; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Friday, October 25, 2013

Witch Dance...Along The Natchez Trace

A reader from Mississippi forwarded the following article from the Times Post in Houston, Mississippi, printed on October 30, 1996. After a bit of research, I came across an 1877 article from a local newspaper describing a similar location, but using a different name. The Natchez Trace had a reputation for thefts and murder (including the death of Meriwether Lewis)...as well as occult activity. Read the accounts below and tell me - are the Witch Dance and the Witches' Acre the same location?:

Located just a few miles North of Houston, Mississippi, on the Natchez Trace Parkway, Witch Dance is one of the most legendary places in the county when it comes to tales about ghosts and paranormal experiences. Southern folklorist, Kathryn Tucker Windham, of Selma Alabama, lists Witch Dance as one of the most haunted places in the state in her book, 13 Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey

According to Windham, Witch Dance got it’s name from old tales about witches holding nighttime ceremonies along the Trace. According to the tales, Windham said that wherever the witches’ feet touched the ground, the grass withered and never grew back again. These bare spots, according to Windham, beguiled and perplexed travelers and others who frequented the Trace, making their way from the East Coast to New Orleans during the 19th Century. “Many of the travelers didn’t have much time to worry about the bare spots they encountered as they traveled down the Trace,” Windham wrote. They were too busy worried about thieves, murderers and Indians to pay much attention to the bare spots of grass. People started to take notice of the bare spots when the story of a brigand named Big Harp circulated back to the area.

According to Windham, Big Harp was a bloodthirsty outlaw who preyed on the caravans of settlers moving up and down the Trace. When and Indian guide told Big Harpe about the bare spots and the legend of Witch Dance, Big Harpe leaped from spot to spot, daring the witches to come out and fight him. Eventually, Big Harpe went back to his home in Kentucky, where he was captured by a posse after stabbing a woman and her baby to death in a robbery. Windham said the legend hold that the husband of the woman decapitated Big Harpe with a knife while Harpe remained conscious. After the outlaw’s head was removed, the husband placed it in a tree, where it totted down to a bleached, white scull. A few months later, Windham’s story reads, an old hill woman who had a reputation for being a witch, pulled down the skull and ground it into powder to be used in a potion to cure her nephew’s fit. Windham said travelers who retold the story along the Trace swore they could hear crackling laughter in the bushes after retelling the tale.

Another outlaw in Windham’s account of Witch Dance was more respectful of the bare spots. Joseph Thompson Hare, a Philadelphians by birth, came south to pursue a career as a robber along the Trace. According to legend, an Indian by the name of Hayfoot told Hare the story of the Witch Dance and Hare was always mindful of the bare spots and was careful not to step in them. A few years later, Hare robbed a drover on the Trace and as he was making his getaway, he spied a white horse in his path. As he grew near the horse, the animal vanished into thin air, according to Windham’s account. Hare reportedly recounted the tale up until his death in 1818.

Many people in Chickasaw County still see Witch Dance and the Indian mounds around it as a place to avoid on dark, dreary nights. Part of the feat people have might be rooted in the history of the place. According to the History of Chickasaw County, the Hopewells, a paleo-Indian group, first inhabited the area around Witch Dance and were responsible for constructing the Bynum Mounds, located between Witch Dance and Houston. The Hopewells were eventually absorbed by the Chickasaw Indians, whose legends and folklore probably put much fear into white settlers in the area.

According to legend, the Chickasaws were decedents of the Toltecs of Mexico. The legend holds that they left their homeland to escape oppression. They were guided in their journey by a medicine stick and a white dog. Each night, the Indians would plant the stick in the ground and whichever way it pointed, they followed. The dog would lead then to berries and food along the way. They were accompanied by “bond bearers” who carried the bones of their ancestors from Mexico to be buried in the new homeland. Eventually, the stick pointed straight up and the Indians buried their ancestors bones in Winston County at Nanih Waiya. A split occurred between the two brothers leading the Indians. One group, who followed the leader, Chocta, stayed in and around Winston County and were known as Choctaws. The Chickasaws practiced a religion similar to they practiced by the tribes in Mexico. They worshiped one god, known as Ababinili. They held all their religious services on the tops of mounds at Owl Creek and on the mounds that are common all over the game management area. Eventually, the Chickasaws were driven out of Mississippi by various treaties with the United States Government but, as many a lost coon hunter can tell, their legends and their folklore still remain to give all woodsmen goosebumps on dreary nights in October. - Times Post, Houston, Mississippi - October 30, 1996



