The Appalachian mountains are ancient. In geological terms, this range of mountains first formed over one billion years ago. As tall as the Rockies at one time, erosion has reduced the Appalachians to the bare bones of a mountain range. The history of the Earth is exposed in the undulating layers of sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks, and slivers of ancient ocean floors bristling with fossilized marine life. It is almost impossible to imagine the primeval ecosystem the first European explorers witnessed when the forests were dominated by hundred foot tall chestnut trees. Until the early Twentieth Century, it was said a squirrel could walk from Georgia all the way to Canada on top of the chestnut canopy. The fast growing trees were perfectly adapted to the mountain range on which they grew, nourishing the soil and providing a habitat to a multitude of species. The timber that built the British colonies was harvested from the arboreal bounty of the great chestnut forests. The frontiersmen and lumberjacks who lived deep in the Appalachian wilderness described the fauna of the mountains to include fearsome critters both well known and unknown. The bison, black bears, panthers, and wolves were hunted to the bitter brink of extinction. It is presumed that the wampus cats, hide-behinds, and wild men, (if they were ever real), went extinct before they could be identified by science.

In 1904, the oldest American chestnuts were already alive when Jamestown was established. That year, an exotic bark fungus was first observed infecting a chestnut in the Bronx Zoo within two years the blight would kill ninety eight percent of the chestnuts in the New York borough. Over the next four decades the American chestnut would suffer a catastrophic population collapse. By the 1950’s the definitive keystone species of the Appalachian mountains had completely vanished. During this same period of time, the federal government expanded the national parks system to protect as much of the remaining old growth forests as possible. To accomplish that noble objective the government used imminent domain to seize land rights from powerful timber and mining companies. The powerless mountain people who had lived off the land for generations were not so justly compensated. Those unable to provide a deed for what they thought was their property were all too often evicted by force. The Appalachian wilderness of today is a perfectly unnatural reconstruction of a lost world.

The earliest reports of the wild men of Appalachia are vague and unreliable. If we believe Daniel Boone’s account of what he called “Yahoos” are truthful, what he described was more like a Bigfoot. Newspapers of the Nineteenth Century must be read with a skeptical eye, and an appreciation for the florid vocabulary of the era. The terminology used is diverse enough to include both European and Native hermits, Sasquatch-like hairy giants, with many that suggest a mix of both. Most cases involve a large hunt for a lone “wild man” with no conclusive evidence to show for it. The lumber and mining companies employed armies of “private detectives” to protect their property. Now more infamous for being turned against labor organizers, these Pinkerton paramilitaries were also used to clear out any resistant locals standing in the way of a company plan. In 1920 the national prohibition on alcohol made Appalachian moonshiners into criminals overnight and brought the firepower of the FBI to the operations against the supposedly savage mountain people. Only a century after the U.S. government forcibly removed the Cherokee to make way for Scots-Irish homesteaders, the same U.S. government would forcibly remove the descendants of those homesteaders to make way for the next wave of civilization.

During the Great Depression the major infrastructure projects of the New Deal built roads and damns and power plants to better connect the cities and towns of Appalachia to the rest of the country. For those who preferred the security of modern life, the Tennessee Valley Administration’s broad investment in pubic works triggered an era of literal enlightenment. Electrification brought education, health care, and economic development, but the decades of prosperity would grind to a halt for various reasons during the 1970’s. The Vietnam War decimated an entire generation of Appalachian men, at the same time that government austerity cut the funding for the agencies and programs that had brought a higher quality of life to the region. The effect of this economic disinvestment was a predictable rise in poverty. The boom created by industrialization came at the price of ecological destruction that poisoned the soil and groundwater making the old ways of life impossible.

