Monday, May 13, 2013

Knapsack 5-16

Notes from my Knapsack 5-16-13

Jeff Gill


First, you have to escape yourself




Beneath the news that's so horrified and transfixed us out of Cleveland, there's a question that keeps popping up.


Why didn't those three women try to escape?


In fact, it appears that they did try, and that their captor is said to have been quite adept at mixing physical restraints on the doors (multiple locks, boarded windows) and on their persons (ropes and chains) with psychological manipulation. It even looks like his decision to let one woman have a child six years ago might have been to give him even more leverage over his tragic, twisted household.


If you live a life filled with choices and possibility, where you have options and autonomy on an everyday basis, you may be a bit slow to realize just how tightly circumstance can bind a person, no less than cords and chains. But we have in our local history another point of contact with these sorts of situations, even if two centuries intervene.


Billy Dragoo was a boy of twelve or a bit more in 1786, along the upper reaches of the Monongahela River in what's now West Virginia. His family had recently moved to the area  following the formal end of the war with Great Britain we call the American Revolution, with peace in 1783 ending, it was hoped, overt hostilities between the western parts of the colonies, now states, and the British fort at Detroit.


Col. Henry "Hair Buyer" Hamilton was no longer paying bounties for American scalps, but the Ohio country on either side of the river was still unsettled: in both the lack of permanent farm communities, and unsettled as well in the mood of the Shawnee, Mingo, and Wyandot peoples whose way of life was severely compromised by the withdrawal of British support. Hunting was hard, the old ways undermined by the arrival of guns and trade goods and the collapse of the beaver market, and alcohol kept the pot on simmer all around the region between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River.


So it was that a raiding party, years after such raiding was supposedly no more, came through today's Barrackville, West Virginia. A party of young men, dispossessed Native Americans, were stealing horses, grabbing stores from gardens and unguarded cabins, and on this October day in 1786, they killed most of two settler families in a surprise encounter. Letting a few run off to escape, they kept with them young William Dragoo.


He became only the third European person to have left a written account of passing through Licking County (after Christopher Gist & Rev. David Jones), and though he was a captive led against his will from the Muskingum watershed through the heart of our area, its beauty made an impression.


Known at the end of his life as "Indian Billy Dragoo," his story is more fully told elsewhere, but he found himself as winter came in the Detroit area adopted into an Indian family to replace a lost son, then married to a widowed woman who needed someone to hunt for her.


It was not until 1804, a year before Granville was "settled", that the now at least thirty year old man returned to Pittsburgh, in search of a good hunting gun, and learned in a chance encounter that his father and brother had survived the attack that killed his mother and so many others, and even then, he was slow to return to "his people." Ultimately, he remarried another Euro-American woman, and came to farm and live out his days in Licking County. The full story of his life can be found elsewhere, and is well worth the reading. He died in 1856, and is buried off Briarcliff Road west of Perryton.


Did "Indian Billy" just like the lifestyle in the woods, with his adopted family? Or did he reach a point where he simply couldn't imagine being welcomed back home? We don't know. Seeing his mother die at his feet, and the distance he traveled, and what he had to do to survive: slowly, the very idea of escape can become distant, dim. And you stop believing that you even can.


I suspect only William Dragoo could understand the courage it took Amanda Berry to even imagine escaping, let alone to do so.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your favorite story of escape and rescue at, or @Knapsack on Twitter.

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