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Monday, July 5, 2010

230 Years Since Mary was Captured

It occurred to me last week that August, 2010 will mark the 230th anniversary of Mary Neely's capture by Shawnee warriors. In case you don't know about this true story, here's some of the background; my father ran across her story while researching our ancestry:

On August 3, 1780 while Mary Neely was singing and boiling water at Neely's Salt Lick (near present-day Nashville, TN) to make salt, she and her father William were attacked by Shawnee warriors. William was killed and scalped and Mary was taken captive.

She was brought up the Cumberland River and the Ohio to Shawneetown, a thriving village of 2,200 Indians, where she was renamed "Songbird" for her beautiful voice. She was given the choice of marrying the brave who had just killed and scalped her father, or become a slave. Though she wanted to return to her family, that was not an option, so she became a slave to the chieftain's wife.

She was then taken hundreds of miles from home, through present-day Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. She suffered brutality at the hands of the Indians, as well as starvation and illness. Her thin cotton dress was all she had, and her shoes had long ago worn out. They crossed through an area known as the Great Black Swamp, which was malaria infested and almost wiped out the band of Indians who brought her there. When they emerged on the other side, they continued to Fort Detroit.

Henry Hamilton, a British officer, was in charge of Fort Detroit during the Revolutionary War. He had instituted a policy of paying the Indians, particularly the Shawnee, for every captive they brought to the fort and for every scalp that presumably showed they had killed an American. Mary was branded by the British as proof they had paid for her capture, but she was released back to the Indians.

At Fort Detroit, her captors gave Mary the opportunity to get one item from the trading post. She could have asked for clothing or shoes. She was starving and could have asked for food. She had no comb and nothing to call her own. Yet the one item she asked for was a Bible. That Bible has been handed down through the generations and now belongs to a distant cousin.

In Northern Michigan, she escaped with the help of French villagers, only to be captured by the British and held as a prisoner of war. Months later, she was being transferred to British-held Fort Niagara when the ship ran aground in a gale. In the confusion that ensued, she escaped once more.

She walked across Canada and into New York, then headed south on foot all the way to Fort Pitt, where she was rescued by an American soldier who eventually reunited her with the remnants of her family. In her three-year absence, her mother and youngest brother had been killed by a separate Shawnee attack.

Though my "claim to fame" is suspense, I felt Mary Neely's story tugging at me, begging to be written. So I spent two years following in her footsteps, finding the exact spot where she was captured (which is now commemorated with a plaque) ... to the Shawnee village (now a ghost town) where she was renamed "Songbird" ... and across hundreds of miles. Songbirds are Free was published in 2007 and remains my most popular book. You can order it through amazon at this link.

Next Monday, July 12 at 6:30 pm EST (5:30 Central) I will be discussing Mary's true story live with radio host DeAnna Radaj. You can tune in and email questions for me at I hope you'll join me there.

I've posted many of the pictures and video I took while following Mary's journey at

Her story touched so many hearts that it has spawned a series. The second book, River Passage, was released in 2009 and follows Mary's journey westward through hostile Chickamauga Territory, arriving at Fort Nashborough just four months before she was captured. The books are considered both creative non-fiction and historical fiction, because although they are historically accurate, I used dialogue and imagination to fill in the gaps.

River Passage was determined to be so historically accurate, the Nashville Metropolitan Government Archives admitted the original manuscript into the Archives for future historians and researchers. River Passage also won the 2010 Best Fiction and Drama Award (Bengal Book Reviews.) You can order it from amazon at this link.

Join me for my radio interview next Monday at 6:30 pm EST, and if you're in the Paris, TN area, look for a newspaper article this week in The Paris Post-Intelligencer newspaper commemorating the 230th anniversary.