The Heartbreaking Story of Jenny Wiley

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Born in  Pennsylvania, around the year 1760, Jenny Sellards was nothing out of the ordinary.  Her father, Hezekiah Sellards, was without wealth and the family’s early years were filled with struggles.

Sellards eventually moved his family to Walker’s Creek in what is now Bland County, Virginia.  It was there in 1778 that Jenny met and married Thomas Wiley, a young Irish immigrant.

Soon afterward, the couple built a log cabin and had their first four children.

Alone on the frontier, young Jenny could never have imagined the events that awaited her in the days to come.

On October 1, 1789, Thomas set out for a trading post with a horse heavy laden with ginseng — an early form of currency for mountain settlers in the Appalachia.  He hoped to use the ginseng to barter for his family’s domestic necessities prior to the onset of winter.

That same afternoon, Jenny’s brother-in-law, John Borders, heard owl-call signals in the woods which made him suspect Native Americans were in the area and planning an attack. He warned his sister-in-law to pack up her children and leave the cabin, but Jenny wanted to finish some household chores before leaving and made the life altering decisions to remain behind.

Not long after Borders had departed, a group of eleven Native Americans, comprised of two Cherokees, three Shawnees, three Wyandots, and three Delawares attempted to storm the cabin. Jenny and her younger brother heard the Native Americans coming and tried to barricade the door, fighting for their lives.

Sadly, their defenses was futile, as the attackers killed Jenny’s younger brother, who was only fifteen-years-old.

In addition to killing her brother, the Native Americans also killed all of her children except her youngest, a two-year-old.

Expecting her fifth child, Jenny and her two-year-old were taken captive and driven westward toward Kentucky.

As the entourage moved westward, there was some dispute among her captives regarding what to do with Jenny and her young baby — as the two were slowing the party down as they made their retreat deeper into the young nation’s wilderness.

Eventually deciding to spare their lives, the band of murderers continued through the Appalachian Mountains until the young child became desperately ill — it was at this point that the captors killed the baby while Jenny slept.

Sometime later, Jenny gave birth to the child she had been carrying, however, her hellish kidnappers immediately seized the child and began to play a gruesome and murderous game.

Placing the newborn onto a piece of wood, the demonically charged warriors decreed that if the child would cry they would scalp it alive, but if the newborn infant remained silent, they would permit it to live.

Sadly, the child cried almost instantly and — true to their word — the wicked alliance immediately began scalping the young baby.

Jenny was held captive by Native Americans for several additional months in what is presently Little Mud Lick Creek, Johnson County, Kentucky.

In the midst of a terrible rain storm, Jenny managed to successfully flee from the Indian camp, escaping to a nearby trading post.

Local settlers at the trading post assisted her in making her way back to Walker’s Creek and her husband, who had remained faithfully remained hopeful of her return.

Once home, Jenny and her husband renewed their love and began a new family.

Somewhere around the year 1800, the Wiley family crossed the Big Sandy River, and settled in what is currently Johnson County, Kentucky. Jenny and her husband, Thomas, had five additional children.

Jenny Wiley lived in Johnson County, Kentucky, with her family until her death in 1831. She was buried near the farm in River, where she spent her final years.

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80 COMMENTS

  1. Jennie Wiley is my great great great great aunt. Her sister Elizabeth is my great great great great grandmother. During her captivity, the Indians and Jennie traveled all the way to what is now Portsmouth, Ohio and back again. She escaped near Little Mudlick Falls in Johnson County and made her way to the area south of Paintsville where the Combs Airport used to be. She was rescued there and crossed the Big Sandy River narrowly escaping her captors. Hezekiah Sellards, Elizabeth Sellards Borders, Polly Borders Daniels, James Daniels, Darcus Daniels Fitchpatrick, Charles Fitchpatrick, Eula Fitch Burchett, myself Willa Burchett Bush.

  2. Jenny Wiley was my 5th great grandmother. If you haven’t seen the play put on at the Jenny Wiley Theater in Prestonsburg, KY, you should. it is a depiction of her capture and escape.

    • Jenny Wiley is my 5th Great Grandmother also. Isn’t it so interesting how courageous she was? If you will email me, I’ll give you the balance of my lineage from Jenny Wiley down. I’d be interested in yours also.
      Mary Dugan.

    • Follow That River was similar story, but was about Mary Draper Ingles, not Jenny Wiley. I have family connections to the Ingles family.

