Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Otter Creek Massacree

Family Tombstones bw
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
It's summer time and time for summer camps for the kiddos, which puts me in mind of some of my favorite childhood memories.

One of the great things my childhood church did for many years was to hold a week-long Junior Camp every summer for elementary aged children. Every year for years, many adults of the church would set aside a week's worth of vacation to set up a children's camp at Otter Creek Park, not far from Louisville.

We'd do all the regular things - crafts, hikes, cave exploring, swimming, singing around the campfire, games... it was always a great time for me (with the noted exception of the dreaded and aptly named Kentucky Horsefly, which was as big as a horse and known to carry children away in its toothy maw to a horrifying and bloody death).

One of the favorite yearly hikes was the night-time hike to a nearby cemetery, the Rock Haven Cemetery, I believe. The tombstones at the cemetery were ancient and rough and mostly hand-scribed. As you look around at the dates, you noticed that many were from the same time period, within a year or two in the early 1800s. Most likely, there was some disease that had afflicted the community.

At least, that's what makes sense now. But that's not the story we were told THEN. We'd always make our hike to the cemetery just as dusk was settling upon the creaky old cemetery, giving us time to look around and read the names and dates on the graves just before settling down to a "history story" about the place, often told by my dad, Mr. Bill.

As you look around, he told us somberly, You'll notice that many of these graves are from the same time period. I'm here to tell you why that is.

Back 150 years ago, this area was the wild unexplored West. Settlers were just making their way out into these parts. Some traveled on further west, but many settled in communities, just like this one in Rock Haven, along the banks of Otter Creek.

Now, today, you hardly ever see any otters around here, but back in the days when they were settling this area, there was a multitude of otters, that's how the creek got its name.

And these were not the otters that we might see today, that are cat-sized. These were the Giant Otters, some of which reached lengths of four, six, sometimes seven feet long and weighing as much as a man!

As you all looked around at the graves, did you notice that many of the deaths were from the same year? What year?
, he'd ask, and we'd raise our hands or just shout out, "1822!"

That's right, mostly in the winter of 1822. And the reason for that is the Otter Creek Massacree of 1822. It seems that, 'round about the Spring of 1821, there was a drought in the land. Food became harder to come by. The settlers had been in Rock Haven for several years now, but their gardens had gone dry and they just weren't producing enough produce to make it.

Because of the drought, the deer and other game that the settlers usually hunted were scarce, as well. And so, during that long, dry summer, the settlers turned to hunting the Giant Otters. They made the assumption that Giant Otters were docile, playful critters like their smaller cousins.

They were mistaken.

After shooting a few Giant Otters, the otters retreated into hiding.

That summer was a long and hungry summer. Fall came and what food the settlers had stored was rapidly being eaten away.

The disappearances started that fall. A child disappeared while out playing. A father out hunting never came back. A trip to the outhouse and a brother never returned.

One by one, some of the settlers began turning up missing and eventually, they were assumed dead and a grave was set up for them and the hungry settlers mourned. A few died from hunger and illness, as their food supplies dried up.

Winter came, cold and hard that year.

The once robust community of 30 or so souls had dwindled down to 20 and a decision was made to send two of them men out to buy some supplies to bring back to Rock Haven.

Once they had left, was when things fell apart.

The remaining settlers spent most of their time trying to hunt for food, but they were running low on gunpowder. That was when the otters returned.

The Giant Otters of Otter Creek had been the ones responsible for the missing settlers and they had set upon the community with a vengeance. The settlers were no longer safe being out alone and unarmed. The otters had grown more bold and would even attack the settlers even when they were in groups now.

With each attack, the cold hard ground at the cemetery was broken for another burial.

Soon, the food was all gone and there was only one family left.

When the two men who had left for supplies returned, even that family was gone. Killed, it is assumed, by the Giant Otters.

It's rumored, they say, that the Giant Otters had a leader, the Great White Otter. This Great White Otter had eyes that glowed in the night.

All the Giant Otters are gone now, or so they say. But some say, that late at night, if you look out into the woods hereabouts, you can still see the glowing eyes of the Great White Otter...

And, of course, at this point, some adult hiding out deep in the woods, would have two flashlights turned on, looking around, as if he were the Great White Otter! And the kids would all scream and then we'd return to camp for a night of happy nightmares...


Alan said...

Sure they look cute, until they eat your face off.

Marty said...

Now I know where you get your story telling skills from.

I have always liked to walk around in old cemeteries reading the headstones imagining who they were and why they died.

One year my husband and I traveled to Tennessee to find where my ancestors were buried. We found most all of them. One in particular, John Knowles, was from Ireland and fought in the Revolutionary War. The little Methodist Church that was built on land he donated was still going strong. There is even a book written about him and few other settlers. Some of the grave stones were 2 long rectangle pieces of concrete put together like a tent. Really odd.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I love this story.

Alan's picture shows them plotting.

Dan Trabue said...

That's the rough gist of the story. Of course, each year, he told it differently. Sometimes just a little differently, sometimes it was a whole other story. This is how I remember it.

Thanks, y'all.

Marty, I like hanging out in graveyards, too. 'Specially if I have family in them.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Cemeteries are awesome places - especially older ones with lots of trees. I enjoy wandering and imagining the lives hidden by the names and dates on gravestones. Was this person loved by her family, or despised? Was that man active in his local community? How many great bakers and cooks, woodworkers and farmers lie, their talent and skills now forgotten, even those who have come since in their name?

I like to think, though I know it's a bit of a romantic conceit, that by trying to give them life in my mind, no matter how close it may or may not resemble who they really were, that I am honoring the life they passed through. No one is insignificant or unimportant enough to have even their grave forgotten.

Marty said...

Dan, that little Methodist Church, Mt. Pisgah, is located on a famous pioneer trail "The Old Kentucky Road". Here is some history. Another ancestor of mine, Rev. Thomas E. Hutson, is said to have "went out from Pisgah".

Dan Trabue said...

My son's in college in Murfreesboro, TN, and that looks like it's not too far from where you're talking about. Is that church in Warren County, or do you know?

Marty said...

White County. But Mufreesboro is not too far away. My family comes from in and around Sparta. Did you know that there were 9 natural water falls in Sparta? It is a great place to hike. Absolutely beautiful.

Marty said...

Burgess Falls State Natural Area.