The dark hollows of the old chestnut forests offered the veterans of the young republic’s many wars a thriving wilderness into which they could easily abscond and live as hermits. Likewise, individuals touched by mental illness were often shunned by their small isolated communities and forced to live in the wilderness segregated from polite society. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum at Weston, West Virginia, was opened in 1864 as a beacon of modern medical science in the impoverished mountains. As with a medieval castle, the impressive stonework compound was built to be self-sufficient with a farm and dairy upon the grounds. Designed to house two hundred and fifty patients in spacious rooms with abundant fresh air and sunlight, by the time construction was finally complete in 1881 the hospital was holding over seven hundred patients. Renamed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, the overcrowded conditions made best standards and practices impossible to maintain, and the asylum quickly devolved into a snake pit.

In the early 1950’s the infamous eugenicist quack Dr. Walter Freeman made the hospital the home of the West Virginia Lobotomy Project. The government hoped to reduce the patient population by means of electro-shock treatments, ice-pick lobotomies, and sterilization. Freeman’s blithe disregard for medical ethics destroyed what little trust the mountain people had in the state hospitals. Most families who sent troubled loved ones to the hospital never heard from them again. Very few of those who did return home were better off after the experience. For individuals suffering any kind of mental illness, hiding in the deep woods was much safer than having any contact with outsiders. Until the chestnut forests suddenly died, and so much land was bought up for timber and mining that there was no place to go but the newly formed National Parks.

The hermits and recluses who had scraped by on the fringes of the frontier for generations, found themselves forced into conflict with modernity, or driven further into the deepest wilderness. Over the course of the Twentieth Century, the rich primordial landscape of Appalachia was transformed into a post industrialized wasteland. A natural consequence of this ecological disaster was that the people who lived off the land became displaced. Those who could adapt to modern life did, while those others presumably just disappeared. In the conventional narrative of U.S. History that is the end of the story of the mountain people of Appalachia. They conquered the wild frontier and were assimilated into the great American melting pot, but that is far from the whole story.

To fully understand the mountain people, we must look back at how they arrived upon the American continent. U.S. history books will call them the Scots-Irish, an ethnic identity invented by English gentry who saw no meaningful difference between the Gaelic peoples of the British Isles and the Native Americans. When James VI & I set about pacifying the border between his two kingdoms, he offered the border reivers a choice: estates in Ireland, or deportation to the New World alongside the resistant Irish peasantry. The plantation of Ulster was such a success that a century later, when the English determined that the only path to agricultural improvement in the Scottish highlands was to remove the “unproductive” population, English landlords simply shipped those people to America like human chattel. While they had a far better set of options than African slaves, the hierarchies of British society would always view them as inferior. Most importantly, they had the freedom to move away from the British plantations and return to their traditional way of life.

It is an ironic geological coincidence that the mountains the so-called Scots-Irish would set about “civilizing” for the British Empire were once connected to the mountains they had called home, hundreds of millions of years ago. Continuous immigration from Scotland and Ireland into Appalachia throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries helped to perpetuate the dominance of Gaelic culture in the region. Even after they became fully Americanized their music, folktales and customs have remained recognizably rooted in the culture of the Celtic diaspora. One of the legends that crossed the Atlantic with the Scots-Irish settlers contains all the essential details of Appalachia’s most frightening campfire tales.

It is said that during the reign of James VI, a Scottish ditch-digger’s son named Alexander “Sawney” Bean fell in love with a witch named Black Agnes Douglas and eloped with her to a cave where they lived in sin. Bean would sire fourteen children by Agnes, and to support his family he took to robbing travelers on the road and burgling lonely homesteads. For a quarter century, Sawney Bean and his sons terrorized the Firth of the Clyde. To guard the secret of his clan’s existence Bean took no prisoners, and either by necessity or by choice they would eat their victims. Hidden in their cave, the sons and daughters of Black Agnes and Sawney Bean would produce their own children, and those incestuous grandchildren would have children of their own. Over the decades one thousand disappearances and murders went unsolved until the clan made the mistake of setting upon a young nobleman who was able to best his attackers with pistol and rapier until help arrived to chase the bandits away. In the moonlit melee the nobleman saw as his young bride was savagely killed as if by wolves rather than men. News of this crime quickly reached the king who dispatched four hundred men and hounds to track down the murderous clan. Captured by overwhelming force, Sawney Bean, Black Agnes, and three generations of their inbred offspring were brought to Edinburgh in chains. The details are somewhat unclear but different versions of the story agree that after departing Edinburgh the forty-eight men women and children were all put to death. The townsfolk judged their crimes so dehumanizing that they were unfit to stand trial. All of the men were dismembered and allowed to bleed to death before the still living women and children were burned at the stake. Yet another version of the story says that upon cornering the clan in their layer, the search party set kegs of gunpowder at the mouth of the cave entombing the cannibals within the mountainside forever.

