Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Plum Tree Massacre

When my girlfriend Liz gave me directions to our new apartment in Williamsport, PA, she said, "Turn right onto Cemetery Rd and then left at St James Place." Temporarily ignoring the Monopoly reference I said, "Cemetery Rd? How close is the cemetery to our building?" She replied, "The strange thing is that I haven't seen a cemetery anywhere. Maybe you'll find it when you get here."

Several weeks went by and I had yet to find any cemeteries. It was somewhat eerie walking down a street named "Cemetery Rd" and not knowing where the graves were. "Perhaps this house was built on top of the graveyard and it's haunted by the unsettled souls." Liz said.
"You're paranoid." I replied.

As we were driving home from the library one day, we saw what seemed to be the whole town standing along E. Fourth Street, waiting. Unbeknownst to us at the time, every year on September 11th, all the motorcyclists in Williamsport drive through center city in tribute to those who died in the attacks.

We dropped the car off at the apartment, walked a few blocks and joined the crowd right as the motorcycles began barreling through (there were 1600 in all).

After I had my share of leather jackets, waving flags, and children running around, my wandering eyes spotted a large rock with a plaque on the lawn of the church at the corner of Cemetery Rd and E. Fourth Street.

I looked closer and read:

The fact that I had passed this rock nearly every day for weeks without noticing it attests to its unassuming appearance (or my obliviousness). The same modesty that makes it easily overlooked begets a sense of sincerity and necessity that may have been trampled by a spectacular sculpture.

Words like "settlers," "indians," and "massacre" suddenly transformed the corner of this street from a thing unnoticed to a documentation of the bloody history of America (one that was far more engaging than shiny bikes and neon Mohawks but they do their best). A little section of town that seemed Dollar Tree empty a moment before changed into an important piece of our story.

I was compelled to go digging for any information about this tragedy. "Whose stories are locked within this rock?" I thought. Due to a recent string of disappointing gallery shows, it felt good to be captivated by an object in an entirely different context and for a reason far removed from the artistry of the thing.

In 1778, a group of sixteen revolutionaries, six men, eight children, and two women, traveled through Central Pennsylvania in order to get to Lycoming Creek, meet with relatives, and settle. There had been several recent attacks by Indians, "Brits", and Loyalists, so, John Harris, a man who had heard gunfire earlier that day, warned the group, led by Peter Smith, that they should turn back. Smith, however, said that no amount of firing would stop them. They kept on.

Before they got to the creek, gunshots fired. One man fell dead and apparently, the other men, with the exception of Michael Campbell who charged the attacking Indians, attempted to flee while the women and children were being struck down. The only two to escape were a boy and a girl, the children of William King, a lieutenant in the revolutionary army. They ran off and told local men of the skirmish.

However, due to their frenzied condition, the children weren't clear about the details of the attack. The locals thought that a canoe had been overtaken, so, they errantly went to the river and didn't find any trace of a struggle.

After a few hours, a messenger who had heard gunfire reached Colonel Hepburn who rounded up several of his soldiers to go see what happened. Among them was lieutenant William King.

By the time the soldiers neared the scene, they only found two bodies and due to the darkness, couldn't make out the identity of either. They decided to wait until morning to continue the search. When they returned the next day, they found the entire group shot, "tomahawked," and/or scalped. All were dead except William King's wife who had been tomahawked and scalped and yet, amazingly, had survived. She apparently recognized her husband as he approached but almost immediately upon grasping his knees, she died.

King's kids who had escaped were passed along to safety and eventually ended up in Canada. He, after seven years, somehow managed to track them down and reunited with them. William King died in 1802 and is buried just near the memorial.

Now I know why it's called Cemetery Rd.

"This terrible massacre occurred at the point where West Fourth street, Williams-port, crosses the little stream which flows down Cemetery street. At that time a natural thicket of wild plum trees grew there, which yielded fruit of remarkable size and flavor for nearly a century after the tragedy." - History of Lycoming County Pennsylvania

I didn't relay this story to make you sad, although it did. I didn't relay this story for you to pity these people, although you did. I relayed it because

I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.
-Marcel Proust from Remembrance of Things Past

Every time Liz and I pass the rock, we grow serene smiles that I can only attribute to an experience of the sublime.


If you want more information on this story (there are lots of interesting details I omitted for brevity), check out (especially the second link):


Matt Parrish said...

For anyone who's interested, there is an actual cemetery on Cemetery Rd. I was wrong. The rock isn't it. So much for my little narrative but there's a HUGE cemetery at the other end of the street. Maybe I should've checked out the WHOLE street before I wrote? HA!

raemar said...

This is Cemetery St. and West Fourth St. I am a life long resident of the city. There are 2 tombstones slightly back from the stone marker. I must admit, I never took notice until I read a post on facebook about the massacre. I drive past this church (which is now apartments) everyday and have taken more notice of the memorials.
It's surprising that there are so many little towns who have interesting histories that have been forgotten.

raemar said...

Also, the above cemetery is called Wildwood Cemetery. Many very old graves here.