The Aracoma Story –an Appalachian ‘Romeo & Juliet’

Posted by | August 1, 2013

“Some time ago, I enjoyed listening to a man from Charleston and a man from Wheeling joshing each other about their respective towns,” says E.H. Howerton, VP of the Logan Centennial Association, Inc, in a 1952 piece titled When Logan was Capital of West Virginia written for that year’s Centennial Celebration guidebook.

In this 1952 version of 'The Aracoma Story' performed for Logan's Centennial Celebration, Mary Faith Cox as Aracoma mourns over her son Waulalapa, who's died from smallpox. Thomas McEvoy Patterson, professor in the Dept of Dramatic Art at UNC/Chapel Hill wrote the first script for the drama.

In this 1952 version of ‘The Aracoma Story’ performed for Logan’s Centennial Celebration, Mary Faith Cox as Aracoma mourns over her son Waulalapa, who’s died from smallpox. Thomas McEvoy Patterson, professor in the Dept of Dramatic Art at UNC/Chapel Hill wrote the first script for the drama. Photo courtesy The Aracoma Story, Inc.

“The Charleston man said, ‘You see, Charleston is the capital of West Virginia; therefore it is the first city.’ In reply the Wheeling man said, ‘Wait a minute, Wheeling was the first capital of West Virginia, therefore it is the first city.’

“I couldn’t resist the temptation, so I said ‘Shame on both of you fellows. Don’t you know Logan was the capital of West Virginia long before either of your towns were heard of?’ It was the Shawnee capital of West Virginia. After the battle of Point Pleasant, and after the death of Chief Cornstalk, the Shawnees in West Virginia were under the command of Princess Aracoma and her renegade white husband, Boling Baker.”

Except for the fact that West Virginia as an entity didn’t exist at the time, it is true a Shawnee leader named Aracoma (1742-1780), married to a white man named Boling Baker (1738-?), was in charge of the Shawnee tribes east of the Ohio River from 1777-80, and was based in what is today Logan, WV.

The 1952 Centennial production of 'Aracoma' brought in 4,000 viewers, and demand was so high that another production was staged in 1953 (shown here), on Midelburg Island where the actual events themselves took place. After this production, the show passed from the scene until 1975.

The 1952 Centennial production of ‘Aracoma’ brought in 4,000 viewers, and demand was so high that another production was staged in 1953 (shown here), on Midelburg Island where the actual events themselves took place. After this production, the show passed from the scene until 1975. Photo courtesy The Aracoma Story, Inc.

Then there’s that title of ‘princess’ to contend with. Shawnee Heritage cites Aracoma not as a princess, but as a Chalakatha (branch of the Shawnee) village Head Woman.

“Most historians these days laugh out loud at the idea of an Indian princess, as Native American cultures were not feudal-based societies like European cultures,” says staff writer J.D. Charles in a recent article for the Logan Banner. “In reality, there was no such thing as an Indian princess, or prince for that matter, and many of the greatest chiefs in American history were actually Shamans and not war chiefs at all.”

None of which has stopped the town of Logan, WV from presenting ‘The Aracoma Story’ to audiences annually every summer since 1975 (it was first staged in 1952 as part of the Centennial Celebration, brought back in 1953 by popular demand, but then went dormant).

The Princess Aracoma story blends tales of the Shawnee with the story of two young lovers from opposing cultures (think Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith). Boling Baker, a scout from General Braddock’s Army during the French and Indian War, is captured in 1756 by the Shawnee, led by Cornstalk. He is forced to ‘run the gauntlet,’ and moments before being burned at the stake, is rescued from death by Cornstalk’s daughter Aracoma, who is impressed with his courage.

Gradually Baker (Shawnee name Kikpelethee) is adopted into the tribe. When the princess comes of age (about 1760), she splits off from her father’s village and moves a new group of Shawnee settlers to what is now Midelburg (Hatfield) Island in the Guyandotte River, site of modern day Logan, WV. Baker goes with her; they marry in 1762.

Aracoma and Boling Baker have seven children: Boling, Jr., Running Deer, Waulalapa, Snow Lily (Conee), Princess Raindrop (Gimewane), Blue Feather, and Pattie, all of whom die tragically young from smallpox in 1776.

After the Battle of Point Pleasant and Chief Cornstalk’s death in 1777, Aracoma assumes command of all Shawnees in what is now West Virginia.

