WV: VanBibbers Rock

Photo From WVU WV History Center
Source: https://wvhistoryonview.org/image/013471.jpg

While doing a little genealogy research on my Great Grandmother, Ocie Emiline (Kincaid) Seletyn, I noticed that one of the “hints” generated by the website was a book on Fayette County history written by J.T. Peters and H.B. Carden (dated 1926). I started “virtually” flipping through the pages when I saw an entry for VanBibber’s Leap. I had never heard of this while growing up in Fayette County, West Virginia. So, of course I needed to read up on the location.

According to the writings of Peters and Carden:

Just below the Falls of Kanawha, there is a lofty overhanging rock of immense size, which to this day, goes by the name of “VanBibber’s Rock.” The incident which gave it this name is one of the wildest and most exciting to be found in the record of colonial adventure.

This rock juts out about a hundred feet over the seething whirlpool at the foot of the falls. The immediate surroundings are wild and picturesque in the extreme, though the opposite shore is comparatively level, being covered with pastures, meadows and timber, and having a gently shelving beach of sand sloping gradually out in the waters which have a disturbed and riotous character for many rods below.

Reuben VanBibber, an enterprising backwoodsman from the eastern part of Virginia, was the first to build a cabin upon this inviting bank of Kanawha river, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Having had much experience, and being of a bold and independent nature, he lost no time in bringing his young wife and two children to the new home he had provided for them. Notwithstanding that the region about swarmed with Indians, he was unmolested for a year or more. The land was so fertile that it was not long before a little settlement spring up, which, with VanBibber at its head, presented quite a village-like appearance, the settlers building their cabins near together as a mutual protection against the Indians.

A small government supply station was also established, a few miles further down the stream, which added greatly to the general sense of security and repose. The wild and rocky region in which included the opposite bank, continued to be occupied by roving bands of Indians, who if not actually hostile, often cast glances of sullen discontent and jealousy upon the fairer portion of their heritage, which industry and enterprise of the palefaced intruders were swiftly causing to bloom like the rose.

Captain VanBibber was the heart and soul of the little settlement. His renown as a hunter was only equaled by his reputation for fair dealings and patriotism, and from the first he was looked upon by his neighbors as their natural leader.

The only other member of his household, besides his wife and children, was a great pet bear called “Brownie,” which he had captured when only a cub, and so thoroughly tamed that it was accustomed to follow him unmuzzled among the cabins like a dog apparently with no inclination to rejoin its kind among the neighboring hills. Indeed, the brute displayed an exceptional affection for him and his family. The officers and soldiers from the fort often came to witness its tricks and pranks so that “VanBibber and his bear,” was the expression most generally used by outsiders when alluding to our hero and pet.

It was at this critical period in colonial history that two brothers of VanBibber had crossed into Pennsylvania to join Washington at Valley Forge. His oldest son, hardly more than a boy, had followed them, first obtaining his parent’s solemn consent. Many times VanBibber himself felt an almost uncontrollable impulse to hasten to the assistance of the dwindling army at Valley Forge, but his wife and small children were here in this lonely valley with the roving Indians all about and the duty of them seemed more imperative.

The British were already overrunning the country with predatory bands of Indians who penetrated even into this wilderness in search of horses and cattle, and not infrequently burning houses and cruelly treating the inmates whose relatives or friends were in the continental army. Two or three settlers in the neighborhood had been caught carrying supplies to Washington for which they had been cruelly put to death and there were rumors that VanBibber himself was marked for early punishment. This, however, did not prevent Captain VanBibber from setting out upon a lonely hunting expedition, one April day, at which time the adventure befell him that was to give his name to the famous rock which until then had been known by its Indian name, “War-kun-gee-tah,” signifying “the far away look out.”

A great freshet had so flushed the Falls of Kanawha that VanBibber did not try to cross the river at the point directly below the rapids which lies just between the location of the settlement and the great rock. He passed down the stream for a mile or more to a lonely cabin, occupied by a settler named Radcliffe, where he borrowed a canoe and crossed the river.

He had capital sport that day and shot a number of deer and wild turkeys which he had secreted to await a conveyance to his home when the subsiding waters would enable him to make another trip on horseback for that purpose. It was toward the middle of the afternoon when he started to return home from which he then found himself about eight miles distant. Up to this time he had not encountered a single Indian or even any signs of their being in the vicinity.

But VanBibber had no sooner quitted the belt of timber in which he had been hunting, and began to make his way across the broad rolling and somewhat broken plateau that lay between him and the precipitous river bank, when a shot from a concealed Indian whistled through his squirrel-skin hunting cap. He quickly dropped to the ground as three shots followed the first in quick succession. Peeping from his covert, he saw a score of Indians cautiously but rapidly approaching from different points in the forest. They had him almost surrounded with nothing to do but run for his life. Bringing down the foremost Indian by a direct shot, VanBibber suddenly sprang to his feet and sped over the open plain, escaping the numerous shots that were sent after him, as if by a miracle, with the entire band of Indians yelling in pursuit.

