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The Legend of Tiger Whitehead

 Nestled on a hill shaded by pines and hardwoods in Carter County, Tenn., lies the grave of probably the most famous hunter who ever called East Tennessee home. James "Tiger" Whitehead was laid to rest in 1905 ‑ but not before he left his indelible mark on the people and land of Carter County. Today, two areas of the county, Tiger Creek and Tiger Valley, bear the great hunter's name as living testimonies to both the man and the legend.

 Tiger ‑ aptly named because he once had to hunt and kill a tiger that had escaped from a traveling circus near Bristol, Tenn. ‑ is said to have killed 99 black bears during his life­time. According to legend, when Tiger became deathly sick, some of his friends went into the mountains and trapped a bear cub. They brought the cub to Tiger's bedside and asked him to kill it to make his 100th kill. Tiger told them: "No! If it's not free and running wild, I can't kill it." So the bear was soon released back into the hills, and Tiger passed into the myth of the Tennessee mountains.

 One of Tiger's most exciting adventures almost cost him his life. According to the story, Tiger shot a black bear and only wounded the animal. The bear charged with gleaming teeth and razor‑sharp claws ready to pounce upon the hunter's throat. Since Tiger's rifle ‑affectionately named "Tick‑lick‑ ‑was a muzzle‑loading rifle, he did not have time to reload and shoot the bear again. Instead, Tiger waited until the bear was within a few feet before he shoved the rifle barrel into the animal's gaping mouth. He then pulled his knife from its sheath and killed the bear. From that day on, Tick‑licker bore the teeth marks of the bear that almost ended Tiger's life.

 After his death in 1905, two areas of Carter County were named for the hunter. Tiger Valley and Tiger Creek are scenic mountain areas which lie between Hampton and Roan Mountain, Tenn., along Highway 19E.

 Tiger's grave lies 2 miles up Tiger Creek Road. Here the hunter rests next to his wife, Sally Garland Chambers. His tombstone reads: "THE NOTED HUNTER, JAMES T. WHITEHEAD, BORN 1819, DIED SEPT. 25, 1905, (KILLED 99 BEARS), WE HOPE HE HAS GONE TO REST."  

 Sally's tombstone also has an amazing story to tell. Etched in her tombstone are the words: "NOT ONLY A MOTHER TO  THE HUMAN RACE, BUT TO ALL ANIMAL KIND AS SHE GAVE NURSE TO ONE FAWN AND TWO CUBS." According to legend, Sally adopted two orphaned bear cubs and a fawn and raised them until they could take care of themselves.   

 Many years after Tiger's death, Johnny Cash released a song on the Columbia label as part of a children's album in memory and honor of the hunter. Cash's song, "The Ballad of Tiger Whitehead," tells the legend of Tiger and Sally.

 Tiger left his name and mark on the Carter County area during a time when this area was still hostile and wild. But he left us with more than his name and adventures. He left us a legacy of sportsmanship and respect to all of God's creatures when this attitude was not popular. We can only hope Tiger's legacy will live for many generations to come.

 There are several places where you can listen to the the ballad by Johnny Cash but I did not choose to include it since it is copyrighted material. 

 Johnny Cash co-wrote the song with Dr. Nat Winston who took him to visit Tiger's grave.  Another storyteller says that Johnny and Nat wrote the song while sitting in a limousine in front of a white house across the road from the cemetery, at the entry of Big Bear Crossing.



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This site was last updated 01/09/09