Hell's Hollow

Bob Mills leads the way to Spirit Falls at Hell’s Hollow on a golf cart.

EAST LACKAWANNOCK TOWNSHIP — Aside from an occasional passing car in the distance, the sound of leaves underfoot or natural wind or wildlife noises, the area known as "Hell's Hollow" outside of Mercer is a generally quiet spot. But some say they can hear something else — the sound made by the restless spirit of an American Indian whose life might have come to a violent end.

Normally known for the annual "Hell's Hollow Haunt" barn and hayride Halloween tradition, the area known as Hell's Hollow features only a few structures, such as an old iron mill from the early 1800s secluded in the woods, a barn from 1872 at the latest, and landmarks such as a waterfall known as "Spirit Falls."

Though the pandemic cancelled this year's attraction, Barbara Mills — whose family owns the property — said she has to wear headphones when decorating the area for Halloween.

"Usually when I'd decorate, I'd have headphones on to drown out the weird noises," Mills said. "It may be thumping or banging. It's something that's there but you can't put your finger on what it is."

The area has been referred to as "Hell's Hollow" since at least the late 19th century. The 1888 "History of Mercer County" book even refers to the hollow as one of the principal physical features of what is today East Lackawannock Township, and it details the incident which led to the hollow's name.

Backstory

The Mercer County area was first settled in the 1790s by veterans of the Revolutionary War, who were often paid in land for their service in the Continental Army. But those land grants displaced American Indians – including the Delaware and Seneca tribes – already living here.

There were no major battles or skirmishes between the American Indians and European descendants like those seen out west almost a century later, said Bill Philson, executive director of the Mercer County Historical Society.

Instead, relations between the settlers and American Indians were often positive and even friendly sometimes, according to the historical record. In one instance, a native named Peter visited the home of the Pew family, which had settled the area in the late 1700s, and insisted he give the settler family an entire bear in exchange for a "corn pone," similar to corn bread, even though the Pews thought an entire bear excessive.

In fact, the record says that American Indians often stopped to visit at the Pew home near Mercer, which was founded in 1803. Philson said those type of exchanges were common back in the day, particularly at winter.

A legend is born

However, one particular native named Harthegig was recorded as being disliked by both settlers and American Indians alike. Harthegig, the son-in-law of Petty, a local native chief, was prone to alcoholism, which did not improve his reported personality flaws.

"He was ugly in physical appearance, and his disposition partook of the characteristics of his body," according to the historical record.

Though Harthegig was regarded among the prominent hunters of the Seneca tribe who lived north of the mouth of Pymatuning Creek, an incident in the early 1800s secured his place in local folklore.

Samuel Pew, a boy who may have been about 10 years old at that time, was warming himself by the fire when Harthegig, accompanied by two other American Indians, entered the home. Such visits were not uncommon, but Harthegig was reportedly drunk this time, and grabbed Pew by the hair, held up a hunting knife and threatened to scalp the boy, the record states.

Along with the other American Indians, the Pew home had another visitor — a neighbor and hunter of "long experience" named James Jeffers, who is believed to have had relatives killed by American Indians during the French and Indian War, and is recorded as being openly hostile toward them.

Upon seeing Harthegig threaten Samuel Pew, the other two American Indians and Jeffers disarmed Harthegig and threw him outside, the record states.

The next day, people recorded seeing Harthegig run past the Pew home and disappeared into the woods, pursued by Jeffers, carrying a rifle. Jeffers asked Pew, who was working in the front yard, where Harthegig went. When Pew answered, Jeffers quickly followed the American Indian into the woods.

Jeffers left the woods a few hours later with "a pleased expression on his countenance," the record indicates, and never said what happened in the woods, but Harthegig was never seen again. Though it is suspected that Harthegig was murdered, Philson said, at that time period, someone disappearing did not always automatically indicate suspicions of foul play.

"You could have someone out hunting and have an accident or get attacked by an animal. There were a lot of things that could happen to people back then," Philson said.

Jeffers left the area at some point before the War of 1812, but a discovery nine years after the incident at the Pew house provided a clue to Harthegig's fate. While working near Yankee Ridge, settler John Johnston saw a large skeleton tumble out of a tree. People believed the skeleton belonged to Harthegig.

Aftermath

Despite being the son-in-law of the local chief, Harthegig's apparent murder did not cause offense to the Seneca tribe, the record states.

"The thing about sycamore trees is they get soft in the center where people can hide things, so they've had cases like that where people would hide bodies or skeletons in the trees," Philson said.

Such incidents were not unheard of at the time. Another instance in the historical record said Jeffers was walking through the woods and encountered two American Indians. He killed them, reportedly, in self-defense. In another instance, an American Indian named Flynn drunkenly killed his wife, and was himself later killed in retaliation.

A lasting effect

However, the death of Harthegig seemed to have a lasting effect on the area in which he was killed. The historical record mentions what might have been supernatural activity in Hell's Hollow in the years following Harthegig's death.

"(Harthegig's spirit), troubled and restive, has been unable to find peace in its happy hunting grounds, but returns each night to the scene of its taking off, where, in storm and tempest, its deep groans and wailing lamentations sound loud above the echo of the howling winds," according to "History of Mercer County."

Hell's Hollow is not the only evidence of Harthegig's legacy. The now-defunct "Harthegig Bottling Company" advertised its soft drinks in an area newspaper, and the Harthegig Conservation Club still exists today, Philson said.

Much has changed in the last 200 years. The Pew home's location is now occupied by an apartment complex, Philson said. However, there are still plenty of historical remnants in the area to indicate what life was like, such as the old iron mill or the foundations where a water wheel was once located, Barbara's brother Bob Mills said.

"There's a lot of history in this area," he said.

VIDEO: Bob Mills of Hell's Hollow talks about what to look out for along the trail at the historical attraction in Mercer.

Like David L. Dye on Facebook or email him at ddye@sharonherald.com.

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