A haunting tale from Dunbar, Pennsylvania – 1862
by Meg Grimm, the Story Spinner
Betty Knox was lovely by surprise.
Her mother had died when she was only three years old, so her father had raised her as a son. Betty learned to do the clearing, plowing, planting and reaping that was required for their small mid-19th century farm that sat atop a great gorge. She also helped raise the cattle and drive the oxen. Despite all this hard work, the girl had grown to be fair of face and form.
When Betty's father also died in a timber accident, the then seventeen-year-old determined to earn her living by hauling grain for other farmers to the gristmill in Ferguson Hollow. Betty led her oxen down the mountain from the Kentuck Knob area. She would return with freshly ground flour that she delivered on her way home. The girl eventually blazed a wide, twelve-mile trail through the forest via the beasts and her cart. The farmers who utilized Betty’s services talked of her great beauty, and word spread.
The flaxen-haired maiden suddenly had suitors from near and far, but instead of welcoming a husband to share her burdens, the girl preferred a solitary life. That is, until the day she came upon a badly injured soldier on her way home from the mill. The man had deserted the Union Army during a savage battle. He had wandered north for many days following rivers and streams, but he could not take another step.
Betty would not leave him to die. She helped the soldier into her cart, and there he lay among the sacks of flour. Her oxen pulled him to the Knox farm.
At home, Betty did her best to clean and bandage the soldier's wounds. Though she spent many nights bathing his fevered face with cold water and tipping cups of healing tea to his lips, he never fully recovered. By the time he drifted to death in her arms nearly a year later, the soldier had fallen deeply in love with his beautiful rescuer. Betty was equally besotted with him, and she was left devastated. The neighbors helped her bury her lover on the hill next to her father. He was the only one to ever hold her heart.
Life carried on as before until one day, many years later, Betty suddenly disappeared. The farmers noticed first. She did not come to collect their grain. Those who often saw her at the mill wondered if she was ill. Neighbors were alerted, and some went to call on the girl. Finding the Knox house empty, search parties were formed to comb the forest, but they found nothing. No evidence was even left behind to suggest what may have happened. Betty simply vanished.
At first, people assumed thieves or wild animals. Over time, the most prevailing theory of the reclusive woman’s disappearance became that she could not abide with her broken heart. They believed Betty had jumped to her death into the river at the base of the gorge. This seemed out of character for steadfast Betty, however, and it was over a decade since the soldier’s death. The truth was that there was no good explanation at all.
The mystery deepened the following spring, when some children discovered a skeleton of an ox chained to a tree near a fresh water spring that Betty had lined with stones. The spring was along Betty's path where it crossed the creek. No one understood the meaning of this since they had retraced Betty’s journey through the woods many times during their search and had not come upon an ox. Some noted that Betty also never used a chain on her oxen. The poor animal left to die was as mysterious as Betty’s disappearance.
Over the passage of time, ghost stories began to emerge. First, there was the lowing of oxen heard echoing through the dark forest. These reports were followed by sightings of a ghostly woman appearing just before morning light. Others claimed to see the apparition leading a team of oxen along Betty’s old trail. Then there were the whispers. The faint sound was described as an anguished man calling for the missing lady. With reports such as these, folks had no choice but to assume the girl was dead.
Over a century later, curious tales of Betty Knox still endure, and seekers traverse Betty Knox Road in search of her old haunts. Some wish to catch a glimpse of the flickering spirit or the ghostly oxen. They wait quietly, straining their ears so to hear the reputed phantom whispers. Who knows? Perhaps Betty’s spirit is still there, and the soldier’s voice really does breathe through the trees, just as the legend has promised for nearly 150 years.
The legend of Betty Knox is from Dunbar, Pennsylvania. It is based on an event that allegedly happened in 1862 during the Civil War, but some believe the dates were later moved forward a century. The story may have instead happened during the Revolutionary War. However, it should be noted that the Isaac Meason Gristmill in “Frogtown” only opened in 1791. Some versions of the tale also claim that the deserter soldier was Betty’s husband returning home. These differences appear in the earliest mention of the legend in the local newspaper. However, one historian believes the reason was that journalists were attempting to connect Betty with a certain family from the area. According to the later, more likely timeframe, Betty was said to have vanished in the year 1878.
As another note, it is believed by some researchers that the last name “Knox” came about by orally repeating the story of “Betty’s ox,” and her true last name is now unknown. Tharp or Thorp has been suggested. This could place Betty’s homestead around Tharp Knob. However, in that case, the gristmill in nearby Ohiopyle would have been much closer than Dunbar.
A flat area by Dunbar Creek once called Betty Knox Park is now part of the state game lands and located about three miles from Dunbar off of Dunbar-Ohiopyle Road. Perhaps once part of Betty’s original trail, Betty Knox Road is a gravel road with no signage that follows Dunbar Creek up over the mountain. Betty’s original spring can allegedly be located where her trail crosses the creek.
There is no clear evidence of Betty’s homestead today, though it has been said that old-timers could once point out the family graves and the foundation of the house.
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Copyright by the author Meg Grimm.