Terror on the Frontier: The Grim Ordeal of Delilah Corbly

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September 14, 2017
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author

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More often than not, the horrific realities of warfare are shielded by bland accounts and cold statistics. When it comes to the Revolutionary War, affairs on the frontier suffer egregiously in that regard, and the grim cost of the conflict is often overshadowed by the epic sweep of affairs on the eastern seaboard. But in the hinterlands of the west, the war was a very personal and brutal affair which left seared memories – and scarred lives – on both sides of the conflict. Those horrors are tragically humanized by the experiences of a single little girl from western Pennsylvania – seven-year-old Delilah Corbly.

Her story would likely have been lost to history had it not been for the Rev. William Rogers, a Philadelphia minister who contacted the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser in 1785. Rogers submitted a letter from fellow Baptist minister John Corbly, whose family had experienced a nightmarish ordeal three years earlier. By Rogers’ reckoning, such accounts needed to be recorded “so that our posterity may not be ignorant of what their ancestors underwent, at the trying period” of the Revolution. In the aftermath of the conflict, it was likewise obvious that Rogers harbored no small resentment toward the British, who, he thought, “basely chose to encourage, patronize, and reward, as their most faithful and beloved allies, the savages of the wilderness.”[1]

Since the outbreak of hostilities in the spring of 1775, the western frontiers of Pennsylvania and Virginia had, somewhat surprisingly, escaped an all-out war. Clearly frustrated by the course of the conflict and determined to throw all available means at the Rebels, American Secretary Lord George Germain changed all of that early in 1777. In written orders for British officers at Detroit, Germain observed that “it is His Majesty’s resolution that the most vigorous Efforts should be made, and every means employed that Providence has put into His Majesty’s Hands, for crushing the rebellion.”[2] It was high-flown language which would contribute to widespread suffering in American settlements and Native villages across the frontier.

Germain was specifically authorizing the arming of Indian allies. Because a number of the northwestern tribes – the Chippewa, Wyandot, Shawnee, Seneca, Delaware, and Pottawatomie – possessed an inclination “for war,” Germain ordered that they be supplied for “making a Diversion and exciting an alarm upon the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania.” It would be best, Germain instructed, for Indian war parties to have a “proper” white officer placed at their head in order to protect Loyalist civilians, or as he put it, to “restrain them from committing violence on the well affected and inoffensive Inhabitants.” At least in his official orders, Germain expressed no similar concern for Rebel civilians.[3]

For gentlemen officers steeped in the conventions of European warfare, the ugly realities of frontier bushfighting constituted a double-edged sword that could nettle the conscience. Vincennes Lt. Gov. Edward Abbott, although he had previously offered to raise Indian war parties to the Crown’s standard, later experienced second thoughts. Although greatly underestimating the tribes’ ability to confront conventional forces in pitched battle, he nonetheless observed that the norm for frontier warfare constituted small-scale strikes against civilians. In a letter to Sir Guy Carleton, Abbott particularly lamented the plight of Loyalist families and observed that “it is not people in arms that Indians will ever daringly attack, but the poor inoffensive families who fly to the deserts to be out of trouble and who are inhumanely butchered sparing neither women or children.”[4]

When the Continental Congress began receiving reports of a complete destabilization of the frontier over the summer of 1777, they were aghast at the depredations perpetrated “by some savage tribes of Indians, wherein a number of helpless people have been cruelly massacred, and the peaceable inhabitants driven from their homes and reduced to great distress.”[5] The western war sparked during the summer of 1777 would continue through the end of the Revolution and beyond. It was a conflict characterized by exceedingly brutal acts of revenge and reprisal in which neither side would maintain clean hands. The Revolution may have begun in the east over grand themes of liberty, but on the far reaches of the western frontier the war could fall with irrevocable tragedy on the lives of common settlers. Due to a woeful lack of primary documents, most casualties of the war in the west remain nameless, faceless victims.