The Aracoma drama tells further how her entire village was decimated almost to extinction by the 1776 smallpox plague. Desperate for supplies, Baker in the spring of 1780 leads a Shawnee raid against New River Valley settlers on the Bluestone River to the east.

Roy Wickoff as Boling Baker in the 1976 production of 'Aracoma.' This show was so well received that the WV Department of Natural Resources in conjunction with Chief Logan State Park decided to make the annual summer production a permanent feature in Logan County, WV.

Roy Wickoff as Boling Baker in the 1976 production of ‘Aracoma.’ This show was so well received that the WV Department of Natural Resources in conjunction with Chief Logan State Park decided to make the annual summer production a permanent feature in Logan County, WV. Photo courtesy The Aracoma Story, Inc.

The 2013 version of the drama suggests that Baker’s band of Shawnees, seeing how white settlers are relentlessly encroaching on their lands from all directions, want blood and revenge.

Baker, presented as a peace lover and a cool headed strategist, insists killing no settlers is the better course — that the band can still convey that the Shawnees are not to be trifled with while confining itself to stealing horses and cattle.

This is quite a different picture of Baker than was told by journalist and historian G.T. Swain in his 1927 book ‘The History of Logan County.’ Boling Baker, according to Swain, was “a shameless horse thief who was overly quick to brain a child or scalp a woman.”

The settlers pursue the raiders, resulting in a battle near Midelburg (Hatfield) Island. Aracoma is fatally wounded by militiamen led by John Breckenridge and William Madison, but lives long enough to deliver the following speech to Madison:

“My name is Aracoma, and I am the last of a mighty race. My father was a great chief and a friend of your people. He was murdered in cold blood by the white when he came to them as a friend to give them warning. I am the wife of a paleface who came across the great waters to make war on my people, but came to us and was made one of us. A great plague many moons ago carried off my children and they lie buried just above the bend in the river. Bury me with them with my face toward the setting sun that I may see my people on their march to the happy hunting grounds. For your kindness I warn you to make haste in returning to your homes, for my tribe is still powerful and will return to avenge my death.”

In the 2013 stage version at Logan State Park, just before dying, Aracoma cries out “Boling, where are you?” And that begs an interesting question, because the answer is historians don’t know where he was when Breckenridge and Madison attacked Midelburg (Hatfield) Island.

The theatrical drama resolves the issue in ambiguous fashion. From the beginning of the play, an old man whom the audience gradually comes to understand is Baker narrates the story in flashback to a group of young listeners off to one side of the stage, while the actions described take place center stage.

After the scene in which Aracoma is slain, one of the young listeners asks “What happened to Boling Baker?”

The old man rises with a glazed look, and wanders away from the group of children onto center stage. The young listeners fade out of the stage lights, and Aracoma (in her young womanhood) appears atop a promontory in white raiment, a fog machine creating mists swirling around her, with a spotlight below shining brilliantly on her.

Baker looks up, starts to climb up the mountain toward her, and as he passes a tree he emerges from the other side transformed to a middle-aged version of himself. He passes behind a rock outcropping, and transforms again to a young version of himself, finally joining Aracoma atop the promontory.

Great theatre; sketchy history.

So what did happen to Boling Baker? Historian Sigfus Olafson, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, found the name ‘‘Boling Baker’’ among Kanawha County names for his census index of the year 1810 — at that time Kanawha included part of present Logan County. Baker, says Olafson, may have written this inscription on a tree: ‘‘Boling Baker, his hand and knife, can’t steal a horse to save his life.’’

The Aracoma Story plays through August 4th at Chief Logan State Park, Logan, WV.

 

Sources: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=:3297507&id=I4374&ti=,

http://www.appalachianaristocracy.com/getperson.php?personID=I9948&tree=01

http://www.loganbanner.com/view/full_story/6843896/article-A-local-treasure-trove

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=2442494

Shawnee Heritage: Shawnee Genealogy and Family History,  by Don Greene withNoel Schutz, Vision ePublications, 2nd edition, 2008

http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/328

2 Responses

  • Joan says:

    Thoroughly enjoyable and interesting. I always look forward to your stories of Appalachia. Thanks

  • Judy Wooten says:

    Thanks so much for your interest and wonderful words about our heritage and our show. I feel that you have captured the essence of both with this piece. It was a pleasure to have met and be able to assist you. All the bests to you and yours.

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