Join me for Part 2 of our retelling of the story of Camp Napowan’s Boot Hill. Owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America in central Wisconsin, Camp Napowan is home to an interesting legend passed down one summer to the next. To my knowledge, this is the only retelling of the tale available on the Internet. It is an edited transcription of an audio recording made available in the early-to-mid 1990s. Click here to read Part 1.
A week later, Joe Miller was awoken from his sleep. He heard a loud scream coming from the gypsy camp. He ran outside and saw a large fire on top of the hill. Listening closely, Joe heard the gypsies singing. They were chanting in Hungarian, their native tongue. Joe couldn’t understand them, but what they were doing seemed odd to him anyway. He figured they were just getting ready to leave and were throwing a celebration for themselves.
The next morning, when it was time for Joe to feed his animals, he discovered the hens were missing. They were in a secure cage and couldn’t have gotten out unless someone opened it. Joe figured it had to have been the gypsies, but he couldn’t flat out accuse them without proof, and he didn’t want to upset them. Still, the hens represented roughly a dozen eggs a week. He tried to remain calm and find out what he could. He went to the gypsy camp and approached the Chieftain. Joe said to him, “When I went to feed my animals this morning, the strangest thing happened. You wouldn’t believe this, but my hens are missing. You didn’t happen to see anything out of the ordinary last night?”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” the Chieftain asked. “How dare you accuse my people of stealing from you, after everything we’ve been through. Now get out of here and leave us alone.”
Joe turned around, his head bent low, and walked back to his house. He was ashamed of himself for what he had done. As he walked home, he realized they were just hens after all, and the gypsies wouldn’t admit to stealing them even if they had.
A week later, the Millers were awoken from their sleep by another shrill scream. The family looked towards the gypsy camp from a window, and they saw a massive fire stretching 20 feet into the air. Again the gypsies were chanting as they held hands and danced around the fire. Joe had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he prayed that everything would be okay the next day. It came as no surprise when we went to feed his animals and the pig was missing. Joe was infuriated, but he didn’t know what to do other than tell the gypsies to leave. This seemed fair to him anyhow, since it was time for them to leave according to their agreement.
When Joe found the Chieftain, he told him that his pig had disappeared. He then reminded the Chieftain that it was time for his tribe to be on its way. The Chieftain was very angry. Once again, Joe had come to their camp and implied they had stole from him, and even though Joe had a right to be angry with them, the Chieftain did not want him to know that. The Chieftain assured Joe that the tribe would be gone in a short time. That was enough for Joe, who really didn’t want to push the issue.
Exactly one week later, the Miller family and their neighbors were awoken by a sound they had never heard before. It was a loud, bloodcurdling scream that was heard for miles around. When the Millers looked out their window, they saw a 40 foot flame coming from the gypsy camp. The entire tribe was surrounding the fire, and just looking at the ceremony made the Millers shiver. There was an evil feeling in the air. Nobody slept that night. They all lay awake in their beds until first sign of light the next morning.
As expected, when Joe went to feed his cow, he found it was missing. The Millers were sure to starve now. They went from being secure over the winter to having just about nothing, other than a few potatoes. What started out as the best thing that ever happened to him, had quickly turned into the worst. Joe had no choice but demand the gypsies leave.
That morning, when Joe went around to his neighbors, he learned that they too were missing items from their farms. After gathering pitchforks, shotguns, rifles, axes, and any other weapons they could find, the farmers went up to the gypsy camp. Joe Miller spoke for the group. He said, “We made an agreement that you would leave shortly after the harvest, and I have given you ample time. My animals are all gone, and whether you took them, I’ll never know. But I do know it is time for you to leave. You have 24 hours to get off my land, and leave Wild Rose. If you do not, there will be bloodshed on this hill.” The farmers made it clear the gypsies would die if they did not leave, and the gypsies understood.
As the gypsies were packing up their camp to move on, Joe Junior and Katherine went to say goodbye. The two kids did not understand what was going on. All they really knew was that the gypsies were good people, and they would be missed. But Joe and Katherine hadn’t seen the missing livestock. When the kids didn’t come home for lunch, Joe and Sarah became very worried. They rarely skipped a meal. When dinner approached and they were still missing, the Millers became almost frantic. Joe decided that the gypsies had to be dealt with immediately.
He gathered his neighbors, who were well armed, and marched up to the gypsy camp. When the procession made it to the hill, all of the gypsies were gone. Their belongings were there, but the people were not. Sarah was certain her children were still there. They began looking through the camp, and found Joe Junior and Katherine inside the Chieftain’s wagon. They were huddled together in the corner. Their eyes were glassy and glazed over, and they were chanting in a strange language.
Joe and Sarah took their children back to the safety of their farmhouse. Joe Junior and Katherine said they remembered nothing of the experience, except for dozens of cats roaming throughout the camp. Katherine said the cats were all black, except for a single white front paw. It looked as though they were wearing a white boot.