In the county of Chickasaw, Mississippi, on what is known as the Houston road, leading from Oakalona, the county seat, to the Village of Houston, there is a lonely spot which has for years been called the “Witches’ Rendezvous.” The name has its origin in a number of traditions and wild superstitions connected with the locality, and some of these are of a peculiarly weird and thrilling character. The haunted spot, which is perfectly barren of grass or bush, does not include more than an acre of ground, circular shaped, and situated on the slope of a gentle hill; and, though it is surrounded by large trees, it is said no leaf or twig has ever fallen within the charmed space. It is a tradition that for over a half century witches have come to the desolate place to dance and indulge in their magic incantations. They come at midnight, and vanish with the cock-crow.

Twenty-five years ago the many ghostly stones which were current at that time created considerable public excitement throughout that section of Mississippi, and the Jackson Clarion commissioned Colonel Thomas S. Gathright to visit Chickasaw County and investigate the truth or falsity of the reports. Gathright wrote a very elaborate account of his visit, which was published in the Clarion. In the course of his article he said there was a tradition to the effect that a tribe of Indians had buried valuable treasures in the vicinity. The account created a great sensation, and a number of people went to the witches’ rendezvous and began to dig for gold. The deep holes and trenches still to be seen in that locality were the only results of their labors. A remarkable feature of the soil is that it is red-colored, while that outside the circle is very dark, that country being included in what is known as the black lands. The phenomenal circumstance is accounted for by a thrilling store to the effect that in early times a band of Chickasaw Indians, temporarily encamped on the spot, were surprised and massacred by the hostile Creeks; and, to express his wrath, the Great Spirit turned the soil to a blood color and cursed it forever, causing troubled spirits to haunt it and appall all who should pass the uncanny neighborhood. Indians, when they inhabited the country, had a great dread of the place, and would never go near it. Spiritual mediums have frequently visited the haunted circle and sat in the darkness to commune with the witches, and they assert that the truth of the above story is confirmed by the in-essential beings forced by fate to gather at this wild and isolated place. According to the mediums, one hundred years ago, one hundred and eighty Chickasaw Indians were savagely slain by an overwhelming force of Creeks, and that after being scalped the bodies were left on the ground to be eaten by the wolves, and that the Great Spirit, as an evidence of his displeasure at the atrocity of the deed, decreed that the neighborhood should be forever under the foul influence of evil spirits.

The peculiar manifestations which are now and have ever since been witnessed by those who pass there between midnight and break of day consist mainly of ghostly forms, dressed in white or gleaming as with phosphorescent light; old hags, exhibiting horrid charms or engaged in unearthly dances; ghostly Indian warriors, mounted on the whitened skeletons of ponies; beautiful maidens, appareled like brides; gigantic human forms, gaunt and wasted, with eyes glaring like balls of fire and gibbering with goblin voices; floating lodges of the red race, populous with wailing squaws and papooses. Besides these, there were other less notable demonstrations, but all of a mysterious character and all sustained by such strong evidence as to dissipate the credulity of the most skeptical. As the midnight hour arrives, “the witch laugh,” a wild, tremulous, discordant sound, breaks out on the breeze, and is heard a quarter of a mile away. These are followed by hideous screams, echoed in every hill and hollow. Spectral lights flash and phantoms float through the air. Some of these wail like women lamenting, while others gibber and gabble like witches working an infernal spell. At times these sounds are not heard, and the unholy circle is as quiet as a home of the dead, but pale lights gleam and spirit forms flit by, and the lone traveler, on any night, will see enough to make his blood run cold and his hair stand on end. Few people have had the hardihood to remain near by from midnight to dawn, and those who have declare that under no inducement would they again subject themselves to the prolonged torture of such preternatural spectacles. No one passes the spot after midnight if it can possibly he avoided, and even in daylight the wayfarer travels in that direction with more or less dread. It is related that, though no person lives within three miles of the rendezvous, the crowing of a cock is always heard there as day begins to break. At the sound of the first warning note from this invisible and unsubstantial chanticleer, witch, ghost and specter vanish into thin air, and when dawn falls upon the enchanted circle supreme stillness reigns.

