Archiver > TNCARTER > 2000-09 > 0968610900

Subject: [TNCarter] Birchfield, Whitehead, Grindstaff, Perkins ~ Mountain Men
Date: Sun, 10 Sep 2000 14:35:00 EDT

>From the Elizabethton Star, Sept. 6, 2000

Legendary mountain men live on in local folklore

The greatest treasure of the mountains isn't its views or streams or even
the hills themselves: it is the people of the mountains.

A few people in the mountains keep alive centuries-old traditions and a way
of life that the 20th century raced past. The mountains are not like
everywhere else. The mountains, themselves, contain stories -- stories of men
and women who were survivors and who were legends in their own time. However,
many of their stories are being lost to time -- the stories of Uncle Nate
Birchfield, Tiger Whitehead, Nick "The Hermit" and Joshua Dugger. Theirs are
stories that draw us back to the mountains -- a placed called home.

Nathan Birchfield was known as the "Nimrod of the Unakas."

Birchfield, who died in the 1940s at the age of 86, was possibly the last
of the old bear hunters of this section. He lived in the Limestone Cove area
of Unicoi County.

Familiarly known as "Uncle Nath," (pronounced "Nate"), he was a member of
an old pioneer family. Many who knew him say Uncle Nath was a storyteller,
who loved to tell Civil War stories handed down by his father. He often told
the story of the killing of the Frye boys at the edge of his farm by the
Confederates during the War Between the States.

He began his hunting career at the age of nine, when he shot his first
rabbit after slipping the gun away from his father. Uncle Nath tramped the
Unaka Mountains for all kinds of game. During his lifetime, he reached the
high mark of killing approximately 100 wildcats, one being very vicious,
which he loved to talk about.

The story goes that after a very vicious battle during which Uncle Nath
thought the animal would kill him, he finally overcame the animal by grasping
it with two hands and dashing the cat against a tree. When he had finally
killed the animal, he put it over his shoulder and its size was so great that
it touched the ground.

But better than all, Uncle Nath loved to tell the story of his first bear
hunt. Chestnuts were ripening and bears seemed plentiful and every time any
members of the Birchfield family went into the woods, they could see signs of
bears. So, after planning and devising a scheme to catch some of the animals,
Uncle Nath would tell how they fixed the trap.

The story goes that Uncle Nath's father had a hunch one morning that they
had caught a bear. Off they went to the Unaka Mountain ranges, and much to
their surprise they had trapped a bear. The animal had succeeded in carrying
the trap some distance. Finally, they traced the animal down. Uncle Nath
raised his gun, pulled the trigger and down came a 250-pound animal -- "as
pretty a sight as you ever saw" were his words.

Then came the problem of getting the slain animal home. Born of a strong,
sturdy heritage, Uncle Nath threw his "kill" on his back and around his neck
and carried it three miles out of the Unakas.

Uncle Nath lived simply and no man was ever turned away from his door
hungry. Everyone was his friend.


Some of the most beautiful mountain flora and mountain scenery in the
United States can be found surrounding the communities of Hampton Creek,
Heaton Creek, Tiger Creek, Burbank, Shell Creek and Ripshin.

This mountain area also possesses character and a personality all its own
-- planted there by nature and the people who call it home.

One such person who lived in this section and provided it with color as
well as its name was Tiger Jim Whitehead, a noted hunter, for whom Tiger
Valley is named. James T. Whitehead was born in 1819. He died at the age of
86 in 1905, and during his lifetime killed 99 bears. The fact is noted on his

Back in 1884, a Knoxville newspaper reported Tiger and a relative, Andy
Whitehead, had been hunting in Blount County. At that time the two "mighty
nimrods," as the newspaper called them, tallied up their kills. Andy decided
he had killed 35 bears and Tiger said his total stood at 87. He was 65 at the

Many area historians claim Tiger's family came across the mountains from
North Carolina. However, some say that Tiger and Andy were Blount Countians.

Regardless, the hills and valleys of Carter County are seemingly dotted
with Tiger's relatives. Tiger is buried in a small family graveyard about two
miles from Highway 19-E on Tiger Creek Road. Nestled at the foot of Ripshin
Mountain, the graveyard stands near what was once the old Whitehead homeplace
and a grist mill.

Tiger operated the mill when he wasn't stalking bears across the mountains.
He was a dedicated bear hunter and roamed as far as the Smoky Mountains, but
most of his hunting was done in the mountains of Carter and Unicoi counties.

Tiger was married to Sally Garland Chambers, the widow of James Chambers.
Sally, a colorful character in her own right, was considered a passionate
woman by her friends and neighbors. Her tombstone bears the inscription: "She
was not only a mother to the human race but to all animal kind as she gave
nurse to one fawn and two cubs."

