These mountaineers have of late years got much attention from writers of romances. And these writers of romances, being for the most part persons of surprising talent, have got much credit for realistic writing of fiction. Their use of the dialect, their portrayal of mountain life and character have been regarded as faithfully natural and lifelike. This esteem has, however not been shared by those who are familiar with the mountains and the mountaineers for many years. East Tennesseeans who have hunted through the mountains and have lived in mountain cabins for weeks and months say that the romancers have taken wide liberties with the dialect and with the people themselves to make a better story.
It may be said in the beginning that the mountaineers of whom this article speaks are not at all like the persons of the mountain romance. There are no beautiful women with wide eyes and minds full of idealizing. There are no men of especial comeliness. Love is passion pure and simple. Hatred is neither stagy nor poetic, but hard, fierce and sordid. The family relations are commonplace where they are not brutal. In fact, there are no materials for Sunday school romances. Hands are hard, calloused and freckled. Faces are dull, obstinate and generally marked by dissipation and toil. Feet, both male and female, are of generous proportions. In form the men are long and lean and poorly jointed, but full of muscles and sinews, while the women are big of calf and wide of hip and guiltless of corset bound waists - the proportions of mothers or hardy sons. Life is exceedingly matter of fact, as devoid of imagination as the splendid sunsets and the vast stretches of landscape are suggestive. The materials for the romancer, for the mooner of sentimentalities, and of false and unhuman sexual and social relations are not here.
This however, far from detracting from interest in these people, adds to it immeasurably. Human nature here is on the surface, acting and speaking, the former more out of all proportion than the latter as naturally and as frankly as the most ardent lover of plain speech could desire. The mountaineers are hospitable, or else they turn away the traveler at the point of a gun. They grasp the hand or they meet the outstretched hand with the knife blade. They have clear and strong ideas of right and wrong as the mountains reveal them. They detest the machinery of law and permit each man to be the arbiter and avenger of his own wrongs. Their women are as virtuous as could be expected, and often virtuous beyond expectation. Both men and women are rough, uncouth, brave, freedom loving, haters of innovation of government, good clothing, and the life of cities.
To a dweller upon Manhattan Island, the people of these mountain districts seem hardly real. It is not easy to understand, without experience, a region where all men go forth armed, where murders are of almost daily occurrence, and where the law never attempted to assert its authority. The man of the city goes forth to hunt once a year, and then takes a gun or so and handles it with a fair degree of skill at best. Yet, only a day and a night's journey from New York one will find men who carry a gun as a city man carries an umbrella or cane, who can use it an incredible distance with the skill and accuracy that a good billiard player shows with his cue. These men go forth to seek the beast and birds of the forests sometimes, but the real use of the gun or pistol is in attack upon or defense against the bearer's fellow-beings of the same community. Every man is prepared for war at an instant's notice, and no man hesitates to take a life if he believes it necessary.
When such a state of affairs is described, one would at once infer that such people would be exceedingly uncomfortable to visit. Yet the fact is that the life and property of a stranger are as safe in the wilds of the mountains as in Central Park. A milder, more hospitable set of people would be hard to find. their faces are gentle, their voices pleasant and ever cordial. If they see that the stranger comes in simplicity and good faith they will do anything for him. It is only where their rights are concerned and by rights must be understood most sensitive and delicate distinctions unknown in the jostling crowds of cities- that they show ferocity. Any one whose incredulity is aroused by the gentle and harmless exterior of the mountaineers has but to learn their past history or to see a mountain disturbance to believe all that has been said of these people and more than has been said of these people and more than is generally credited to them.
It is the purpose of this article to speak of one small county of East Tennessee which is a fair type of the wild mountain region. In this county no white man has ever been hanged. Yet, since the war no less than 150 men have been shot down in the most deliberate fashion. Within the past year 10 murders have been committed and no adequate punishment has been or ever will be given to the murderers. There is no man above 16 years of age who does not own one or more weapons- Winchesters, Spencers, Colts and the like. Most of those men seldom go abroad without being well armed. The glistening barrel of the gun and the lump made by the pocket pistol are such common sights that they cease to attract attention. This county, though one of the smallest in the state, is about the worst. Its history would read like the history of an Italian principality in the Middle Ages.
