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Wednesday, June 25, 2008 02:18 pm

Medicine woman

Granny Spears learned her healing ways from her hated captors

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Mary Neely Spears
Untitled Document Some of our earliest settlers’ stories are so fantastic, they’re hard to believe. Take Mary Neely Spears, also known as Granny Spears. At 19 she was kidnapped and enslaved by American Indians until she escaped and was discovered by her brother several states away more than two years later. She ended up near New Salem, Ill., where she befriended Abraham Lincoln and became a natural healer.
Even Mary’s contemporaries considered her story amazing. The tale appeared in one of the most popular national publications of the time — Harper’s, as well as several other publications and possibly a Tennessee textbook. Last fall a book based on Mary’s story, P.M. Terrell’s Songbirds Are Free (Drake Valley Press), was published. Here then, is Mary’s much-abbreviated story as told in the February 1868 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and the Past and Present of Menard County, Illinois (S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1905). The latter was written by R.D. Miller, who says he was with Mary during her last days. In 1780, at the height of the Revolutionary War, Mary’s family lived near Nashville, Tenn., in a fort for protection. She and her father ventured outside one day to go to the river. Without warning, two or three Indians attacked. They killed her father and scalped him before dragging Mary off to their canoe. Mary feared that they’d kill her next, but instead they took her to their camp, three days’ travel north, and told her that she had to become a slave or a wife. She chose the former. Among other duties, Mary sewed apparel, hauled timber, made bullets, and marched hundreds of miles with the Indians through Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan, all the way to Lake Huron. With a knife she secretly carved her name in trees in case anyone was looking for her. For a long time the Indians carefully watched Mary and bound her hands at night to prevent her escape. Night was also the time when they would dry scalps, including her father’s. Her captors would “trim off the corners and cast them at her feet, [which] she would collect together, make a hole in the ground with her hands, and bury them . . . with her hands crossed and bound,” Miller wrote.
It’s no surprise that Mary detested Indians. Harper’s says she saw them kill a captive’s infant, among other atrocities. “She would never speak their language unless compelled by circumstances to use it; and she used to say that the only favor she ever asked of them was that she might be put to death,” the article says.
One winter most of the group, including Mary, caught smallpox. As a result, Mary was blind for a week and a half. An older Indian woman healed Mary using a poultice of prickly pear and bear oil. That experience, and similar ones, would serve Mary well later in life. Two years after she was kidnapped, the Indians took Mary and other captives to Detroit, where the British paid them for scalps. However, sympathetic French living there helped Indians’ captives escape; they spirited Mary away from the Indians and hid her for at least two months. In the hope of finding a way home, Mary traveled to Virginia, where she lived with a family for whom she worked. Meanwhile her brother, who’d never stopped searching for her, was in Kentucky and heard about a girl fitting her description. He traveled to Virginia, found her, and brought her home.
When Mary was in her seventies, she, her husband (George Spears), and their family moved to Clary’s Grove, immediately west of New Salem.
Mary became a proficient natural healer, building on skills she learned from the Indian women. “Medical practitioners were very scarce in that region,” said Harper’s, “and her success soon made her so celebrated that her aid was sought in every direction. One man was sent forty or fifty miles to her for the cure of a white swelling [hip disease].”
One fan was Lincoln, according to Miller, who said that he was present when Lincoln said farewell to Mary. “He turned about and said: ‘Grandma, I am going to Springfield; maybe I’ll never see you again;’ while he took her hand between his long-lean hands, said ‘Good-bye — God bless you,’ and she returned his salutation . . . when both stood for a moment while the tears trickled down their cheeks.” Afterward, Mary told Miller that Lincoln was so smart she “would not be surprised if he was president some day.”
Mary died in 1852 at age 90. She’s buried in Tallula’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at TMcand22@aol.com.
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