Some historians disagree about the meaning behind the inscription, some
saying she actually nursed the animals at her breast and others that she
cared for them and fed them from a bottle.

Sally is buried beside Tiger in the hilltop graveyard within sound of the
gurgling Tiger Creek, which was named for the bear hunter, and then, the
community and valley below.

The inscription on Tiger Whitehead's grave marker reads "A noted hunter
(Killed 99 Bears)." The words at the bottom of the marker have surely been
amusing to many: "We hope he rests in peace."

The story is also told that friends, when Tiger was on his deathbed,
wanting to credit him with 100 kills, trapped a bear and brought it to his
bedside. Tiger told them, "If it's not free and running wild, I can't kill
it.'' The bear was released.


For 30 some years Nick Grindstaff, known as "Nick The Hermit," lived on the
highest peak of Iron Mountain, near the dividing line between Carter and
Johnson counties in a log hut. Though isolated, he was very industrious, and
kept himself busy clearing land, planting crops, building fences from split
rails. An ox and a dog were his only companions, except for an occasional
hunter who happened by.

Nick was born the day after Christmas in 1851, but was orphaned before he
was three years old. He spent the next 18 years of his life being shuttled
from one relative to the next; yet, in spite of his insecurity, he was said
to be a model young man. He was honest, upright, and loved by all who knew

The family farm was divided among the four children when they were grown
and Nick built himself a house out of poplar logs and lived alone for the
next five years. In 1877, he sold his farm and went to Missouri, where a
friend lived. Several weeks later, Nick appeared on his friend's doorsteps
minus his hat, coat, shoes and money, apparently the victim of a robbery and
beating, which left him mentally unbalanced. Nick was unsure what had
happened to him, but he never recovered.

Nick was sent back to his family in Tennessee, but he refused to live with
them, retreating to the mountains instead. In addition to his farming, he
gathered roots and herbs which he sold on Stoney Creek on his semi-annual
visits to get a haircut. Nick presented quite a spectacle with his long hair,
long beard and ragged clothes, leading his ox down the road, but he was such
a kindly soul that not even children were afraid.

On a July morning in 1923, Baxter McEwen was on Nick's mountain looking for
his strayed cattle and decided to pay him a visit. When he got no response
from his greeting, he looked inside the crude hut and found Nick dead on his
bunk and his dog guarding him. When McEwen returned with men to help remove
the body, the half-starved dog had to be overpowered before they could carry
out their mission.

When news spread of Nick's death, crowds came from both sides of Nick's
peak to pay respects to his memory. Friends counted it a worthy sacrifice of
their time and energy to help carry his casket up the mountain. When they
reached the summit at 4,500 feet, they gave him a Christian burial on the
spot that had been his alone for so many years.

For the next 60 years, despite occasional visitors from the hardy, Uncle
Nick's gravesite remained lost to the world. In 1983, the U.S. Forest Service
and the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club with the help of U.S. Rep. James
Quillen restored the gravesite of Uncle Nick. His tombstone bears the
inscription: "Lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone."

Ever hear of Joshua Perkins? He was the luckiest ginseng digger of all

Joshua Perkins was tall, dark and handsome. He lived in Tennessee near
where the Elk and Watauga Rivers meet. In the fall of 1826, he made a hasty
trip over the state line into North Carolina to escape arrest because of a
fist fight. He was headed for the home of Abern Johnson, a family friend, who
lived about a mile south of Newland.

The next day, Joshua went out to dig ginseng. As he dug, he struck a vein
of magnetite.

Magnetite is an important ore of iron. Some 45 years earlier, a man named
Reuben White had found this same vein, but the location was forgotten. The
place where Perkins made his find would later be called Cranberry.

Perkins took some ore samples to the forge owned by John Dugger and John
Asher on the Watauga River. That's how you tested iron ore in those days; you
had a blacksmith melt it down and learn the quality.

There he learned some exciting news. State law provided that anyone who
found iron ore on vacant land could claim that land. When it was proved 5,000
pounds of wrought iron had been produced at a forge on the land, the owner
would receive 3,000 acres of state-owned land, including the location of the
mine and forge.

That is exactly what happened. Perkins and his brother got full title to
the land in 1833.

Work was hard. The heavy, tough ore had to be broken up with picks and
mattocks, then shoveled into carts to be taken to the forge.

This wasn't gold mining, and the profits were never large. Finally, the
Perkins brothers got into financial trouble and their property was sold by
the court. But their work continued to benefit the Cranberry section of the
future Avery County for almost 150 years.


The mountains are much like people. They have their own lore, their own
stories to tell, their own personality. The mountains, if we pause and
listen, and dare to climb them or take a walk in them, have so much to teach
us and stories to tell.

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