Virtually everyone who lives in Huntingdon County is directly or indirectly familiar with the legend of John Armstrong, who is more commonly remembered as Captain Jack– the trader and pioneer settler who, along with two companions, was murdered by three Delaware Indians near Mount Union in 1744.
The story of Captain Jack Armstrong played such a significant role in the history of Huntingdon County that his name is memorialized in dozens of natural features; the mountain pass known as Jack’s Narrows was named in his honor, as is Jack’s Spring, Jack’s Mountain and Jack’s Creek.
In fact, wherever the name “Jack” appears on a map of Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata or Perry counties, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Jack in question was Captain John Armstrong– arguably Pennsylvania’s most iconic hero of the frontier.
However, what most people don’t know is the strange story of how his long-lost bones were finally discovered more than a century after his demise. But, before we come to that point, let’s revisit the history of Captain Jack’s adventurous life and tragic de̳a̳t̳h̳.
According to local legend, Jack was just a young boy when he was kidnapped by the Iroquois. During his captivity he learned their language and customs, and when he finally earned his freedom he settled on Duncan’s Island, at the confluence of the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers.
It was here on Duncan’s Island where, sometime around 1730, he built a simple cabin for himself and his family. For several years he lived alongside the Indians peacefully, earning an income by trading with his Iroquois neighbors and their bitter enemy, the Delaware.
One evening, after returning from an afternoon of hunting, he discovered that his wife and children had been murdered by Indians, and his cabin burned to the ground. From that day forward Jack was a changed man.
Swearing vengeance upon the Indians he assembled a militia of the toughest men the Susquehanna and Juniata valleys had to offer, and received a commission as captain from the colonial governor of Pennsylvania.
In the years that followed, Captain Jack and his army of Scots-Irish frontiersmen not only devoted themselves to the protection of white settlements in the valley, but mounted a crusade of untiring warfare upon the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy.
For these exploits, Armstrong was known by a variety of nicknames: The Black Hunter, the Black Rifle, and the Wild Hunter of the Juniata. His adventures were so well-known throughout colonial America that author Washington Irving later wrote about him extensively in his biography of George Washington.
The Murder of Captain Jack
In late February of 1744, Captain Jack and two of his servants, James Smith and Woodward Arnold, traveled to Mount Union to collect a long overdue debt from Musemeelin, a member of the Delaware tribe.
Musemeelin owed Armstrong some furs, but when he told Armstrong that he did not have them, the traders seized Musemeelin’s horse and a rifle in lieu of the animal skins.
This would have paid off all but twenty shillings of Musemeelin’s debt, yet Musemeelin was greatly outraged. He demanded the return of his horse, but Captain Jack refused. After a lengthy, heated argument, the Indian went home in great anger.
A short time later Captain Jack and his men were on their way to western Pennsylvania, and their route along the Juniata River caused them to pass Musemeelin’s cabin. The Indian’s wife, recognizing the traders, approached them and demanded the return of her husband’s horse.
Armstrong said it was too late; he had already sold the horse to a man named James Berry. Later that day, when Musemeelin’s wife told him what Captain Jack had done, the Indian vowed revenge. He convinced two young Delaware warriors to join him on a hunting trip, but instead of leading the warriors to the hunting grounds, Musemeelin led them to a rocky mountain gap where Armstrong, Young and Arnold had set up camp.
When Musemeelin and his companions reached Captain Jack’s camp they found James Smith alone, sitting by the fire. Musemeelin excused himself from his companions and told Smith that he wanted to have a word with him in private. He led Smith deep into the woods and shot him dead.
The sound of the rifle shot attracted Woodward Arnold to the scene, but he, too, was shot and killed when Musemeelin saw him coming up the path. When the Indian returned to camp he laughed and told his companions what he had done. The young Delaware warriors were horrified, but were too afraid of Musemeelin to leave him.
Soon the three Indians encountered Captain Jack, who was sitting on an old log. “Where is my horse?” demanded Musemeelin. “I want my horse right now.”
“You shall have him,” replied Armstrong. “Come to the fire and let us smoke and talk together.” He led the three Indians through the woods in the direction of the camp.
When the opportunity presented itself, Musemeelin shot Armstrong in the back, but years of traversing the rugged Pennsylvania wilderness had made Captain Jack as strong as an ox, and the attack did not kill him. As Captain Jack writhed on the ground in agony and anger, the cowardly Musemeelin withdrew his tomahawk and scalped his victim.
