Imagine a peaceful setting along the lush, green wilderness of the Jackson River in the late 1700s – a territory only sparsely populated by new families who pushed west beyond the larger European settlements on the Bullpasture.
A hardened pioneer family of Irish immigrants and their neighbors go about their daily work under a summer sun and sky of blue.
The only sounds are the subdued conversation of workers and the Jackson tumbling over the rocks in the river bed.
The quiet scene erupts with a flourish of approaching horses and a band of copper-skinned raiders, war clubs aloft. Their sharp cries and shrill yelps resonate not with the settlers’ ears but in a spot low on the spine that incites momentary paralysis followed by flailing, excited movement and a mad dash toward safety.
While this happened hundreds of years ago, you can find this particular spot looking very much like it did on that infamous day in July 1764. It is located in the field adjacent to the former Midway Service Station and across the road from the Bolar Ruritan Building.
Of course, the homestead is no longer there, and the swamp oak that marked the spot of the raid has recently fallen. Otherwise, not much else has changed in this humble meadow since William Wilson and his family settled there.
William Wilson and his wife, Barbara, were married in Dublin, Ireland, in the early 1700s.
The Wilsons immigrated to America and began living on Brandywine Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1725. They moved to Augusta County, Virginia, in 1747. A few years later, they journeyed further west to the land that would become Highland County.
On the eastern side of the county, the Bullpasture River Valley already had an established settlement in and around Fort George. The Wilsons continued westward to the mouth of Bolar Run on the Jackson River. It was there where they finally settled.
The Wilsons had four daughters and two sons. The girls were Susanna, Elizabeth, Barbara (named after her mother), and Margaret. The boys were named John and Thomas.
On the day of the raid, the mother and two of the daughters were at the river tending to the wash. Two more daughters were at the cabin ironing. A fellow, neighboring Irishman was outside his small, adjacent abode weaving.
Mr. Wilson and neighboring settlers were within an earshot hewing logs for the raising of a new home.
Son John had been sent upriver to retrieve nails for the building. Young Thomas had been tasked with minding the nearby gristmill.
The raiders ambushed young Thomas at the mill. Then, they moved to the women at the river. The women tried to escape but two were severely injured.
A warrior separated from the group and approached the log cabin where the girls were ironing. After securing the sister that fled from the river unharmed, the Wilson girls scalded the attacker’s hands with the hot iron and secured the door.
The Irishmen also made haste but not before he was fired up and hit in the shoulder.
The men working on the logs were alerted and hurried to the scene.
The bare-chested natives quickly took their leave.
After the danger had subsided, it is likely William and his neighbors went about assessing the injuries of the women.
Barbara, the daughter, lay wounded and unconscious under an oak tree, after taking a powerful blow to the head from a flying tomahawk. Even in Barbara’s prone state, family lore contends she was not scalped.
Son John was spared the full force of the attack as he was on his errand to retrieve nails. As he returned home, the raiders fired upon him. He marginally escaped injury. His hat fell off his head after the shot. He bent to fetch it and heard the warriors pass by but apparently did not see them.
Fearing the worst, John veered away from home and traveled east across a mountain road to the Bullpasture Valley to raise a rescue party. He returned to the settlement with 20 men after dark.
All the family members were accounted for at the end of the day… except Mrs. Wilson and young Thomas.
Indian attacks were not rare during this time and place in history. The French and Indian War was winding down and attacks were a constant threat. Forts and fortified houses were built throughout the valleys in today’s Highland and Bath counties and many other locales on Virginia’s western frontier.
The day after the attack, the men searched up and down the Jackson and found Mrs. Wilson a mile upriver dazed and confused. She had also been injured by tomahawk; however, her condition was much less serious than that of her daughter. She only had a hurt wrist and made a full recovery.
Upon closer inspection, the men found evidence of a violent attack on Thomas at the mill. Torn sod and the young man’s name carved in a tree gave the men the indication he had been taken captive. As the story goes, the raiders attacked Thomas first and tied him to the tree before they moved on to attack the rest of the family. The Natives retrieved him before making their getaway west across Back Creek Mountain.
The Wilson men and the rescue party made a foray across the mountain in pursuit of the raiders but were never able to catch them.
Thomas Wilson was never seen again.
Legend has it, Thomas usually wore moccasins and was a speedy lad when attired as such. On the day of the raid, Thomas wore proper shoes and was not able to outrun his enemies.
While the rescue attempt for Thomas was unsuccessful, it is likely some of the men in the posse had experience with similar abductions in the past. A good number of local folks – particularly children – had been captured throughout the war. Some were retrieved and brought back to their families. Others were not.
Indian raids were ongoing in the area up until the time of the Wilson incident. In his “History of Highland County,” Oren F. Morton reports that in 1756, raiders killed 13 people around Fort Dinwiddie in Bath County while 28 individuals, mainly children, were taken captive. The next year, in 1757, Indians killed three, wounded three, and took 13 captives. In 1758, four more were captured.
Years later, the Wilson family somehow learned Thomas was treated well but died of a fever several years after his capture.
The Wilson Raid is largely regarded as the last Indian attack in Highland County.
Daughter Barbara survived the attack and lived in the Bolar area until her natural death in 1825 – 61 years after the attack. She never fully recovered from her injury.
And, that tree where Barbara fell? It stood from that time to this, a silent witness to the high drama that unfolded in a peaceful meadow on a sun-filled, summer day.
It far outlived Barbara and finally fell this year in 2020, serving as a reminder of the hardship one family endured over 250 years ago while settling this place we now call Highland County.