Recently there has been a revival of the old stories told so often about that strange place, and many new manifestations have lately occurred. One night, [???], J. F. Nelson, of Neal’s store- a well known and most worthy young man – was returning home from Okalone. The sky was clear and blue and the stars shone out like jewels. The [???] of the leaves and the beat of hoofs upon the dusty road were the only sounds that, broke the silence. He had reached the witches’ rendezvous, when a female form floated out of the darkness on the right of the road. She made her appearance with the most inexpressible grace and airiness. She was tall, slender, and dressed in a robe of white. Her long hair was unbound, and fell over her shoulders in luxuriant waves. Reaching the middle of the road, she tossed her arms in the air and began to dance with a lightness, a charm and a swiftness of motion to mortals unknown. Nelson did not move. He states that he felt so spellbound that motion was impossible. His eyes were riveted upon the woman. His horse had stopped terror-stricken. A few moments passed and the figure melted away with the mystic shadows of the night in the direction of the witches’ rendezvous.

Nelson is not the only one who has lately seen and heard supernatural things in that mysterious locality. On the night succeeding this, Colonel Parker was riding on his return to Okalona from his plantation. When he arrived opposite the witches’ rendezvous he was bewildered by the sight of unnumbered tents, wagons, horses and figures moving to and fro. He had passed by it in the morning and seen nothing. While gazing upon the ghostly vision, it suddenly faded from his sight, and spurring his horse he went galloping away with the speed of the wind.

