Black bears

Black bears are a symbol of these mountains, and in the past individual bears have become the stuff of legend.

By Jim Buchanan

 

September is giving way to October in the mountains, a time that was once treated with tremendous anticipation by hunters who were free to roam pretty much anywhere in the mountains they chose. Some of the hunters became legendary, and some of the creatures they pursued became legends as well.

Horace Kephart wrote about a bear in the Smokies called Old Reelfoot. The West was replete with tales of fierce bears, including one account of a bear that killed a calf, a cow and a bull in the same attack.

A bluegrass song released in 1960 offered this tale:

 

High on the mountain tell me what you see

Bear tracks bear tracks lookin’ back at me

Better get your rifle boy before it’s too late

Cause the bear’s got a little pig and headed through the gate

He’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump

Runnin’ ninety miles an hour takin’ thirty feet a jump

Ain’t never been caught he ain’t never been treed

And some folks say he look a lot like me

 

Seventy years ago, in its Oct. 5, 1950 edition, The Sylva Herald offered an accounting of “Ole Slewfoot.” The style certainly reads like the works of a John Parris or Bob Terrell, but no author was credited. The local story of a legendary bear departs from the normal tales of an animal filled with murderous rage to something much more sentimental.

 

THE “OLE SLEWFOOT” 

IN THE MOUNTAINS

 

Deep within the fastness of the North Carolina mountains, up beneath the smoky shadows of Mount Pisgah and the towering Balsam range – within the valleys and hills of that land where men long remember great things, they tell a legend. The legend of a bear – a bear that many gray-headed old-timers will swear even today, “was something more than jest a bear.”

One can stand on a hill at Saunooke or beside the little railway station at Balsam and view a part of the vast mountain expanse that was once the domain of this bear. They called him Honest John. The stories still linger, as to how he would be seen in one corner of 30 mile-wide Haywood County one day then on the next night he would show up in the furtherest corner of Jackson or Transylvania, always moving, never stopping long enough to let his trail become strong enough for the dogs who were forever searching the mountains for him.

Honest John was not a mean one. The mountaineers didn’t fear him or hate him as is so often the case concerning mountain legends, but rather they were awed and impressed by his cunning ability to baffle hunters who pursued him, and out of this awe there grew a great respect in the hearts of the mountain people for this great bear. In the little cabins back in the lonely little valleys and hills the people took strength from the stories of Honest John. To them, he represented the unexplainable power and mystery of the giant mountains which hovered over them and shut out the rest of the world. “You’ll never catch Ole Slewfoot,” they would say to the frustrated hunters who returned time and time from their futile attempts. … Those who tell the legend become unable to agree when they discuss the fate that befell the bear. Some vow that he would still be chasing the sun across the Smokies if the hunters had depended on their own wits to catch him and others say it was just a mess of bad luck that Honest John finally ran into. High atop Balsam Mountain, he stumbled into a steel trap one wintry day; and from that mistake came the incident that will ensure the tradition of Slewfoot for as long as mountain people have tongues. Sensing that he must keep moving at all cost, the mighty bear spent the entire freezing night at the grim task of freeing himself from the trap, gnawing off his leg with his own teeth! Came morning and the trappers found the bear’s leg still within the trap and a bloody trail leading off into the forest.

Word of the feat spread like wildlife thru the mountain communities – farmers, storekeepers and hunters heard the story unbelievingly yet well knew that Ole Slewfoot could do a thing like that. “Ain’t you boys never gonna give up?” the people would taunt the hunters. “Catch his head in your trap next time – make it hard on the old boy!” … Then finally one day the dogs got close to him - caught the scent on the mountain wind and began the chase. Hunters heard of it and came from all over the mountains to try their luck at the Slewfoot legend. Somehow they felt that perhaps this was the last run of the aging bear.

Hopping along on his three remaining legs, Ole Slewfoot tore out into the hills and began his tricks, attempting to shake off his relentless pursuers, but something had gone out of the animal. Youth, strength, and above all, that other leg which had once helped him cover ground thru the dog-hobble like the wind, was missing. The bear was terribly slow now – but by doubling back – crossing and re-crossing streams and using rough routes, he managed to keep his chasers always just far enough behind him. They chased him over five mountain counties!

… When they finally caught him the old bear was so exhausted he could not even stand, but sat upon his haunches and lashed out at the dogs with his one front paw, almost cutting the dog pack to pieces before the hunters came up on the scene. They say that there was a hesitation among the men with the rifles – as if each one was reluctant to kill this mountain god. And then a young boy sent a bullet into the noble old head and the most famous of all the black bears was dead.

They brought the carcass down from the hills and showed it to the people – for the one missing leg was the only thing that would make Slewfoot’s admirers admit that any human being could ever have outfoxed him. But there was the proof for most people. Yet there were those didn’t believe. They said the hunters cut the leg off an ordinary bear to make folks believe it was Slewfoot. “Why man, that bear’s still up in those hills chuckling to itself right now. And long after all these lying hunters is done dead and gone – well, he’ll still be up there!” That’s what a lot of folks said then and even today there’s an oldtimer who will lift a feeble arm and point out towards Balsam Mountain. “See over there, son? That’s where Ole Slewfoot stays. Keep an eye open some evening along about sundown, and you’ll see him go across that ridge over there – moving out towards the West. Old Slewfoot always was going towards that setting sun. That’s the reason they never caught him – ’cause he followed the sun; and did you ever hear of anyone ever catching that?”