When a murder is committed in Hancock county the jailer or sheriff at once sets out to arrest the murderer. sometimes he has no difficulty. At other times he has to assemble an armed force. Pitched battles have been not infrequent. When the murderer is arrested peaceably he is released on bail, although murder is not a bailable offense. But the judge reasons that a bond will hold a man in Hancock county when a jail would not. This method of reasoning is the reslut of experience. Hardly one of the 30 or 40 houses in Sneedville is without a dozen or more bullets embedded in its log or board walls. And any inhabitant will tell you the history of each set of bullet marks - a bloody, ferocious history that sounds strange to a foreigner.
The most respectable houses in Hancock county are in Sneedville. The mountain cabins are desolate and dreary and open to the weather. Not long ago the writer sat in a cabin on the side of Newman's Range. As the cabin was far up the mountain side a cold wind blew around and through it. There were two rooms and a loft. One room was used as a kitchen, the other room and loft for all other household purposes. Nineteen persons, 12 of whom were the children of the heads of the household, slept under that small, crazy roof. Men and women slept in the same room, not to speak of several wretched dogs which had fought with the human beings for food at the table an hour or so before.
There had been a general drunk and a dance after supper, for which the men and women had sunk exhausted or stupefied into bed. The door was wide open. The kitchen door not being upon hinges had been set aside when supper began. There were great clinks between the logs of the walls and a cold wind blew through the house. The writer could look out over the dark red embers of the back log and through the chimney wall to the great moon lit valley two miles away. He could look up through the floor of the loft, through the roof of cloudless mountain sky. Outside there was a profound stillness, broken by no sound, silent as though the world had suddenly paused breathless. Inside, there arose at intervals snorts and snores and moaning breaths from the sleepers, the mountaineer leading and the women joining in feebly but effectually. at times this sound of humanity at rest rose to a fearful loudness. Again there would be a pause which let the death like silence of the mountains penetrate the room. As this mountaineer had once read a book upon the diseases of the horse and had a library of one book - a school physiology - he bore the title of "Doc." He was a simple, foolish person, handy with a gun.
There are no saloons in this county. Each man keeps his jug or bottle and gets it refilled at the distillery. Moonshine whisky is scarce now, the government having at last convinced the mountaineers that the licensed still is the safest and best. But these licensed stills are wild and rough, and have the warlike appearance of the old moonshine stills. Just now there are perhaps a dozen of them in Hancock county. There was a time when a revenue collector could stand on Powell's Mountain and see in the valley and hollows below him the smoke of a score of illicit stills, safe from him because the trees made it impossible to mark the places whence the smoke came, and also because the guns of the mountaineers made the discovery almost assuredly fatal.
Aside from the feuds there are isolated murders which sometimes go no further than one or two deaths. Again they may be the foundation of quarrels and fights innumerable. Wherever a man has taken another man's life, he never leaves his home unprepared for an avenging relation of the murdered man. He is cautious about walking into no matter how friendly a crowd of the dead man's relations. He does not stand near a window unless he is sure that no one can draw a bead on him from its outlook. All the men in this region wear top pockets. They form convenient bolsters for short barreled pistols, and may lead to a false sense of security in the minds of foes. The knife is not so much in use as formerly. It gives an unfair advantage to strength and is less deadly. the pistol and the gun are the favorite weapons. The pistol may be carried in the top pocket. If too long in the barrel, it is slung in a holster suspended from a strap about the shoulders. Another favorite place for carrying it is in the waistband of the trousers just over the stomach and concealed by the waistcoat pulled down over it. the inside coat or waistcoat pocket has many friends. The gun is carried across the pommel of the saddle when riding, across the knees when driving or sitting, over the right forearm, barrel pointing forward and down when walking about. At home it stands in a corner near the chair of the owner or else just over the door on the inside. Some households in Hancock county can muster 10 guns, not to speak of knives, pistols and axes. The women often join in the fray, but the men never attack them, however great the provocation. Indeed, unless there is special distress the women take to the woods at the first attack upon the house and lie hidden there until the time comes for looking to the wounded.
Women learn to take death philosophically in this region. There are scores of widows and orphans. In the cities the father is the breadwinner, and his loss means hardships, sufferings and toil. Therefore, grief at death in cities is keen and pressing. In these mountain wilds one member of the family is as much a provider as another. A death means one less to help, and grief, therefore, is not so long enduring. Even where it is keen it does not express itself in shrieks and tears. It is silent and sullen. There are consoling thoughts that the death will be soon and properly avenged. The men do not avenge murder, however, so often through grief for the murdered as through the force of the mountain custom, which says that a murder is a stain until the murderer is killed.
