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A Woman of Courage on the West Virginia Frontier: Phebe Tucker Cunningham

An excerpt:

In early August 1785, Thomas Cunningham decided to make a final trip to Pittsburgh before the fall harvest and the winter that would soon follow. He packed up his horses with furs he and Edward had trapped, which would be sold for cash or traded for supplies, and said farewell to Phebe and their four children, probably assuring her that he would return in a few weeks time with everything they needed for the coming winter. Knowing that Edward and his thirteen-year-old son, Benjamin, would be able to provide some protection to his family and relying on the militia scouts for warning of any Indian activity, Thomas likely left with as little trepidation as one living on the frontier at that time could have.

As Thomas made his way down the Monongahela, Phebe continued her daily routine, working around the farm, performing seemingly endless household chores and, of course, taking care of her children. The last day of August soon arrived, and it began much the same as all the other summer days that preceded it. The only thing that was remotely noteworthy was the presence of a small bird that flew in the window during the early morning and fluttered about Phebe’s cabin. Given that the cabin doors and windows were usually open during summer days, this was not a particularly strange occurrence. However, based on what would happen later that day, every time a bird flew into her house for the rest her life, Phebe would see it as a bad omen, becoming anxious, frightened and often moved to tears.

As the morning progressed, Phebe washed her favorite red and white coverlet and then carefully draped it over the fence in front of the cabin to dry. With that task complete, she went inside to cook a large lunch for her children, as Sarah did the same a few yards away in her cabin. The noon meal Phebe prepared that day included a main course of bear meat plus new potatoes and fresh peas from the garden, with applesauce made from apples grown in their own orchard. The meal would be topped off with dessert in the form of a fresh-baked vinegar pie and sweet milk for her children. As midday arrived, Phebe set the table, and since Thomas was expected home at any time, she even set a place for him at the table. Then she rounded up her children and sat down to eat with them, not knowing that danger hovered nearby.

That danger came from a raiding party of Wyandot warriors, who were at that moment crouched in the woods, watching and waiting for the right moment to move from their hiding place and attack the farm in what was likely intended as a captive-taking raid. On this occasion, the militia scout system had failed to detect the raiding party’s presence in the area, and the warriors had probably been observing the farm for some time. As a result, they knew that Edward and Benjamin were the only ones capable of making any meaningful resistance and that a total of two women and ten children were the potential prizes as captives. Furthermore, the noon meal offered an excellent opportunity to make their approach, as everyone was inside, focused on eating their meals and conversing, while the cabin doors stood wide open. Their plan seems to have been for one warrior to first enter Phebe’s cabin, where they knew no man was present to resist them.

Once inside, the warrior could use his rifle to provide cover for the rest of the attackers, as they tried to get inside Edward and Sarah’s cabin before Edward and his son could reach their rifles and close the front door. As the Cunningham families ate their lunch, the warriors crept out from the woods and hid behind the coverlet drying on the fence. Then, one of the Wyandot, a tall, heavy man painted for war in red, yellow and black, crossed the yard and crept toward Phebe’s cabin. Inside, Phebe sat at the end of the table closest to the cabin door, chatting with her children and eating her meal. Suddenly, her peripheral vision detected movement, and she turned toward the door to see shadow of a tomahawk crossing its threshold. Before she could move to close the door or cry out the alarm, the Wyandot quickly entered the cabin, closing the door behind him. 

A reader review of this compelling work:


"A historical account of the author's distant grandmother's experiences in late eighteenth century Virginia, including her Indian captivity and release. Thompson's book is scholarly but very accessible (highly readable). He carefully describes the true historical context of his g-g-g-g-g-g-grandmother's life. This book helped me better understand the middle and late eighteenth century in America. I very much appreciate Thompson's scholarship."