern the boy's whole life. That is what happened with Lewis Wetzel.

He was the fourth of seven children born to Mary Bonnet and John Wetzel. John Wetzel was a German Palatinate emigrant who had survived indentured servitude and had become successful enough to win the hand of Captain Bonnet's daughter in marriage. Lewis' mother was of the Bonnet family, Flemish Huguenots already several generations in American and very respected in Herford Township, Pennsylvania.

After marrying in 1756, his parents moved from Pennsylvania to Rockingham County, Virginia, where they stayed for several years. From there they moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Lewis was born in 1763. In 1764, the growing Wetzel family, along with some of the Bonnets, the Zanes, the Eberlys and the Rosencranzes, moved across the Alleghenies to occupy some of the "free land" that had become available in 1768 after the first Treaty of Fort Stanwix.

Lewis Wetzel

"Lewis Wetzel" Copyright 1991-97 Timothy Truman

Ultimately, the little group of families settled near present day Wheeling, West Virginia. The Wetzels carved a farmstead out of the forest along Big Wheeling Creek, about fourteen miles from the Ohio River, converging from the Southeast.

The Wheeling Creek settlement was right on the edge of King George's Proclamation Line of 1763, as it had been redrawn at the conference held at Fort Stanwix in 1768. That was where the arrogant and self-serving Iroquois got back at their old enemies to the west by granting to the British all Shawnee, Miami and Delaware lands east and south of the Ohio as far downstream as the mouth of the Kanawha. The Ohio Indians had neither participated in nor agreed to this disposition of their land and, as a result, the Wheeling Creek settlers were frequent targets of Ohio country Indian attacks from about 1770 until 1795, when the Treaty of Greenville moved the Indian-White boundary far to the north.

Indians captured Lewis from his home on Wheeling Creek when he was thirteen. It was 1777, the second year of the Revolutionary War. The Wetzels, along with most of their neighbors, were holed up at nearby Fort Henry waiting out that season's spate of Indian raids.

Wyandot raiders captured Lewis and his younger brother Jacob as they were working with their father and their older brother George. Their father and brother had, uncharacteristically, left their guns back in the cabin when they had all gone out to the fields that morning to hoe crops. Their father, John Wetzel, was a dedicated farmer for that place and time. Most 18th century frontiersmen were really commercial hunters and trappers, not farmers. Whatever farming got done, the women and children did. The Wetzel place was an exception.

Fort Henry, Wheeling, W. Va., circa 1782

Fort Henry, Wheeling, W. Va., circa 1782

Image Courtesy of Wheeling News-Register
About midmorning, John Wetzel sent the two younger boys back to the cabin to check on some venison that was drying by the fire and to bring his and George's guns back out with them. The Indians hit when they were coming out of the cabin to return to the field. As Lewis opened the door and stepped out, they fired a volley, grazing him across the chest and causing considerable pain and blood loss. The Indians then charged in and captured the boys. Quickly they scooped up some metal pots and the guns the boys were taking out to the field. They then hurried off into the forest, pushing the boys ahead of them. Their father and their brother George realized very quickly what was going on, but could do nothing without weapons. They saw that the boys were being taken captive and decided to run to the fort for weapons and help. By the time they returned, the trail had gotten very cold and they lost it. They could only hope that the boys could get themselves out of this dilemma.

Indians often kidnapped their enemies. Sometimes, after testing their strength, courage and stamina, they'd very ceremoniously adopt these captives into their own families. Indians believed in the power of transmutation, where, through elaborate preparation and ceremony, adopted captives would replace and take on the character of lost relatives. Surprising numbers of adopted whites were profoundly transformed by this process and remained very attached to their Indian families. This was especially so when the captives were young.

Other times, though, once they got the captives to their towns, They might run them through the gauntlet until they were beaten to death, or they might to burn them at the stake or otherwise torture them to death. You couldn't tell what they'd do, especially with men and older boys.

The shot that grazed Lewis across the chest tore away part of his sternum. It was very painful, but he didn't dare let it slow him down. If he faltered, he was dead.

On the third night, the Indians relaxed their guard enough that the boys were able to escape. The night watch was asleep. The Indians thought the boys were too far from home to try to run off. Besides, they had taken away the boys' shoes to discourage them further from running away.

