Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Kindly Phantom of Wilson Creek

As most of you know, I am a native Texan. To be more specific, I am from East Texas. The reason I make this distinction is due to the difference in terrain and geography from east to west.  The East is home to the Piney Woods and the legendary - and jungle-like - Big Thicket. Copious amounts of rain falls on this part of the state, birthing numerous rivers and countless creeks.  The dark woods and deep thickets offer cover and food for many animal species. This is also the region of the state from whence most of the sightings of large, hairy, ape-like creatures originate. The tale that follows concerns at least one such creature and is one I was not familiar with until recently. Some of the details reported will be familiar to followers and researchers of the sasquatch phenomenon; however, other accounts are unlike anything I have ever come across. Do the various stories over the years describe different beings/creatures or are all the accounts related? I suppose that is for you to decide, dear reader. Now, on with the story.


“It looked like a monster,” a 1934 article from the May 20th Sunday edition of the Beaumont Enterprise begins. “It’s (sic) body…seemed to be covered with long black hair. Some described the Thing as bearing every earmark of a great ape.” The creature in question was squatty and powerfully built. He (we make an assumption on gender here) wore no clothing and never uttered a word. More often than not, the phantom – as he came to be known – appeared to locals at the height of raging storms and/or when said folks were in some sort of trouble and in dire need of help.

This particular “haint” wandered the woods and along the banks of creeks in Tyler County, Texas in the 1840s and 1850s. While the settlers of this region had many encounters with the benevolent beast – for that is how he was thought of by the locals – it is the stories of brothers John and Robert Rotan which I will focus on here. The following tales were related to reporter Dean Tevis by Young John Rotan for the previously referenced 1934 article. The stories were told to him by both his uncle, Old John, and father, Robert Rotan.


 Old John left the community of Peach Tree one night to visit the nearby Burch settlement, which sat about a mile from the spot where the town of Chester exists today. The exact nature of the trip is not stated, but it was most likely a business trip (Old John dealt in cattle). Whether John Rotan closed his deal is not disclosed; what is known is that a terrible storm set in on the area as he was making his way home. The night was pitch black and rain was falling in buckets. Old John had to depend on the vision of his horse to keep to the trail, as he could see little to nothing in the deluge. It was not long before he rode up on a creek called Wilson Branch. The usually benign stream was running fast and deep due to the heavy rains. His horse – an unusually trustworthy animal, according to John – hesitated and balked at crossing the torrent. Old John tried everything to get his mount to proceed. He coaxed, prodded, and spurred the beast but to no avail. The horse would not budge. Suddenly, an event occurred that caused Old John to question whether it had really been the raging waters that his horse had shied away from. “Seemingly from the creek itself, then well out of its banks, grew an unnatural figure.” His horse reared in fright, pawing at the air in the direction of the advancing shadow, forcing John to hold on for dear life. “It wasn’t very tall,” he is quoted as saying. “But it was thick set, ape-like, and seemed hairy. It seemed to wear no clothes. In a way, you may have said it was rather shapeless.”


John was chilled to the bone by the sight of the apparition but made no move to retrieve the loaded pistols he carried in his saddlebags. Whether John froze in fear, or, as he later claimed, concluded that it would not have been to his advantage to fire a bullet into the Thing, can only be speculated upon now. What is known is that while Old John pondered on what action to take, the phantom walked up to a position even with his saddle horn. Miraculously, the frightened horse quieted and stood stock still as the creature reached out and touched the animal’s neck. Wide-eyed, Old John Rotan watched as “The wild figure put its hand on the horse for an instant, and then, without adoo (sic) took hold of the bridle” and began leading the steed down the slope and across the angry creek branch safely. “It was all over in a few seconds,” John said, “then the figure disappeared into the darkness it came from…”. Old John never saw the phantom again but often speculated on what his fate might have been had the creature never appeared. The tale of the kindly phantom of Wilson Creek might have faded into oblivion soon after, had not dozens of other settlers seen and had experiences with what most feel was the same being. One such notable account was given by Old John Rotan’s own brother, Robert.


Robert Rotan’s story took place in the springtime as he awaited the arrival of his first-born, a season that brings violent thunderstorms to much of the Lone Star State. As many can attest, babies care little for what atmospheric conditions are present at the time of their arrival on this mortal plane, nor do they seem concerned whether or not medical help is available. Such were the circumstances the night of little Sally Rotan’s birth.  Mother and father had hoped and prayed that the child’s arrival would come after the raging storm outside had broken, but it soon became obvious that would not be the case. Help was needed and it was needed fast. Robert saddled up and tore off through the storm towards the homestead of a local woman known to locals as “Grandma Pullen.” Ms. Pullen was often called upon by the residents of Tyler County to assist in the birthing process. Robert needed to fetch her fast, as his wife was in distress. The problem was that Ms. Pullen lived 8-10 miles away in an area that was in the thick woods and nearly impenetrable under the best of circumstances. Robert was attempting to find the Pullen cabin on a moonless and stormy night.

