Legendary valley of Skull Run steeped in pioneer lore

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David Sibray visits the Ebenezer Church (est. 1880) beyond the Low Gap at the head of Skull Run.

A traveler wandering the pastures along Skull Run might have little idea of the dark tales that have arisen in that section of Jackson County had he or she not opened one particular book of history.

Apart from the ominous name, “Skull Run,” the vale with its grazing cattle seems a world away from warfare, but according to the late historian Nathan Goff Carder, red clay isn’t the only substance that turns the stream red after a rainstorm.

Map showing Skull Run, West Virginia

According to Carder, in 1790 an otherwise undocumented battle erupted at the head of the run where a small group of natives led by Irish pioneer Zeri Kidlow fought off an attack of .

Kidlow, an emigrant who had escaped debtor’s prison, had been floating down the Ohio River one evening in 1781 when he spotted an embayment at the mouth of the run and decided to investigate.

“Only a short distance up the hollow, he spied an inviting little inlet, or niche, in the hillside,” Carder wrote. “Finding, on the morrow, that the stronghold was indeed a retreat from civilization, Zeri set about building a cabin.”

Despite the threat of attack by unfriendly Native American groups, Kidlow prospered in the little hollow where he began to distill from potatoes and became friendly with local natives. A medicine man established a camp near Kidlow’s cabin “and an old man who made arrowheads moved into a tee-pee nearby,” according to Carder:

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“The little hollow soon became a great social gathering place for all families and bands of Indians friendly to those on Skull Run. Zeri’s still had wrought a singular service and organized an alliance more effectively than modern-day diplomacy or eloquence. Indians came from miles and miles around to purchase firewater. Zeri had the distinction of being the first saloon keeper in what is now Jackson County.”

However, peace and prosperity on Skull Run did not long survive, Carder wrote, and “displaced persons from the rapidly expanding English settlements of Virginia crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains looking for hunting grounds further west.”

“Strange Indians were seen skulking along the Ohio, and painted warriors began to descend from Milhoan Ridge threatening the safety of these happy, peace-loving people on Skull Run. Scouting parties were sent out for reconnaissance. Soon word arrived of a great horde of Indians moving in from the northeast and taking possession of the land and scalping women and children. The situation grew desperate.”

Kidlow and his companions chose to confront the Shawnee at the head of the hollow at the “Low Gap” the led into the valley of Little Pond Creek. There the opposing sides battled with fists and tomahawks until Kidlow, hidden high in an oak, let loose a barrage of profanities that Carder claims spooked the Shawnee.

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“Once concealed at this lofty eminence, he released a withering blast of scorching, devastating profanity to east, to the west, and all directions between,” Carder wrote.

“It’s strange how readily the English language lends itself to profane eloquence when the cause is a just one.”Though the battle was won, Kidlow, upon returning home, found his wife wounded and his son decapitated and “swore by his beard and by the shades of all Irish deities” to avenge the death.

Though his native companions forgot the battle, Kidlow developed a bloodlust, and would return from manhunts with the heads of Shawnee victims.

“For years the old head-hunter collected these ghastly trophies,” Carden wrote. “The hillside to the right of this cabin soon became lined with human visages in all stages of decay.”

The Shawnee, however, were impressed, and named him “Chief Skull” — “Catawaypetheaway Okemah,” according to Carden.

Kidlow lived to a ripe old age among his adopted people until he was struck and killed by lightning on October 12, 1802, at a spot Carden describes as being in the . Afterward, he was buried beneath a pyramid of skulls, the remnants of which were found by settlers, who named the stream and valley “Skull Run.”

Whether Carden’s tale is true is a subject of much speculation, and he cites no sources for his work. However, his tales are considered valuable to local enthusiasts.

His tale of Skull Run, along with other local histories, was collected by Appalachian Wordsmith and published by Star Printing Co., of Ravenswood, West Virginia, with a grant made possible by the Bernice Pickens Parsons Foundation. The publication and all proceeds are property of the .

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