With a few farewell words of praise for his fine negro, Gibson set out southward. In a day or two Vardy made his escape, washed himself, and fled fast and successfully on the trail of Gibson. There was pursuit, but Vardy was not recognized or else was not overtaken. When he got back to Powell's Mountain he found Gibson in the full enjoyment of the proceeds of the trick. Vardy called on him for a division of the spoils. Gibson flatly refused, after putting him off several times. This began a bushwhacking war between the two families, which kept up, with intervals of peace, until the breaking out of the Civil War. Sometimes the Collins tribe and the Gibson tribe joined hands against common foe, the revenue officers. But these breathing spells only gave further foment to a hatred which was kept alive at all times by the rivalry between moonshine stills. The Civil War put an end to feuds for so long that new causes had to spring up before a properly conducted feud could be again set on foot. But the Malungeons had laid the foundations with their illicit stills and their family hatreds. And the Civil War gave every one down that way a taste of fighting. The result of these things has been the 150 and more murders, each of which has something peculiarly tragic to distinguish it from the others.
In that region there lived two desperate families of whites, the Rheas and the Rainses. There were Sam Rhea and his sons, Doll, Andy and Lee, and Big Bud Rains. They had become moonshiners and they set about driving the original moonshiners, the Malungeons out of the business. They first attacked the Mullens, who were soon reinforced by a good part of the tribe of Collins. The Rains-Rhea gang was armed with Spencer rifles of a heavy caliber, each rifle having eight shots. Each member of the gang also carried two big army pistols strapped to his waist. They not only carried on their feud against the Malungeons, but also successfully resisted the revenue officers.
Not a day passed without a battle and the people of Sneedville were soon accustomed to hearing the cracking of rifles and pistols, yells and curses up the mountainside or over in the Blackwater Valley. The Malungeons are said to have got much the worse of this feud. They lost so many in killed and disabled that for a time the Rains-Rhea gang had everything its own way. They took advantage of their success to make themselves feared and hated in all Hancock county. The end of this feud was a pitched battle in the streets of Sneedville. Nearly 100 men were killed and wounded. The houses were filled with bullet holes, and not until late in the afternoon did the Rains-Rhea gang withdraw, beaten and suppressed for the time.
A few years after that the Rheas and the Rains family had a quarrel over politics. Rhea had decided that he would carry an election that was to be held at Mulberry Gap. Big Bud Rains heard what he proposed to do and prepared to go and see that Rhea should get left. The Rheas were there in full force and outnumbered the Rains faction two to one. The Rheas fell upon the Malungeon contingent of the Rains faction and disarmed them. Big Bud Rains was in a grocery store some distance from the scene of the fight. He heard of it, and also that the Rheas were coming at the same time. When Andy Rhea, pistol in hand, stepped upon the porch of the store. Bud Rains drew a dragoon pistol, aimed it and fired full at him. The bullet ploughed across his chest and shattered the bone of his left arm and nearly tore it off. With a yell Rhea sprung at Rains, who caught him in his arms. Rhea threw his right hand, holding the pistol, over Rains's shoulder and fired it into his back. Rains dropped with a curse and died in a short time. Rhea was taken home and was not out for two months. When he did reappear his left arm was gone. Instead of being tamed by these happenings, he became more desperate than before. He and his brothers were reinforced by a certain William Fugate, known as "Bad Bill" He was nearly six feet and a half in height splendidly built and handsome, after a desperado fashion. His favorite pastime, after murder, was to ride at full tilt around a tree, with the reins in his teeth and a revolver in each hand, firing rapidly. He could put a belt around the tree every time. He had killed eight men when he joined the Rheas. With Bad Bill came Joe Epperson and Lum Coleman. They rode about killing or shooting down the friends of the Rains family. Some they whipped nearly to death. Others they invited out of their houses and shot down and riddled, shouting and cursing the while.