    • Follow the river is the story of Mary Ingalls. She to was taken by Indians and was pregnant. Her boy and her sister in law were also taken. She had the baby girl along the way. She escaped with a Dutch woman and made her way home by following the river back. Really good read. She was a tough woman.

    • The movie Follow the River is the true story of another captive Mary Draper Ingles. She was captured at the duck pond which is on the current campus of Va. Tech campus. It was originally Draper Meadows my husband and I visited this site several years ago. Blue Ridge Mountain Magazine also did a story about Mary’s capture and how she escaped and found her way back home.

  3. Jenny Wiley is my 5th great grandmother as well. My father is very interested on our family history and knows a great deal about this amazing woman.

  4. She was also my 5th great grandmother. When she escaped she had an Indian baby by Chief Benge which makes us all part Cherokee. Was not aware of a movie and if anyone knows the name please write me on fb or email me any information on her. Thanks

    • DNA testing reveals no Cherokee blood in our family line. Sorry. I think that may have been a myth.

  5. Jenny Wiley was my 5th great aunt and her sister Catherine was my 5th great grandmother. Related through my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, Kitty Chiders Stewart. I knew my family was related to her by all the stories told about her. My cousins relayed through Facebook how far removed we are from her …. also learned Archibald Borders is my 5th great grandfather.

    • Could you please list the names of the books or email me so I can read about her. I love this kind of history. Also the name of the movie if you know it.

    • I would appreciate if you could e mail me a list of books about Jenny Wiley. The family used to have one but it has been lost.

  6. My lineage is Hezekiah Sellards , Jenny Sellards Wiley, Jane Wiley Williamson, William A Williamson, James A Williamson, Lucinda Williamson Ray, Enod Ray and myself

  7. Jenny Wiley was my great great gandmother’s brother’s sister’s great great granddaughter, related through my maternal grandmother’s grandpa’s sister, who was also his wife and daughter.

  8. Jenny Wiley is my 4th, Great Grandmother. I come down through Jane, the first born after Jenny’s captivity. She had Miranda and I come down through the Smith line. I have done much research on her and also have some family papers. There are so many different stories. It is hard to know which is right. I do know that Henry Skaggs, the long rifleman, was the man who helped her across the Big Sandy. He is performer Ricky Skagg’s 4th, Great Uncle and writer Daryl Skaggs’s 4th, Great Grandpa. If it were not for the Skaggs family, I doubt that I would be here, no, nor none of my kin!!!

  9. Sally Perry Smith, we are directly related! My Grandpa Smith always said that we had Cherokee in us from Jenny Wiley’s baby, Jane! A lot if folks will debate this! I know the truth!!! We have Cherokee in us, the whole famil bares the resemblance!

  10. She was my 4th great grandmother as well. Funny my grandfather always told the same story about the Cherokee blood as well but I’ve never seen anything to back it up.

  11. My Grandfather is Sol Wiley who’s grandmother Jenny Wiley. Would love to get more information.

    • My grandfather is elva wood Wiley I’m not positive but I know positively Sol Wiley is my relation also out of west Virginia right??? I’m learning more about family as well trying 2 trace my roots back a little further

  12. She was my 4th great grandmother. My dad always told me about her story. I was named after her.

  13. OK folks, I’ve list all of my family that matters to me. I’ve always been told I have Cherokee blood in my lines. I have also been told I’m a ringer for my grandma who was a Cooper and her mother a Fry and I’ve also been told I’m related to Burchets. I’m from the Portsmouth,Ohio area. Can anyone tell me if they have any connection or information they can share… I would love to know I have more family out there!!!!

    • I saw where u said your mother was a fry My grandmother was fry.I know they lived sometime in logan w.av I don’t know a lot about my famly history but I do believe that its the same fry’s my granmothers name was nola her mother was Rachel I was ld we had Cherokee in us please let me know hope to hear from u thank you thank you lana riordan

  14. Jenny Wiley was my 6th Great Grandmother through Jane her first daughter after her rescue. I also come through the Williamson line. Jane married Richard Williamson. Their son, Aden Williamson married Clarissa Marcum. Their son, Joseph Williamson married Sally Ray. Their daughter Polly Williamson married Lace Marcum. Lace and Polly were my Great Grandparents. My maternal grandmother Vicy Ann (Babe) Marcum married Emory Noel. My mother Bernice Noel Kirk, is one of 9 sons and 4 daughters born to them. My parents, Fred and Bernice Kirk had me and my sister. I would be very interested in communicating with any decendents of Jenny Wiley.

