By Steve Fielder
A HISTORY OF HUNTING IN THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
Review by Steve Fielder
"From the first time my dad took me on a trout fishing and camping trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I have been totally fascinated by the area. Then, in 1954 when Dad brought home a Plott dog (I was eight years old at the time) and began to teach me the history of the breed that was spawned in the region I’ve had an emotional connection to the area of almost spiritual proportions. The lofty peaks and misty valleys that comprise this, the heart and soul of the southern Appalachians produce not only one of the most beautiful but also one of the most rugged and challenging hunting areas for man or beast to be found anywhere. The mountains, the streams, and for me, the story of the Plott dog come together to make the Smoky Mountains a mystical place of untold wonders. Now, thanks to the amazing research and writing talents of North Carolinian Bob Plott, himself a descendent of the famed Plott family for which the breed is named, we have a comprehensive look into the lives of the great hunters of the region in this, his latest work.
Plott’s earlier book Strike and Stay – The Story of the Plott Hound demonstrated his standing as an accomplished writer that goes to exhaustive ends to research his subject. In his new book, Plott takes the story of the Smoky Mountain hunter, as the final chapter implies, “full circle” from the foundations of the Cherokee nation in ancient times to the death of area legend Granville Calhoun in 1978. To be sure, many of the hunters and hounds men that hunt the region today possess the same ardor that has always identified the Smoky Mountain hunter. But to compare the Smoky Mountain hunter of history to the well-equipped nimrod of today would be a disservice to those that hunted the region on foot or beast devoid of the modern conveniences of transportation, electronics, and communication. The rugged individualism that identified the Smoky Mountain hunter in Plott’s book still exists even though the odds of being successful have greatly increased in the favor of the hunter of today. It is in the telling of these accounts that the differences in then and now emerge, providing a very entertaining journey back to a time when the playing field for hunter and hunted was greatly tipped in favor of the latter.
There are ten chapters in the book in addition to the foreword by historian George Ellison who also wrote the preface for Strike and Stay. Plott’s introduction gets the juices of anticipation flowing when he states his belief that nowhere do more colorful characters or their stories exist than in the history of the hunter of the Great Smoky Mountains. He whets the reader’s appetite for adventure with the promise to deliver accounts of “bigger than life and almost mythical figures who defined the hunting history of the region.”
History buffs will enjoy the first chapter as Plott unveils the earliest beginnings of the Cherokee nation, said to have originated at Kituwah, the “original and scared mother town” of the Cherokee. According to legend, the first Cherokee man, Kanati and his wife Selu made their home near present day Bryson City. Plott recounts the Cherokee legend of the cave from which the ancient hunter Kanati releases game animals in order to practice “the right way” of managing the wildlife resource. The ancient Cherokee believed in taking and using only what was needed. The tale will no doubt register as myth with modern readers but is apparently very much a part of ancient Cherokee culture and belief. Whether considered fact or fiction, Plott’s telling of the story of the cave makes for some very entertaining reading. The story of “Yona,” the Cherokee name for bear, and how the natives respected the animal yet hunted him will be the highlight of Chapter One for bear hunters.
The second chapter fast forwards to the 18th century to portray the Cherokee as an exceptional hunter in his own right. With 30,000 Cherokees living in the Great Smoky Mountains in 1700, the accounts of the numbers of game animals harvested by members of the Cherokee nation are truly amazing. Plott’s research reveals a fur trade so active that the British Crown appointed the modern-day equivalent of a fur czar to oversee the massive shipments of Indian-harvested pelts from seaports in South Carolina. Readers will find the numbers, especially those of harvested deer, to be truly amazing.
Plott reveals the dark side of the region’s history with accounts of man hunters and incidences of cannibalism by members of the Cherokee tribe. It’s hard for modern readers to comprehend the harshness of the Indian wars and the brutality that existed on both sides in those dark days of American history. Plott’s research brings it all to life in Chapter Four.
With guns being such an important part of the hunting experience, readers will enjoy Chapter Five devoted to the favorite weapon of the pioneer hunter of the region, the Smoky Mountain rifle. The handiwork of noted gunmakers the likes of John Gillespie, Russell Bean, and Samuel L. Click comes to life in a special chapter devoted solely to the history of the long-barreled flintlock mainstay of the Smoky Mountain hunter of the 18th and 19th centuries. You’ll learn what a “taller hole” is and marvel at the shooting prowess of Samuel Click in the incident I’ll call the “drunkard’s toe” in Chapter Five.
With this foundation laid, Bob Plott displays his array of famous Smoky Mountain hunters that lived and hunted the region during what he calls the Golden Age, the beginning of which coincides with the deportation of all but a remnant of the Cherokee nation to Oklahoma via the famous Trail of Tears in about 1840 and culminates more than a century later in 1945. Although born a year later in 1946, I believe I am a throwback to the Golden Age in terms of my attitudes toward the act of hunting, its methods, and what motivates me to want to pursue all that life in the southern Appalachian outdoors affords. Needless to say, I enjoy Plott’s subject matter and thrive on these stories of men who lived and hunted in a era that’s far removed from the shopping malls and urban sprawl of today.