Once out of camp and away, the boys paused to think out the best plan of action. They had to stay off the trails or they would surely be recaptured. That meant rough going through the forest over all sorts of obstacles. There was no getting around it; they needed footwear.

So, after telling his little brother to lay low and not wander off, Lewis stole back into the camp and got moccasins for both of them from where they were drying by the fire. Then, figuring that his luck would hold, he went back still another time and stole back his father's rifle and powder horn. Then they took off through the forest for home.

They eluded recapture three times and crossed the Ohio to an island in midriver on a raft they made of logs and strips of bark. Lewis' wound was bothering him and, without his brother's help, he surely would not have made it. Some boys from the Wheeling settlement were fishing on the island. They helped them the rest of the way home. Their family and friends welcomed them as if they had returned from the dead. This experience focused Lewis's concentration for the rest of his life.

From then on, Lewis spent every spare moment perfecting himself as a forest warrior. His father had given him a good start in this direction years earlier; John Wetzel knew very clearly what both men and women had to know to survive on the frontier and he did his utmost to see that all his seven children, both sons and daughters knew frontier skills very well. Lewis practiced shooting the long rifle until, legend says, if the target was big enough for him to see, he could hit it first shot. He became expert at using the knife and tomahawk. He was so quick and agile that, in the forest at least, nobody could catch him. On top of this, with help from his father, he learned to load, prime and shoot his long rifle while running full speed through the woods; an amazing achievement.

His first real opportunity to use these skills came one year later when he was fourteen. That was when he participated in the rescue of Rose Forrest. He was already about as tall as he was going to be and he had become a superb hunter. That day his father had sent him out to warn a neighboring family of hostile Indians in the vicinity when he crossed paths with Frazier Forrest, who was out hunting small game and was about to return home. Frazier was newly married and did not want to leave his wife alone for too long. The Forrest cabin lay in the same direction Lewis was going, so they decided to keep each other company on the return trip. When they arrived at the Forrest cabin, it was burning fiercely, and Frazier's wife, Rose was nowhere around. Frazier was incoherent with rage and fear for her. Lewis read the sign and concluded that four Indians, all on foot, had taken Rose away with them. The two immediately began tracking them, intent on rescuing her.

The Indians lost much of their lead when they had to make a raft to cross the Ohio. If the two young men could get across quickly themselves, their chances of catching up with them before dark would be good. They quickly made a small raft for their guns, powderhorns and pouches and pushed it and its load ahead of them as the swam across the river.

Once across, they found the Indians' raft abandoned and where their trail resumed. As darkness descended and they were about to give up for the night rather than lose the trail completely, they smelled smoke, as coming from a campfire.

Investigating, they found the camp of the Indians they had been following. Rose was alive, huddled against a tree. Even from this distance they could hear her occasional sobbing. Three of the Indians were asleep; the fourth was sitting up, his back against a tree.

Frazier's rage returned more powerfully than before. He was all for firing at them right now and charging into their camp to finish them off with tomahawk and knife. Lewis put a hand on his shoulder. "Wait 'til dawn. Less chance of them killing Rose if we get them when they're just waking up".

They watched all night. Rose eventually fell asleep. The Indians changed guard and fed the fire twice during that time. It was during a guard change that the frontiersmen saw that one of the Indians was really a white renegade. Dawn came. Lewis and Frazier waited for the men to roust themselves. Their plan was to shoot the first two to get on their feet, Frazier taking the man on the left, Lewis the one on the right.

The white renegade rose first. Then the guard stood up. The frontiersmen shot together just like they planned it and both of their victims went down. Lewis and Frazier pulled their tomahawks and ran yelling toward the fire. The other Indians sprang to their feet and ran leaving their guns on the ground.

Frazier ran to Rose to comfort her. She was nearly hysterical. Lewis continued in pursuit. Suddenly he saw that the two Indians had stopped and were watching him. Both had tomahawks in their hands and looked as if they were ready to charge him. Lewis stopped, raised his rifle and shot one down. The other immediately charged knowing the frontiersman's gun to be empty. Lewis fled, reloading as he ran. A short distance and time later, with the Indian closing on him quickly, Lewis turned around, took aim and shot his second victim.

They took four scalps, all the weapons, and returned to the river. They used the Indians' raft to recross and went home.

In the middle of the next century, the author Emerson Bennett turned this incident into a novel titled The Forest Rose.

