The Ghost Of John Mounce
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In the course of researching material for my book, SOUTH FORK COUNTRY, I frequently came upon the name of a man named John Mounce. Like the head of a wary gobbler, scratching for acorns during spring turkey season, Mounce would pop up from time to time in the historical record and then fade away, only to reappear later in some document or anecdote. Call me crazy if you wish, but it seemed as though John Mounce was constantly looking over my shoulder as I wandered deeper and deeper into the mystical heritage of the Big South Fork River region. He was always there, like a ghost from a dimly remembered past.
I am blessed to have spent most of my boyhood in McCreary County before the advent of mass communication, before television antennas brought the outside world into our sheltered enclave and ending the golden age of storytelling. Until then, McCreary County abounded with storytellers. They could be found on the courthouse lawn, in barber shops, on the streets of Whitley City on Saturday mornings, and in church parking lots between sermons and singings. No small number of them could also be found in the mining camps along the Big South Fork River.
In the course of listening to tales recounted by these tobacco spitting storytellers from the Big South Fork River, it seemed that the name of John Mounce always came up, in one form or another. Every story seemed to be prefaced with, “According to Old John Mounce, or John Mounce told about . . .” He always appeared to be a participant in every story, especially the more outrageous ones. He was always there, hiding in the shadows, listening in on the conversation. He was an interesting character, for sure, and it would be many years before I would learn that he and I had something in common, an ancestor we could both claim as our own. Wow! Who would have guessed such a thing? Perhaps, that is why I always felt his presence. Maybe he was just trying to get in touch with me. At any rate, once I learned that, I had a reason to get to know this guy a little better.
John’s full name was John Mounts, Jr. Census takers later changed the spelling to Mounce. His father, John Mounts, Sr., had been one of the earliest immigrants to Kentucky and had lived, for a time, at Fort Boonesborough with the Boones, Calloways, and other iconic Kentuckians. It was with no small amount of pride that I eventually learned that John Mounce Sr. was also my own great-grandfather, although six generations removed. In fact, he is listed on the First Families of Kentucky monument at Fort Boonesborough. How cool is that?
As the Promised Land of Kentucky filled up with young men and women looking to improve their lot in life, the Mounce family scattered, always on the lookout for a better place to put down roots and start a new life. In 1791, John married Rachel Wade in Madison County and the young couple moved into the fertile cane lands south of the Cumberland River in what is now Wayne County.
In 1808, John was given permission by the Wayne County Court to mark out a road to the mouth of Rock Creek. From that point in history, the names John Mounce and Rock Creek seem to be interwoven in a tapestry that is as fascinating as it is confusing. Why John chose to bypass the rich potential of the land below the Cumberland Plateau and take his chances in the rugged forest on top of it remains a mystery, but that is what he did. Perhaps all of the good land had already been taken by grants under the Headrights Provision. Although he had an opportunity to apply for land under the Tellico Grants, he appears not to have done so. He chose, instead, to take his chances, indeed his life and that of his wife, and push onward, into what was becoming known as Kentucky’s last remaining wilderness.
Only three years had passed since the renegade Cherokee sub-chief Doublehead had illegally ceded away the land Mounce was entering to the United States. Surely, Mounce must have known the risks he was taking by settling on lands most Cherokees continued to regard as their own. Yet, he did it. Perhaps, John just believed he could get away with it. And, as time would tell, he did.
Almost all of the tales spun about John Mounce around campfires and fireplaces include accounts of John’s interactions with Cherokees, for whom words on a paper between a hated member of their own culture and a government agent meant little. He was, apparently, on excellent terms with them. They were frequent visitors to his home, sat at table with him, and shared the fruits of their forays into the woods with him. In turn, he provided shelter from the elements and a warm place to sleep on cold winter nights. Though they spoke different languages, they learned to communicate with each other and, in the process, learned mutual respect. More than anything else, however, the Cherokees shared their encyclopedic knowledge of the land drained by the great river that had nourished them for millennia.
In the meantime, John would do well for himself. Eventually, he was given legal title to the land upon which he had carved out his homestead. Then, on July 24, 1819, he jumped on the salt-drilling bandwagon and was granted a patent for a thousand acres of land, extending from his farm to the Jacksboro Road and including what would become the town of Stearns. It would be almost a century before a timber baron from Michigan would construct a massive concrete bridge across the Big South Fork River and punch a railroad line across John’s farm and along the river to open up the land for the extraction of its natural resources. Of course, by the time that happened, John Mounce was long gone.
Some say that John passed away peacefully at his home on Rock Creek. If so, nobody seems to know where he is buried. Some say he got fed up with the lying and cheating he saw taking place around him and went west to Missouri, like so many others had done. Some say he followed his beloved Cherokees to the Indian Territory during the Trail of Tears. Wherever he went, however, he left behind a legacy of reckless courage and a cache of adventures that provided storytellers with fodder for many decades. But, John Mounce left a big chunk of himself behind. His mortal remains may have returned to the earth, but his ghost is still with us.
Sometime, on some Sunday afternoon, when you have nothing better to do, turn off the television set, and take a road trip. Drive up the abandoned railroad bed that runs from White Oak Junction to Bell Farm. Watch out for bicyclists. They love that road. Pull off the road, stop your car, and get out. Walk down to the creek and listen, quietly. Let your surroundings talk to you. Do you hear that murmur, coming to you from the shadows in front of you? Is it just the sparkling waters of Rock Creek, bubbling among the polished stones of the creek bottom that you hear? Or, are you hearing the voices of Cherokee hunters, chatting among themselves, on their way to visit their old friend, John? Do you hear that gentle whisper in the branches of the hemlocks that lean over the creek? Is it the wind blowing through them, or are you hearing Old John Mounce, hunched in his saddle and riding his ghostly steed along the creek, his battered black hat pulled down over his bushy eyebrows and his long white beard quivering in the breeze? And what about that shrill scream that comes from beyond the distant hills overlooking the creek? Is it the call of the common blue jay, or is it the cry of the red-tailed hawk, sacred bird of the Cherokee, riding the thermals above Rock Creek, and standing guard over the domain of the Principal People, awaiting the return of the white man named John who became one of them?