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'Deathwind' is Part of Our History

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Well, I attended the yearly Shortline Reunion in Wetzel County - home of Lewis Wetzel Park, Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area, Lewis Wetzel Personal Care Center, etc. - and it struck me that my boyhood home probably is the only county in America named for a deadly killer who hunted humans, stalking them like prey.

Lewis Wetzel, called "Deathwind," was a hero to pioneer Ohio Valley settlers in the late 1700s because he exterminated raiding Indians and brought back their scalps. Later in life, he became controversial, seen by some as a madman. Regardless, he holds a solid spot in West Virginia's history.

The State Archives at the Cultural Center has a dozen books and historical treatises about him, and several others have been written.

Western novelist Zane Grey - a descendant of Zane's who helped found Wheeling and Zanesville, Ohio - made the dark, silent Wetzel a central figure in three books: Betty Zane, The Spirit of the Border and The Last Trail. From several of these sources, I gleaned this account: Wetzel's father came from southwest Germany as an indentured servant and married a military captain's daughter, with whom he had seven children as they lived on farms in colonial Virginia and Pennsylvania.

In 1768, the Iroquois signed a treaty with British governors giving whites all land east of the Ohio River as far south as the Kanawha.

However, the land wasn't occupied by the Iroquois, but by Shawnee, Miami and Delaware clans, who didn't want to surrender their homeland.

Settler families rushed to get free land under the treaty. The Wetzels carved out a farm on Big Wheeling Creek about 14 miles from the Ohio.

But the newcomers suffered frequent Indian attacks. Frontier families learned to fight to survive.

When Lewis was 13, Indians raided his farm, wounded him with a bullet that grazed his chest, and hauled him and a younger brother into captivity, swimming the Ohio to Indian territory. On the third night, the captors relaxed their guard, and the boys sneaked barefoot out of the camp. Lewis sneaked back to steal moccasins drying by a fire, then sneaked back again to retrieve his father's flintlock and powder, which had been taken in the raid. Upon their return to the settlement, they were hailed as heroes.

The following year, Lewis helped a neighbor pursue and kill four Indians who had abducted the neighbor's wife. They returned with four scalps and the unhurt wife. This tale was recounted in an 1850 book, The Forest Rose.

Two years later, Wetzel joined a posse of settlers who went into Ohio to recover stolen horses. Eventually, the others quit the chase, leaving the 16-year-old to face the Indians alone. By this time, the muscular youth had developed combat skills. He waggled his hat from behind a tree, and when Indians fired, he pretended to fall dead. As the Indians approached, he rose suddenly and shot the nearest. Then he fled, reloading the flintlock on the run - an extremely difficult feat - and whirled and shot the next pursuer. The others ran off. Wetzel returned to the settlement with two scalps and the lost horses.

Apparently, the young man made a vow to spend the rest of his life killing Indians. Historian James Pierce wrote in The Early America Review (Spring 1997): "From then on, Lewis Wetzel lived primarily as an Indian hunter. He never 'settled down.' He never took up land, built a cabin of his own, farmed, or did any other sort of usual work. There's no record of him ever forming a permanent relationship with a woman. They said he was a good fiddle player who was always welcome in taverns and at dances. He got along well with dogs and children, but not so much so with adults..


"Mainly, he roamed the forests across the Ohio country hunting Indians and carrying out one-man raids.... Between 1779 and 1788, he collected the scalps of 27 Indians that he said he personally killed.

"Accounts of his exploits as told by others put the total at more than 100." Some tribes called him "Deathwind," a lethal force flowing silently through the forest.

Wetzel served as a guide for land speculators venturing into unsafe regions. "Indians killed John Madison, brother of future President James Madison, in the spring of 1786 while he was traveling with Wetzel on a land surveying expedition along the Little Kanawha River in today's West Virginia," Pierce wrote. He continued: "As the years passed, Wetzel became more and more eccentric. He took to wearing tassels in his split earlobes. His carefully tended hair, when combed out, hung almost to his knees. He said he wanted to give his enemies a scalp worth the effort it would take to get it. Indian fighting became the sole focus of his life. People became even more uncomfortable with him; they began to doubt his sanity." As the Revolution ravaged the eastern seaboard, Wetzel ravaged Indians inland. He bitterly opposed efforts to negotiate peace treaties with the natives, because he wanted to destroy them all.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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