After this gang had terrorized Sneedville several times the Sheriff got together a force of twenty men. armed to the teeth, and went down to Rhea's house, seven miles below Sneedville. to arrest him and his brothers. When the offices arrived they found the Rheas all assembled and ready for a fight Their women and the little children had hid in the woods. There was a clearing all around the house. After some consultation the officers decided to cross this clearing on the run and storm the house. The first advance was met with a terrific volley which killed or wounded five of the attacking party. The officers started to retreat. The desperados were so elated that they leaped from the house into the clearing and again opened fire. The officers rallied and for three hours the fight raged, now in the clearing and again from behind trees and rocks. Andy Rhea was shot forty eight times before loss of blood forced him to drop to the ground. "Bad Bill" Fugate stood out after all the rest were down. He had a revolver in each hand and his aim was unpleasantly excellent, even though he was staggering about with red froth on his lips. A big ball from a Spencer rifle finally ended him. When the last shot had been fired both parties were absolutely disabled. The most desperate of the gang had fallen.
Green fell to cursing and then to thrashing the boy, who yelled so loudly that old Asa came. Asa separated them and took up the quarrel. He ordered Green to go home. As Green was unarmed he went away sulkily, swearing that he would have revenge. A few days afterward Green and his wife were walking along the mountain road. Green had his three month's old baby in his arms. They met up with Jim Jones driving home in a wagon. As soon as Green got within range he drew a pistol from his pocket and holding the baby in his left arm opened fire upon Jones. Three of his five shots entered Jones' body, but he managed to keep his seat until he got home. He was carried into the house and died a few days afterward.
Old Asa Jones was furious at this, and, getting together his relatives, he declared war against Green and all his tribe. They lay in wait one afternoon behind some rocks at a point where they knew Green came by with his two brothers. The first shot from the rocks warned the three Greens, and they jumped for the trees. The two parties fired at each other until dark. Richard Green was shot through the clothing. His brother James was so badly wounded in the arm that it had to be cut off. Both sides were now prepared, and for a month or two there were ambuscades and bloodshed almost every day. One morning the Jones crowd, 18 strong, got about the house of Richard Green before daylight. They surrounded it on all sides and got ready to make a battle. At daylight the besiegers raised a great shout, and the battle began. The outsiders fired and charged, the garrison was not slow in answering and repelling. One of the bravest of the garrison was little Jimmie Green, 13 years old. He not only helped his mother and sisters load the guns, but shot once or twice himself.
He was just handing his father a reloaded Spencer when a great ball from a Winchester crashed between the logs of the house and passed through his heart. The ball went clear through the body and flattened against the chimney stones. "Hurry up that gun, Jimmy!" said his father, looking around. The boy's eyes were wide open and glassy. His mouth opened and shut, his little brown hand was held hard against his breast. He fell with a crash, the gun sliding across his body. "Mother!" called Green, "they've killed your Jimmy!" and he caught up the gun to speed his grief against his enemies.
After four hours' fighting the Jones crowd was so badly crippled that it was forced to withdraw. The slightly wounded carried those who could not move. This feud is still on, and will be raging as soon as enough Greens and Joneses can be got together to make a fight. But the Sutton-Barnard feud is the most exciting and also the most brutal of any in the history of this county. Henry Sutton was formerly a revenue officer, but settled down a few years ago to the manufacture of whisky. He had three pretty daughters, who formed a sort of inside set in Sneedville society. Christmas, 1889, these girls got permission of their father to give a dance at the distillery. The result was a combination dance and spree such as Hancock county society had not had the pleasure of attending in years. The men got exceedingly drunk. Some of them amused themselves with a boar hunt, in which half a dozen of Henry Sutton's hogs were stabbed.
The morning after the dance Sutton found the bodies strewn about the yard of his distillery. He at once decided that Big John Barnard and his brothers had done the work. He was led to this belief by the fact that the Barnards, although outwardly friendly, were known to be ready at any time to open a feud. Henry Sutton's father had got drunk one day, and, quarreling with Capt. Hence Barnard, had killed him with the pole of an axe. When an officer tried to arrest the elder Sutton he had resisted so threateningly that the officer had been compelled to kill him. But the Barnards felt that unless one of them killed a Sutton the grudge would not be wiped out.
So Henry Sutton decided that Big John Barnard and his four brothers were the slayers of his hogs. He sent the Barnards word that there was going to be trouble, and a day or two later ran out into the road with a pistol, which he aimed at a man whom he mistook in the dusk for Big John. A few days after New Year's 1889, Big John and his four brothers hid themselves behind some felled trees about a mile from Sutton's distillery. They had not waited more than an hour before they espied Henry Sutton and his gauger at the distillery coming up the road. Sutton had a Winchester across the pommel of his saddle. As the two riders got opposite the logs five shots rang out. Sutton's horse jumped; Sutton rolled from the saddle to the road. As he lay there the five Barnards leaped forth and riddled the body with bullets.
