Irish Woman Seeking American Dream

Mary Neely’s grandfather came to America from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Considered Scot-Irish or Ulster Irish, they had moved back and forth between Ireland and Scotland for generations as Irish land was given to them by the British monarchy, only to be taken away by subsequent monarchs and given again. Finally, around 1720 three brothers from Ballygawley decided to move to America in search of a better future for themselves and their families.

In 1779, William Neely, Mary’s father, decided to move the family westward to Fort Nashborough, now Nashville, Tennessee on a river journey. What should have been a journey of three weeks turned into more than three months as 300 settlers faced constant attacks from the Chickamauga Indians beginning around present-day Chattanooga and continuing all the way to Florence, Alabama. Small pox broke out on one ship and when two sisters were captured by Indians, they nearly wiped out whole segments of the tribe through the small pox epidemic of 1779-1780. Even the river itself was cruel, as Johnny Cash described it in this song (starting at 2:06):

Moving to America and then continuing westward didn’t work out as well as William Neely had hoped. He was killed by Shawnee warriors just outside of Fort Nashborough in August 1780, and Mary was captured and held as a slave for three years. She was brought through Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and into Michigan before she successfully managed to escape – but her problems weren’t yet over. It was the height of the Revolutionary War, and she was captured by the British and held as a prisoner of war. While being transported to British-controlled Fort Niagara, the ship ran aground and Mary escaped again. She journeyed on foot across Canada into New York and all the way to Fort Pitt, where she was rescued by an American soldier, who transported her to Virginia, where she was reunited with her family.

The story of the Neely family’s river journey is told through River Passage, which won the 2010 Best Drama Award:

And the story of Mary’s capture, captivity, escape and journey home is told in my bestselling book, Songbirds are Free:

During Mary’s captivity, her mother and one brother were killed in a separate Indian attack. Most of the remaining family died before the age of 30; only Mary and her brother Sam lived into their 90’s.