ROSETTA — About 10 yards from an unoccupied house on a gravel road in Rosetta is the reported gravesite of one of the nation’s most remarkable frontiersmen. Lewis Wetzel, whose fame as an Indian fighter once surpassed that of Daniel Boone, was buried here in 1808 at the age of 44.
Born in 1764, Wetzel was an Indian fighter in West Virginia and Ohio, where some of the nation’s bloodiest Indian wars were fought. He was revered during his lifetime for his abilities at frontier Indian fights and his apparent lack of fear.
Known as “Deathwind” to the Indian tribes he terrorized, Wetzel grew up during intense hostilities between American settlers and the British-allied Indian tribes of the Ohio Valley. It is an often-forgotten fact that Indians during that time allied themselves as mercenaries to other nations. In the 1760s many tribes of Canada and the Ohio Valley were allied with the French against the British. Later, during the American Revolution, they were allied with the British against the American settlers.
Wetzel’s father was among the many settlers to fall victim to Indian massacre, and at his death Wetzel swore undying revenge against any Indian that crossed his path.
His methods of Indian-fighting were unique and amazing. He is one of the very few frontiersmen who could load a flintlock rifle on a dead run.
During the fall Wetzel regularly went on solitary Indian-hunts, during which he would cross the Ohio River and enter the hostile territory of the Wyandotte, Shawnee and Mingo Indians.
In one skirmish Wetzel and a companion were fired on by four Indians. The companion was killed instantly, but Wetzel took flight. The Indians raced after him with raised tomahawks. When one Indian approached within tomahawk-throwing range, Wetzel wheeled and fired, killing him.
The other three Indians, certain of their kill now that Wetzel’s gun was unloaded, pursued furiously.
Wetzel, however, reloaded his gun while running, but as he turned to fire, the Indian who was just behind him grabbed the barrel of his gun and wrenched Wetzel to his knees. After a brief struggle, Wetzel thrust the gun barrel against the Indian’s neck and fired.
With the last two warriors closing in, Wetzel slowed down and stepped behind a tree. The Indians did likewise. One Indian was not completely concealed by his tree, however, offering Wetzel a shot.
He fired, killing the third Indian.
At this the fourth Indian, baffled and terrified at the gun which was always loaded, ran away into the woods.
“No catch dat man, him gun always loaded!” he is reported to have shouted.
In another example Wetzel is known to have approached a camp of sleeping Indians at night, set down his gun and attacked them with knife and tomahawk. Three were killed but the fourth made his escape. When Wetzel returned to the fort, three scalps hanging from his belt, a friend asked, “What luck, Lew?”
“Not much,” he reportedly answered. “Treed four but one got away.”
Wetzel’s appearance was striking. He was described as being tall, dark-skinned and muscular, with thick black hair reaching to his knees in back. He never permitted his hair to be cut, thereby offering a tempting scalp to Indian warriors. His eyes were said to be “of the most intense blackness, wild, rolling, ... emitting when excited such fierce and withering glances as to cause the stoutest adversary to quail beneath their power.”
After many adventures in the north, Wetzel took a flatboat for Natchez and New Orleans. Reports filtered northward that he had been imprisoned, and he did not return for several years.
The reasons for his imprisonment are not clear, but some authorities believe he was the victim of a “frame-up,” due in part to his near-illiteracy.
After his return to West Virginia, the explorers Lewis and Clark, aware of his reputation, stopped by on their way west to enlist Wetzel for their expedition. He joined them after much persuasion but returned home within a few months.
“A man can’t breathe properly unless the air is filtered through the forest leaves,” he is reported to have said.
In 1808 he paid a visit to his cousin Phillip Sycks who lived at Rosetta, then known as Havard’s Ferry, where he contracted yellow fever and died. He was buried about 200 yards from Sycks’ house. Rosetta is located about 15 miles north of Gloster.
Some Rosetta residents remember in the 1940s when a man by the name of Albert W. Bowser came to town with a group of assistants and commenced to dig up old graves.
Bowser, a Chicago pediatrician with a strong interest in Wetzel, was seeking the remains of the Indian fighter, which he hoped to return to West Virginia.
After digging up a number of graves, he finally found the one he was looking for, not far from a massive pecan tree believed to have been planted in1808, the year of Wetzel’s death.
Jeanette Havard of Rosetta remembers when Bowser dug into Wetzel’s grave. “The top of the box was caved in and it was full of dirt,” she said. “He dug down and you could see the bones, all crumbled up, and there was a pouch full of shot and the barrel of a gun. It was so rusted it was solid red.”
There were also imprints of Wetzel’s long hair in the soil, she said.
“It was enough to send cold chills down you,” she recalled.
Wetzel’s remains were returned to West Virginia.
The site of Sycks’ log cabin is now occupied by Ernest Klar’s brick home, which sits some 200 yards from the grave. The old pecan tree is less than 50 yards distant.
All around the small community are the thick woods and dark swamps of the Homochitto Forest. A few hundred yards away flows the Homochitto River.
The plot of ground where Wetzel’s grave is located and the empty house beside it are owned by Jack Greer of Vidalia, La.