Frontier Woman Survives Five Years in Shawnee Captivity
One of the most disturbing first-hand accounts of frontier life was relayed by Margaret Handley Erskine during the early 1840s. An elderly Erskine shared with her family a tale from her tortured youth when, as a young mother and wife, she was abducted by a group of Shawnee Indians while traveling from Virginia to Kentucky. She recounted her plight on previous occasions but had grown tired of telling the story, as each recounting of her capture and captivity was an emotionally tasking ordeal. Her grandson, Allen T. Caperton, fortunately, documented her final accounting of events, which was later archived by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
On September 23, 1779, Margaret Erskine (then Margaret Paulee) departed Monroe, Virginia with her first husband, John Paulee, and infant daughter. Three other armed men and a second family rounded out the party, who were all set on starting new lives on the further west. Early into their trip, near the mouth of the East River (in modern-day Mathews County, Virginia), six Shawnee Indians ambushed the group of travelers. Margaret tried to escape but was brutally clubbed from the back of her horse. The incensed Shawnees murdered the men, took the women captive, and savagely killed Margret’s defenseless baby daughter.
The Shawnees took Margaret and the other prisoners back to camp, where they were beaten and denied food or water for days on end. She spent the next five years in Shawnee captivity, evading an attempt on her life and giving birth to her second child in the wilderness. The Shawnee constantly warred with white militias and the U.S. Army, who pushed further west every day.
Margaret and her child were eventually discovered and purchased out of captivity by a frontiersman, who took the pair back east to Pittsburg. Margaret eventually remarried, had more children, and lived to the ripe old age of 89.