White Dove and the Virginia Caverns
by Don Silvius

Just after the turn of the eighteenth century, Captain John Lewis had agreed to rent a great feudal castle called Clonmell Keep in Ireland. The Captain was an impassioned man with an explosive temperament, as was his landlord, Lord Clonmithgairn. As could be expected, it wasn't long before these two had a falling out over the castle's rent.

After contesting the matter in court, and coming out on the short end of the magistrate's decision, Lord Clonmithgairn began brooding over his wrongs. After a short time, he had worked himself up to a fever pitch and decided to settle things his own way.

He gathered a group of followers and entered Clonmell Keep by a secret passage in the middle of the night. Having received a warning, Captain Lewis and a band of his own followers waited, fully armed, for the intruders. In the resulting skirmish, Lord Clonmithgairn was killed. Since Lord Clonmithgairn was of the royal blood, John Lewis was banished. He fled to the New World with his family and faithful followers. They were given sanctuary at Williamsburg by the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Gooch and his wife. Lady Gooch was a close childhood friend of John Lewis' wife, Lady Margaret.

While awaiting a royal pardon sought in their behalf by Lady Gooch, Captain Lewis met John Peter Salling. Salling was an explorer and adventurer who had just returned from a fascinating voyage. While trapping for muskrat and beaver along the river of the Senedoes, he was ambushed and carried off by a party of raiding Ohio Choctaws. The warriors had led Salling across the Alleghenies to the "River of the Spaniards", as the Mississippi was then called. There he was sold into slavery to a Spaniard, who had taken him north to the French Great Lakes in Canada as a servant and translator. Somewhere near the Great Lakes, probably Detroit, the tables were turned on the Spaniard, as the French imprisoned him, setting Salling free.

At his own request, Salling was put aboard a "freight canoe" for the return trip across the lakes to Montreal. From here, Salling continued south, by way of Lake Champlain and the Indian River, to New Amsterdam (New York City). At New Amsterdam, he was paid by his rescuers and employers, and put aboard a coasting vessel headed for Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay by the mayor, Peter Stuyvesant. The entire trip, from capture to safe arrival at Williamsburg, took less than three months.

Captain Lewis was still excited about Salling's story when his pardon arrived. Instead of heading back to Ireland, Captain Lewis gathered his small group of Scots-Irish followers and set out for the mountain pass through the Blue Ridge at Swift Run Gap. He arrived at Middle River near present-day Staunton in 1734. As the new arrivals struggled to build their settlement on the banks of the Middle River, the Indians were very friendly and helpful, and generously shared their game.

A close friendship soon developed between John and Margaret Lewis' fair-haired daughter Alice, and Omayah, the son of the local chieftain. It quickly blossomed into undisguised infatuation, at least on the part of Omayah. He soon asked for her hand in marriage. Since they did not want to offend their new neighbors, Alice's parents were in a precarious situation. They were unwilling to let "White Dove," as Alice was named by the Indians, marry a "savage" at any age, let alone fourteen.

The captain decided to make light of the matter and treat it as the impulse of a child to get around the problem this posed for the colony. The plan failed, and Omayah and his proud father, Oroonah, were not happy with this outcome. Immediately, relations between the settlers and the Indians became tense.

Lewis tried to break the ice by planning a huge Thanksgiving harvest feast. Omayah, his father Oroonah, and all of the Indians were invited. Omayah came, but not his father or any of his braves. He was still lovelorn and sad-eyed. Omayah and White Dove soon wandered off hand in hand. No sooner had they reached a stream than a war whoop arose from nearby bushes. They were surrounded by warriors and taken off into the forest, proving Margaret Lewis' premonition of danger true.

In anticipation of further animosity, the settlers hastily erected a stockade fort near the stream which they named Fort Staunton, in honor of the Lewis' benefactress, Lady Rebecca Staunton, the wife of Governor Gooch. The Indians attacked the fort twice while the men scoured the countryside for White Dove. The warriors were driven off with severe losses each time by the determined gunfire of the children and old people left behind in the fort.

After the second attack, a poorly clad Indian lay wounded and moaning for help. Soon a small group hurried to bring in the injured Indian, who turned out to be Mad Mary Greenlee. Mad Mary was a half-crazed woman who had been estranged under suspicion of witchcraft and had deserted the colony long before. While her wounds were being dressed, she was babbling a tale about having abducted White Dove from her captors and hidden her in a cave filled with sparkling diamonds, rubies, silver and other precious gems. She begged her rescuers to loan her a horse so she could lead them to the cave where the girl, desperately ill with a strange fever, was hidden.

Until it came to the attention of White Dove's mother, her delirious ranting was dismissed as the hallucinations of a mad woman. When Captain Lewis and his men returned from their unsuccessful search, Mrs. Lewis insisted they set forth again with Mad Mary Greenlee as their guide. In the very cave that Mad Mary described, they found White Dove, ill as her guardian had said, but otherwise unharmed.

Soon peace was restored around Staunton between the warring factions. It was an uneasy peace until the onset of the Indian wars a decade later. Omayah and White Dove never married, but they remained trustworthy friends for many years. The diamonds and other precious jewels described by Mad Mary Greenlee were, of course, the rock crystals, cave flowers and formations of the limestone caverns of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, as they were first discovered by European immigrants in 1735.

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Originally published at An Appalachian Country Rag in May 1997
Created March 29 2001
Updated April 14 2006
© 1997 - 2006, Don Silvius