Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 2, 2010

Historians save Clay family memories for community

By TAMMIE TOLER
Princeton Times

— KEGLEY — Far off of the beaten path, on an 800-acre plot of land nestled along the Bluestone River, Mercer County got its start.

There’s little but a memorial circle and some stone markers left of the family Mitchell and Phoebe Clay moved to Clover Bottom in 1775, but a committed group of historians is on a mission to make sure the community remembers its first settlers and takes pride in their pioneering spirit.

“The first people who came here loved this land and cared about it enough to deal with tragedy,” Tom Farmer said this week, overlooking the green expanse of what most locals know as Lake Shawnee.

Long before the land was a booming resort for anyone traveling U.S. 19 toward the East Coast, a small-scale amusement park or a draw for thrill seekers in search of ghosts, the lush meadows and rolling hills were home to the Clay family.

“I just can’t believe all they lived through in those times, and I think they deserve our respect and to be honored by us,” Farmer, who is president of the Clay Memorial Park Foundation, said Monday.

He’s a descendant of the original Clay family, and he beams with pride when discussing the heritage he is eager to claim.

“People are searching for meaning in their lives today, and I can’t think of anything more meaningful than where you came from,” he said.

•••

Prior to 1775, the area known as Clover Bottom belonged to John Draper, who picked up the parcel of land as a reward for his service in the French and Indian War. He later deeded the farm to Mitchell Clay, and Clay began moving his family into the area in 1775.

But, the nearby Shawnee Indians didn’t recognize the white man’s deed.

For approximately eight years, the Clay family prospered in the area. Tragedy struck one August day in 1783, however, when an 11-man party of Shawnee Indians attacked the Clays on the land the natives considered theirs.

“As far as the Shawnee Indians were concerned, this was their land,” Farmer said. “The white man came in and didn’t make any kind of agreement. They just surveyed the land and claimed it.”

Although accounts differ on exactly what happened the day of the Clover Bottom “massacre,” Farmer said many people believe the Shawnee hunters kept close watch on the Clay farm and waited until its residents were most vulnerable.

“A lot of people think they waited just over that hill there until they saw Mitchell Clay and the family’s older sons leave,” he said, pointing to the left from the serene knoll that is now where a community pays tribute to the family that planted its first roots.

Historians Darrell McPher-son and William Sanders concluded over time that Mitchell Clay likely left that morning with family friend, Capt. James Moore, to purchase salt to cure the family’s winter meat. At nearly the same time, the Clays’ oldest sons left together to hunt more meat to preserve.

As the late-summer day warmed, the Clay family members left at their quaint, country home got busy. Tabitha and some of her younger sisters were washing clothes in the Bluestone River, while two brothers, Bartley and Ezekiel, built a fence around the farm’s wheat stacks. The chore was designed to both preserve the hay for winter feedings and force the Clays’ cattle to work clearing nearby fields.

As the Shawnee party attacked, Tabitha saw the intruders and fought the Indians while the girls with her fled. Before she escaped, she turned around to check on her brothers and saw that an Indian was about to scalp Bartley. Ignoring her own safety, Tabitha ran to her brothers’ aid.

“She must have been strong and fought hard, because she wrestled the knife away from the Indian. She got it away from him and tossed it to the side, which turned out to be a big mistake,” Farmer said. “The other Indian retrieved the knife and scalped both Tabitha and Bartley.”

The Indians opted not to pursue the rest of the Clay family, taking Ezekiel hostage, stealing the Clay family’s horses and fleeing in two different directions toward Chillicothe, Ohio.

Meanwhile, Phoebe Clay and her remaining children hurried over Black Oak Mountain, where she knew her nephew lived and her family would find some safety.

One report indicates Phoebe Clay retrieved the bodies of her two lost children and laid them on the cabin’s bed before leaving the area, but Farmer said he found it more feasible that the family hurried through the woods immediately.

They weren’t the only ones who witnessed the brutality, though.

“There was a gentleman, who just happened to be coming through and stopped for a visit,” Farmer said. “Some people think he was a coward and should have helped the children when he saw they were under attack. Other people think he was brave and did what he should have done.”

Ligon Blankenship saw the Indians about to attack the Clay children, but for reasons modern man will never know, he opted not to get involved in the raid. Farmer believes that he made himself visible to the Indians so that they would see the Clays were not alone and held them off as long as possible to give the family more chance to escape. He also has a theory that Blankenship intentionally lured the Shawnee toward a path opposite of the one the Clay family needed to travel to get help.

“I believe he knew that he only had one shot and then all those Indians would come after him. So, he decided not to shoot, maybe even out of fear that he would have shot one of the children,” Farmer said. “Instead, he led them in a cat-and-mouse chase through the mountains, giving Phoebe and her children a better chance to get away.”

•••

Phoebe and the Clay children made it safely to the haven of the James Bailey home, where they awaited Mitchell’s return.

When he found the bodies of his two slain children, Mitchell Clay sought help from a party of men stationed in the New River Valley, near what is now Pearisburg, Va.

According to most accounts, the party returned to the Clay farm, buried the two children’s bodies and set out to track the Shawnee party.

One group of the men caught up to the Indians who took the Clays’ horses and retrieved the animals.

Mitchell Clay and two friends forged on and noticed smoke as they neared the Indian camp.

“The fire they smelled was Ezekiel. The Shawnee had burned him at the stake,” Farmer said. “The men stomped out some of the embers, but there was nothing they could do for the boy.”

Mitchell Clay knew his son was dead, but he still wanted to bury him properly, according to his custom. So, as the story goes, the grieving father sought out the chief and asked permission to remove Ezekiel’s body from the stake.

“The chief agreed and even loaned him a horse for the trip back home,” Farmer said.

A long list of Clay family descendants buried in grave sites near the original farm adorns two of the granite monoliths in the Clay Memorial Park, but Ezekiel’s name is not on the list.

Unfortunately, some of the history was lost when a recent owner of the property hired someone to remove all the headstones from the Clay family cemetery and bury them somewhere they would not be located.

Tabitha and Bartley are listed on the memorials, but what happened to Ezekiel’s body once his father retrieved it remains unknown.

•••

Phoebe Clay never returned to the cabin or the land she reportedly loved deeply. Instead, she and Mitchell moved to the Pearisburg area.

Some of the family returned to the home, though.

“Other members came back and lived in the cabin,” Farmer said. “They stayed here for a long time and were an integral part of the leadership in the area and in Princeton.”

Over the years, the Clover Bottom farm eventually left Clay hands.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Lake Shawnee was a booming resort, where vacationing families enjoyed time together and meeting new people.

Later, another owner attempted to revive the lake as an attraction by installing a small amusement park, but its popularity never returned once the interstate system allowed travelers to bypass the area.

Since then, the swampy region has been home to mud bog competitions and now features a weekly catfish tournament. But, most of the buzz about Lake Shawnee these days centers on ghosts that various investigators and documentary crews have attempted to find on the property.

“I don’t know about all the paranormal stuff. I’m more interested in preserving the history of our very first family,” Farmer said. “I do know, though, that the Indians scalped people to get a trophy of the kill and because they believed the spirit of someone who had been scalped would roam forever. It had no home. It had no peace.”

For his part, however, Farmer just hopes to honor the Clay family in any way possible. For now, that means working toward a road that leads from Phoebe Road to the Clay memorial and striving toward an observation deck inside the memorial park.

The Clay Memorial Park is located on a hill overlooking U.S. 19 and Lake Shawnee.

For more information, call the Mercer County Historical Society’s History House at (304) 425-9017.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.