His next individual battle with Indians happened two years later, when he was sixteen. A group of frontiersmen from further east passed by a field on the Wetzel home place where Lewis was working. They were chasing Indians who had stolen some of their horses. It didn't take much to persuade Lewis to join them. It looked a lot more interesting than hoeing corn.

After tracking the raiders all day, the settlers caught them resting in a small meadow at a spring near today's St. Clairsville, Ohio. Once again, the Indians, there were three of them, thought they were far enough into their own territory to let down their guard. Totally surprised, they abandoned their plunder and disappeared into the surrounding forest. The frontiersmen simply took back their horses.

Just as suddenly, though, the Indians reappeared and stole some of the frontiersmen's horses again, including the one Lewis had ridden during the chase; his father's favorite mare. Vowing not to return to Wheeling Creek without his father's horse, Lewis persuaded two other members of the party to join him and resumed pursuit. The rest decided that they'd had enough of chasing Indians and turned back.

Later that day, Lewis and his companions caught up with the Indians once again. Lewis and the Indians "treed" — they hid behind trees and began plotting ways to get at each other. Lewis's two companions both simultaneously decided that they, like their friends, also had had enough of chasing Indians. They ran, leaving Lewis to his fate.

Lewis drew their fire by sticking his hat out from behind his tree on his ramrod. After they shot, Lewis fell into the tall grass near his tree, clutching his chest. The Indians were so sure they'd hit him that they raced each other to be the first to count coup and get his scalp. He stood up and shot the first one. Then he ran off through the forest, reloading as he went. Thinking his rifle unloaded, the remaining two were hot on his heels when he turned and shot the second one. The third decided to quit while he was still able to and disappeared into the forest.

A few days later Lewis appeared at Wheeling Creek showing two scalps around and telling his story to anyone who would listen. He was proclaimed a hero. Most frontier people were sure that Indians were very dangerous subhumans who should be shot on sight. Anyone who actually did this was doing valuable public service in their eyes.

From then on Lewis Wetzel lived primarily as an Indian hunter. He never "settled down." He never took up land, built a cabin of his own, farmed, or did any other sort of usual work. There's no real record of him ever forming a permanent relationship with a woman.

They said he was a good fiddle player who was always welcome in taverns and at dances. He got along well with dogs and children, but not so much so with adults. He did not speak very well and seemed strange and unstable. He would appear fairly often on a Sunday afternoon when there was a competition of frontier skills; shooting, running, tomahawk throwing, and so forth. When he did show up, he always won.

Mainly he roamed the forests across in the Ohio country hunting Indians and carrying out one man raids. He would spend weeks at a time moving secretly deep in the forests north of the Ohio. One of his favorite strategies was to trail small Indian hunting parties. He'd wait until they made camp and settled in for the night. After they were well asleep he would descend upon them with knife and tomahawk, killing as many as he could before they were awake enough to resist. He wiped out parties of two or three several times this way.

He also would hunt out and provision hideouts, often caves or narrow deep ravines, where he could go to ground for days or even weeks at a time if he had to. One of his hiding places, little more than a cliff overhang, really, is located in a city park in today's Lancaster, Ohio.
Life and Times of Lewis Wetzel

Life and Times of Lewis Wetzel

Between 1779 and 1788 he collected the scalps of twenty seven Indians that he said he personally killed. Accounts of his exploits as told by others put the total at more than one hundred.

In 1781, he killed an Indian before large numbers of witnesses for the first time. It was during the American Colonel Daniel Brodhead's disastrous campaign against the Delaware in the upper Muskingum area, The Delaware had recently abandoned a position of neutrality and had sided with the British, albeit somewhat tentatively . Colonel Brodhead, with 150 soldiers from his garrison at Pittsburgh and 134 militia, managed to surprise and burn the nearby Delaware town of Coshocton. This success was blunted by the militia's deliberate killing of fifteen Delaware warriors after they had surrendered. This led to the Delaware burning nine captured Kentuckians on nine Consecutive days. Thanks to his militia contingent's activities, the main result of Brodhead's campaign was to firm up Delaware hostility. After Coshocton, they rivaled the Shawnees in their hostility toward Americans.