About a month ago four young men, two of them named William Akers and Samuel Hudeson, repaired to the rendezvous at midnight, armed for offensive or defensive operations, as exigency might demand, and determined to remain and witness what demonstrations were visible. They stationed themselves on the roadside, immediately opposite the rendezvous, and about fifty yards distant therefrom. According to their own statements, which was published the same week in the Okalona Pilot, they witnessed the following extraordinary manifestations: The four young men were seated on their horses in the shadows of a grove of oak trees. The moon was shining brightly, the heavens were aglow with stars. Exactly at the midnight hour the stillness that brooded upon the hill and woods was broken by a shrill laugh, that came from the center of the open space. The laugh was wild, piercing and tremulous, and was so loud that echoes came from every direction. The horses seemed convulsed with fear, and their bodies trembled and quivered like the leaves stirred by the night wind. The young men themselves were filled with terror, but being resolved to stay, agreed to dismount, tie their horses, and see it out. In about five minutes there was another wild laugh, similar to the first, and then a series of similar sounds, making a jargon that resounded a mile away through the deep forest. Suddenly a light flashed upon the scene, or rather a profusion of globular-shaped phosphorescent flashes traveled through the air with unnatural rapidity, and making visible the thin and bony forms of five or six old hags dancing round a circle, laughing, gibbering and singing at intervals. No word or syllable of what they said could be distinguished; it Appeared more like a meaningless and idiotic jabber than any language ever known to mortal beings. The faces of the old jades could plainly be seen. They were all lean and scraggy, with wrinkled skin, peaked nose, mouths that moved with horrible and diabolic grins, and eyes glaring and glittering like those of some huge serpent. They seemed to be dancing around some object that was to the young men invisible. Within twenty minutes they had finished their horrid incantations, with a loud laugh retreated – the laugh dying slowly away, being heard hundreds of miles away. Simultaneously with their disappearance the luminous flashes faded and darkness again prevailed. Though no lights were visible for some time, strange sounds fell upon the ear, and the branches of the trees, bordering the circle, were continuously stirred with great violence, though no strong wind was blowing. About two o’clock in the morning, a pale light gradually extended over the open space, and from the shadow of the trees on the far side, a horseman rode forth. It was an Indian brave, in full war dress and paint. He was a large man of powerful frame, and his long black hair flowed in long, thick locks over his broad shoulders. His face was painted red, yellow and black, and, under the mild illumination, looked horrid and ghastly. His waist was encircled with a huge string of scalps, and these seemed to number hundreds. His legs were encased in buckskin leggings worn by the Chickasaws, and over his tawny breast was thrown a panther skin. In his right hand he carried a bow and arrow, and attached to his belt was a rude tomahawk and a club, such as were used in warfare by the early aborigines. The horse he bestrode was an animal of great beauty, and small, and walked with its head bent almost to the ground. Slowly horse and rider crossed the open circle, pausing at intervals a moment or two while the ghostly warrior sat like a statue and gazed into vacancy. Reaching a point in the circle opposite the place where he started the horse paused and turned, and slowly retraced his steps, moving with indescribable grace to the starting point. Up to this time not a sound was heard. Although the ground was very hard and solid the hoofs of the animal made not the slightest noise. It was like a shadow seen through a transparent canvass. When the grove of trees from whence the majestic figure originally emerged was reached, however, the stillness was broken by a war-whoop loud and long, and the clattering sounds of a galloping horse were borne back upon the night wind. Though greatly terrified, two of the young men, Henderson and Aker, determined to investigate the charmed circle and take the consequences, whatever they might be. Leaving their horses in charge of their companions, they proceeded on the road, and were on the point of crossing over in the direction of the rendezvous when there appeared before them a beautiful female figure, first floating in the air and then descending to the ground, where it indulged in an extraordinary dance, executing movements with a grace and rapidity impossible to human beings. Overcome by this strange spectacle, the young men beat a hasty retreat to where their horses and companions were stationed, and related their experience.

Though their companions were looking on all the time, they saw nothing of the supernatural vision that had filled the bold adventurers with unbounded awe. Thinking that they might have been deceived by their imaginations, the young men again essayed to approach the haunted spot. Reaching the same point in the road where they had been met by the mysterious figure, they were again intercepted. This time two airy female forms floated through the air, and began to dance in a way that bewildered and awed the bold intruders, who, for a second time retreated, and with much greater haste than in the first instance.

Succeeding this visitation there was a succession of ghostly sights and sounds that made the daring explorers quake with fear, and to gallop away as fast as their horses’ legs could carry them. First came the witches, with their wild laughs and their incoherent songs, dancing hand in hand round a small circle with dazzling rapidity; an Indian lodge of bark, with a squaw and papooses wailing and weeping inside, floated slowly through the circle, and was lost to sight in the shadowy woods; a hundred Indian horsemen, with horrid countenances and almost nude, came galloping through, each giving an echoing whoop as his form melted at the edge of the forest. These manifestations were so indescribably horrible that the young men, fearing that the very spirit of evil had been turned loose, and that they were in great peril, hastily remounted, and, making for the open road, spurred away with the swiftest speed.

A local paper, speaking of this strange story, says: “This is no idle tale; no vague phantasm of an ignorant mind. It is told by men who stand as high in public esteem as the best citizens of Chickasaw County.”

There are many more wild and weird stories of the preternatural scenes witnessed in the solitude of that deserted place, but these related here seem to be supported by testimony of the most Indisputable character. - The Richwood Gazette - 25 October 1877

NOTE: Here's a piece from 2012 that's related to the weird activity along the Natchez Trace and an investigation by John Zaffis - The King's Tavern: A Haunted History of Cruelty, Anguish and Sorrow...Lon

Haunting of Mississippi, The

Traveling the Trace: A Complete Tour Guide to the Historic Natchez Trace from Nashville to Natchez

Devil's Backbone, The: The Story of the Natchez Trace (Pelican Pouch Series)