CALHOUN'S PHEBE CUNNINGHAM SUFFERED GREAT DESPAIR - Children Killed By Indians, She Remained In Captivity


The resting place of historic figure Phebe
Cunningham, just above the Leading Creek Road

By Bob Weaver

Phebe Tucker Cunningham (1761-1845) is likely the most famous historical woman whose remains rest in Calhoun County, the wife of Revolutionary War solider Thomas Cunningham.

Phebe has allowed hundreds of women to become members of the Daughters of the Revolution, including a now defunct Calhoun chapter under her name.

She was taken prisoner by the Indians in 1785 and carried into captivity, her four children murdered, a complete account appearing in "The Chronicles of Border Warfare."

She wandered with her captives in the wilderness for three years, after which her release was achieved.

She is buried on Leading Creek in Calhoun County in the Shimer Cemetery, one mile west of the Prosperity Church and two miles from State Rt. 16.


In 1785, six Indians came to Bingamon creek, (a branch of the West Fork) and made their appearance upon a farm occupied by Thomas and Edward Cunningham. At this time the two brothers were dwelling with their families in separate houses, but nearly adjoining, though not in a direct line with each other.

Thomas was then on a trading visit east of the mountain, and his wife and four children were collected in their room for the purpose of eating dinner, as was Edward with his family, in their house. Suddenly a lusty savage entered where were Mrs. Thomas Cunningham and her children, but seeing that he would be exposed to a fire from the other house, and apprehending no danger from the woman and children, he closed the door and seemed for a time only intent on the means of escaping.

Edward Cunningham had seen the savage enter his brother's house, and fastened his own door, seized his gun and stepping to a small aperture in the wall next the house in which was the Indian, and which served as well for a port hole as for the admission of light, was ready to fire whenever the savage should make his appearance.

But in the other house was a like aperture, and through it the Indian fired at Edward, and shouted the yell of victory. It was answered by Edward. He had seen the aim of the savage only in time to avoid it, -- the bark from the log close to his head, was knocked off by the ball and flew into his face.

The Indian seeing that he had missed his object, and observing an ax in the room, deliberately commenced cutting an aperture in the back wall through which he might pass out without being exposed to a shot from the other building.

Another of the Indians came into the yard just after the firing of his companion, but observing Edward's gun pointing through the port hole, he endeavored to retreat out of its range.

He failed of his purpose. Just as he was about to spring over the fence, the gun was fired and he fell forward. The ball however only fractured his thigh bone, and he was yet able to hobble over the fence and take shelter behind a coverlet suspended on it, before Edward could again load his gun.

While the Indian was engaged in cutting a hole in the wall, Mrs. Cunningham made no attempt to get out. She was well aware that it would draw down upon her head the fury of the savage; and that if she escaped this, she would most probably be killed by some of those who were watching around, before the other door could be opened for her admission.

She knew too, that it was impossible for her to take the children with her, and could not brook the idea of leaving them in the hands of the savage monster. She even trusted to the hope that he would withdraw, as soon as he could, without molesting any of them. A few minutes served to convince her of the fallacy of this expectation. When the opening had been made sufficiently large, he raised his tomahawk, sunk it deep into the brains of one of the children, and throwing the scarcely lifeless body into the back yard, ordered the mother to follow after.

There was no alternative but death, and she obeyed his order, stepping over the dead body of one of her children, with an infant in her arms and two others screaming from horror at the sight, and clinging to her.

When all were out he scalped the murdered boy, and setting fire to the house, retired to an eminence in the field, where two of the savages were, with their wounded companion. -- leaving the other two to watch the opening of Edward Cunningham's door, when the burning of the house should force the family from their shelter.

They were disappointed in their expectation of that event by the exertions of Cunningham and his son. When the flame from the one house communicated to the roof of the other, they ascended to the loft, threw off the loose boards which covered it, and extinguished the fire; -- the savages shooting at them all the while, and their balls frequently striking close by.

Despairing of accomplishing farther havoc, and fearful of detection and pursuit, the Indians collected together and prepared to retreat. Mrs. Cunningham's eldest son was first tomahawked and scalped; the fatal hatchet sunk into the head of her little daughter, whom they then took by the arms and legs, and slinging it repeatedly against a tree, ended its sufferings with its life.

Mrs. Cunningham stood motionless with grief, and in momentary expectation of having the same dealt to her and her innocent infant. But no! She was doomed to captivity; and with her helpless babe in her arms, was led off from this scene of horror.

The wounded savage was carried on a rough litter, and they all departed, crossing the ridge to Bingamon creek, near which they found a cave that afforded them shelter and concealment. After night, they returned to Edward Cunningham's, and finding no one, plundered and fired the house.

When the savages withdrew in the evening, Cunningham went with his family into the woods, where they remained all night, there being no settlement nearer than eight or ten miles.

In the morning, proceeding to the nearest house, they gave the alarm and a company of men was soon collected to go in pursuit of the Indians.

When they came to Cunningham's and found both houses heaps of ashes, they buried the bones which remained of the boy who was murdered in the house, with the bodies of his brother and little sister, who were killed in the field; but so cautiously had the savages conducted their retreat that no traces of them could be discovered, and the men returned to their homes.

Some days after, circumstances induced the belief that the Indians were yet in the neighborhood, and men were again assembled for the purpose of tracing them.

