LAWRENCE TWP. - A cave on a hill in Lawrence Township is named for a man viewed as a hero by some in his day but whose activities history casts in a much darker light.
Lewis Wetzel Cave, actually not more than a sizable alcove, overlooks the Little Muskingum River near Moss Run off Ohio 26. Its namesake is an 18th Century frontiersman whose skills in forest warfare were perhaps exceeded only by his hatred of American Indians.
"The scout's bloodlust was such that he became notorious for murdering any Indian, whether in peacetime or war, who had the misfortune of crossing his path," according to a 2009 article co-written by Ray Swick, historian of West Virginia State Parks and Forests, with Brian D. Hardison.
Swick, who is based at Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park, said local lore tells that the cave overlooked a large rock near the riverbank on which Indians would sometimes make camp. It provided an excellent target for Wetzel. "Wetzel would pop 'em off from his cave," Swick said.
The Lewis Wetzel Cave is located on private property, and The Marietta Times was unable to contact the owner to obtain permission to visit the site. However, local historian Bill Reynolds has visited the site in years past.
"This is not really, in the true sense of a cave, a cave. It's basically a spot big enough that one or two or three people could get into it," he said, although he added someone could probably spend a great deal of time there if they could keep warm enough.
Wetzel is also the namesake of West Virginia's Wetzel County, a fact that has been decried as "scandalous" by at least one historian, Swick said.
While his indiscriminate killing doesn't sit well with many today, Reynolds noted that to people on the frontier in the late 1700s, Wetzel was seen very differently.
"There are some white settlers that swear ... Lewis Wetzel saved their lives," he said.
Wetzel's hatred of American Indians was apparently the result of the capture of him and his brother at a young age by a group of Indians. Although he escaped, he suffered a painful wound, according to an account on the history website, www.earlyamerica.com. The Dictionary of American Biography, published in 1936, says one of his brothers was killed by Indians as well. Wetzel dedicated himself to fighting those he considered his enemies.
The DAB account says he eventually lost credibility among some for killing an older Native American who'd freed him after he'd been captured by others.
Wetzel worked as a scout for Gen. Josiah Harmar at Marietta in the late 1780s when he attacked a peaceful American Indian while negotiations that eventually led to the Treaty of Fort Harmar were taking place.
Wetzel was taken into custody at the local fort, but "he made a grand escape and he was never seen about these parts again," Reynolds said.