Situated between Robert Rotan’s home and that of Grandma Pullen was Caney Creek. According to theEnterprise article, “Caney is famed for its tangled wilderness. Its banks, and the country on both sides of them for a good distance, are thick in palmettos, tear blankets, and saw vines, bearing mean sharp briars which cling tenaciously to the clothing, and rip the hide of a horse sent through them. By daylight a horseman could ride round the worst of the patches which overgrew the narrow roadways, but at night he was almost helpless against them. It was often said that a man could hide all his life in this country and never be found…”. This is what Robert Rotan was up against as he fought the elements in an effort to locate the Pullen cabin.


Robert successfully, though painfully, negotiated the tear-blanket vines and made it to the bank of Caney Creek. Once there, he found the creek dangerously high and fast-moving, due to the raging storm. While searching for a safe spot to cross the creek, Robert and his mount became hopelessly lost. Being nighttime – a dark, stormy, and moonless night at that – there were no landmarks visible to guide him, and after riding in circles for what seemed like an eternity, Robert stopped his horse and hunkered down, hoping that the weather would soon break and he would be able to find his way out of the thicket. 


Exactly how long Robert and his horse had been motionless in the deep thicket is not known. All that is known is that Robert, after having been still for a while, saw a figure rise up mere yards in front of his mount, “seemingly from the ground.” The apparition did not hesitate, but stepped forward and took the reins of the horse and proceeded to lead him through the bottoms, across the creek, and up into the hills, where Robert was able to again locate the trail. Robert, who had had ample time to observe the creature, described a being “covered with black hair,” and having a “somewhat short, stubby body, and looked like…an ape.” The phantom said nothing, nor did it ever even look at Robert, and melted back into the gloom of the forest once its mission had been accomplished. 


Robert Rotan did make it to Grandma Pullen’s cabin that night and she was, indeed, able to help deliver baby Sally. Years later, Robert’s son, Young John, would say, “As you can believe, my father was desperate that night. Perhaps it was a dream he had. Perhaps it was something else. As far as I’m concerned, I’m of the opinion that what he saw was the same figure my Uncle John saw that night he crossed Wilson Branch.”


There are other stories from the Peach Tree Village area that are more typical (if that term can ever be used) descriptions of sasquatch encounters. Settlers during this same time period were hounded by a mischievous “pebble thrower.” One homestead in particular, dubbed the Hallmark Home, was the favorite target of the hurler and was showered with rocks, pebbles, gravel, and other forest debris on a regular basis for 75 years. Often, the pebble thrower was accompanied by what the pioneers called the “wild woman of Caney Creek.” The wild woman was never seen, but her “wild, untamed screams were heard in the tangled bottoms of the creek on many occasions over a period of half a century.” Were the pebble thrower, the wild woman of Caney Creek, and the kindly phantom of Wilson Creek all different entities, or was the same being responsible for all of the strange occurrences in Tyler County during the late 19th century? Young John Rotan, son of Robert and nephew of Old John, pondered the same question. “I often wonder if the kindly phantom was kin to the wild woman, if she was a ghost, too, and whether they both were related to the strange pebble thrower of the Hallmark House. Sometimes I think they’re different, and then sometimes I think, well, maybe they’re one and the same thing – just acting different at different times and for different purposes.”


I admit that the actions of the kindly phantom described in these old stories are unlike anything I have ever heard regarding sasquatch behavior. Whether the events took place exactly as described, I obviously cannot say. What I do know is that in a world where wood apes are often seen as creatures to fear and are subtly blamed for the disappearances of what seems like every missing hiker or hunter across the nation, it was nice to come across a story where the sasquatch-like figure was seen in a positive light and not feared by the locals (though the pioneers of Tyler County did fear the pebble thrower and wild woman of Caney Creek). 


I will wrap this post up with the words of Young John Rotan who said, “You know there are some things in this world, now as well as back there, that neither you nor I, or anyone else, can explain. And just because we can’t explain them, why, that’s no reason to say they didn’t happen. I don’t look at things like that, do you?”


Well, do you? 


P.S. – I would like to send a special “thank you” to Susan Shine Kilcrease and her crack research staff at the Ice House Museum in Silsbee, Texas for finding and forwarding the Beaumont Enterprise article sourced for this post. 



Tevis, Dean. “The Kindly Phantom of Wilson Creek.” Beaumont Enterprise, 25 May 1934, pp. 10–10. 

No comments:

Post a Comment