They were now enabled to distinguish the trail, and pursued it near to the cave, where from the number of rocks on the ground and the care which had been taken by the Indians to leave no vestige, they could no longer discover it.

They however examined for it in every direction until night forced them to desist. In thinking over the incidents of the day; the cave occurred to the mind of Major Robinson, who was well acquainted with the woods, and he concluded that the savages must be concealed in it.

It was examined early next morning, but they had left it the preceding night and departed for their towns. After her return from captivity, Mrs. Cunningham stated, that in time of the search on the day before, the Indians were in the cave, and that several times the whites approached so near, that she could distinctly hear their voices; the savages standing with their guns ready to fire, in the event of their being discovered, and forcing her to keep the infant to her breast, lest its crying might point to the place of their concealment.

In consequence of their stay at this place on account of their wounded companion, it was some time before they arrived in their own country; and Mrs. Cunningham's sufferings, of body as well as mind were truly great. Fatigue and hunger oppressed her sorely, -- the infant in her arms, wanting the nourishment derived from the due sustenance of the mother, plied at the breast for milk, in vain -- blood came in stead; and the Indians perceiving this, put a period to its sufferings, with the tomahawk, even while clinging to its mother's bosom. It was cast a little distance from the path, and left without a leaf or bush to hide it from beasts of prey.

The anguish of this woman during the journey to the towns, can only be properly estimated by a parent; her bodily sufferings may be inferred from the fact, that for ten days her only sustenance consisted of the head of a wild turkey and three papaws, and from the circumstance that the skin and nails of her feet, scalded by frequent wading of the water, came with her stockings, when upon their arrival at a village of the Delawares, she was permitted to draw them off.

Yet was she forced to continue on with them the next day. -- One of the Indians belonging to the village where they were, by an application of some native herbs, very much relieved the pain which she endured.

When she came to the town of those by whom she had been made prisoner, although receiving no barbarous or cruel usage, yet everything indicated to her, that she was reserved for some painful torture.

The wounded Indian had been left behind, and she was delivered to his father. Her clothes were not changed, as is the case when a prisoner is adopted by them; but she was compelled to wear them, dirty as they were, -- a bad omen for a captive.

She was however, not long in apprehension of a wretched fate. A conference was soon to take place between the Indians and whites, preparatory to a treaty of peace; and witnessing an uncommon excitement in the village one evening, upon inquiring, learned that the Great captain Simon Girty had arrived.

She determined to prevail with him, if she could, to intercede for her liberation, and seeing him next day passing near on horseback, she laid hold on his stirrup, and implored his interference. For a while he made light of her petition, -- telling her that she would be as well there as in her own country, and that if he were disposed to do her a kindness he could not as his saddle bags were too small to conceal her; but her importunity at length prevailed, and he whose heart had been so long steeled against every kindly feeling, every sympathetic impression, was at length induced to perform an act of generous, disinterested benevolence.

He paid her ransom, had her conveyed to the commissioners for negotiating with the Indians, and by them she was taken to a station on the south side of the Ohio. Here she met with two gentlemen (Long and Denton) who had been at the treaty to obtain intelligence of their children taken captive some time before, but not being able to gain any information respecting them, they were then returning to the interior of Kentucky and kindly furnished her a horse.

In consequence of the great danger attending a journey through the wilderness which lay between the settlements in Kentucky and those on the Holstein, persons scarcely ever performed it but at particular periods of the year, and in caravans, the better to defend themselves against attacks of savages.

Notice of the time and place of the assembling of one of these parties being given, Mrs. Cunningham prepared to accompany it; but before that time arrived, they were deterred from the undertaking by the report that a company of travelers, stronger than theirs would be, had been encountered by the Indians, and all either killed or made prisoners.

Soon after another party resolved on a visit to Virginia, and Mrs. Cunningham was furnished a horse belonging to a gentleman on Holstein (which had escaped from him while on a buffalo hunt in Kentucky and was found after his return,) to carry her that far on her way home. Experiencing the many unpleasant circumstances incident to such a jaunt, she reached Holstein, and from thence, after a repose of a few days, keeping up the Valley of Virginia, she proceeded by the way of Shenandoah, to the county of Harrison.

Here she was sadly disappointed in not meeting with her husband. Having understood that she had been ransomed and taken to Kentucky, he had, some time before, gone on in quest of her. Anxiety for his fate, alone and on a journey which she well knew to be fraught with many dangers, she could not cheerily partake of the general joy excited by her return.

In a few days however, he came back. He had heard on Holstein of her having passed there and he retraced his steps. Arriving at his brother Edward's, he again enjoyed the satisfaction of being with all that was then dear to him on earth.

It was a delightful satisfaction, but presently damped by the recollection of [277] the fate of his luckless children -- Time assuaged the bitterness of the recollection and blessed him with other and more fortunate children."

- "Chronicle of Border Warfare" - History of the Settlement of the Whites of North Western Virginia and of the Indian Wars and Massacres in that Section of the State - written by Alexander Scott Withers, 1895

Just above the Leading Creek road on the hillside is where Phebe Cunningham (1761-1845) is buried beside the Shimer, Snider and Collins, including Issac Collins (grandson of Phebe Cunningham) who died in 1833 and Issac (1792-1871) and Rachel (1794-1882) Collins.