The story of Lewis Wetzel, Frontiersman
Long before the arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, native cultures moved freely through the Appalachian Mountain chain. All we know about this region is what the historic record tells us. William Penn, for example, told us in 1682 that in early Pennsylvania, “The air is sweet and clear, the heavens serene, like the southern part of France, rarely overcast.” To many of the people migrating to the deep forests of Pennsylvania, it was a haven, and the more people spoke of it, the more people wanted to go there — for who doesn’t want to live in paradise?
But an idyllic life is seldom found anywhere in the world. It was true that the new land was blessed with virgin forests, clear springs and brooks, spacious skies, and clover leaf glens — and that all of it taken together was beautiful beyond description. The land’s coastal regions were lush and fertile, ready for planting and harvesting. The sea was the source of fish and shell food. All that was needed to bring forth this bounty was back-breaking work from sun up to sun set, and of tremendous sacrifices in the loss of loved-ones due to disease, injury, and the bloodshed cast upon them by native populations that had pre-dated the new-comers by thousands of years. Living in isolation and in a constant state of fear, work never quite finished, tragedies suffered, lingering illnesses and wellness never quite achieved — all of it took its toll on the people who came looking for paradise; most of them never found it.
In this setting, something awful takes hold of some people. Perhaps they were psychologically imbalanced as small children; maybe somewhere along the way, their minds snapped. Who can explain the Harpe Brothers, much less understand how they got that way? The Harpe Brothers weren’t alone. There was also men like Samuel Ross Mason (1732-1803), a revolutionary war veteran, who created a gang of the worst cutthroats one can imagine, a murderer who preyed upon the crews and passengers of canal boats on the Ohio River. He was an utterly despicable human being.
The fourth child of John and Mary Wetzel grew to such a man — only instead of murdering white settlers, he turned his depravity upon the Indians of the Ohio Valley. John and Mary named this boy Lewis. He was born in 1752 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. John Wetzel was of German stock, his wife Mary nee Bonner of Flemish extraction already American by several generations.
After the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Wetzel family moved with their children along with several other families across the Allegheny Mountains to “free land” near present-day Wheeling, West Virginia. Within the forested area along Big Wheeling Creek, John Wetzel carved out a farm some fourteen miles from the Ohio River.
The Big Wheeling Creek Settlement was sited on the edge of King George’s Proclamation Line of 1763 — redrawn in 1768 by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. It was a neat trick the Iroquois played on the British, granting to them lands belonging to the Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware — none of whom had participated in the negotiation. The trick, for all of its cleverness, meant that the families of the Big Wheeling Creek settlement became frequent targets of Ohio Indian attacks that lasted well over a period of twenty-five years.
In 1765, 13-year-old Lewis and his younger brother Jacob were working in the field with their father and older brother George. Uncharacteristically, John and George had left their rifles in the cabin when going to the fields. This was an incomprehensible mistake because no one left their cabin without arms. When the mistake was realized, John sent the two younger boys back to the cabin to fetch his rifles.
As Lewis exited the cabin, Jacob right behind him, Wyandot Indians laying in wait fired their rifles. The rifle ball grazed his chest, causing a painful wound with much blood, but not immediately life threatening. The Indians quickly seized the boys, took their rifles, and ransacked the cabin for what interested them. Within a few short minutes, the Indians herded the boys into the forest and began moving rapidly away from the kidnapping site.
John and his son George heard the gunfire and suspected what might have happened, but without weapons, there was nothing either of them could do. They ran to Fort Henry and alerted the authorities of what they suspected. With militia and rifles loaned to the Wetzel’s, everyone moved as quickly as they could to establish the Indian track — that would tell them which direction to look. As it was already growing dark, further effort that day was useless. They would have to begin looking again the next day.
Kidnapping women and children was common among the Indians — which is not to say that all Indian tribes/bands engaged in such activities. But among those that did, after taking the captives to their villages, Indians would occasionally subject the young boys to tests of strength and stamina. Tribal members might adopt into their families those youngsters who proved themselves worthy and resilient. Anthropologists tell us that many Indian tribes believed in the power of transmutation — a notion suggesting that kidnapped and adopted children could somehow take the place of lost relatives. The younger these kidnapped children were, the greater likelihood that they would become fully assimilated into the tribe.
Conversely, children who did not prove themselves worthy were punished so severely that they ultimately perished. If they were not beaten to death, they might have been burned alive or skinned alive. Older children, those nearing manhood, were in the greatest danger of torture and death, but one never knew what the Indians would do.
