As the legend goes, a band of marauding Shawnee had burned Ralph Stewart’s father at the stake, so no one was surprised when at age 14 he left the Shenandoah Valley to become an Indian fighter.
He fought the Shawnee himself at age 25 at the Battle of Point Pleasant (1774), and four years later fought the English at Guilford Courthouse, Hot Water, Ground Squirrel, Charlottesville, and Yorktown. When Cornwallis surrendered, Washington named him one of the English commander’s guard.
So the calamities that led this young hero of the American Revolution to flee into the wilderness of what’s now West Virginia are not hard to fathom.
“He was running from the law,” explains Shirley Stewart Burns, a descendant, historian, and song-writer regarded for her love for Appalachian music.
Captain Stewart was, ironically, charged with killing Indians, Burns says. Before the war, that sort of thing was often encouraged, depending on the tribe. After the war, it could be punishable by incarceration.
Burns, who grew up a stone’s throw from where Stewart settled, cited historian Joel Hager as a reliable source for the history. Part of his account from Rootsweb.com follows:
“After peace with the Indians was made, Ralph and his brother James, as teenage boys, went on a prolonged hunting trip. Ralph, while alone in the camp, was set upon by a band of Indians, who hung around for some time amusing themselves by abusing and threatening him while selecting articles to carry away, eating and being offensive in pillaging and destroying the camp and supplies, then, upon leaving, they carried away the furs, pelts, and other articles they desired to take.
“The following night the two brothers followed the trail of the Indians, slipped upon their camp, and killed five of them. This act was, indeed, of great satisfaction and revenge for them but was a violation of the law after the declaration of peace had been signed by the government, and [this]made them liable for prosecution for murder.”
As if Stewart’s treatment reactions weren’t bad enough, it opened him to extortion by an enemy, the result of which drove him into some of the most rugged lands in all West Virginia, far from his Shenandoah homeland. Hager continues:
“Later, Ralph told of the incident to a hunting companion, who afterward became a rival for the affections of a young lady and, therefore, his enemy. Thus, the ‘friend’ swore-out a warrant for [the] murder and Ralph’s arrest, whereupon the two brothers, Ralph and James Stuart, left the community and went to an uninhabited area of “Wilderness of the New River,” where they set-up camp and stayed for a period of eighteen months, trapping and hunting and seeing only two other persons during that time.”
The “Wilderness of the New River,” which Hager cites was not literally that of the New River, though it would have been termed so at the time, being one of the few recognized landmarks in the Virginia backcountry. Stewart’s wilderness was even more remote—on the headwaters of the Guyandotte River, some 30 air-miles from the New River.
What a wilderness it was! The surrounding mountains rose steeply more than 2,000 feet above the narrow valleys of the Guyandotte and its branches. Only one other white man was then a resident of the upper valley. He was John Cooke, who also served with Stewart at the Battle of Point Pleasant, though it is unclear whether Cooke helped arrange for Stewart’s arrival.
Stewart first squatted, occupying the land without permission, though, even after being pardoned for the murders by the Governor of Virginia, he chose to live in the wilderness and became the progenitor of thousands of residents of the upper Guyandotte and of Wyoming County.
Captain Stewart’s headstone now stands silently on a wooded knoll at the mouth of Bee Branch near Crany, West Virginia, in what remains one of the most remote mountain valleys in the state. Visited sporadically by the curious, his grave and others, most marked only by fieldstones, have been tended by Donna Fraley and her husband, on whose beautiful property the cemetery is located.
In 2012, members of the Capt. Ralph Stewart Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, erected a marker along W.Va. Route 85 north of Oceana, West Virginia, directing visitors to the grave and a second marker along Clear Fork Road.
A drive to the gravesite and along the country road leading to it makes for an ideal country drive. The Keatley Cemetery, in which the grave is located, is a drive of approximately six miles, or 15 minutes, north of Oceana, and 35 miles, or an hour, from Beckley, West Virginia.