I’ve run across some strange stuff while poking around in Tennessee’s early history, but nothing as bizarre as a newspaper report J.L. Bell has uncovered.
In the 1790s, militiamen on patrol in the Cumberland Mountains stumbled across a creature that “had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes, of a fiery red.”
When one of the men attacked the thing with his sword, “it jumped up, at least, eight feet” and then landed, spewing “a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a Laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.”
Yikes! Soldiers on a wilderness mission come face-to-face with a grotesque, creepy-eyed beastie. Seems like I’ve heard this one before…
Bell quotes the story as it appeared in the Hampshire Gazette on Sept. 24, 1794, and notes that it also popped up in various other newspapers with attributions to the Knoxville Gazette, the first paper published in what’s now Tennessee. Unfortunately, searchable copies of the Knoxville Gazette aren’t yet available online. But here’s the same item from the Aug, 30, 1794 issue of the Baltimore Daily Intelligencer. It’s identical to the one Bell found in the Hampshire Gazette.
Since the opening is addressed to “the Printers of the Knoxville Gazette,” I assume this is the same text that appeared in that paper. One wonders who submitted it to the Knoxville Gazette in the first place, but there doesn’t seem to be a name attached to any of the versions available online.
The reference to Indian lore is interesting. Reptilian creatures do appear in Cherokee mythology. The most well-known is probably the Uktena, a great horned serpent bearing a crystal in its forehead. But I’m not aware of any creature from southeastern Native lore matching the description of the thing these militiamen encountered. As Bell notes, William Blount referred to it as “Cheeklaceella” when he mentioned the article in a 1798 letter to John Rhea. I couldn’t find that word in an electronic search of texts on Indian mythology. In fact, I couldn’t find it anywhere except in a printed version of Blount’s letter from Samuel Gordon Heiskell’s book on early Tennessee history.
What I find notable is the fact that newspapers across the country picked up this bizarre report from the Tennessee frontier. Readers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Maryland would have read the story of the militiamen who encountered a mysterious creature in the Cumberland mountains, and editors in these cities seem to have been aware of what their colleagues on the frontier were printing. Lately I’ve been going through letters written by settlers in southwestern Virginia during the Revolutionary era, and I’m surprised at how often they refer to events in Boston, Philadelphia, Yorktown, and even Europe. Similarly, eastern newspapers picked up news from Kentucky and the Tennessee country and disseminated it all along the seaboard. We tend to think of the eighteenth-century trans-Appalachian West as a remote, isolated region, but frontier folk were very much a part of early American communication networks.
Anyway, assuming the incident happened as the newspapers described, what did those militiamen see? My money’s on some sort of crane with a skin disease, but you never know…