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Adventure of Lewis Wetzel

From The Casket, 1837

Amongst the heroes of border warfare, Lewis Wetzel held no inferior station.--Inured to hardships while yet in boyhood, and familiar with all the varieties of forest adventure, from that of hunting the beaver and the bear, to that of the wily Indian, he became one of the most celebrated marksmen of the day. His form was erect, and of that height best adapted to activity, being very muscular, and possessed of great bodily strength. From constant exercise, he could without fatigue bear prolonged and violent exertion, especially that of running and walking ; and he had, by practice, acquired the art of loading his rifle when running at full speed through the forest; and, wheeling on the instant, he could discharge it with unerring aim, at the distance of eighty or one hundred yards, into a mark not larger than a dollar. This art he has been known more than once to practice with fatal success on his savage foes.

A marksman of superior skill was, in those days, estimated by the other borderers much in the same way that a knight templar, or a knight of the cross, who excelled in the tournament or the charge, was valued by his contemporaries, in the days of chivalry. Challenges of skill often took place; and marksmen, who lived at the distance of fifty miles or more from each other, frequently met by appointment, to try the accuracy of their aim, on bets of considerable amount. Wetzel's fame had spread far and wide, as the most expert and unerring shot of the day. It chanced that a young man, a few years younger than myself, who lived on Dankard's creek, a tributary of the Monongahela river, which waters one of the earliest settlements in that region, heard of his fame, and as he also was an expert woodsman, and a first rate shot, the best in his settlement, he became very desirous of an opportunity for a trial of skill. So great was his desire, that he one day shouldered his rifle, and whistling his faithful dog to his side, started for the neighborhood of Wetzel, who, at that time, lived on Wheeling Creek, distant about twenty miles from the settlement on Dunkard's creek. When about half way on his journey, a fine buck sprang up just before him. He levelled his gun with his usual precision, but the deer, though badly wounded, did not fall dead in his tracks. His faithful dog soon seized him and brought him to the ground, but while in the act of his doing this, another dog sprang from the forest upon the deer, and his master, making his appearance at the same time from behind a tree, with a loud voice claimed the buck as his property, because he had been wounded by his shot and seized by his dog. It so happened that they had both fired at once at this deer, a tact which may very well happen where two active men are hunting on the same ground, although one may fire at the distance of fifty yards, and the other at one hundred. The dogs felt the same spirit of rivalry with their masters, and quitting the deer, which was already dead, fell to worrying and tearing each other. In separating the dogs, the stranger hunter happened to strike that of the young man. The old adage, "strike my dog, strike myself," arose in full force, and without further ceremony, except a few hearty curses, he fell upon the hunter and hurled him to the ground. This was no sooner done than he found himself turned, and under his stronger and more powerful antagonist. Discovering that he was no match at this play, the young man appealed to the trial of rifles, saying it was too much like dogs, for men, and hunters, to fight in this way. The stranger assented to the trial, but told his antagonist that before he put it fairly to the test, he had better witness what he was able to do with the rifle, saying that he was as much superior, he thought, with that weapon, as he was in bodily strength. He bid him place a mark the size of a shilling on the side of a huge poplar that stood beside them, from which he would start with his rifle unloaded, and running a hundred yards at ful, and wheeling, would discharge it instantly to the centre of the mark. The feat was no sooner proposed than performed! the ball en- tered the centre of the diminutive target: astonished at his activity and skill, his antagonist instantly inquired his name. Lewis Wetzel, at your service, answered the stranger. The young hunter seized him by the hand with all the ardor of youthful admiration, and at once acknowledg- ed his own inferiority. So charmed was be with Wetzel's frankness, skill, and fine personal appearance, that he insisted upon his returning with him to the settlement on Dunkard's creek, that he might exhibit his talents to his own family, and to the hardy backwoodsmen, his neighbors. Nothing loth lo such an exhibition, and pleased with the energy of his new acquaintance, Wetzel consented to accompany him; shortening the way with their mutual tales of hunting excursions and hazardous contests with the common enemies of the country. Amongst other things, Wetzel stated his manner of distinguishing the footsteps of a white man from those of an Indian, although covered with moccasins, and intermixed with the tracks of savages. He had acquired this tact from closely examining the manner of placing the feet; the Indian stepped with his feet in parallel lines, and first bringing the toe to the ground : while the white man almost invariably places his feet at an angle with the line of march. An opportunity they little expected, soon gave room to put his skill to the trial. On reaching the young man's home, which they did that day, they found the dwelling a smoking ruin, and all the family lying murdered and scalped, except a young woman who had been brought up in the family, and to whom the young man was ardently attached. She had been taken away alive, as was ascertained by examining the trail of the savages. Wetzel soon discovered that the party consisted of three Indians and a renegado white man, a fact not uncommon in those early days, when, for crime or the love of revenge, the white outlaw fled to the savages, and was adopted on trial into their tribe.