Wetzel's victim was a Delaware Chief acting as a peace emissary. The chief had been invited to the Americans' camp under a safe conduct and had just gotten out of his canoe when Wetzel tomahawked him from behind. Militiamen learning of this approved of Wetzel's action so boisterously that Brodhead chose to do nothing to punish him.

Sometimes Wetzel would go with others on expeditions into the forest. Often this was to guide land speculators into areas they wanted to claim before the crowds got there; that is, before the Indians had been "removed".

It was much more difficult for a group traveling out into the wilderness to escape notice than it was for Wetzel going it alone. The chances of getting involved in pitched battle went up proportionately. When there was a fight, Wetzel was always able to do more than account for himself. His companions,though, were sometimes neither as capable or lucky as he was. Indians killed John Madison, brother of future president James Madison in the Spring of 1786 while he was traveling with Wetzel on a land surveying expedition along the Little Kanawha River in today's West Virginia.

As the years passed, Wetzel became more and more eccentric. He took to wearing tassels in his split earlobes. His carefully tended hair, when combed out, hung almost to his knees. He said he wanted to give his enemies a scalp worth the effort it would take to get it. Indian fighting became the sole focus of his life. People became even more uncomfortable with him; they began to doubt his sanity.

His real troubles began when he murdered Tegunteh. Wetzel had agreed to be the chief hunter for the new settlement of Marietta on the north side of the river until the end of the year, 1788. General Josiah Harmar, commander of the American army detachment stationed at nearby Fort Harmar (shows where the General's ego led), knowing of Wetzel's reputation and woodland skills, persuaded Wetzel to act as his scout on any expeditions he would carry into the interior. Ironically, Fort Harmar had been constructed and manned with American military to protect the Delawares from incursions by Whites from south of the River.

This is where he ambushed and murdered Tegunteh, a key Seneca leader who had long worked with the Americans for peace. Wetzel murdered him right in the middle of very sensitive negotiations leading to the Treaty of Fort Harmar, completed in 1789. The Americans, represented by Colonel Josiah Harmar, had worked for years to put over this treaty. This treaty was the keystone of the new United States government's Indian policy in the Northwest Territory.

One morning when Tegunteh left the Seneca encampment alone to go to Fort Harmar for the day's negotiations, Wetzel stepped out onto the trail in front of him and shot him, scalped him and left him for dying. Wetzel's mistake was to not finish Tegunteh off. He lived long enough to describe Wetzel, the tricolored hat he was then wearing, and the grin he had on his face as he shot. He described him completely.

Wetzel, along with many others on the Frontier, hated Indians so intensely that they believed that the only way to deal with them was to exterminate them. Wetzel did everything in their power to prevent any peaceful settlement between Whites and Indians from taking place. He did not want peace until the last Indian was dead. Even though most frontiersmen approved of Wetzel's motives, this ambush put him beyond the pale as far as the American government was concerned. Colonel Harmar posted him as wanted for murder and he became a fugitive.

An American regular army patrol captured him first time while he was camped on an island in the Ohio near Fort Harmar and Marietta. It was arrogance on his part that allowed that to happen. He thought they never could catch him. He escaped wearing hand irons. The army was also overconfident. He convinced his guards to remove his leg irons and surround him so that he could go out onto the parade ground and get some exercise. Once his ankles were free, he fled into the forest where nobody could catch him. With help, he crossed the Ohio and, on the other side, the first frontiersman he encountered filed and sawed his hand irons off in his smithy. The frontier people did not share their government's opinion of Wetzel. In fact, they weren't real sure that it even was their government. Wetzel was one of them.

He was captured the second time in Limestone, Kentucky, now called Maysville. Members of another regular Army group, wearing civilian clothes as they traveled downriver to Fort Washington near what is now Cincinnati recognized him. They took him with them to Fort Washington where they locked him up for trial.

More than 200 frontiersmen, including such prominent people as Simon Kenton, gathered outside the fort. They demanded Wetzel's release. Otherwise they threatened to rescue him by force. Territorial judge John Symmes resolved the dilemma by turning Wetzel out on a Writ of Habeas Corpus. He never bothered to call him back for trial.