Lewis had received a painful gunshot wound, but even at his young age, he knew better than to let his discomfort show, because if he or Jacob faltered along the woodland trail, the Indians would likely kill them. On the third night of their captivity, the Wyandot apparently believed they were far enough away from the kidnapping site that they could relax their night guard. Still, to make sure the boys didn’t wander off, the Indians took their shoes. When the only guard fell asleep by the fire, Lewis stealthily led Jacob from the camp.
Lewis knew enough to stay away from the regular trails — but doing so meant that in order to make good their escape, the boys would have to traverse across rough land where their feet were subjected to bruising stones, broken sticks, and thorny vegetation. Lewis realized, too, that without shoes or moccasins, he and Jacob wouldn’t get very far. Instructing Jacob to remain where he was, and keep completely quiet, Lewis returned to the Indian camp. He not only liberated his and Jacobs shoes, he also reclaimed his fathers rifles, gun powder, and shot.
They boys went through the forest at night putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their Indian captors. During the day, they concealed themselves in thick undergrowth and slept. There was nothing to eat; no water to speak of. But look for the boys is what the Wyandot did, sending out scouting parties in all directions. On three separate occasions, Indians ventured close to where the boys were hiding.
All the while, Lewis was in great pain. Eleven-year-old Jacob did what he could for his older brother with cool soil and saliva compresses. When they reached the Ohio River, the two boys constructed a makeshift raft and crossed over to a mid-stream island. On this island, they met some boys from the Wheeling settlements who were fishing. These boys helped Lewis and Jacob to the settlement where they were fed, doctored, and from where word was send to their parents.
This incident may have been a titular event in Lewis’ life because upon return to his home, he seemed to have changed. He was unable to speak as clearly as before and he often seemed befuddled or distracted. But what he did do was undertake a disciplined regimen of fitness, field craft, and weapons proficiency. He spent every spare moment improving himself. He learned to read Indian sign, he became highly proficient with the long rifle — even to the point where he could hit a target if he could see the target. He also became proficient with knife and tomahawk. He was quick on his feet, agile, and he learned to re-load and prime his rifle while on the run. Up until this time, however, to anyone’s knowledge, Lewis had never killed anyone.
When Lewis was 14-years old, John Wetzel sent his son to warn neighbors that Indian war parties were in the area. En route, Lewis met a neighbor by the name of Frazier Forrest, a young man, recently married, probably around 20 years old. Forrest was returning to his cabin after a day of hunting. The two men traveled together to the Forrest cabin, but upon arriving, they found the cabin afire and Forrest’s wife missing. Without hesitation, Lewis began looking for Indian sign. Finding it, he led the distraught Frazier in an effort to recapture the young Rose Forrest.
The Indian raiders had a head start on Lewis and Frazier, but lost some of that advantage having to stop and make a raft to cross the Ohio. Lewis realized that the Indians were headed toward the Ohio River and it was his intention to get there first. It was a good plan, but it didn’t work out that way. By the time Lewis and Frazier arrived at the Ohio, their prey had already crossed it.
Once across the river, Lewis and Frazier found the Indian’s raft and began looking for new sign indicating the direction the Indians had taken. It began to grow dark and Lewis feared they would have to give up looking that day. They had almost given up looking further when they smelled the burning wood of a nearby campfire. Further investigation revealed the campsite of the Indians they were looking for. They could see that Frazier’s wife Rose was tied to a tree.
While three Indians slept, a fourth kept guard. Frazier wanted to attack immediately but Lewis counseled him to wait until sunrise, when the Indians would be groggy and less likely to harm Rose. Calming himself, Frazier waited with Lewis and kept watch all night. When the guard changed, they saw that one of the “Indians” was actually a white renegade, although renegade might not have been accurate. He may have been a kidnapped white child adopted into the tribe.
As dawn began to break, Lewis and Frazier determined to shoot the first two Indians who got to their feet — this is how the white Indian and one other met their fate. With tomahawks raised and much yelling, Lewis and Frazier charged the Indian camp; the two remaining Indians ran away leaving their rifles behind. Frazier went to his wife to release and comfort her, while Lewis pursued the two remaining Indians further.