After his children were safe, Joe and the neighbors returned to the gypsy camp to take care of them for good. This time, the camp was full of gypsies. When they saw the farmers, the gypsies started running and the farmers began to shoot. The farmers massacred the tribe, and dead and dying bodies were scattered all over the camp. None of them, however, would go near the Chieftain. Joe Miller knew that he would have to finish their deadly work.
The Chieftain stood on one of the only rocks on the hill. As the Chieftain stood on the rock, his arms were stretched toward the sky. He was bobbing as he chanted. Fire appeared to surround the rock, and suddenly, black cats with a single white paw ran toward the rock and disappeared as they struck. Every time a cat entered the rock, the Chieftain glowed brighter. The farmers watched in disbelief.
Joe Miller walked up the hill and aimed his shotgun at the Chieftain’s heart. “You will regret this day,” the Chieftain said. “You will regret ever bringing us onto your land, for now it is our resting place. We will remain here in spirit, for this was where we were murdered.” And with that final statement, Joe Miller shot the Chieftain through the heart. Rather than falling to the earth, the bright energy absorbed his mortal remains and flowed through the rock like molten lava. Now all the gypsies were dead. By this time it was nearly dark, and the farmers agreed to return the next morning to begin the burial.
When the farmers returned, they planned to dig a large pit and bury all evidence of the gypsy tribe. When they neared the massacre site, however, there were few gypsy bodies. Instead, rocks had pushed their way through the earth and surfaced where each gypsy had fallen. There were over one hundred rocks in all. The farmers gathered up all the caravans and tents and buried them. That gave them some peace of mind, but no one would soon forget what had happened. After the massacre, no one talked about the gypsies for a long time. Rather than bring back painful memories, the community tried to put it out of their minds.
In the fall of 1939, Joe Miller died. It is not known what caused his death. Sarah Miller said it was because he had led a hard life. The younger Joe was now 18 years old, and the family farming was up to him. When World War 2 erupted, he couldn’t fight because being away would devastate the family. He wanted to take over for his father, but the farm was a lot more than he could handle by himself. Finally, the Millers decided to sell the land.
Unfortunately, none of the locals would purchase it because of its history. Joe stayed with the land and Sarah and Katherine moved into town and found jobs. They refused to live on the farm anymore because the memories were just too painful. Eventually, Sarah and her daughter moved to Milwaukee and never returned.
In 1944, the Northwest Suburban Council Boy Scouts of America happened to find the Miller land available at an unusually low price. With its proximity to two lakes, they realized it would be perfect for a Boy Scout camp. In 1945, the Northwest Suburban Council bought the land from Joe Junior. He agreed to sell, but only if the Boy Scouts were willing to accept his terms. He had three conditions.
“Number one,” Joe said, “is that you hire me as the full time camp ranger. I will live here year-round and look after the land. Number two: you will help me turn this land into a wilderness preserve. I want it to be cared for and respected.” The Northwest Suburban Council was thrilled. Joe Junior was exactly the kind of person they wanted to hire as ranger anyway. He knew the land better than anyone. “But there is one more thing,” Joe said. “You are not to use Boot Hill. It is a cemetery, and the Scouts must not go there out of respect.” He had named it Boot Hill in reference to the single white paw on the cats he had seen there.
1946 was the first year any Scouts camped at Napowan. That year, there was a two week jamboree to celebrate the opening of the camp, and Scouts came from all around. The next summer was the first official year of summer camp, and efforts to turn the land into a camp had begun. They started planting trees, creating trails, and erecting buildings. It appeared the camp was going to be a success. During its third year, in 1949, two Scouts couldn’t resist going up to Boot Hill. It looked like such a strange place, and they had to see why they weren’t allowed to go there.
While they were wandering around the top of the hill, they came across a black cat with a white paw. They chased it down a trail, and suddenly it disappeared. When they got back to their campsite, they told the other Scouts what they had seen, and eventually word got back to Ranger Joe. Without hesitating, he grabbed his shotgun and went up to Boot Hill. He rarely went up there, but on that day he had to make an exception. With his gun in hand, he passed the camp director who asked, “Where do you think you’re going with that shotgun? I can’t let you wander around a camp like that.”
“I’ve got business that should have been taken care of long ago,” Joe said. “Let me go about my business.” He kept walking. Fifteen minutes later, two shots were heard coming from Boot Hill. When dinner came, Joe did not show up. The camp staff was worried and organized a search party. The first place they went was Boot Hill. They found him at the top of Boot Hill, near Split Rock. He was dead, clutching his shotgun tightly with a terrified look on his face. Cat prints formed a perfect circle around his body in the sand. But the prints came from nowhere and led nowhere.
The camp director covered up the body until it was taken away. When an autopsy was performed, the coroner could not establish a cause of death. The only explanation for his death, was that he died of fright. The local people had a good idea of what happened, but none were willing to talk about it. Eventually, the Scouts hired a new ranger, and things returned to normal. [Continued in Part 3…]