Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

The Scrape of the Wetzel Brothers

and the Nerve of Two Boy Scouts

Several kinds of frontier fighters seem to have been needed in order that from the white strip along the Atlantic coast the American cabins should move on to the Ohio River and into the red Northwest.

The patient, untiring Daniel Boone was one kind. He was a settler. He explored only to plant a family home; he killed Indians only to preserve the home, his people and himself. He commanded respect.

Simon Kenton was another kind. He was an adventurer. He planted no home of any value to the country; he took the trail as a scout, and killed Indians who got in his way. He won hatred as well as respect.

The Wetzel boys were a third kind. They were settlers, they were scouts, but they were professional Indian-hunters. The trail had one object to them: scalps and revenge. They spread fear and hatred both.

There were five Wetzel brothers: Martin, Lewis, Jacob, John and George. Not so much is heard about George, but the four others became famous bordermen.

The Wetzel family removed with the Zane families and neighbors from the South Branch of the Potomac River, West Virginia, in 1770, to help form the Wheeling settlement at the Ohio in the pan-handle. Father John Wetzel was a daring man; a great hunter, a venturesome explorer; and finally he took chances once too often and lost his life.

When he arrived in the Wheeling district he located his cabin fourteen miles up Wheeling Creek, where he had little company except his wife and children. Besides the five sons, two daughters were born: Susan and Christina. So the cabin did not lack excitement, even had there been no Indian scares.

Of the sons, Martin was the eldest. He and his father aided in the defense of Fort Henry, in 1775. Lewis was the next; he was born about 1764. Jacob probably was the next to Lewis.

It was in 1778, when Lewis was about fourteen and Jacob was about twelve that they two had their celebrated affair with the Indians, which proved them to be made of the right stuff for bordermen.

They were playing near the corn-crib some little distance from the cabin when Lewis, standing up, saw a rifle-muzzle pointing straight at his breast, from a corner of the crib. As quick as thought he sprang backward—but the ball was on its way. It tore across his breast, and took a piece of his breast bone. However, he had done well; the rifle had been aimed to kill, and only the smartness of his frontier training had saved his life. The children of the border days were brought up to act fast in self-defence.

He fell. Indians rushed him at once, seized him and little Jacob, and clapping a hand across their mouths carried them away.

These were a small party of Indians, prowling about in hopes of doing something just like this. When they had seen Lewis, they had decided to shoot him. He was a stout, chunky lad, and looked to be older than his real age; they feared that he would run from them and give the alarm.

Now they had him and Jacob too. In the timber, pretty soon they set the two down, and dragged them forward by the arms. There was no use fighting, there was no use crying; to cry would have been a sign of weakness, in a border boy, and to fight would have brought only a beating.

Lewis grew sick with his pain, for his breast had been laid open clear to the mangled bone. But he uttered never a whimper, and being the older he of course had to encourage Jacob to keep a stiff upper lip. He was resolved, though, that the Indians should pay for this, some day. And he did make them pay, not only for this but for other matters.

"Aren't you bad hurt, Lewis?" panted Jacob. "Kinder. But if I complain they'll tomahawk me rather'n be pestered."

This night they all slept upon the ground in the woods north of Wheeling. The Indians tied the boys tightly. There was no chance of escape and it was a very uncomfortable night, what with Lewis's wound and Jacob's fear, and the cold and the hunger and the thought of the cabin on Wheeling Creek.

"Don't you beller, Jakie," Lewis bade. "We won't stay with 'em any longer'n we have Wetzels."

In the morning they were taken over the Ohio River in a canoe. That day they were made to travel twenty miles farther. Like other frontier boys (and like the girls too), they were raised bare-foot; by this time on their hustling journey their feet were cut and bleeding, so to-night the Indians did not tie the two prisoners.

They were foolish Indians; they had little idea of the nerve of white boys, especially these settler boys.

When all was quiet and the Indians were breathing deeply, Lewis got up. It was bright moonlight, and he could see plainly. He could see Jacob, and the forms of the Indians stretched around. He moved more. Nobody else stirred, not a breath was interrupted. Then, to find out if the Indians were playing 'possum, he stood on his feet.

Not an Indian seven so much as turned over. He began to walk about, treading carelessly, to test them out. He was a wise boy; he spent an hour, experimenting, while his heart beat more and more hopefully. He might have stolen off, but of course he had to take Jacob.

Jacob was asleep. Lewis crept to him and touched him and woke him.

"Come on," he whispered. "We're going."

Jacob shook his head, afraid.



Jacob's eyes widened.

"We'll be caught."

"No, we won't. They're asleep. Listen? I know they're asleep. Hurry up."

Jacob was only twelve. Lewis was his bigger brother, whom he admired. So he got up, staring—took long breath, and he holding to Lewis's hand, into the moonlit timber they scooted with never a backward look.

"We can follow our own trail back to the river," said Lewis. "It'll be easy."

"Ouch!" And Jacob began to limp.

Lewis stopped.

"You wait here. I'll get some moccasins."

"No, Lewis! They'll catch you."

"No, they won't. We've got to have moccasins."

Lewis scudded for the camp. In a minute he had found moccasins and had brought them. That was better. Now they might travel faster. But Lewis halted again.

"Wait. I'm going to get father a gun!"

"No, Lewis! Let's hurry. We don't want a gun."

"Yes, we do. Maybe we'll have to defend ourselves or kill meat. You wait right here."

Back Lewis scudded, a second time. He was a boy without fear. He brought a gun and ammunition. Then they hastened on. This time they had not gone far before they heard muffled voices behind them. The Indians had wakened and were on their trail.

"Hurry!" Jacob gasped. "Run!"

"No. They'd catch us sure. Our legs re too short. You do as I say, Jakie. When they get near, we'll hide and let 'em pass us. That's the way."

