The Haunting of Old Town Hill

In late July of 1867, hundreds of Hoosiers made nightly visits to the Old Town Hill in Delaware County, hoping to see the ghostly apparitions that were appearing there. Old Town Hill was the informal name given to the bucolic setting just southeast of Muncie near where Inlow Springs Road meets Burlington Pike. Earlier in the month, treasure seekers had arrived in the area, apparently under the impression that gold was buried in some forgotten cemetery. Unfortunately there are no extant local newspapers from this time to validate the story, but the Hagerstown Exponent wrote some years later that the miners came because of “a legend from the lips of an old Indian (a reference to James Musco) who was living with Mr. Borter Rees, to the effect that many years before those hills were used as burial grounds by a powerful and wealthy tribe of Indians, and that buried there was a vast deal of gold and silver coin, together with valuable Indian relics.”

On one hot mid-July evening, as miners dug for treasure, a strange noise was heard “in a most bewitchingly peculiar, strange and frightful manner.” Then, as the miners “quaked in their boots,” a strange disembodied “jack-o-lantern came up from the swamp, which was known to be impassable by any living being. As it neared the party, they screeched” as a “stream of bewitching light, which blinded them all, poured from the monstrous being that was bearing down on them.” The miners, wishing not to upset this monstrous entity, “flew from the scene.”

Another version of the legend has it that an Old Town Hill farmer by the name of Samuel Cecil was digging on his land around 1863 and unearthed a copper kettle. The kettle was supposedly buried with other treasures when “the Indians were called to war by Tecumseh,” according to a later account. Wild rumors spread in Muncie that “great kettles of gold were buried on Old Town Hill,” prompting local fortune seekers to quarry the area for treasure. On one such July 1867 dig, the treasure seekers ran into a ghostly floating head and abandoned their efforts. Around this same time, fishermen were trespassing on the Cecil farm to gain access to the river. On one summer evening in ’67, two ghostly figures emerged from the forest with spectral torches and terrorized the fishermen into leaving.

Word got out quickly and hundreds of east-central Indiana residents made nightly trips to Old Town Hill for a glimpse of the spirits. Some even came from as far away as Cincinnati. The ghosts did not disappoint, as they appeared sporadically for several weeks, much to the delight and horror of the assembled masses. The Muncie Evening Press wrote many years later that “refreshments stands were erected along the roadside. People brought bedding, as the show did not start until midnight.”

Frederick Putnam wrote in his diary on July 25, 1867 that “Great excitement on Ghost question at Sam Cecils or Old Town.” Thomas Neely a day later also observed the phenomenon in his journal, “A number of persons last evening went up to old town hill to see some kind of fiery apparition that had been witnessed by some persons the night before. But there was nothing supernatural to be seen.”

Locals didn’t know what to make of any of this. Ghosts don’t exist, the skeptics would say, but enough credible eyewitnesses saw otherwise. A young Dr. G.W.H. Kemper even tried to rationalize the phantoms with a breathtakingly stupid explanation. Although Kemper “could not understand the ghost,” he speculated that the apparitions could be caused by “the phosphorus from the body of the dead Indians coming up through the ground.”

The hauntings came to an abrupt end one evening when armed and intoxicated spectators shot at the ghostly jack-o-lantern during a nightly apparition. The spirits were never seen again.

There’s a great deal to unpack here. First off, we can reasonably assume that something did transpire in late July of 1867 at Old Town Hill. While later newspaper reports sensationalized the event, the preponderance of such articles and the strong oral tradition, coupled with the fact that both Putnam and Neely mention it in their diaries, suggests that some visitors saw something that they believed to be supernatural.

Next, there was indeed an Indigenous village once at Old Town Hill, which existed from approximately 1796–1821. In the mid 1790s, several bands of Lenape (Delaware) Native Americans had resettled into the Indiana Territory along the west fork of the White River. For two hundred years, the Lenape had been pushed westward as Europeans colonized their ancestral homeland along what is now the Delaware and Hudson rivers, in the present day states of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. By the end of the Northwest Indian War, the Lenape lived scattered across the Ohio Country and, once again, were forced to resettle further west. In recognition of their alliance during the war, the Miami Native Americans invited the Lenape to settle in their southern territory along the White River. The main Lenape band then established approximately fourteen villages, which began at what is now the Old Town Hill in Delaware County and stretched downriver into what is now Marion County.

The Lenape village at Old Town Hill was known as Wapikamicoke or Buckongahelas’ Village, the latter name given in honor of the venerable Lenape war chief that lived there. By the 1830s, the early settlers in Delaware County knew Wapikamicoke as ‘Old Town,’ supposedly because the village was abandoned at some point during the Lenape’s tenure in east-central Indiana (the tribe resettled in 1821 to Missouri). There isn’t any evidence that the Lenape permanently left Wapikamicoke before 1821, except for two years after the onset of the War of 1812, when every village was temporarily deserted. It’s likely that, following Chief Buckongahelas’ death in 1805, the political importance of Wapikamicoke waned and was recentered at Munsee Town, the village immediately north of the bend of the river at present day Minnetrista. The D.A.R. marker located along Burlington Pike at Old Town Hill labels the village incorrectly as “Utenink.” I once asked a Delaware Tribe of Indians linguist what Utenink meant and he laughed and said, “it’s just the common Lenape word for town.”

