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The Ghost of Raccoon Creek

Milestones Vol 26. No. 2

By George Swetnam

Perhaps it was only a dog that followed the Rev. George M. Scott through his wilderness journey, protecting him from all dangers. He never claimed it was more, despite its sudden appearances and disappearances, and the aura of light that hung about it.

The only one who claimed it was an angel was John A. Murrell, say those who hold this view. And who would give credence to the tale of a cut-throat robber and murderer?

Whatever it may have been, some amazing thing occurred at the fork where Service Creek runs into Raccoon, five miles from present-day Aliquippa. And what may really have happened has been the subject of long argument for more than a century in the hills where Allegheny and Beaver and Washington Counties meet, close by the border of West Virginia.

Admittedly, Murrell's word wasn't very good, when it was to his own interest to lie. And we have only his word that what he met at the fording of the creek was striking enough to send him in mad flight for some 35 miles to Round Knob which towers to more than 1620 feet near Power Point, Ohio, highest spot in the state.

Shoeless and blinded for the while, he fled through bramble, brier, alder, cress, willow, wold and stream, he said, until by mystic guidance he reached its summit, more often the abode of witches and demons than of the godly, if stories are to be believed.

There, if his record can be trusted, he fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and went forth with a call to preach. And without question, preach he did, under arbors and at camp meetings.

Both Lorenzo Dow and Peter Cartwright expressed doubt of his sincerity, but neither could explain the power which caused men to fall before his word like waves of grain before the scythe - - until the day when he was entrapped, and his career of robbery, murder and villainy ended.

Then it was disclosed in his published confession that his preaching was with an eye to gain, and not the glory of his Maker. For he admitted that while he preached, members of his gang profited by the excitement of his message; they stole the best horses, slipping away unnoticed, to meet him after, and divide the spoils.

But for now, enough of the cutthroat Murrell, for the story is of the Rev. George Scott, driven by the spirit into the wilderness, to preach to rugged settlers and even more uncertain Indians of the Western Country.

Born like his master at the inn of a town called Bethlehem, George Scott first saw the light of day in the Crooked Billet Tavern, where his parents had stopped before taking up land in Northumberland County, at Mt. Bethel. The date was Nov. 14, 1759, and during the years he was growing up in the sturdy Scotch Presbyterian elder's home, his religious experience seemed natural enough in a lad destined to become a minister.

Marriage and his call to preach both came late for George Scott, who was past 30 when he entered the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1793, taught at Princeton for three years while studying theology, and was almost 40 when received by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. His text showed that he was already deeply moved by the world's sin, for it was from Rev. 2:5 - "Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen, and repent."

Two years later, in 1799, he left his comfortable Eastern congregation, and started on a wagon journey of three weeks to Mill Creek, where a church had been formed in what is now the southern part of Beaver County. In the wagon rode his wife, who was soon to bear their first son. At Mill Creek Church he preached for nearly 40 years until his death.

But neither labors as a pastor nor as a teacher sufficed to quench the burning of his spirit within him. Again and again, mounted on a small but tough pony, he struck out into the wilderness, past Wheeling, past the grim battlefield of Point Pleasant, and far down into the Transylvania we now know as Kentucky - the dark and bloody ground.

It was on one such journey, the clergyman related, on the eve of a day memorable for spiritual thought, that he found himself threading a narrow defile in the mountains, equally adaptable to the infernal work of the wild beasts or wilder men who frequented the wilderness.

Suddenly an unaccountable light shone around him in the dying shadows, that as suddenly dissolved into a large, handsome dog of yellowish gray color. Waiting not a moment, the dog - if it was a dog - rushed into the gorge as if certain of finding an enemy, and drove out a fiercely growling bear.

Returning, the dog indulged in neither bark, nor wag of tail, nor pantomime of his kind. Apparently masterless, yet masterful, he moved at times in front of pony and rider, at times behind them.

Arriving at a cabin as night fell, Mr. Scott asked shelter, and was almost mistrustful at the more than hospitable readiness of the owner to receive him. Well might he have been mistrustful, for his host was none other than the notorious Jack Hare, who took in strangers only in order to kill and rob his guests. He was almost as dangerous a man as Murrell, the cold-blooded highwayman, who killed every man he ever robbed, and left a trail of victims from Erie to New Orleans along the Natchez Trace.

But the clergyman had never heard of Jack Hare, nor did anyone else in that day suspect his villainy. Despite his doubts, Dr. Scott had the dog chained in a stable, and lay down to sleep.

His sleep was not to be a quiet one that night. Once, twice and again, his slumbers were disturbed by what seemed a nightmare. Each time he seemed to hear stealthy footsteps, cat like, near and nearer his couch. Struggle as he might, he lay powerless to move, helpless except to listen -

unable to grapple with the unseen terror. Then, each time came the growl of a dog, fierce and loud at the foot of his bed, causing the stealthy footsteps to retreat.

Dismissing the experience as the figment of a dream, the minister rose next morning, breakfasted, and found the dog still chained. And not until years later when Hare had been caught and paid the price of his crimes did Dr. Scott realize his narrow escape.

But on the day in question, the clergyman considered the dog a stray perhaps a valued one - as well as a troubler of his dreams. Unsuspecting Hare's character, he left the dog chained in the stable to await claim, and rode forth again.

High noon came, alike upon the murderous innkeeper at his tavern; the dog in the stable, and upon the reverend missionary in the forest. Hare was congratulating himself upon getting the finest dog he had ever seen, when suddenly there came a crash of splintered puncheons, and a flash of yellowish-gray the way Dr. Scott had gone.

High noon in the forest, and the missionary was puzzling why the prophet Jonah had been reluctant to preach to those who were his enemies. Again came the flash of light, and the dog appeared. Convinced that the owner lived ahead, if anywhere, the clergyman made no further effort to rid himself of it.

Together they went along, man, pony and dog, as day followed day and night succeeded to night, the yellowish-gray messenger ever near. Once the dog attacked and drove away a wolf that was about to leap upon the reverend minister as he lay asleep in the forest. Again his outcry and attack drove away a panther that was about to spring upon the clergyman from a tree-limb that overhung the trail.

So it went until Dr. Scott neared his home, and met at the fording of Raccoon Creek a fierce young man, armed and blocking his way.

Swearing a fierce oath, Murrell drew his pistol and bade his victim dismount; but he had scarcely spoken when the dog leaped at the bandit with such ferocity that he fled, despite Dr. Scott's effort to call off the animal, and to speak to the man.

Dr. Scott never saw the dog again. On the short journey home, nor on any future day of his life did he lay eyes upon the great yellowish-gray creature.

To conclude: How shall we decide between the two stories? Did either preacher, Scott the true or Murrell the hypocrite, misstate what it was no

doubt mystically given him to see?

The reverend missionary said that he saw only a dog, which helped him in his need, again and yet again. But Murrell, in his "Confession," said he saw a Personage in White, who rebuked him so graciously that he fled to the hilltop, and eventually came down to begin the false preaching that led to his doom.

'Where lies the truth? Or is it all but a fable, the quick minds of men playing tricks with the coincidence that both men told of meeting some strange occurrence at the same day and place?