    • I am also related to Jenny being my 6th gr great grandma . Through Jane and Richards son Alden and Clarissa’s daughter Nancy . She married first I believe a Messer. not sure I think they Lived in Ohio. Then Nancy married Mitchell Perry their son Ira J Perry, Walter Perry ,Andrew J Perry ,John Perry (Me) if u saw the comment by Sally Perry Smith or maybe just Sally Smith she is my aunt. I live in Wayne co WV not far from where My gr gr grandparents r buried and about a couple hours maybe from Jenny Wiley . I haven’t got to visit the yet but hope to I n the near future. nice to meet ya cousin!

  15. She was my 5th great grandmother,4 g grandfather was Hezekiah Wiley. 3rd g grandfather was Thomas Wiley. 2nd was William Andrew Wiley. then g grandfather Thomas Wiley, and my grandmother Ebbie Wiley. I have heard stories about the Cherokee Indian lineage, but have also heard it was not true.

  16. Jenny and Thomas were my 5th great grandparents. I descend this way: Thomas and Jenny, Hezekiah and Lucretia Wiley, Thomas and Evaline Wiley, William Andrew and Rhoda Wiley, Thomas and Jayne Wiley. Mary Belle Wiley was the daughter of Thomas and Jayne (Cordle) Wiley. She married Samuel Lyons, their son Bert Lyons Born 1915-died 1993 was my father. My brothers Lanny Lyons and Dennis Lyons still live in the neighborhood where Jenny and Thomas lived and died. We are very proud to have had such a brave, strong lady in our ancestry.

  17. She was my 5th great grandmother,4 g grandfather was Hezekiah Wiley. 3rd g grandfather was Thomas Wiley. 2nd was William Andrew Wiley. then g grandfather Thomas Wiley, and my grandmother Ebbie Wiley. I have heard stories about the Cherokee Indian lineage, but have also heard it was not true. – Judy Crum and I are cousins. Her father and my father were bothers.

  18. FOLLOW THE RIVER is the name of the book of this story. Also, my family owned/ran a ferry Jenny crossed over the river to safty on. My grandparents, Marguerite & Virgil Ramsey; now deceased, dug up this information while tracing our family genealogy.

  19. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who is Jenny Wiley’s 7th great grandchild.

  20. I, too, am a descendent of Jenny Wiley and her daughter who married Richard Williamson. Their son Wiley Williamson married Letitia Cook. Their Daughter Nellie married Charles Wesley Browning…and they had my grand mother Minnie.

  21. I wonder if there is a recorded account of this story from the point of view of the Native Americans, who fought a losing war against the Wiley family and the rest of the white horde who ripped off the land that had been theirs for centuries. Oh well, history is written by the victors, I guess.

  22. I was always told by my Grandmother Bessie Nelson that Jennie Wiley was my fifth fresh grandmother. We sure have a lot of relatives.

  23. I taught Appalachian History one year and my students read her story. A brave woman. There are many Wileys living in the Harts/Chapmanville WV area. Some of them may also be related.

  24. I was very young when I cut the ribbon that opened the trail at the end of the Portsmouth Bridge. Even though I didn’t really understand what was going on its a memory I’ll never forget. 🙂

  25. I noticed people kept talking about the books written about Jennie Wiley.
    1)The legend of Jenny Wiley, copy right 1962,
    2) White Squaw , The True Story of Jennie Wiley, copy right 1958 Both by Arville Wheeler.
    & 3) Jennie Wiley – Pioneer, copy right for 3 printings 1955,1971,1978 by John Nathan Bennett.

    Going from Me back, Jonita Lynn Harris Juhala & Arthur Lauri Juhala, Oldest daughter of 3 children, Jonita’s Parents Joesph Allen Harris & Anita Dean Rucker Harris, 2nd Daughter of 5 girls, Anita’s Parents Harold Delbert Rucker & Virginia Ethel Wiley Rucker, oldest daughter of 8 children, Virginia’s Parents Robert Nelson Wiley & Susan Frances Hensley-Lawson Wiley, Oldest son of 5 boys, Robert’s Parents Mose Wiley & Sarah Riggs Wiley, Mose’s Parents Hezekiah Wiley & Christine Nelson, Hezekiah’s Parents Thomas Wiley & Virginia (Jennie) Sellards Wiley