The gauger clapped spurs to his horse and fled. The Barnards were arrested, and, Sutton's family being influential, a conviction and sentence of death were got against the five. After haggling about the matter for over a year all five were pardoned by Governor Taylor. They returned home and began to make trouble. Henry Sutton had left a widow, two grown sons, Tilman and Hence, and the three pretty daughters mentioned before. Tilman Sutton had married a daughter of Big Bud Rains, and had one child. Sutton was disposed to let the matter of his father's death pass for the time. But Big John Barnard said that he intended to wipe the male line of Suttons from the face of the earth. And every time he met Tilman Sutton he would stare at him in a fixed, threatening and annoying way. Tilman Sutton stood this silently for over a year, nor did he pay any attention to the threats of Big John and his brothers.
One Sunday last September there was a meeting in the Baptist Church, eight miles from Sneedville. All the mountain people went, the young men riding horseback beside their sweethearts. Tilman Sutton, his brother Hence and his brother in law Mac Rains were riding along together. Big John Barnard and his best girl came up behind them. Big John burst into a loud, jeering laugh, and made some remark about Tilman Sutton. As Big John rode by, Tilman Sutton turned in his saddle and stared him fiercely in the face. "By G----," said he, "this has got to stop!" Big John continued his laughter and rode on. Sutton's face flushed. He drew his pistol, spurred his horse and, when he was close enough to fire without endangering the girl, he put three shots into Big John's back.
This was near the meeting house and many people were soon close at hand. Big John's head fell forward upon his horse's head for a moment. Then he recovered himself and drew his pistol, jumped to the ground and braced himself for a fight. His sweetheart reined up her frightened horse and remained to 'see the fun.' Meanwhile Big John's cousin, Shad Barnard, who was behind the Suttons, spurred forward, and, drawing his pistol, shot Tilman Sutton in the back before he had lowered his revolver from shooting Big John. Tilman Sutton rolled from his horse to the road, lifted himself, staggered, tried to lift his pistol to an aim, then fell against a tree, his head rolling from side to side. Big John aimed at him and fired four times.
"Look out, John!" said his sweetheart "Here comes Mac Rains!" But she spoke to late. Before John could turn Rains had avenged his brother in law. He fired into Big John four times. John was just standing over Sutton, who had fallen, and was firing into his head. When Rains shot he fell upon Sutton's body. By this time other men rushed in, the women got around the two dead bodies, and the feud was suspended.
There is in Sneedville a little girl whose ancestors for three generations one side and for two generations on the other had died by feud violence. She is the little daughter of Tilman Sutton, who married a daughter of Big Bud Rains. Her father, Tilman Sutton; her grandfather, Henry Sutton, and his father, Sam Sutton, her mother's father, Bud Rains, and his father before him, all died violent deaths. This is only one instance in a score of Hancock county families a similar state of affair may be found, while there is hardly a family of note that has not lost one or more of its members by violence.
Then, aside from these feuds, are the murders which follow the stills about the country—the murders which arise from long years of disregard for human life. For instance, a lot of men were waylaying an enemy of one of them. They got tired of waiting for him. An inoffensive person came jogging by the old church where they were concealed. One of the waiters fired at the man and killed him. As he rolled from his horse and lay writhing upon the ground, one of the party said to the murderer: "What fur did ye do that?" "Jes to see him drop," laughed the murderer. The sentence of death was commuted to imprisonment for life, and his friends have hope of his pardon.
A short time ago Jep Wolf, his little boy and Wiley Carpenter were riding along astride of one horse. Mack Bray, who had quarreled with Wolf a few hours before in Sneedville, came up behind, aimed his gun and fired. The first bullet killed Wolf, the second went through the little boy's body and killed Carpenter. The little boy got well. Bray is not as yet punished, and as he is of the Rhea family, may get off altogether.
They say that the peaceful part of Hancock county's people - and they now include the formerly boisterous Malungeons - are getting tired of this everlasting murdering, and that there will be some lynching before long. But the feud spirit is so strong and the corn whisky so bad that those who talk peace now may be in the thick of a feud tomorrow.