As it was past the middle of the day, and the nearest assistance still at some considerable distance, and there were only four to contend with, they decided on instant pursuit. As the deed had very recently been done, they hoped to overtake them in their camp that night, and perhaps before they could cross the Ohio river, to which the Indians always retreated after a successful incursion, considering themselves in a manner safe when they had crossed to its right bank, at that time occupied wholly by the Indian tribes.

Ardent and unwearied was the pursuit, by the youthful huntsmen; the one, excited to recover his lost mistress, the other, to assist his new friend, and to take revenge for the slaughter of his countrymen slaughter and revenge being the daily business of the borderers at this portentous period*(Between 1782 and 1784). Wetzel followed the trail with the unerring sagacity of a bloodhound; and just at dusk traced the fugitives to the noted war path, nearly opposite to the mouth of Captina creek, emptying into the Ohio, which, much to their disappointment, they found the Indians had crossed, by forming a raft of logs and brush, their usual manner when at a distance from their villages. By examining carefully the appearance on the opposite shore, they soon discovered the fire of the Indian camp in a hollow way, a few rods from the river. Lest the noise of constructing a raft should alarm the Indians, and give notice of the pursuit, the two hardy adventurers determined to swim the stream a few rods below. This they easily accomplished, being both of them excellent swimmers ; fastening their clothes and ammunition in a bundle on the tops of their heads, with their rifles resting on the left hip, they reached the opposite shore in safety; after carefully examining their arms, and putting every article of attack or defence in its proper place, they crawled very cautiously to a position which gave them a fair view of their enemies, who, thinking themselves safe from pursuit, were carelessly reposing around their lire, thoughtless of the fate that awaited them. They instantly discovered the young woman apparently unhurt but making much moaning and lamentation, while the white man was trying to pacify and console her with the promise of kind usage, and an adoption in the tribe. The young man, hardly able to restrain his rage, was for firing and rushing instantly upon them.--Wetzel, more cautious, told him to wait until daylight appeared, when they could meet with a better chance of success, and of also killing the whole party, but if they attacked in the dark, a part of them would certainly escape. As soon as daylight dawned, the Indians arose and prepared to depart. The young man selecting the white renegade, and Wetzel an Indian, they both fired at the same time, each killing his man. The young man rushed forward knife in hand, to relieve the young woman, while Wetzel reloaded his gun and pushed in pursuit of the two surviving Indians, who had taken to the woods, until they could ascertain the number of their enemies. Wetzel, as soon as he saw that he was discovered, discharged his rifle at random, in order to draw them from their covert. Hearing the report, and finding themselves unhurt, the Indians rushed upon him before he could again reload. This was as he wished: taking to his heels, Wetzel loaded as he ran, and suddenly wheeling about, discharged his rifle through the body of his nearest, but unsuspecting enemy. The remaining Indian, seeing the fate of his companion, and that his enemy's rifle was unloaded, rushed forward with all energy. the prospect of prompt revenge being fairly be- fore him. Wetzel led him on, dodging from tree to tree, until his rifle was again ready, when suddenly turning, he shot his remaining enemy, who fell dead at his feet. After taking their scalps, Wetzel and his friend, with their rescued captive, returned in safety to the settlement. Like honest Joshua Fleetheart, after the peace of 1795, Wetzel pushed for the frontiers on the Mississippi, where he could trap the beaver, hunt the buffalo and the deer, and occasionally shoot an Indian, the object of his mortal hatred. He finally died as he had always lived, a free man of the forest.

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