Like many boys who grew up in the country, I spent many days outside wearing a coonskin cap reenacting the adventures of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett with my brothers.
It’s fair to say that I idolized these heroes of the American frontier and for much of my early life I longed to follow in their footsteps. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the demand for frontiersmen isn’t as high as it used to be. As disappointing as that is, I’m excited to share an adventure with you in which I was able to literally follow the footsteps of a frontier legend and find a message he left hidden in the backwoods of Ohio.
Lewis Wetzel was born in the 1700’s, the son of a German immigrant. His family moved to what is now the northern panhandle of West Virginia in 1770. At the time, the area was quite remote and settlers were in constant conflict with Native American tribes.
In 1777, Wyandot Indians kidnapped Lewis, who was 13, and his younger brother Jacob who was 11. The two boys were working the fields with their father and their older brother. About mid-morning, their father sent Lewis and Jacob back to the cabin to check on some drying venison. He’d also neglected to bring his gun with him into the field and asked the boys to retrieve it. As Lewis and Jacob left the cabin to return to the field, they were attacked.
Lewis was hit in the chest by a gunshot as he opened the door, the shot torn away a piece of his sternum. The Indians wasted no time capturing the boys and ransacking the cabin. With their work completed, they retreated to the forest, driving Lewis and Jacob ahead of them.
Their father and older brother quickly found out what had happened to the boys, but the Indians had stolen their firearms making pursuit a hopeless endeavor.
They ran to a nearby fort to get help, but by the time they returned the trail had gone cold.
The Indians pushed Lewis and Jacob hard for three days. Lewis was in excruciating pain from his bullet wound but did his best to stay strong for his little brother.
On the third night, the Indians relaxed their guard and took away the boy’s shoes to discourage them from running away. Lewis and Jacob escaped, but once out of camp, they realized that they needed footwear because they’d have to stay off main trails to avoid being captured again.
Lewis told Jacob to wait for him, and he snuck back into camp and he stole two pairs of moccasins that were drying by the fire. He even managed to take back his father’s rifle and powder horn while he was at it.
The Wetzel boys avoided recapture three times on their journey home. They even had to craft a makeshift boat out of logs to cross to an island in the middle of the Ohio River. They made it home safely, but the harrowing experience was a formative moment in Lewis Wetzel’s life.
Over the next few years, Lewis honed himself into a master frontiersman. He became very proficient at making war on the Indians using their own fighting style. According to legend, he practiced shooting so much that he could hit anything he could see with a single shot. He also became an expert with the knife and tomahawk. Lewis was a natural athlete and was so quick and agile running through the woods that no one could catch. It was Lewis’s father who taught him the skill that made Lewis a legend: loading, priming, and shooting a long rifle while running at full speed through the woods.
Lewis spent much of his adult life in the hills of western Virginia and Ohio working as an Indian fighter. He preferred to operate alone. His skill in guerrilla warfare made him a hero among frontier settlers. He rescued people and horses stolen by Indians. But his knack for violence also led to darker deeds, including the cold-blooded murder of a Seneca leader who was working toward peace with the settlers. This crime put Wetzel on the wrong side of the law, but he ultimately went untried due to his popularity among the settlers. Without a doubt, Wetzel was a controversial figure even in his own time.
Several years ago, I heard that Lewis Wetzel had carved a message on a rock somewhere in Morgan County, Ohio. I started researching it and found that many people had seen the rock over the years, but it wasn’t marked, it wasn’t in a park, and it was well off the beaten path. I could find nothing about the rock’s actual location. I tried using Google Earth to narrow the search by estimating the rock’s proximity to the Muskingum River and the Morgan County line. Finally, I found the phone number of a house that was near the location and called to see if the owner knew anything about the rock, but the number was disconnected. I had reached a dead end.
With no way to confirm the location. I put the project on the back burner. A few months passed. My schooling program assigned me to work for a few weeks in town about a half hour north from my estimated location for the Wetzel Rock. I showed up to work one day and found out I wasn’t needed due to a staff meeting. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
I drove south along the Muskingum River knowing that it was highly unlikely that I’d find the rock. All I had to go on was guesswork. I was wearing scrubs, which weren’t ideal for hiking through the woods, but the weather was beautiful and in my experience, some of the best adventures happen on the spur of the moment. I was also curious to see what kind of message Lewis Wetzel had left behind.
My trip took me to the town of Blue Rock, Ohio, down gravel roads, past corn fields, and barns, until I came to a dead end lane. It was time to see if my guesswork was going to pay off.
I could see a house at the end of the lane, and a man out working in his yard. But as I drew closer, and read the “Beware of Dog” sign, had concerns about whether or not I’d be welcome.
The owner turned out to be a really nice guy. When I told him what I was looking for, he said I’d come to the right place, the Wetzel Rock was on his property. He gave me permission to hike down in the holler where it was but warned me that it wasn’t easy going and that the rock was easy to miss. He said a bank above the rock had been sagging for the past few years and for all he knew, the rock might’ve been buried in a mud slide. I decided to take my chances anyway.
The trail was marked with ribbons that had been placed a year earlier. The first ribbon had fallen from where it was tied and was lying on the ground. And the second ribbon wasn’t much easier to find. The trail was pretty overgrown. What thought would be a 15-minute hike quickly turned into a half hour. Right when I was about to turn around, I noticed that the landscape had changed and there was a hill covered in boulders to my right. I figured the Wetzel Rock was likely to be there, so I started walking around the base of the hill. Sure enough, the rock was there. I almost walked right past it, then I noticed the writing on it.
The rock was covered in writing, some attributed to Wetzel, some from people who had found the rock over the years. I was able to make out Wetzel’s name and the message he had left behind: “Enjoy the peace which I have left for you.”
As I studied the rock, I pondered the meaning behind Wetzel’s message: Enjoy the peace which I have prepared for you. It’s clear that in his mind, he was on a mission to prepare this frontier region as a peaceful place for settlers, and like many people of his era, he believed it was necessary to drive out the native Indian tribes to accomplish this. It’s interesting that he viewed himself as leaving behind peace for others, he didn’t include himself. I wonder if he felt the weight of the violent life he’d lived, and thought himself incapable of settling down to enjoy peace.
My trip to this rock was a special experience. There are no maintained trails leading to it, it’s not part of a government owned park, and that’s what makes it unique. It’s a symbol of the dark and bloody side of American westward expansion, and yet also shows that one of the most violent men involved in the conflict was thinking of peace. It was a chance to connect with the irony of raw history in the middle of an untamed, unnamed holler.