The earliest contemporary accounts are second hand and vague enough to suggest the events may have preceded James VI & I by several centuries. It is reasonable to assume that the King who saw fit to rewrite the Bible would have no qualms about rewriting a folktale to make himself the hero. Over a century later, following the Jacobite Rebellions, the legend of Sawney Bean would gain popularity as the lurid details of witchcraft, incest, and cannibalism reinforced the anti-Scottish bigotry that motivated the Highland Clearances. Historians reject the veracity of the Sawney Bean legend based on the lack of specific dates or certain locations for the events. The cave has never been found and there are no primary sources documenting the mass execution of a family of cannibals. Rather, historians writing in the Sixteenth Century documented cultural memories of horrific famines that had struck Scotland two hundred years earlier.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, stories emerged of renegade Loyalist soldiers who took their families into hiding deep in the mountains. The lawless hollows and cave systems of Appalachia provided ideal hiding places for bandits and outlaws. Following the War Between the States, whole bands of men took to the hills rather than admit defeat and return to civilian life. Fiercely territorial, they reveled in any ill repute that kept strangers away. Over time, these reports of something which certainly happened would take on the characteristics of the legendary Bean clan. As the frontier moved further West, so did the most notorious rebel outlaw gangs. Even the notorious “Kentucky cannibal” Boone Helm committed his crimes on this way to California, having left Kentucky while still a child. Despite persistent folktales about backwoods clans hearkening back to Sawney Bean, none have been solidly documented; and, if any did exist by the time the Federal government was claiming and clearing land in Appalachia, the degenerate cannibal clans would have stood no chance against Tommy guns and TNT.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, the Cherokee were already well established as the dominate culture in the southeastern woodlands. According to their own oral history, the Cherokee migrated from the Great Lakes region to their historic homeland at the beginning of the second millennium. They speak an Iroquoian language, related to those of other Northern tribes, and archaeological evidence shows an advanced Mississippian mound building culture arrived in the region around the same time as their southward migration. One of the defining traits of the Mississippian civilization was the development of prosperous agricultural centers where institutionalized social inequality benefited an aristocratic priestly class.

The Cherokee oral tradition describes a time in the not so distant past when they were ruled by a hereditary priesthood. The people hated this priestly aristocracy, but also feared them. They say one of their cultural heroes led an uprising against the corrupt and abusive priests, reforming their religion and society. This revolution is said to have occurred roughly a century before the arrival of Europeans, which aligns exactly with the dates archaeologists give for the collapse of the Mississippian civilization. These examples demonstrate that the oral history of the Cherokee is every bit as reliable as the documents written by Europeans. In the case of the following Cherokee legend, the European versions were proven to be a complete fantasy.

The most mysterious of Appalachian mysteries are the so-called Moon-eyed People. The Cherokee elders told how when their ancestors arrived at the Smokey Mountains they had to do battle with the Moon-eyed People who lived there before them. Different theories were presented regarding exactly who the Moon-eyed People could have been. Some suggest they were an unknown tribe of indigenous people the Mississippian culture did not recognize as fully human. Others interpret them as a purely archetypal cultural enemy specific to the old religion of the Mississippian ancestors of the Cherokee. Modern science has proven that John Sevier, the first governor of the State of Tennessee, invented the preposterous theory that the Moon-eyed People were Welsh from whole cloth.