Despite Wetzel and his kind's efforts to prevent it, peace of a sort finally did come to the Ohio country in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville. This agreement established a new boundary between Americans and the Indian nations that ran far to the north of the Ohio River. The menace of Indian attack virtually disappeared from the Ohio Valley and Wetzel's star quickly faded. Like others of that time who did not prosper after the wild frontier moved away from them, Wetzel went west and south into Spanish territory. His name appears in the records of Spanish New Orleans. He spent several years in prison there in the late 1790's. Romantics tell us that this was because he became involved with the wife of a Spanish colonial officer. Other accounts state that he was imprisoned because of his involvement with a counterfeiting ring.

In 1804, some say he was briefly recruited into the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a hunter and scout. They also say that after three months, he was either dismissed or left of his own accord. He supposedly would not conform to the expedition's discipline requirements. However, his name does not appear in any of the expedition's very detailed log books or in any of the participants' journals. This story probably belongs with the one about the Spanish official's wife.

In 1805, his name reappears in the records as living with or near his cousin Philip Sycks in the vicinity of Natchez, Mississippi. While there, in 1808, he fell ill and died, probably from yellow fever. He was just short of forty five years old.

As was then the custom in the South, he was buried in the front yard of his cabin. His cousin's wife insisted that his rifle be buried with him, saying that a gun that had killed as many as that one had would haunt any house it was kept in.

In 1942, almost one hundred thirty five years later, Dr. Albert W. Bowser came down from Chicago and hunted down Wetzel's unmarked grave. First he located Philip Sycks' farm exactly through studying the local court records. This brought him to the hamlet of Rosetta, near Natchez. Once there, he interviewed elderly residents, mostly former slaves, who led him to a grave in what had become a plowed field. Four feet down, they found the skeleton of a man in his forties who was about five feet nine inches tall. Rusted parts of a rifle were at his side. There were also very long hair prints in the soil around the skeleton. They were sure they had found Wetzel.

They exhumed the remains and placed them in a small black casket with "LEWIS WETZEL" engraved in silver on the top. Dr. Bowser brought his remains back to Moundsville, West Virginia, where they now rest beside those of his oldest brother Martin, in the McCreary Cemetery, just two miles from the old Wetzel homestead from where he started.

West Virginia has named a county and a state highway after him. He was their greatest early frontiersman.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, zealous believers in Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism used Wetzel from time to time as an icon symbolizing their beliefs. He was definitely part of the composite of frontier hunters that made up James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo; the part that allows him to reload at full run through the forest, if nothing else. He appears in person in two early Zane Grey novels; Betty Zane and The Spirit of the Border. James Oliver Curwood probably used his persona as the title role in one of his novels; The Black Hunter.

Today, now that we no longer believe in aggressive expansionism and ethnic cleansing, we see him as a psychopathic serial murderer whose memory is a cultural embarrassment. We would just as soon forget he ever existed. As Daniel Boone symbolizes the bright side of America's western expansion, Wetzel personifies its dark side. We'd like to turn him into a villain and dismiss him.

That is difficult. He did what he did very effectively. He was probably the best single combat fighter European-America ever produced. His courage was unquestioned. His sanity, yes; his courage, never. He made war on his enemies using their own style of fighting. Early Americans living on the Ohio River Frontier considered him an outstanding public servant. To this day European-America, at least, is enjoying the fruits of his horrible labors. We must give credit where it is due.

Historical and Biographical References

Lewis Wetzel, Indian Fighter: The Life and Times of a Frontier Hero, by C.B. Allman. Copyright 1939, 1961. Devin-Adair Co. — Written by a direct descendent of Lewis Wetzel, the book is really a collection of articles by the author for local West Virginia Newspapers. The anecdotes were collected by him from relatives who knew people who knew Wetzel across the generations.

Straight Up to See the Sky, by Timothy Truman. pp.100-105. Copyright 1991. Eclipse Books ISBN 1-56060-136-1. — A collection of character sketches in essay form of several trans-Allegheny frontier people, both Indian and White. It contains an essay of Wetzel.

Ark of Empire, by Dale Van Every. pp. 138-142. Copyright 1963. WWilliam Morrow. ISBN 0-688-07949-0. — The middle volume of Van Every's classic three volume work on the frontier as it progressed from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. It has several references about Wetzel.

That Dark and Bloody River, by Allan W. Eckert. Copyright 1995. Bantam Books ISBN 0-553-09448-3. — Many references to Lewis Wetzel and his part in 18th century Ohio River Valley history. An excellent book very well researched and written in a very readable style.