They hurried, but they kept listening. At what he thought ought to be the right time—when the voices and the twig-cracking were louder—Lewis grasped Jacob's arm.

"Now! Into the brush on this side, quick! No noise!"

They hid in a good place. Not a minute later two or three of the Indians filed past, like hounds upon the trail. Lewis, clutching Jacob to keep him quiet, waited. No more Indians came. Lewis chuckled.

"We'll follow on behind, but we'll have to be watching sharp for 'em to turn back," he whispered.

So they followed their pursuers, instead of their pursuers following them. The regular Indian trick had worked finely. But even a rabbit knows enough to do that: to hide beside the trail while its hunters race on. Lewis and Jacob felt smart indeed.

They kept their eyes and ears alert. Soon they heard the Indians coming back, on the trail, as if puzzled.

"Hide," Lewis whispered.

It was done at once, by a silent dart to the left and a squatting behind bushes. Again they held their breaths. Lewis's wound throbbed and stung, but he uttered not a murmur. The Indians passed; their keen eyes noted nothing suspicious; their sounds died away—

"All right, Jakie."

They set out once more, hastening on down the forest trail flecked by the moonlight; Lewis led, lugging the heavy gun, Jacob trotted close at his heels. Rabbits hopped and flattened, a fox or two glided, there was nothing dangerous, until—


They two stopped short, and poised, heads turned. Lewis painfully stooped and put his ear to the ground.

"They're following us horseback. We'll have to hide again."

They came to a good spot, and hid. This time it was two Indians on horses, sure enough, moving rapidly to catch them. Morning was near. The forest paled with the first tinge of dawn. They straightened up cautiously.

"I think we'd better leave this trail, Jakie," Lewis said. "We'll strike right east, for the river. We can't get lost now."

The sun rose, and they were still trudging fast, and no Indians had followed them. The Indians had been fooled nicely. About eleven o'clock they sighted the Ohio—they came out almost opposite the mouth of Wheeling Creek! Their father and Martin could not have beaten this, for a scout feat.

"There's Zane's Island!" Lewis panted. "Hooray, Jakie! There's the smoke of Wheeling settlement. We're nearly home."

He was just about worn out. For a boy of fourteen, with a big gash across his chest, and a gun to carry, and a little boy to look after, it had been a tough stunt —that fifteen-mile tramp by night and clay, on an empty stomach.

"Let's yell, Lewis, so somebody'll come for us."

"No. Injuns might hear us. We'll have to make a raft. We'll find logs and tie 'em together."

They did. They found two logs, lashed them together with grape-vine, and half swimming, half paddling, launched out. Shortly afternoon they landed below Wheeling, and were safe.

Lewis Wetzel


The people of Wheeling were much astonished to see them toil in. Long before they had reached home they were heroes. They received many compliments upon their work. And it goes without saying that there was a great ado over them in the Wetzel cabin, which had given them up for lost.

Nine years later Father Wetzel was killed by the Indians. He and a companion had been down river in a canoe, hunting and fishing. Neighbors had warned him that this was risky business, but he only laughed. Now he and his partner were paddling upstream, along shore, about eight miles below Wheeling. From the brush a party of Indians hailed them and ordered them to land.

"What! Surrender to you, you yaller varmints'?" old man Wetzel rapped. "Not whilst we live."

They turned the canoe and paddled fast, but the guns spoke and he received a ball through his body. He felt that he was wounded to death.

"Lie down in the bottom," he gasped. "That'll save you. I'm gone anyway, but I can get us out o' range."

He acted as target, while paddling his best. They made the opposite shore, at the mouth of Captina Creek, and he died at Baker's Bottom settlement, a short distance above. He was buried here. For some years a stone marked his grave. It said, only: "J. W., 1787."

At the Wetzel home the Wetzel boys vowed relentless war against all Indians. Their hatchets should never be dropped until not a redskin roamed the woods.

Lewis was now twenty-three: a borderman through and through and skilled almost beyond all others. He was not of the "long" type; instead, he was five feet eight inches; darker in complexion than his swarthy brothers, pitted with small-pox scars, broad-shouldered, thick in body, arms and legs, fiery black-eyed, and proud of his deeply black hair that when combed out fell in rippling waves to his calves.

All the brothers had long hair, black and oiled and curled. His was the longest; when not loose it formed a bunch under his fur cap.

He grew to be the most famous of the West Virginia Indian-fighters. In daring, and in trail-reading, he won first place. He practiced reloading his thirty-six-inch barreled, flintlock patch-and-ball rifle on the run (no easy job), and by this trick out-witted many Indians who thought that they had him when his gun had been emptied. The West Virginians looked upon him as their Daniel Boone, and their "right arm of defence."

He was credited with twenty-seven scalps, on the West Virginia border, and as many more elsewhere on the frontier. His brothers swelled the number to over one hundred.

Jacob reached six feet in height, and a weight of two hundred pounds—a powerful man like Simon Kenton. He and John also were celebrated Indian-hunters. But although Lewis himself once was outlawed by the military government for shooting an Indian needlessly, Martin was the really vindictive killer. No Indian of any kind, and whether surrendered or not, was safe from him, his rifle and his tomahawk. Indian-hunting and Indian-killing was a business with the Wetzels, and the name "Wetzel" carried terror through the forests.

Strange to say they, like Simon Kenton and other bordermen who scorned danger, lived on to a round manhood in spite of the chances that they took. Lewis died in his bed, of a sickness, near Natchez on the southern Mississippi River, in the summer of 1808, aged forty-four. John had died, a few years before, at Wheeling, in similar manner. Martin and Jacob also passed away peacefully.

Such men as the Wetzel brothers were "shock" booktroops. They did not occupy a country, but they the enemy's line.