Will o’ Wisps and Warrior Ghosts

You are lost in the desolate forest
Where the stars give a pitiful light.
But the far-away glow of the Will of the Wisp
Offers hope in the menacing night.
It is lonely and cold in the forest,
And you shiver with fear in the damp,
As you follow the way of the Will of the Wisp
And the dance of it’s flickering lamp.
But know, as you trudge through the forest,
Toward that glistening torch in the gloom,
That the eerie allure of the Will of the Wisp
Summons you down to your doom.
It will lead you astray in the forest,
Over ways never traveled before.
If ever you follow the Will of the Wisp,
You’ll never be seen anymore.Poem by Jack Prelutsky

Probably no where can you go and find more ghosts than along the Little Miami at Fort Ancient, much less fish at such a haunted locale. All that science can really say for certain is that from the end of the last ice age till now man has lived there, Paleo-indians, Adena, Hopewell, Fort Ancient peoples, woodland cultures and finally Scots-Irish pioneers. The hill overlooking the river here is the site to visit if you are interested in native american cultures in Ohio. Two and a half miles of earthworks in places up to twenty plus feet tall, indian mounds, indian burials, villages, farming and religious sites. You name it and Fort Ancient has it all.

Down on the floodplain, where now the canoe livery sits was the site of a pioneer settlement now completely gone. This ghost town had a blacksmith shop, hotel, post office, and was a stop on the Little Miami railroad.

On the opposite bank of the river the Cross Key Tavern, built in 1802, still stands. The Cross Keys was also a stop on the stagecoach line. Local lore has the tavern haunted by a woman that stayed there while the Cross Key was operated as an inn, probably sometime around 1810. Supposedly she found her bed so comfortable that after she died she returned to haunt that bed. Legend also says the antique shop at the top of the hill has tried selling the bed but it keeps getting returned by unhappy buyers. This antique shop itself was originally a church built in the 1850’s. Ive heard the abandoned cemetery beside the shop is haunted itself. Across the road from the grave yard, in Camp Kern, is the Kern Effigy, A stone pathway built by the Hopewell that supposedly resembles a giant snake.

My brother and my great uncle Albert Sandlin fished the river along here in the seventies and saw their own ghosts of sorts, a ball of light floating downriver hanging a few feet above the water. My great uncle mentioned seeing the mysterious light on a previous trip and then it reappeared on a night both he and my brother were fishing the river. My brother described it to me as a circle of soft light about the size as the bottom of a five gallon bucket floating slowly over the river.

Science says these lights are made by the gasses formed by decaying vegetation in  swampy ground. Down here at Fort Ancient the steep hillsides would shelter a gas ball from the wind that might break it apart allowing it to linger on a muggy summer night.

Legend tells a different story, calling them Will o’ Wisps or Jack o’ Lanterns and claims they are the ghosts of unbaptised children caught between heaven or hell. Other legends say the lights are the souls of men who have sold their souls to the devil. Certainly a better place than Fort Ancient, with it’s ghosts town and indian burial grounds, could not be found for a haunting.

Here the river runs in a series of long runs and holes better suited for catfish, crappies, and sauger fishing without alot of the classic smallmuth riffles. My smallmouth fishing here consists of walking five or ten minutes between fiffles and runs then fishing each one thoroughly. But with the exceptional water quality each spot usually yields some fine fishing making the effort worthwhile.

I’ve found that in early morning before the canoe crowd is out in full force this is a great stretch of river to fish with a flyrod.

(Here I have omitted a long sharing re: fishing details and his skills set)

For a few miles each side of the Fort Ancient bridge the hillsides are covered in just about the finest forest left in sothwestern Ohio. Early visitors to Little Miami river valley in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s described the valleys as having the most magnificent forests they had ever encountered. Considering the entire country was cloaked in forest these woodlands must have been quite majestic to earn such praise.

Along the river just upstream form here I found a few years ago what I’m sure was bobcat scat on the end of a log about chest high off the ground. Deer are frequently seen crossing the bike trail in early mornings and in spring the gobbles of wild turkeys ring thru the woodland.

Up atop the hillside at the Fort Ancient museum there are relics also of paleo-indians dating back 12000 years. Large clovis spearpoints that would have been used to hunt the mammoths and mastadons that roamed here after the last ice age. Some mastadon skeletons have been found in Ohio of animals that were eleven feet tall and estimated to have weighed ten thousand pounds. Imagine hunting that with a spear!

Other megafauna that would have lived in the Little Miami valley in those days would have included the dire wolf, giant beavers and ground sloths, saber toothed cats, and the meanest monster of them all, the short faced bear. The short faced bear stood up to twelve feet tall and weighed up to 2500 hundred pounds.

In the earliest years of the eighteen hundreds the woodlands from here upstream to past waynesville were known for their fine black bear hunting. Although by the end of the seventeen hundreds indians still had villages along the little miami, the Hopewell and the Fort Ancient peoples were long gone. The earliest white explorers to Fort Ancient tell of finding mature trees hundreds of years old growing atop the earthworks.

One theory holds that the little ice age that so devastated europe from 1300 to the mid 1800s caused the Fort Ancient people to adapt from their settled ways into the woodland culture Shawnee. Another theory was their culture was wiped out by disease sweeping up from the south caused by contact with the first Spanish exlorers to North America. To me some combination of the two seems logical.

The Fort Ancient people who lived all along the length of the Little Miami and the Shawnee shared many ways of doing things and artifacts from both cultures are very similar. The Shawnee, many archeologists believe, are the most likely descendants of the Fort Ancient people. Since most of the Scot’s Irish settlers of Kentucky and Ohio ended up with traces of Cherokee and Shawnee blood in their geneology I like to think so, having the blood of these Scot’s Irish hillbillys running in my veins. Maybe some tiny tiny fraction of my own heritige dates back to these amazing people.

Although called Fort Ancient, this place wasn’t really a fort at all, the walls are broken by 63 large gateways that would have been impossible to defend. It is thought that instead this was the religious center for villages from the surrounding countryside, their Mecca of sorts. I rather like the idea of Fort Ancient as a place of pilgrimage and worship instead of a fort. Any theory that has one of my favorite fishing spots being holy makes perfect sense to me.

These ancient peoples would have grown corn and squash here and gathered wild foods such as ramps or acorns from the surrounding forests. Pearls and shells from the Little Miami were much used in jewelry and they would have traveled the river in dugout canoes trapping and catching it’s plentiful fish. Whether or not their spirits now haunt the river scaring fishermen as glowing balls of light is of course another thing entirely…




A dancer from the celebration held every year at Fort Ancient.