Even though the following is a legend several elements of this story are true. Elias Caudlill, a Kentucky pioneer first wrote it down in his diary in 1780.
Many Native Americans because of its appearance call the sycamore tree “ghost of the forest”. It has cream-colored markings on both its trunk and branches giving it a skeletal appearance—especially when viewed in the moonlight.
Because of this there are several spooky Indian tales about sycamore trees. One of these was told for generations among the Shawnee Indians in east central Kentucky.
They believed two sycamore trees, that grew near the Licking River along the old Warriors Path—the earliest land route across the state—were haunted. Later when the white settlers moved in this path was known as the Wilderness Road.
The Shawnee were careful to avoid these two trees. They observed that birds did not nest in them and all the animals stayed clear. It was not unusual to find dead birds within the branches or dead animals near these twin trees.
Within the tribe the reason given for this haunting was a story told about one of their ancestral maidens and a captured Cherokee warrior that had happened 200 years before.
The Shawnee had wounded this young brave during a battle. The young Cherokee brave was seen as courageous so instead of killing him the Shawnee took him to one of their villages along the Ohio River.
As he slowly recovered the Shawnee Chief’s daughter caught his eye. The pair despite being “enemies” fell in love. They realized their tribes would frown upon their wish to marry so they decided to run away together.
Knowing they would be killed if captured they stole away one night. They headed west along the Warriors Path but on the fourth night they heard a dog barking. They knew their pursuers were gaining on them. They quickened their pace but both were exhausted.
As night fell a storm moved in. The girl’s father and his warriors were catching up. The angry Shawnee reached them just as the couple came to the bank of the Licking River.
A bright streak of lightning flashed across the sky followed by a loud clap of thunder as their pursuers drew near. Several Shawnee warriors were knocked off their feet by the lightning bolt.
This same bolt ripped a large hole in the ground where the young couple stood. No trace of them was ever found.
As the years passed the tribe noticed two large sycamore trees grew out of this hole. Several stated when the wind blew the branches of these two trees would appear to caress each other.
When a storm rushed down the river others noted that the larger of the two trees seemed to sway down as if protecting the smaller one.
When the first white settlers moved into the area they scoffed at the old Indian tale that stated these two trees were haunted. One naive young man decided to prove that he was not afraid.
He took his axe intending to cut down the smaller of the two trees but as he swung his blade it glanced off the tree and sliced his leg open instead. He bled to death.
A few days later another pioneer was found mysteriously hung, swinging between two limbs of the larger tree.
Another dead man was found the next morning sitting against the trunk of the smaller sycamore. There were no marks on his body and his expression indicated he had died of fright.
These three strange deaths unnerved the pioneers and they wondered if there wasn’t some truth to the Indian tales. They all agreed to avoid the two sycamores.
The Wilderness Road along the Licking River eventually was reclaimed by nature. It was lost to briars and underbrush and the old Indian tale was forgotten.
These two trees stood on the bank of the Licking River until 1921. The larger tree without apparent reason began to shrivel and then dried out and died. Within months the smaller tree followed suit. It fell and lay across the larger sycamore.