VanBibber was a famous runner, however, and was under no apprehension of being overtaken by his enemies, swift of foot as they undoubtedly were. He had long been noted as the strongest, fleetest, and most formidable hunter of the Kanawha valley, and nobly did he vindicate his reputation on that eventful day. He not only acquitted himself so creditably as to keep beyond the range of the poor rifles with which his pursuers were armed, but was also enabled to load and fire as he ran, they finally drove him to bay, out upon the fartermost point of War-kun-gee-tah, the great jutting rock overlooking the terrible whirlpool at the foot of the falls, with his humble but inviting home on the opposite bank. Though unable to overtake their fugitive sooner, the Indians had succeeded in baffling all his attempts to reach the river at the point where he had crossed in the morning. They had managed to control the direction of his flight so as to bring him at last to a final, and apparently hopeless stand, upon the very edge of this rock with no choice left him but to surrender or meet death at their hands, or to make an equally fatal plunge into the whirlpool just below. But even in this desperate condition, he sheltered himself behind a small group of rocks and bushes, loading and firing his trusted rifle with wonderful rapidity. Thus he succeeded in keeping the enemy at bay for more than a quarter of an hour, in full view of his wife and friends on the opposite bank of the river.

The Indians though not venturing out upon the open shelf within range of his accurate marksmanship, clustered along the sides, and even crept down far below the very face of the cliff, yelling in the certainty of his speedy capture or death. Captain VanBibber suddenly stopped firing, and for the first time the feeling of despair must have come over him, for he had used the last bullet in his pouch and was no longer capable of making defense. The enemy soon suspected as much and began to swarm over the top of the rock in full view yelling with revengeful cries. But at this instant, when he was about to give himself up for lost, an encouraging cry came floating through the air to him from the direction of the water below. It was a woman’s voice, that of his wife, and it had been distinctly hear above the roaring of the water. “I am coming under the rock with the canoe,” she cried, “Leap, and I will rescue you.” He turned and looked in the direction from which the summons had come, dazed and bewildered for such a leap had never been made nor even contemplated before.

While the struggle had been in progress between VanBibber and the Indians, his wife, having laid her baby on the grassy bank, secured a canoe and with paddle in hand was preparing to rush to the rescue of her husband, in spite of the neighbors who looked upon the bold hunter as already doomed and regarded her attempts to cross the river just below the falls as simple madness. As she pushed off, “Brownie” the pet bear, climbed into the stern of the canoe and sat upright upon his haunches keeping his balance perfectly through the entire trip. Mrs. VanBibber succeeded in reaching the center of the stream directly under the ledge of the rock. In answer to her cry he shouted, “Wife, drop down a little lower, I’m coming.” As the Indians were just ready to close upon him, with their tomahawks upraised, he spring from the crag and descended like a plummet into the water, feet foremost. He was under the water only a moment, but it was an awful one, it seemed an age to his wife. Would her husband ever rise? Her earnest gaze seemed to penetrate the very depths of the water, and then with a joyous thankful cry, she darted the canoe further down the stream. Her husband rose to the surface quite near her, and was able to scramble into the little craft without assistance amid the showers of bullets that was poured after him by the baffled pursuers, not one however harmed either himself or his wife.

VanBibber seized the paddle from his wife’s hands and swung the canoe around, turning Brownie’s back to the hostile Indians, and paddled swiftly out of range of the shots that were still showered after them. But it was more than likely that poor Brownie had much to do with the immunity with which the man and his wife were permitted to draw out of range. At any rate, when VanBibber and his wife reached the shore and were assisted to land by their rejoicing friends, Brownie remained motionless in the stern of the canoe, with his eyes closed and his tongue hanging out. The bear was found to be stark dead. His back was fairly riddled with bullets, more than one of which would inevitable have reached the human occupants of the canoe, but for the chance bulwark that had been presented by Brownie’s tough and shaggy frame.

Captain VanBibber experienced such a shock from his terrific leap that it was many days before he fully recovered. But he and his wife lived to a great old age, with the families of their children around them, n the same fertile valley, and within the very shadow of the great overhanging shelf which has ever since borne the name of “VanBibber’s Rock” which it received in commemoration of VanBibber’s leap.

3 comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this story. I seem to have heard of a man leaping from a rock to escape Indian pursuers but I don’t remember hearing about the bear.

  2. We’re the See’ s / Zeh’s of pre- revolutionary war time. Friends of the Vanbibber’s or related to them by marriage? I believe Michael and George knew them. As they served in the Virginia militia with Arbuckle at Point Pleasant at Ft. Randolph….Any info ? Thank you A.D.See/ Zeh jr

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