However, one family’s tragic story, that of the Rev. John Corbly, can be told in frightening detail. By profession, Corbly was a Regular Baptist minister and farmer. After initially settling in Virginia, Corbly underwent a conversion to evangelical Christianity of the nonconformist evangelical stripe, became an itinerant preacher, and quickly ran afoul of Virginia’s Anglican establishment. In July of 1768 he was jailed in Culpeper along with three other men as “Vagrant and Itinerant Persons for Assemblying themselves unlawfully” and “for teaching and preaching Schismatic Doctrines.”[6]

By 1770 Corbly was on the frontier of modern-day Pennsylvania, continuing to plant churches, and farming his own ground on Whitely Creek, just north of the stockade of Garard’s Fort. The widowed Corbly, who had fathered four children with his first wife, married Elizabeth Tyler about 1773. Over the following decade, five more children followed. Settler John Crawford recalled Corbly as thoroughly Whig in his political sentiments. “His preaching was attended by large assemblies,” claimed Crawford, “many would come ten miles to hear him. He represented our cause as the cause of heaven.”[7]

On Sunday morning, May 12, 1782,[8] Corbly headed out for services at his primary congregation at Goshen Meeting House, which was about a mile’s walk from the family home.[9] Corbly, “meditating”, as he said, on his sermon for the day, walked about 200 yards behind the rest of his family. The pastor carried his Bible, but was unarmed. Mrs. Corbly led the rest of the family; in her arms was infant Nancy, not a year old. Close in tow were the remainder of Corbly’s minor children: Delilah, just shy of her eighth birthday, Elizabeth, seven, Isaiah, six, and Mary Catherine, about two.[10]

Before the family reached the meeting house, bedlam erupted. An Indian war party which had been concealed in the forest burst from cover and rushed Mrs. Corbly and the children. The pastor, immediately realizing what was happening, ran through the forest “vainly hunting” for a club while he listened to “the frightful shrieks of my dear family.” When he was about forty yards from the scene of the attack, Mrs. Corbly caught a glimpse of him and, no doubt sensing the utter hopelessness of the situation, frantically shouted for her husband to make his “escape.”

A warrior immediately saw Corbly and raised his piece to take aim, but Corbly sprinted off before he could fire. The Indian set out in pursuit but quickly gave up the chase and returned to the scene of the ambush. By his later description of events, it seems likely that Corbly, though out of range, was nonetheless close enough to hear some of the horrifying events that followed.

It was over in a few terrifying minutes. When the attack began, seven-year-old Delilah scampered, apparently undetected, about twenty yards into the forest and hid in a tree, where she “saw the whole proceedings.” As she watched, the war party wasted little time. The infant Nancy was jerked from her mother’s arms, killed and scalped, as was the toddler Mary Catherine. Five-year-old Isaiah was scalped and received a tomahawk blow to the head.[11] Seven-year-old Elizabeth was scalped and left for dead.

The warriors had slightly more trouble with Mrs. Corbly. After shouting warnings to her husband, she sustained repeated tomahawk blows but remained on her feet. When the warrior who had pursued Corbly returned to the scene, he levelled his piece and shot her dead; she was scalped with the rest.

When she finally heard her family’s screams subside, Delilah, assuming that the Indians had fled the scene, “got up, and deliberately crept out from the hollow trunk.” She was tragically mistaken. One of the warriors noticed her, quickly ran her down, knocked her to the ground, and scalped her.

Pastor Corbly thought that the entire affair lasted no more than ten minutes. “At the time I ran round to see what was become of my family,” he later wrote, “and found my dear and affectionate wife, with five children, all scalped in less than ten minutes … no one … can conceive how I felt.” After viewing the sight, he fainted.

While the Indian party sped off to the west, a pursuit party was organized at Garard’s Fort. The men followed the Indians’ trail for some time but eventually gave up the chase. It was never recorded what tribe was thought to have been involved in the attack, or how many warriors participated. Back at Garard’s Fort, a devastated John Corbly struggled to regain his senses. “Would to God I had died for them,” he cried out, “would to God I had died with them.”

Amazingly, both Delilah and Elizabeth survived the incident. Delilah had suffered a scalping to the crown of her head but was otherwise unhurt. Elizabeth’s wound was simply ghastly. Corbly later explained that a piece of her skull had been cut away during the attack and that not more “than one inch round, either of flesh or skin, remained on her head.”

Although it was not terribly uncommon for a scalping victim to survive such an injury, the medical procedures needed to treat such a wound would have been simply terrifying for little girls not yet ten years old. Although we don’t know for certain what specific treatments the girls were forced to endure, it was generally customary to treat a scalp wound by boring a number of small holes, in a grid pattern, into the skull.[12] In a letter to William Rogers three years after the attack, Corbly expressed thankfulness that Delilah and Elizabeth had been “miraculously preserved,” but indicated that he was full of “anxiety” over their future. “I am yet in hopes of seeing them cured,” he wrote, “they still, blessed be God, retain their senses, notwithstanding the painful operations they have already and must yet pass through.” Paying for the medical treatment, Corbly explained, had “almost ruined” him financially.

