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Wednesday, 25 October 2006 00:00

Ancient animals of the Blue Ridge

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Names of places throughout the Blue Ridge country pay tribute to the familiar wildlife of the region: Bear Wallow Stand Ridge, Beaverdam Creek, Buck Knob, Fox Gap, Wild Boar Creek, Coon Branch, Wildcat Cliffs, Possum Hollow, Polecat Ridge, Raven Rocks, Buzzard Roost, Eagle Heights, Rattlesnake Mountain, and so on.

 

Numerous place names also certify the past presence of an animal that many swear can still be found here: Painter Den, Panther Spring Gap, Panther Flat Top, etc. After the early years of the 20th century, panthers were no longer found in the Blue Ridge. But reputed sightings in recent years by farmers, park rangers, naturalists, and other folks who know what they’re seeing indicates, in my opinion, the return of at least a few of these magnificent animals, possibly as releases by private individuals.

Two place names commemorate animals that were extirpated from the southern mountains within the historical period — Buffalo Cove and Wolf Laurel Basin — while others like Otter Creek, Elk Fork, and Pigeon Ledge (for the peregrine falcon) bear the names of animals that have recently been reintroduced into the region.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever attempt to bring back the formidable timber wolf, which was last observed in the wild here almost a century ago. But the red wolf was, of course, unsuccessfully reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Never a true resident of the southern mountains, it should have never been “reintroduced” in the first place. Recent releases thrive, however, in the low country areas along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that they originally populated.

There’s no longer sufficient “elbow room” for the eastern bison (apparently an environmental variant of the prairie buffalo) to roam our valleys and hills as they did up until about 1800. When the early settlers penetrated the Cherokee lands, there were no roads save those made by the buffaloes. In Daniel Boone’s time it was recorded that, “Three or four men, with dogs, can kill from ten to twenty buffaloes a day.”

An up close and personal observation of a bull elk standing four feet at the shoulder, and weighing in at more than a 1,000 pounds in Cataloochee Valley can be breathtaking to say the least. But such an encounter would have been considered small potatoes 10,000 or more years ago when the earliest human inhabitants penetrated this region. At the end of the last Ice Age interval (which reached its peak about 18,000 years ago during the Wisconsin Epoch) the upland piedmont and mountain region provided a home for Jefferson’s ground sloth (a rhinoceros- sized, long-armed sloth first scientifically described by Thomas Jefferson), forest oxen, and an extinct elephant called the woolly mammoth.

The extent to which the early Indian hunters of the Blue Ridge would have encountered those creatures is debatable, but it seems certain that they hunted the mastodon, an elephant relative of the woolly mammoth that was the commonest Ice Age mammal known from eastern North America. Mastodons were huge creatures that stood more than eight feet at the shoulder and had tusks seven feet long.

These animals were hunted with thrusting spears. The lance-shaped spearheads (known as “Clovis points” because they were first diagnostically-excavated and dated at a site near Clovis, New Mexico) were beautifully crafted from flint and chert. They were fluted on the sides and joined smoothly to a short, detachable, bone or wooden shaft that was inserted into the socket of a longer, harpoon-like shaft. Each hunter could thereby “reload” with another detachable shaft after thrusting one into the animal. Such a weapon would not have been effective for hunting deer and other swift game animals, but it was perfect for sloth, bison, and mastodon. One can imagine the tall tales swapped around campfires thousands of years ago after a successful mastodon hunt.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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