After running some distance, the two fleeing Indians suddenly stopped and noting that only one white man pursued them, raised their tomahawks and launched a counter-attack. Lewis raised his rifle and shot one of the remaining two. The last remaining Indian continued his assault. Lewis ran but reloading his rifle on the fly and when he was ready, he stopped, turned, and killed the remaining raider.
Following several more years of similar adventures, Lewis Wetzel developed a reputation as Indian fighter in the Ohio Valley. He may have gone looking for confrontations — I really can’t say that he relished the danger of tangling with Indian that out-numbered him, but neither did he shrink from it. Modern Americans may not understand the psychology of the hunter — of game and men; if Wetzel was not seeking danger, he at lease seemed at ease confronting it. There were no “metrosexuals” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There were only survivors and dead people.
Neither did anyone on the frontier give much thought to driving Indians from the land; nor were they perplexed by it. To the victor go the spoils. Frontier families didn’t awaken every morning with a plan to attack Indian villages; they awoke wondering if they were going to survive another day. Not unreasonably, they wanted land so that they could farm, raise livestock, hunt for available food — all of the things relating to human survival — as free men. But, of course, the sheer weight of migrating families did push the Indians ever further westward and yet the land occupied by white settlers was land approved for settlement by the government — either British or American. They did what the government allowed them to do, full stop.
Insofar as the utter disregard people had for each other, the Indians gave no thought to murdering entire families; this was the Indian way of taking care of business. They treated white settlers no differently than they treated encroaching Indians from other tribes. But unlike today, frontier families didn’t whine about the loss of family members — they mourned, of course, but it was a short period of shedding tears — they buried the dead and then hunted down and killed the marauders. That’s how white settlers took care of business.
Some whites did engage in attacking Indian villages — and they were quite ruthless in the doing of it. Killing is a ruthless business — old people, young people, and everyone in between. The slaughter of innocents didn’t matter to these highly agitated frontiersmen any more than it mattered to the Indians. On both sides, whatever went around, came around. Vengeance killing was common between settlers and Indians because a heinous act that went unanswered had the effect of encouraging more of the same. The Indians understood vengeance, respected it, anticipated it. And it is true that genuine hatred did exist between Indians and whites — no one from either side has ever forgotten it. Among some, the hatred took over their lives. Lewis Wetzel was one who became consumed by it.
As an adult, Wetzel lived as a woodsman. He had a small cabin but he never settled on the land; he never farmed. Some historians tell us that Lewis had a speech impediment of sorts, that he was uncomfortable around others, did not form attachments, never courted a woman. He did frequent taverns, he played a good fiddle, and he participated in local competitions in shooting, fieldcraft, tomahawk and knife throwing; he won far more of these than he lost. But Lewis Wetzel wasn’t a normal man — and he made everyone nervous, Indian and settler alike. He was always keeping tabs on the Indians. He stalked them, attacked them, took their scalps and collected them. Normal people didn’t do that, not even in the late 1700s.
He must have thought about what he was doing — because he would hunt and provision several “hideouts,” often caves or narrow and deep ravines where he go disappear for weeks on end. It is supposed that one of these places exists today in Lancaster, Ohio — it is little more than a cliff overhang in a city park, but I’m not certain how anyone knows that it belonged to Wetzel.
Between 1779 and 1788, Wetzel is said to have collected the scalps of 27 Indians, but some rumors had him killing over a hundred of Indians. This may not make Wetzel into a depraved psychopath, nor does it discount that possibility. In 1779, Brigadier General Daniel Brodhead was appointed Commander of the Western Department, which included several frontier forts.
It was at this time that the Wyandot, Ringo, Shawnee, and Lenape tribes ended their neutrality in the American Revolution and allied themselves with the British, all members of the Iroquois Confederacy, whom they controlled and directed from Fort Detroit. It fell upon Brodhead to deal with these Indians; he, like the British, formed an Indian alliance with the Oneida and directed Indian raids against the British and their allies. Brodhead often led these expeditions … including the one in 1781 known to history as the Coshocton Expedition.
In 1781, it is claimed that he killed an Indian in front of witnesses during Daniel Brodhead’s campaign against the Delaware. Brodhead, with 150 soldiers and 134 militia surprised and burned the Delaware town of Coshocton; this success was blunted by the militia’s deliberate killing of fifteen Delaware warriors after they had surrendered. This in turn resulted to the Delaware burning nine captured Kentuckians over nine consecutive days.
