Gaston Bushong: Clinton County’s Other Headless Frenchman

The stretch of the West Branch of the Susquehanna haunted by Bushong

The first article about the Headless Frenchman of the Kettle Creek Valley had barely been posted when the emails started arriving to ask when I was going to do the story of Lieutenant Bushong. Bushong is Clinton County’s other headless Frenchman – yes another headless Frenchman in Clinton County, which places it third in the world list of “Most Ghosts of Headless Frenchmen.” As far as I’m aware only France and Canada have more headless Frenchmen wandering about the countryside. Note: The first of the series about the Headless Frenchman of the Kettle Creek Valley can be found here: The Headless Frenchman of the Kettle Creek Valley: Part One,

The story of Lieutenant Bushong was the reason I was at the boat launch located at the end of Old River Road in Clinton County. Located just east of McElhattan, the road had everything I needed to make my day – a cemetery, a picnic area, and a view of the flowing waters of the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Included on this journey to this peaceful spot was the ghost story of Clinton County’s second headless Frenchman, Lieutenant Bushong, whose ghost haunts the lands around Spook Hill.

I walked down the boat ramp and studied the river. Due to the severe drought of the summer, I was able to walk a distance along the river on the exposed bank. I glanced at my watch – it was 11:45. If sources are to be believed, then Bushong’s ghost is supposed to show itself around noon, so he should be appearing at any moment.

I carefully made my way upstream on the exposed river rock that shifted under foot as I scanned the hillside along the river’s edge searching for the headless ghost of Lieutenant Bushong.

The story of Lieutenant Gaston Bushong has long been a part of Clinton County’s folklore history and was brought to the outside world through the writings of Henry Shoemaker in “The Spook of Spook Hill.” Shoemaker’s story is based around an old foundation discovered near Pine Station in the 1860s. While historians announced this foundation marked the spot of Fort Horn, Shoemaker declared it to be a different, much older foundation, one built by a group of Frenchmen who were exploring the area.

The French explorers erected the stockade on the hill overlooking the West Branch and named it Numero Sept. The fort was part of a chain of forts erected to protect the fur traders along the West Branch. In charge of Numero Sept, and second in command of the French forts in Pennsylvania, was Lieutenant Gaston Bushong. Into the remote wilds he brought with him his niece, Jacqueline LeVan, who had arrived in this new world to write about her adventures. Life along the West Branch found Jacqueline filling her diaries with daily adventures.

The peacefulness of the region ended the night LeBrun and four trappers arrived at the fort, LeBrun had been in charge of another of the forts erected by the French located upriver from Numero Sept. This fort was abandoned the day before after Louis Lafitte had killed the noted medicine man Two Pines.

Bushong agreed to let the men stay at the fort until they were able to settle the matter with the Council of Chiefs. The men settled in for the night as Bushong and LeBrun discussed the killing and what actions should be taken.

The next morning, the Frenchmen packed their furs and prepared to move down river. The morning was quiet, but the afternoon saw the arrival of Chief Susquee and his men. Around five that afternoon, Lafitte was dropped by a bullet. His body was left where it dropped – none of the Frenchmen dared to leave the safety of the fort.

The following morning, before the sun peeked over the distant horizon, a number of the Frenchmen decided to bury Lafitte’s body. Once the Frenchmen were outside the walls of the fort, Chief Susquee’s men attacked – mortally wounding two of the men. In the exchange, Bushong managed to kill one of the attackers.

Bushong summoned the other five men to prepare for an attack and soon the fort was being fired upon. Chief Susquee’s men rushed the fort in a failed attack and retreated a short distance away to regroup. Thirty-nine attackers lay dead around the fort, while inside two of Bushong’s men had been killed.

The decision was made by Bushong to abandon the fort. The group would flee to the raft moored at the river and flee downstream to a blockhouse located at present-day Williamsport. The group gathered their valuables and made it to the raft when bullets began falling around them.

Bushong ordered the trappers to push off and get downstream, promising to join them later. As the trappers fled, Bushong, LeBrun and LeVan grabbed rifles and returned fire.

Once the raft was safely away, the trio dashed for a canoe at the river’s edge. LeBrun was killed almost immediately. Rather than fear for their own lives, Bushong and LeVan paused to check on their fallen friend. At that moment, one of the attackers rushed forward, grabbed Bushong’s sword and dealt him a blow which separated Bushong’s head from his body. LeVan was dragged into the bushes and killed. As the trappers drifted downstream, they reported seeing Chief Susquee holding Bushong’s head before pitching it into the river.

It is whispered that the headless ghost of Lieutenant Bushong is spotted at noon, roughly the time he was killed, roaming the area along the West Branch, searching for his lost head.

I glanced at my watch – it was 12:15. I paused and debated to continue upstream or return to the vehicle. I scanned the banks and saw nothing out of the ordinary to make me continue farther upstream. Instead, I made my way back to the vehicle, disappointed Lieutenant Bushong’s headless ghost failed to show for his noon-time appointment.

 Note: It is interesting that Lyman records his version of Shoemaker’s story and claims this is the “real” Headless Frenchman of Clinton County. Lyman claims the Kettle Creek’s Headless Frenchman, was taken from Shoemaker’s story and was placed in the wilds of Clinton and Potter Counties. Although it does appear that Shoemaker’s headless Frenchman story is the older of the two, the Kettle Creek Headless Frenchman has been spotted more often.

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