Who was the White Woman of the Walhonding River?
If you visited the area of Roscoe Village at Coshocton, Ohio near the confluence of the Tuscarawas, Walhonding, and Muskingum Rivers, you’ve likely seen “White Woman Street,” or markers with the name “White Woman’s Rock,” or “White Woman’s Town.” It would be natural to wonder who or what those names pertain to or whether they even referred to a real person.
She was indeed a real person, and her name was Mary Harris. Mary was born about 1695 in the New England Province of Massachusetts Bay, and lived with her family in the small frontier hamlet of Deerfield, near present Springfield. Massachusetts. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Deerfield was the northwesternmost village in the colony with a population of about three hundred souls. As such it was particularly vulnerable to attack in the frequent wars of the period.
In 1702, “Queen Anne’s War” (1702-1713) broke out between the French and the English, which was another of the long succession of wars that historians call the “Second Hundred Years War.” In Europe, Queen Anne’s War was known as the “War of the Spanish Succession).
In the pre-dawn hours of Friday, February 29, 1704, a combined force of about 48 tough French-Canadian rangers, and about 250 Abenaki, Caughnawaga, Huron, and Pocumtuc Indians struck the town of Deerfield in a savage attack. The French Canadians and their Indian allies were commanded by John-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville (1668-1722), a ruthless frontier leader who was reviled by the English because of his propensity for attacking small, isolated, and poorly defended settlements.
The attackers took the town by surprise, smashing their way into homes, killing the inhabitants, and setting fire to the buildings. Some residents whose homes were fortified, were able to fight off the attackers, but seventeen of the forty-one homes in the little town were totally destroyed, and most of the others were looted and damaged.
Of the 291 residents, only 126 escaped death or capture; 56 townspeople were killed in the attack, including 22 men, 9 women, and 25 children. Those captives who could not make the trek back to Canada were killed on the spot. Those included men, women, children, injured or infirm; basically anyone who would slow the war party’s escape. The raiders took 109 captives back to Canada, including young Mary Harris who was about nine years old at the time.
In Canada, Mary was adopted by the Indians, but there is no record of her early years. As she grew into womanhood, she became the wife of a Caughnawaga warrior, and bore him several children of whom at least two were sons. Caughnawaga was a community of Indians from different nations, who were Christianized by the Jesuits and referred to as “praying Indians.” Due to the influence of the French Jesuits, the Caughnawagas tended to support the French in the wars between France and England. Mary Harris’s husband was a Lenape or Delaware Indian who lived in the Caughnawaga community.
We know that Mary and her family were in Canada in 1744, because a Connecticut man named Joseph Kellogg of Suffield, Connecticut, who was a captive of the Indians, encountered Mary and her family at that time. Kellogg wrote, “Two young men, Mary Harrises children, have been with me twice, which have lodged at my house. One of them is a very inteligable man about thirty years of age, and from him I indeavored to critically examine them about the affairs of Canada.”
That encounter must have occured shortly before Mary and her family moved to Ohio, because a French map dated 1746 implies that Mary Harris was then living on the Walhonding River. The map refers to the Walhonding River as “Rivière des Femmes Blanc” or the River of White Women. Also, British maps show the Walhonding as “White Woman’s Creek,” and a town near the confluence of Killbuck Creek and the Walhonding River is shown as “White Woman’s Town.”
On Friday, January 15, 1751, frontiersman Christopher Gist encountered Mary Harris at her town in Ohio, and documented the meeting in his journal. “Tuesday 15. We left Muskingum, and went W. 5M., to the White Woman’s Creek, on which is a small town; this White Woman was taken away from New England, when she was not above ten years old, by the French Indians; she is now upwards of fifty, and has an Indian husband and several children – Her name is Mary Harris: she still remembers they used to be very religious in New England, and wonders how the white men can be so wicked as she has seen them in the woods.”
As near as can be determined, Mary and her family returned to Canada during the French and Indian War, likely around 1755, because in 1756, she is reported to have provided care and comfort to English prisoners in Canada. At that time, she introduced herself as Mary Harris to a Pennsylvania prisoner of war, and told him that she had been “taken captive when a child from Deerfield, New England.” She added that One of her sons, Peter, had by now become an important war leader.” That was the last recorded mention of Mary Harris, and it’s not known what became of her after that time.
During the colonial period, several men, women, and children were taken captive by the Indians. Some were notable like Mary Jemison who was taken by the Seneca in 1753 when she was fifteen, and others less famous like Mary Campbell who was captured in 1758 when she was ten years old. Often, when given the opportunity to be repatriated back into white society, they refused, and said they preferred to stay with the Indians. During Henry Bouquet’s expedition in 1764, his troops forcibly repatriated many white people who had been taken captive, but often, they later escaped to return to their adopted Indian families.
We’ll present the remarkable stories of some of those captives in subsequent posts.