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The Hunt for the Osage River Monster

Osage River

It's spring of 1844 in St. Clair County, Missouri. A mile or so from the banks of the muddy Osage River a pioneer settler named Matthew Arbuckle is plowing his field when he hears a banshee-like wail in the distance, coming from the direction of the river. Shrill and unearthly, the demonic howl fills the farmer with terror. Wasting no time, he unhitches his plow, jumps on the back of his horse and heads for the hills.

One hour later Arbuckle arrives in Papinville, a town fifteen miles from his farm. The exhausted horse is white with foam; its rider white with terror. In a gasping voice he tells of making an escape from an awful monster. Although he had not seen the beast, he had heard its voice, from which he could tell that it was a monster of immense proportions.

Those who heard Arbuckle's story were bewildered, and those who did not know the pioneer personally could tell, just by the bloodless pallor of his trembling skin, that the man was not telling a lie. Whatever terrifying scream he had heard had frightened him out of his wits.

And yet the men in the village were brave; they had defended their homes from Indian attacks and survived the bitter winters that had threatened starvation. They declared that no monster, no matter how ferocious, would drive them from their land. They grabbed their rifles and assembled at the home of "Uncle John" Whitley, who had fought under Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.

The following morning, an army of pioneers stood outside Whitley's home, just up the river from Arbuckle's farm. The brave band included among its ranks Uncle John Whitley himself, along with James Breckenridge, Benjamin Morris, William Bacon, Hamilton Morris, Ben Burch, William Roark, Frank Roark, Benjamin Snyder and the rest of the strongest, most courageous early settlers of St. Clair County. They unanimously agreed to hunt for the mysterious creature that had frightened Matthew Arbuckle so tremendously.

There it was again! They all heard it, coming from about three hundred yards away near the banks of the Osage. And it was every bit as frightful as Arbuckle had described. Every last man in the makeshift army felt his blood run cold.

"Charge!" commanded Whitley, seizing his rifle. They ran toward the water, determined to bring the monster's reign of terror to a bloody end. Along the way they met Mattie, Whitley's youngest daughter, who had gone down to the river to play. Her face was pale as a ghost. Her father ordered her to go directly home. Lock the doors and hide, he instructed.

The blood-curdling howl pierced the air once more, closer this time, and loud enough to echo from bluff to bluff. The pioneer's dogs even trembled with fear. And still the hunters scoured the woods all day. Breckenridge blamed the hounds for not being able to pick up the scent; he announced he was going back to town for some Newfoundlands. As night fell, the army sheltered in a cave.

The pioneers were awakened the following morning by the monster's wail, and they grabbed their guns and hurried to the water's edge. The moment of decisive action was at hand. Whitley ordered his men to shelter behind any tree they could find and begin priming their guns. And a moment later, the monster revealed itself, advancing around a bend in the river.

Upon the monster's deck was a crowd of smiling passengers, admiring the way the morning sun painted the muddy water with rosy light. As the riverboat passed the passengers waved and the crew blew the horn, but the pioneers were too astonished and confused to wave back. And so ends the true story of the historic hunt for the monster of the Osage River.

And, oddly enough, it was a historically significant moment. What Arbuckle had heard the day before was the maiden voyage of the Flora Jones-- the first steamboat to ever ply the waters of the Osage River.

Source: Hunnewell Graphic, Aug. 2, 1907

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