The main result of Brodhead’s campaign was to solidify the Delaware’s hostility toward settlers; after Coshocton, the Delaware tribe rivaled that of the Shawnee in their hatred. Wetzel’s contribution was the murder of a Delaware chief acting as a peace emissary. The chief had been invited to the American camp under a safe-conduct pass and had just gotten out of his canoe when Wetzel tomahawked him from behind. The militiamen under Brodhead were so laudatory of Wetzel’s actions that the general chose to do nothing to punish him. Wetzel’s act was cowardly; Brodhead’s decision not to punish him was despicable.
When he wasn’t participating in expeditions, Wetzel served as a guide leading land speculators into areas they wanted to claim before governments made them available to the general public — or, in other words, before the Indians had been removed from their traditional lands. Sometimes, these groups of men attracted attention to themselves — unwanted attention by hostiles. Wetzel, as an individual, was more than capable of taking care of himself in combat, but some of his companions were not as capable, or as lucky. While traveling with Wetzel in the spring of 1786, John — the brother of future president James Madison — was killed by Indians along the Little Kanawha River (present day West Virginia).
Over time, Lewis Wetzel became even more eccentric — in his behavior and in his appearance. People began to wonder if Wetzel was sane. They were probably just being polite — there was no way Wetzel was sane.
After the American Revolution, the United States had almost no army; the Continental Army had been disbanded, and the entire United States Army had just 55 artillerymen at West Point and an additional 25 artillerymen at Fort Pitt. For defense, the United States relied on state militias that state governors preferred not to serve outside their states. To enforce the United States claims on the “Old Northwest” territory, Congress had called for a federal regiment of about 700 men. The cost of this regiment, the First American Regiment, would be proportioned between Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Since most of the men came from Pennsylvania, that state was allowed to choose the regimental commander. Thomas Mifflin, a powerful politician, pushed for his friend Josiah Harmar to command, which he did.
Harmar was known as a strict disciplinarian — with harsh punishments for dirty uniforms or rusty weapons, but of course it was his task to transform farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights into efficient soldiers. While at Fort Harmar (named for himself), Colonel Harmar hired Lewis Wetzel as his chief scout and hunter. Ironically, the purpose of Fort Harmar was to protect the Delaware Indians from white settlers.
In 1788, Josiah Harmar had been working toward a peace treaty with the Seneca. As before, when Chief Tgunteh approached Fort Harmar, Wetzel murdered him in cold blood — but Tgunteh lived long enough to describe Wetzel to others, which is when Wetzel’s troubles began in earnest. Colonel Harmar charged him with murder and swore out a warrant for Wetzel’s arrest. An army patrol captured him not long after while encamped on an island in the Ohio River near Marietta. He later escaped wearing hand irons but with many friends sharing his sentiments toward the Indians, he was soon rid of them.
Wetzel was captured a second time by a group of regular army troops traveling in civilian clothes. When they recognized him, they took him into custody and transported him under guard to Fort Washington and confined him in the guardhouse pending trial. When word leaked out that Wetzel was in custody, 200 frontiersmen gathered outside the fort and demanded his release. If the army would not release Wetzel, they threatened, these ruffians would go in and get him out by force. This issue was resolved when Territorial Judge John Symmes released Wetzel on his own recognizance but a trial was never scheduled.
Despite the efforts of people like Wetzel to keep hostility going with the Indians, peace of a sort finally did come to the Ohio country in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville. The Greenville treaty established a new boundary line between American settlers and the Indian nations that ran northward from the Ohio River. When Indian attacks abated in the Ohio River area, Wetzel’s star faded and he drifted southwestward to Spanish territory.
As we might expect, Lewis didn’t stay out of trouble in Louisiana. He spent several years in prison in the 1790s — some say because he became involved with a Spanish officer’s lady, but it is more likely it had something to do with counterfeiting. We are told that Wetzel joined the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804 as a hunter and scout but lasted only a few months. Whether he was let go or withdrew is unknown because there is no record of Lewis Wetzel in any of the expedition records. For now, the story must remain, at best, unconfirmed — but his name does appear in records in Natchez, Mississippi and it was while living with his cousin Philip Sykes that he passed on in 1808, aged 45 years.
In his own day, Lewis Wetzel was a local hero; modernists, with their very different standards and rose-colored glasses, view him as a murdering psychopath — and they could be right about that. We can disagree with what he did from the comfort of our modern homes, but we should at least recall that were it not for men like Wetzel, who fought the Indian on his own terms, we might not today have our nice modern homes and our manicured gardens.