The Great Smoky Mountain region sits astride the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Bob Plott shines his spotlight on the North Carolina legends first with accounts of the lives of “Uncle Fed” Messer, “Wid” Medford, “Mont” Plott, and “Turkey” George Palmer. Talk about a colorful crew. Messer is noted for his 44-mile round trip trek to Waynesville, NC from his home on Panther Creek when he was 109 years old and that’s just the beginning of his exploits, many of which Plott attests were conducted when “Uncle Fed” was more than 100 years old. The humorous accounts of the adventures of “Wid” Medford, who Plott allows was the “Master Hunter of the Balsams” reminds me of a bigger-than-life character in my own experience, the late Matt Radford of West Virginia who once told a listener that he “fit a bear with a pine knot until the rosin was dripping off my elbows.” And of course, any lover of the Plott breed such as I will enjoy the account of Mont Plott, a hunter who killed 211 bears in his lifetime, and of his “tow sack” network of distributing Plott puppies to hunters of the region, thus helping to propel the breed to its place of prominence today. Humor abounds in this chapter and I’ll leave it up to the reader to discover “Turkey” George Palmer’s description of a friend suffering from a hangover or Mont Plott’s question to a novice hunter suffering from “bear fever.” No doubt the severity of life in the Smoky Mountain region demanded a safety valve for the emotions and Plott’s characters find it in the many humorous anecdotes recounted in Plott’s book. If humor was the cure for the ills of the day, Plott’s accounts of the lives of “Turkey” George and his contemporaries in Chapter Six are certainly full of it!
Chapter seven crosses the border into Tennessee for a look at what Plott calls the Tennessee Ridge Runners. From the statuesque “Black Bill” Walker, born in 1838 and self-described as being “mostly muscle and the rest fool,” to the more refined and accomplished Wiley Oakley, known as the “number one guide in the Smokies,” Plott covers the most famous of the Tennessee hunters including Bill, Henry, and “Preacher” John Stinnett as well as Levi Trentham and Bill Parton all who lived colorful lives hunting in the Smoky Mountain region of the Volunteer State.
In a chapter called The Last Frontier, Bob Plott describes life in one of North Carolina’s most remote areas in Graham County at the close of the Civil War. Readers of the history of the Plott breed of bear dogs recall the story of the hunting preserve created in 1918 at Hooper Bald when a rich Canadian named George Moore fenced in 1,500 acres of mountaintop and imported a variety of game animals to the region. What is most remembered about the project is that it resulted in the introduction of the European boar to the Smokies, a species that continues to provide a challenge to hunters in the region today. Plott covers the Hooper Bald experiment and details the lives of Graham County legends “Cotton” McGuire, Will Orr, the Lovin family, and perhaps the most famous of the hunting families of that area, the Dentons whom Plott picks as “the most prestigious group of sportsmen to ever roam these storied mountains.” His account of the famous family includes the lives of John H.C. Denton, Forest Denton, “Cub” Denton, and Victor Denton. The Denton family preferred the Plott as a hunting dog and Forest Denton is known to have hunted with brothers John and Von Plott. The patriarch of the Denton clan, John Hamilton Chastain Denton went to Plott Valley to acquire his first Plott pups from Montraville Plott in the 1870’s according to Bob Plott’s account.
Chapter Nine features the Deep Creek and Hazel Creek areas of North Carolina and my personal favorite figure in the region’s history, Mark Cathey. I first read of Cathey in Samuel Hunnicutt’s book, Twenty Years Hunting and Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains many years ago. Plott’s account of the life of Sam Hunnicutt also appears in Chapter Nine. I admired Cathey because of his loyalty to the Plott breed, a reminder of my own experience hunting Plotts in West Virginia when everyone else in our hunting parties hunted other breeds. I also enjoyed Plott’s description of Cathey as an expert trout fisherman, another passion of mine and of my late father’s. Finally, Mark Cathey accomplished what must be considered the ultimate goal of anyone passionately tied to a life with hounds and hunting in the great outdoors. He died while on a hunt, and was discovered leaning against a tree with his faithful Plott dog at his side. Readers, especially those of the Christian faith will enjoy as I did, reading the caption on Cathey’s headstone. In addition to Cathey and Hunnicutt, Plott also covers the moonshiner Acquilla “Quill” Rose and the “Squire of Hazel Creek,“ Granville Calhoun in the chapter. The tale of one of Granville’s hunts in which “eleven turkeys, a dozen squirrels, a whole raft of pheasants, a bear, a deer, a groundhog, and a coon” were killed barely scratches the surface of the accounts, be they fiction or fact, that Plott bares in the chapter titled Hazel Creek and Deep Creek: A Sportsman’s Paradise.
At the beginning of this review I mentioned Bob Plott’s attention to research. The bibliography alone is worth the price of A History of Hunting in the Great Smoky Mountains and provides a virtually endless source of information and entertainment in print. This book is a great read for anyone that enjoys a blend of history, adventure, tall tales and facts, set in one of our nation’s most exciting and ruggedly beautiful outdoor venues, the Great Smoky Mountains. I recommend it highly."
Courtesy of www.BobPlott.com