A medieval Welsh legend recounts that upon the death of the king Owain Gwynedd a civil war broke out between his thirteen children. That much is verifiably true. Keen to escape the infighting, his son Medoc took to the sea to explore the Western lands. If this is to be believed, Medoc established a colony with his family and servants in the New World circa AD1170. Assuming the Medoc story was true, he still lived almost three hundred years after the Mississippian civilization was established in the Southeast. It is sufficient to say that Sevier is not a reliable source, and all the subsequent folklorists who relied upon his writings are tainted. There is scant mention of the Moon-eyed People in accounts of Cherokee lore dating to before the Trail of Tears. What survives suggests the Moon-eyed People were indigenous to the mountains, living in the cave systems, and only emerging to hunt in the dark of night.

What modern Cherokee have to say about the Moon-eyed People implies their origins where not European, but something that the Scots-Irish would have found familiar nevertheless. Subterranean, small in stature, human in shape, but distinctly not human. Like the Pukwudgies of Wampanoag lore, they are said to be adept with technologies indistinguishable from magic, and are believed to abduct children and vulnerable travelers. There are no artifacts attributed to the Moon-eyed People, and depictions of them in Cherokee and Choctaw visual arts show round owl-like faces more resembling Grey Aliens than anything human. Rational skeptics will justifiably balk at the assertion that the Moon-eyed People could be both a real historical enemy of the Cherokee and a supernatural race of hobgoblins. It remains that we know the European accounts of adventuring Welsh princes were pure fantasy, and the Cherokee oral histories have been verified to be reasonably accurate.

In 2012 a retired police detective named David Paulides published a book on mysterious disappearances on public lands. Over the past decade, Paulides has carefully framed his conspiracy theory as an intentional government cover-up. Rather than expressing the reality that congress has starved the agencies responsible for the state and national parks of the resources to properly investigate these disappearances, Paulides’ books popularized a set of unsolved mysteries that beggar explanation. One of the most compelling of the unsolved cases is that of Dennis Martin, a six year old who disappeared from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on 14 June 1963. According to Paulides a witness saw an unkempt man carrying a small boy later on the same day that Dennis Martin vanished, miles away from where he was lost. Paulides has spent over a decade demurring from expressing his own theories on the Dennis Martin case, out of respect for surviving family members. At the same time, others have developed and disseminated their own theories with no regard for the emotional well-being of the Martin family. Paulides placed great emphasis upon the fact that the Green Berets joined National Guard forces in the search. And, out of these unverified reports, arose a belief that the U.S. military knows what happened to Dennis Martin, and is engaged in an active cover-up. While Paulides cannot prove his case, he has not been silenced by the all powerful agencies he claims to be exposing.

Nature is dangerous. The people of Appalachia have been repeatedly traumatized by history. The evidence of “feral people” such as it exists, suggests they are every bit as shy as any other wild animal. Tales of cannibals exist, but do not attach back to the historical feral people. If the Cherokee legend of the Moon-eyed People does describe a subterranean race of subhuman cannibals, it would explain a great deal. Until such a time when evidence is revealed to conclusively resolve the mystery, we cannot reach a proper conclusion on this topic.

2 thoughts on “Feral?”

  1. Being one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth, I can only imagine that the Appalachian Mountains are filled with both mystery and a rich history. Living in the antipodes, I am somewhat freaked out about what one could find on the Appalachian trail. While I tend to love doing stuff on my own, I would definitely not be hiking that trail on my own.

    1. Hi Caroline, thank you for commenting. Generally speaking, the Appalachian Trail is relatively safe but solo hiking is ill advised because the potential dangers are multiplied. A minor injury can turn deadly when you’re all lone in the wilderness. One of the reasons to be skeptical about the reports of feral people is the overall difficultly of surviving off the grid at the mercy of Nature.

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