Musemeelin Stands Trial
After Captain Jack and his servants failed to return home, suspicion immediately fell upon Musemeelin. A meeting of the local militia was held on April 9 at the home of Joseph Chambers in Paxton, and it was decided that they should travel to Sunbury to consult with Chief Shikellamy before taking action.
Chief Shikellamy was the overseer of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, whose tribes had been at war with the Delaware for years. Shikellamy ordered eight of his men to go with the militia to apprehend Musemeelin and force the killer to take them to the scene of the crime.
This party, consisting of several white men and five Indians (three of the Indians decided to run away during the night) was headed by James Berry, the man who had purchased the killer’s horse.
After a long, exhausting search they located the bodies of two of the victims and buried them where they had fallen, near the spot that is known to this day as Jack’s Narrows.
A sworn affidavit from April 19, 1744, signed by members of the search party, identifies the members of this group as Jason Armstrong, Alexander Armstrong, Jacob Armstrong, Thomas McKee, Francis Ellis, John Forster, William Baskins, James Berry, John Watt, and David Denny.
It was Berry who discovered what was left of Captain Jack, and in the April 19th letter, which was written by Alexander Armstrong and addressed to the governor, a description of the murder scene was provided:
James Berry, a small distance from the aforesaid sleeping place, came to a white oak tree which had three notches on it, and close by this tree he found a shoulder bone.
The affadavit states that Berry, believing this bone to be from the shoulder of Captain Jack, showed the bone to his companions. The white men concluded that it was indeed the shoulder bone of Captain Jack, and surmised that the rest of his body had been eaten by Musemeelin.
The killer vehemently denied this accusation of cannibalism, but then one of the white men ordered Musemeelin to hold the bone in order to see how he would react. The official record describes the strange event that followed:
…as soon as the Indian took the bone in his hand, his nose gushed out with blood.
The Delaware tribe, astounded by what Musemeelin had done, turned the killer over to the militia, and he was put in prison at Lancaster. Musemeelin was tried for the murders in Philadelphia, but the trial ended in acquittal.
A Mystery Solved After 145 Years?
A mile or so upriver from Mount Union lies the tiny village of Mapleton. During the late 19th century, Mapleton was the site of a locally famous unexplained phenomenon. For over a quarter of a century, residents of the village had reported seeing three strange lights hovering over a remote spot on nearby Rocky Ridge.
From swamp gas to ball lightning, none of the suggested scientific explanations seemed to make sense; the mysterious lights always appeared at the same time in the same spot, and was always at its most brilliant in late February.
The Altoona Times gives a detailed description of the phenomenon, which had the appearance of three rockets:
Each one would pop up from the ground and remain for a few minutes about three feet above the surface, and then disappear in succession. These lights were on a line and seemed to point to a larger, brighter light like that from a lantern, which swayed to and fro over a crevice in the rock.
On February 27, 1889, three men from Mapleton– Thomas Logan, A.K. Skipper and John Grove– made up their minds to solve the mystery of the Rocky Ridge lights once and for all.
Armed with picks and shovels, the three men traveled to the spot where the light had last been seen, determined to engage in a little amateur geology. As early as the 17th century, it had been known that some phosphate minerals emit a faint glow when exposed to oxygen. The men wondered if phosphorus, or some other naturally-occurring substance, might be the source of Mapleton’s infamous phantom lights.
The men commenced digging, and at a depth of about six feet their picks struck two large, flat stones. They lifted the stones and were astounded at what their eyes beheld– the remains of a human skeleton.
The bones were so old and brittle that they crumbled to dust at the slightest touch. Unsure of what to make of their find, the three men raced back to Mapleton to report their discovery.
As can be expected, dozens of curious locals hiked to the spot in an attempt to put the mystery to rest. It wasn’t until about a week later when one of the older residents of the village visited Rocky Ridge and noticed something odd and vaguely familiar next to the unmarked grave. It was a large, A̳n̳c̳i̳e̳n̳t̳ white oak tree– with three deep notches in its trunk.
Were the three mysterious lights that hovered over Rocky Ridge each February the spirits of Captain Jack Armstrong, James Smith and Woodward Arnold? The precise location of their wilderness graves has been lost to history since 1744, and while there may be a perfectly rational explanation for the phenomenon, one newspaper account of the 1889 discovery closes with this interesting sentence:
Since their discovery, the singular light which has been seen nightly for years has disappeared.