Every October, a historian is likely to encounter a little personal heartbreak. It’s not just the leaves falling from the trees, or the end of flip-flop weather. It’s the near-certainty that someone in the media is going to assume that history is valuable mainly for its ghost stories.
After all, the historian spends his days studying dead people—and what’s spookier than dead people? People who are too busy to wonder much with America’s long and complex political and cultural narrative can nonetheless perk up for stories about the dead coming back to life, whether in zombie or ghost form. Naturally, they figure that the historian is the best sort of fellow to tell the real stories about how that happens.
The melancholy truth is that ghost stories don’t often make very good history. The lack of specificity, avoidance of context, and vagueness of sourcing, which characterize the very best ghost stories (“Some say that on certain nights….”) is precisely what historians, like good journalists, are trained to avoid.
Still, even when you’re trying to research some earnestly respectable history, sometimes you run across a story that’s so bizarre it gives you a chill.
A half decade before there was a state called Tennessee, Knoxville had been founded in 1791 as capital of the Southwestern Territory. It was hardly even something that could be called a town before it had a biweekly newspaper. The town and the newspaper were just a little more than two years old when the Knoxville Gazette—founded and edited by former Boston-area journalist George Roulstone—ran this story that made it around much of the English-speaking world.
It happened in the late winter, when the trees were bare, but the dense forests and dramatic rock formations of the Cumberlands, still offered many places to hide, and a capacity to surprise.
According to the story, in February, 1794, a detachment of mounted infantry had penetrated 15 miles into the Cumberland Mountains, and were exploring the “Cove Creek” area. That’s not necessarily an unusual name for a creek, and it’s unclear whether it’s the same Cove Creek in Campbell County, along the Clinch River about 30 miles northwest of Knoxville. But that seems as good a guess as any. They were looking for Indians, in particular those who were hostile toward white settlers.
Just five months earlier, a large band of rebellious Chickamaugan warriors, a schism that didn’t feel bound by the treaties signed by the Cherokee, made an abortive campaign to destroy Knoxville, the white man’s capital. Instead they destroyed a fortified Knox County home known as Cavetts’ Station, killing everyone inside, men, women and children. Especially fearsome was their leader, Doublehead, whom even the Cherokee feared.
It was revenge that bred more revenge. Soldiers exploring the Cumberlands had reason to be jumpy.
Under the command of Captain John Beard, a 28-year-old federal soldier who generally answered to Gen. John Sevier, they were told not to fire their weapons except at Indians.
Remembered to history, if barely, as Ensign McDonald, along with another man—whether another soldier or a civilian guide is unclear—set out ahead of the Beard detachment, “in advance of the party as spies.” At some point, in the Cove Creek area, they were startled by something standing in the woods. It was a “creature”—that was the most specific word they came up with—and one they’d never seen before.
Their description caught the attention of newspaper readers across America, and even in England: “it had only two legs and stood almost upright, covered with scales of a black, brown, and light yellow color in spots like rings, a white tuft 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.”
The creature was not happy to see these soldiers in its own woods.
“It stood about three minutes in a daring posture…. Mr. McDonald advanced, and struck at it with his sword, when it jumped at least eight feet, and let [landed] on the same spot of ground, sending forth a red kind of matter out of its mouth, resembling blood, and then retreated into a laurel thicket, turning around often as if it intended to fight.”
Its footprints, they noted, “resembled those of a goose, but larger.”
Upon discussion, it was claimed there the incident had a precedent in Native American lore: “The Indian report that a creature inhabits that part of the mountain, of the above description, which, by its breath, will kill a man if he does not instantly immerse himself in water.”
What was it? Experts I’ve spoken with know of no creature that resembles this particularly weird thing. which sounds either like a large predatory bird or some sort of reptile never suspected since the age of dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, it has only a little more detail and sourcing and context than most ghost stories do. People are known to misperceive under stress, and to exaggerate. But do sane people risk ridicule—or in the case of a soldier, discredit—by making things up?
Maybe they did see something. Maybe it was some sort eagle or vulture, imperfectly described and perhaps injured, able to jump but not to fly. Or Maybe it was something else.
The story took off around the world. The Tennessee frontier was to some extent the frontier of civilization. The whole world was fascinated in what happened here, and what strange and little known people and creatures might be encountered here, to offer more clues about the mystery of life on this planet.
That August, Ensign McDonald’s description of the creature was in three different newspapers in Philadelphia, then the national capital. It’s likely that George and Martha Washington read about it. It also appeared in newspapers in Vermont and Ohio. Before the end of the year, it was featured in the Belfast (Ireland) Northern Star and the Derby [England] Mercury, always crediting the Knoxville Gazette. (For thousands of people in Great Britain, it may have been their introduction to the new word Knoxville.)
Some of the reprints include this additional introduction: “The following account of a wonderful animal, lately discovered in the Cumberland Mountains, may be acceptable to the curious, and oblige a constant reader, it being a fact.”
Researched and Written by Jack Neely, October 2020