Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mary Neely’s Endurance Ultimately United My Family

It is interesting to think of how close different branches of your ancestors may have come to being acquainted were it not for the Shawnee.

While one of my maternal great (5) grandfathers, a first generation German-American was defending one side of the frontier in the late 1770s with the Virginia Militia, another, a second generation Irish-American from Charleston, SC was moving his family further inland to the protection of Fort Nashborough (present-day Nashville, TN.)

Sounds crazy to move further into the wilderness until you realize that running between Johannes Messerschmidt and William Neely was the Great Indian Warpath, an alliance of northern tribes including the Shawnee with southern tribes like the Cherokee. Any safe haven, however, was short lived.Mary Neely Spears

Abducted by a band of Shawnee as she and her father were boiling water at a bend in the Cumberland River (at one time called Neely’s Lick,) my great (4) grandmother Mary Neely saw her father killed and scalped, learning all too personally that the alliance was fueled in part by a British bounty at Fort Detroit for the scalps of colonial settlers during the Revolutionary War.

Only 19 years old at the time, she proved to be very tough, surviving slavery and smallpox and escaping her Shawnee captors three years later, with the aid of a French underground. She survived a near ship wreck and a stint as a British prisoner-of-war before finally making it to Niagara, NY and freedom.

She traveled to Philadelphia as the War for Independence wound down and caught a lift with a family back to Virginia where she was reunited with her bother who never stopped searching for her and found her there thanks to newspaper accounts of her survival.

She married Revolutionary War veteran, George Spears and settled in Kentucky. In her 70s, Granny Spears as he called her, met a young Abraham Lincoln when her family settled in Menard County near New Salem, IL and prophetically commented that he was smart enough to be President of the United States of America one day. She died in 1852 before seeing that come to pass.

A son enlisted with Lincoln during the Black Hawk War which ended before they saw action and after her death her ordeal was retold on the pages of both Harper’s Weekly and Putnam’s magazines. She is also recognized with a historical marker.

While Mary Neely never found it possible to forgive her Native American captors, in 1859 her grandson and one of my great-great grandfathers, Marion J. Shelton, is credited with the first translation of English to Hopi vocabulary for that northeastern Arizona tribe of Native Americans while on a linguistic mission for Brigham Young.

I descend from Mary Neely’s great-granddaughter, Marion J. Shelton’s daughter and my great-great grandmother Elizabeth and Ralph Messersmith who was the great-great grandson of Johannes Messerschmidt. The couple finally linked those two immigrant families from opposite sides of the Virginia frontier in the late 1770s.

2 comments: said...

I too am related to Mary Neely and live not too far from New Salem where they had a special program a few years ago featuring "Granny Spears". We went to see it but thought they embellished it quite a bit. We have also visited the Nashville area and took the paddle-boat ride up the river and they pointed out "Neely's Bend". There is an account of her life in the official Menard County History. We have visited Mary Neely Spears grave in Talulla, IL. and found the original location of Clary's Grove Baptist church founded by Mary and her family and now moved into town. My great grandfather was Rev. James White, who was a son of Hannah Spears, Mary Neely Spears daughter.

Angel Marie Cook Hawkins Greene said...

I am also related to Mary Neely Spears on my dads side.She is my 6th Great Grand Aunt