Fellow Baptist minister Robert Semple recorded that during the wake of the horrific experience an inconsolable Corbly somewhat understandably “fell into a melancholy state of mind; during which, he could not preach, or scarcely do anything else.”[13] For Delilah and Elizabeth, the physical pain and mental trauma of witnessing the murder of their family, enduring scalpings, and then facing adolescence, can only be imagined. Elizabeth lived to the age of twenty-one before dying suddenly, so her family maintained, from an infection to her scalp wound, which never entirely healed.[14]

Delilah Corbly would remain the only long-term survivor of the massacre and, despite the tremendous adversity that her injury clearly presented, went on to live a fulfilled and productive life. Married young, she received little schooling and remained illiterate.[15] About the age of sixteen, Delilah wed Levi Martin, who was no stranger to the dangers of the frontier. During the Revolution Martin had served several stints as a militia ranger. In such a capacity he had escaped seeing any large-scale battles but, he said, participated in “frequent skirmishes with the Indians.”[16]

The Martins eventually moved farther west and settled in Ohio’s Miami Valley, raising a family of ten children. According to family oral tradition, Delilah was plagued by chronic headaches, a condition attributed to her old wound. For decades, she concealed the scars as best she could. Her hair “grew thriftily around the edge of the scalped surface, which, by careful training, grew upward, and served as a protection to the exposed parts.”[17] To her dying day – January 10, 1839 – Delilah Corbly Martin was left with a healed but bare scalp, a grim reminder that the Revolution in the west often drew little distinction between soldiers and non-combatants.

 


[1] The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, August 3, 1785, 2-3.

[2] Letter, Lord George Germain to Henry Hamilton, March 26, 1777, in M. Shoemaker, et al, eds., Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan (Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1908), 9:347.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Letter, Edward Abbott to Guy Carleton, June 8, 1778, in Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, 9: 488-489.

[5] Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), 9:942.

[6] Howard L. Leckey, The Tenmile Country and Its Pioneer Families (Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1993), 581.

[7] John Crawford’s Narrative, in John and Jennings Crawford, eds., The William Crawford Memorial (Brooklyn: Eagle Book Printing, 1904), 54.

[8] A number of accounts of the incident record May 10 as the date of the attack; Corbly indicated that the event took place on the second “sabbath,” or Sunday, of May 1782, which fell on May 12.

[9] The following description of the attack and its aftermath comes from Corbly’s own account, penned three years after the incident, which first appeared in print in the The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, August 3, 1785, and later in Letter, John Corbly to William Rogers, July 8, 1785, in Mathew Carey, ed., Affecting History of the Dreadful Distresses of Frederic Manheim’s Family to which are Added the Sufferings of John Corbly’s Family (Philadelphia: D. Humphreys, 1794), 7-8. Nineteenth century family lore and local oral tradition purport to flesh out further details of the attack, but are uncorroborated by primary sources. For such additional perspectives, see Nannie L. Fordyce, The Life and Times of Reverend John Corbly and the John Corbly Family Geneology (Washington, PA: by the author), 27-30.

[10] Because frontier births were often never officially recorded, the ages of the Corbly children are approximate. John Corbly described Isaiah as “about six” at the time of the killings. Although most accounts cite Delilah’s birthdate as July 19, 1774, it’s likely that she was born slightly earlier. The date of death on Delilah’s fading tombstone appears as January 10, 1839, and her age at time of death appears as 64 years, 7 months, and 11 days, rendering a possible birthdate around May 30, 1774. Much thanks to Patrick Kennedy of the Troy-Miami County Local History Library for information on Delilah’s age.

[11] Later accounts claimed that Isaiah lived for twenty-four hours following the attack. Corbly’s letter describing the incident, however, simply states that the Indians “sunk the hatchet into his brains, and thus dispatched him.” Corbly Letter, 7.

[12] For a thorough and readily-accessible treatment of the topic, see Hugh T. Harrington, “How to Treat a Scalped Head”, Journal of the American Revolution, May 14, 2013.

[13] Robert Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia (Richmond: John O’Lynch, 1810), 429.

[14]Fordyce, Life and Times of Reverend John Corbly, 29.

[15] Will of Delilah Martin, in The Tenmile Country, 590-591. Delilah Martin signed her will with a mark.

[16] Pension Application of Levi Martin, in Don Corbly, The Families of Elizabeth Betsy Tyler Corbly (By the author, 2014), 144.

[17] The History of Miami County, Ohio (Chicago: W.H. Beers and Company, 1880), 221.

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