Like all folklore, there is truth to be found in certain aspects of the Haunting of Old Town Hill story. Given the reliability of the sources, we can safely assume that people really did travel out to Old Town Hill in late July of 1867 and that some observers saw something that they initially believed to be uncanny. We also know for certain that the Lenape village of Wapikamicoke was located at or near Old Town Hill between the years of 1796–1821. It is also likely that a Lenape cemetery existed within the vicinity of the village, as was the custom. But the idea of buried treasure is, frankly, stupid.

We also know that James Musco (c. 1804–1873) lived in the same area, staying for much of his adult life on the Rees farm. He was, to the best of our knowledge, the last known Lenape in Delaware County. For reasons the historical record does not make clear, Musco and his parents stayed when the tribe moved to Missouri. After his parents died, Musco became a well known, prominent resident of Perry Township. It seems unlikely that he shared stories of buried Native treasure, as Musco would have known the reality of Lenape life in Indiana. The tribe was rich in many things, but not in gold and silver. While I can imagine Musco sharing tall-tales to gullible white settlers looking for stirring folklore, I can’t fathom him providing the motive for settlers to dig up a Native cemetery. Whoever originated the legend probably just attributed it to Musco for a sense of authenticity in the story.

A settler by the name of Samuel Cecil (1824–1916) also really owned the land on Old Town Hill; Section 25 of Center Township to be exact. Cecil loved to share stories about his property, most of which turn out to be either false or grossly misleading in the light of a little research. For instance, he’s quoted in an early edition of the Indiana Magazine of History about finding the remnants of an ‘Indian Torture Stake’ discovered on his property. Supposedly, the Lenape villagers had burned several prisoners to death at this stake. However, given Cecil’s descriptions, the giant beam was likely the center support post for the large log house used by the Lenape during their Big House Ceremony. The Lenape had executed four members of their tribe in early 1806, but not at a ‘torture stake’ in Wapikamicoke. I’m guessing that Cecil had heard vague tales about the 1806 purge and, when he discovered the unusual pole on his property, just made up the rest.

But, there’s no sufficient reason to doubt that Cecil did in fact dig up a large copper kettle, although this hardly equates to buried treasure. Everybody at the time, both settlers and Natives alike, used oversized kettles for a variety of purposes. Finding one in the ground a few decades after the Lenape left seems like a fairly straightforward discovery.

Finally, while Tecumseh did solicit the White River Lenape for military assistance in his war against the United States, tribal elders refused an alliance and advised Tecumseh to sue for peace, telling him at a council in May of 1812 to “join our hearts and hands together, and proclaim peace through the land.”

But what about the ghosts?

As it turned out, the ‘hauntings’ were part of an elaborate prank, carried out by the residents of Old Town Hill. In the years immediately following the Civil War, nearby Munsonians were making it a habit to picnic at Inlow Springs and Old Town Hill, much to the chagrin of the locals. The hauntings were meant to terrorize the ‘big city’ picnickers along with the trespassing gold diggers and fishermen.

Several decades after the ghostly appearances, Albert Cecil, the son of Samuel Cecil, told the Muncie Star that Old Town Hill residents just became tired of the city-folk intruding into their rustic neighborhood. As a response, some Union vets and area teenagers carved a spooky face into a wooden shoe box, placed a lantern on the inside, and hoisted it on top of a pole. The pranksters then ran the contraption through the corn fields, so that it appeared to onlookers as a disembodied ghostly head, floating above the crops. To add to the effect, fellow conspirators floated quietly down the river in an old-fashioned canoe and blew into a makeshift horn, which unleashed an unearthly bellow. The sound echoed eerily through the woods, adding to the spooky ambiance.

Alas, instead of deterring people, the hauntings attracted hundreds of nightly visitors in late July of 1867. As the crowds came, the mischievous pranksters made evermore elaborate versions of ghosts to terrify (and entertain) the curious onlookers. The whole operation ceased when drunk spectators shot at the ‘ghosts’ one evening.

Nevertheless, Old Town Hill really was haunted and remains so today. Skeptics will dismiss notions of hauntings due to the lack of physical evidence for ghosts. They’re right in a scientific sense, but that doesn’t make the phantoms that haunt our psyches nonexistent. We see ‘ghosts’ anywhere existential uncertainty combines with strong emotions, like guilt.

In 1867, as the first generation of settlers approached the senescence of life, their glorified stories of east-central Indiana colonization remained powerful local foundation narratives. Yet, even a perfunctory look at Indiana’s settlement suggested to any rationally ethical Hoosier that the conquest of our state ran counter to expressed American ideals. Then, as now, anyone able to see through our culture’s dominant white supremacist narrative understood that the settlement of the Americas was inhumane in execution and immoral in design. The anxiety caused by this countervailing understanding has haunted our nation for over two centuries. It’s then no surprise that so many Munsonians saw ghosts at Old Town Hill in July of 1867, for the spectre of ethnic cleansing runs with the land.

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