Kentucky Tourism

Jenny Wiley History

Established on January 1, 1954

Originally known as Dewey Lake State Park (named in honor of Admiral George Dewey of Spanish-American War fame), Jenny Wiley State Resort Park became part of the Kentucky State Park System on January 1, 1954. The construction of the Dewey Reservoir project begun in March 1946 created the 1,100-acre Dewey Lake.  Dewey Lake is 18-½ miles long and has 52 miles of shoreline. It is approximately 50 feet deep at the base of the dam.  Although not one of the Commonwealth’s larger man-made lakes, Dewey Lake has some of the most magnificent scenery in Kentucky. The lake has a marina with 199 boat slips. Fishing is excellent for bluegill, catfish, crappie, largemouth, smallmouth and rock bass. The lake area is also in an excellent location for visitors. It is close to a tri-state area that includes Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

In the late 1950s, Dewey Lake State Park became Jenny Wiley State Park. The name change honored one of the frontier’s most amazing women, Virginia “Jenny” Sellards Wiley (circa 1760-1831). Born in Pennsylvania, Jenny Sellards married Thomas Wiley in 1779. The couple made their home on Walker’s Creek in what is now Bland County, Virginia. They built a two-room log cabin and started a family. By 1789 the Wiley family had grown to four children, their youngest child was fifteen months old.

Indian raids on the western Virginia frontier were commonplace in the 1780s. The settlers had little patience with the Indians. If trouble arose between the settlers and the Indians the swiftest way to deal with it was with violent retaliation. One of the Wileys’ neighbors, the Harmon family, had recently killed two Indians. On October 1, 1789, the Indians sought revenge. A raiding party targeted the cabin of Mathias (Tice) Harmon, but was unsure of its exact location. In a tragic twist of fate the Indians attacked the Wiley cabin by mistake.

John Borders, her brother-in-law, had warned Jenny Wiley that there might be an Indian attack. He urged her to leave home and stay with his family until the trouble had passed. Tom Wiley was away from home at the time helping neighbors. Despite her neighbor’s pleas to leave her cabin for a safer place, Jenny told him that she would like to finish weaving a piece of cloth and then she would leave. About four in the afternoon, Jenny prepared to take her family to safety. It was too late. The Indians surrounded the Wiley cabin and began to kill all those within.

The Indians mistakenly thinking they had found the Harmon family began to tomahawk Jenny’s children. She tried to defend them but could do nothing to save their lives. Jenny’s brother died trying to fend off the attackers. Only Jenny and her youngest child survived the onslaught. In some way Jenny found out that the Indians meant to attack the Harmon cabin. She told them that they had attacked the wrong house. Angered and confused the Indians decided to take Jenny and her child as captives and return to their settlement beyond the Ohio River. They scalped their victims, torched the cabin and left with their captives.

Although she made every effort to keep up with her captors, Jenny began to fall behind. Frustrated by her slowness, one of the Indian leaders seized her child from her and dashed out its brains against a large beech tree. The Indian then scalped the child and forced Jenny to continue her march. To make matters worse, Jenny was pregnant and prematurely delivered her fifth child. Amazingly the child, a little boy, lived. When the little boy was three months old, the Indians decided to give a test of manhood by tying the child to a piece of bark and placing him in a cold stream of water. If the child cried then he would be unworthy and be killed. If he did not cry out, then he would be adopted into the tribe. Unfortunately, the child cried and the Indians tomahawked him.

The horrors that Jenny Wiley endured during her captivity never weakened her resolve to escape. At one point she nearly became a victim of the Indians. Jenny had been under the protection of an old Shawnee chief since her capture. The Cherokee in the raiding party wanted to kill her. At one time during her captivity the Cherokee captured a young man about twenty years old. They murdered him and decided that it was time for Jenny to die as well. Tied to a small oak tree, Jenny faced a brutal death by burning at the stake. She appealed to the old Shawnee chief for protection but he declined to help her. Seeing that no one would help her, she stoically faced death. When the Cherokee chief saw her bravery, he stopped the execution.

The Cherokee chief paid the Shawnee for Jenny and decided to take her to his village on the Little Sandy River to teach his wives how to weave cloth and write. Before the Cherokee had the chance to take her away she made her escape. During a heavy rain storm Jenny made her way from the Indian camp. After a harrowing journey through forests and over swollen streams, Jenny arrived at the banks of the Louisa River and to her relief, a settlement called Harmon's Station. Henry Skaggs floated across the river on his raft to bring Jenny to safety at the fort. Her eleven-month ordeal was over.

Jenny Wiley reunited with her husband and through the years she gave birth to five more children. The Wiley family later moved to what is now Johnson County, Kentucky on the banks of the Big Sandy River. Tom Wiley died about 1810 and the indomitable Jenny lived on until 1831.

Jenny Wiley State Resort Park opened in 1962. The lodge is named for Andrew Jackson May, a local native and Congressman for many years. The park has 49 lodge rooms, 18 one and two-bedroom cottages, a dining area that seats 244 people, a convention center, hiking trails, picturesque Dewey Lake, disc golf, and a 121 site campground.  From June through August the Jenny Wiley Theatre Company performs Broadway Musicals. Also located in the park is Josie Harkins School. This one-room country schoolhouse operated from 1924 to 1987, making it the last one-room country schoolhouse in Kentucky. The building was moved from Daniels Creek in Floyd County to the park as a part of the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s bicentennial celebration.