  26. I too am a member of the Willey clan 🙂 I don’t know what Jenny was to me but my Grandmother is Fran Gullet (now Fran Edgar). So nice to hear about family!! What’s the name of the movie? I’d really love to see it

  27. I am linked to her thru the Williamson’s.. I live near Jennys Creek in Wayne Co. near Crum WV. Wonderful history, I have visited her gravesite near the Jenny Wiley park.. she was a strong lady

  28. I am the fifth great-granddaughter of Jenny Wiley. My line is as follows: Jenny Sellards Wiley, William Wiley, Andrew Jackson Wiley, Naomi Jemima Wiley Long Vickers, Dena Long, John Milton “Ray” Long, John Milton Long Jr, me.

    I think the best account of Jenny’s story can be found in the book “The Founding of Harman’s Station” by William Elsey Connelley. My copy shows the first copyright date being 1910 although I am not sure if it was published any earlier. The author talked to Jenny’s son, Adam P. Wiley, in order to write the tale. So it’s probably as close to her actual story as we will ever read. The author also mentions talking to other “old-timers” about it in his youth. His footnotes include details about the people he spoke with who knew Jenny Wiley and other people living at the time. One man he names is a Rev. M.T. Burris who was then in Golden, MO, but was raised on John’s Creek and who was a descendant of the pioneer Leslie (I am also related to the Leslie or Lesley clan).

    I attended the Eastern KY Genealogy Conference last September in Louisa, KY. Google it to find their website; they put it on every year and this year it will be held in Paintsville. They had a talk on Jenny Wiley given by a psychologist who had spoken with descendants and visited many of the places Jenny was taken during her captivity. She told the story much as it reads in Connelley’s account. As I said, it is as close to first-hand as you’re likely to hear and the timing of certain events deviates from the article above. The book also explains why the Indians attacked. It wasn’t random violence. After the psychologist spoke about Jenny as a trauma survivor, a professional storyteller came out in period costume and told the story from Jenny’s perspective. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and that includes the storyteller!

    I have heard the rumors of Indian ancestry as well, although I suppose that would only apply to the first child Jenny had when she escaped. I can tell you that I, and my father, have been tested through Ancestry.com and show no Native American ancestry.

  29. Gayloc let me give you a history lesson we didn’t fit the natives for this land we fought the British for it and won if not we would be under their rule today. For those in my family that don’t know granny Jenny was 1/2 Cherokee and her daughter born in 1791 Mary Jane. Who married Richard williamson was born of the same blood : if you need prof I have the DNA to show you .

  30. My grandpa was a Williamson and his family was from West Virginia. We had Cherokee blood in us, but wasn’t exactly sure where it came from. I am interested to find out more about that side of the family, perhaps I am related to some of you. They were from Williamson, WV. My grandpa was Charles Raymond Williamson. Both of his parents died when he was in the Korean war and he died when I was 8 so there isn’t a bunch of knowledge. He had a full sister named Pearl and a bunch of half brothers too I believe.

  31. I am the 8th Great Granddaughter of Jenny Wiley on my Grandmother’s side, who was Malenda (Linda) Williamson. She married Robert Lee Baisden of Kermit WV.

  32. I too am descended from Jenny Wiley. Starting with Thomas and Jenny Wiley,Hezekiah and Christine,Thomas Wiley and Evaline, Elihue Wiley and Martha(Bowens), Thomas Alfred Wiley and Vashti (Damron), Francis (Frank) Wiley and Ruby ( Ashcraft), Thomas Earl Wiley and Edna ( Adkins). Joycelyn Wiley Kapp. My parents and family are from the Lucasville and Portsmouth Ohio area.

  33. Did Jenny Wiley bring her Cherokee baby home with her? If so, did that baby grow up to have children? One would have to be descended from that half-Cherokee baby to have “Indian blood.”

    She was a heroic woman, in any case. as was Mary Ingles.

  34. This happened hundreds of years ago yet reading the story made me absolutely sick. Those poor babies. :'(

  35. my Grandparents was Leonard Marcum and Delphia Willamson I believe I am related to Jenny Wiley through both branches of their families.

  36. Jenny, I was told by my Uncle is my distant grandmother on my mother’s side. my mother’s maiden name is Castle from Nippa, KY Johnson County. Dogwood Hollow. beside the hollow is where family is buried in Clark – Castle Cemetery.

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