"Much interest attaches to the ways of travel over which these immigrants came. Through the great wilderness a vast concourse made its way. But the direction, character, and features of the roads is but little understood. There is no description in existence showing them as they appeared when alive with western movers. It is only by reference to numerous authorities, many of them rare and difficult to procure, that any account can be obtained. Many interesting facts are found in the almost illegible manuscript of old letters, journals, and diaries, and many exist only in traditional form.”
Of the men who blazed these early trails, even less is known of the long hunters. Echoing Speed's account, few long hunters chronicled their journeys for posterity, but the letters, diaries, and journals that did survive provided writers and storytellers with a brief glimpse into their world. Tales of their adventures, passed on by descendants and admirers, also left a lasting impression on the literary landscape. Antiquarians of the nineteenth century drew inspiration from these “facts” and created legends in their narratives. One such legend is found in tales surrounding the arrival of a long hunter named Elisha Wallen (spelled variously as "Walden," "Wallin," and "Walling") who led the first major recorded long hunt into territory now known as part of the state of Tennessee.
In her meticulously researched book, Elisha Wallen: The Longhunter, Professor Carolyn D. Wallin notes that Elisha Wallen was born around 1732 in Prince George County, Maryland. He set out on his first long hunt in 1761, together with a small group of fellow adventurers. The long hunters never ventured forth alone for fear of attack, either by the indigenous tribes of the region or by wild game. Along the way, they named landmarks and territory for themselves as markers, knowing that they would soon return. Wallen and his companions explored "Carter's Valley," established a base camp on "Wallen's Creek," and named "Powell's Mountain," "Powell's Valley" and "Powell's River" in southwest Virginia. Legend asserts that they then crossed "Clinch River" after a member of their party fell off his raft, unable to swim, pleaded to his comrades, "CLINCH ME! CLINCH ME!," saving him from certain death.
Wallen set off on his second hunt in 1762 in what would later become the upper northeast region of Tennessee, traveled across the Clinch River, down the south fort of the Holston River, and trekked into the Clinch and Powell valleys of present-day Hawkins County, Tennessee. He departed for a third hunt into the region in 1763, taking his fellow hunters up on the Cumberland River to a place called "Stinking Creek," located in upper east Tennessee.
The wilderness upon which Wallen hunted abounded in many species of game. Content living off what the wilderness provided, Wallen supported himself and his family through his hunts. In his "Reminiscences of Western Virginia," Major John Redd noted, "He never cultivated the soil." Wallen had a talent for the hunt. "The animals and birds had been intruded on so seldom by man that they did not fear his presence, but rather regarded him as a benefactor," Redd wrote, "but they soon learned to flee from his presence." According to Redd, "Wallen always returned home with his horse heavily laden with skins and furs."
Though flawed, it's worth noting that Ida Walling's account was based largely upon tales passed on to her by her ancestors. These were not her stories alone. It's these stories that confirmed a consistent narrative found throughout the history of Elisha Wallen's life. In her letter, Ida Walling recalled a few of the adventurous tales her father told her of Elisha's encounters with the indigenous population of the region. "Many indeed are the Indian stories my father told me," she remembered, "but I was young and not very interested." But in an effort to make amends for her inattentive youth she continued, noting with familial pride, "One thing he always stressed was the fact that Elisha Walling crossed the mountains into Tennessee and Kentucky before Daniel Boone." This assertion--Elisha Wallen's arrival before Boone--endured despite Boone having received popular credit with first exploring the region.
Although posterity largely credits Daniel Boone for making the first inroads into Kentucky and upper east Tennessee, Elisha's footprints were among the first that white men placed upon this soil. Author Carolyn Wallin even credits Elisha Wallen with creating the famous Wilderness Trail some seven years before Boone. It's worth noting, however, that some sections of the Wilderness Trail were carved by buffalo and developed by Native Americans who also hunted the area long before the white man's arrival. Still, among the long hunters Elisha Wallen was known as "the founder of the fraternity," according to James McCague, another chronicler of Wallen's travels.
Having depleted the Appalachian wilderness of its game, Wallen and other long hunters who eschewed the farming life eventually made their way west. According to Redd's account, Wallen died in 1814, an old man of 82 years of age living in Washington County, Missouri, far away from the mountains of east Tennessee. Yet, even that memory is in dispute. As Ida Walling noted in her letter to Judge Williams, "the Elisha who was surveyor in 1748 could not have been the man Redd knew for he was only 14 years old at this time." Proudly defiant, she continued, "All this is to show you that the Elisha Walling... called Senior, was the real long hunter and the father of the man Redd knew in 1774."
The long hunters occupy a unique place in the early history of the trans-Appalachian frontier. Their history is complicated and clouded by the fading memories of descendants who chronicled their ancestors' adventurous past. Still, we can learn much from these narratives. We can not only discover more about the past, we can learn something new about ourselves. Recognizing how we choose to remember those who traveled the paths laid before us often leads us to challenge traditions, and seek the truth, however murky that path may be.
Meredith Mason Brown. Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.
James McCague. The Cumberland. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
Carolyn D. Wallin. Elisha Wallen: The Longhunter. Johnson City, Tenn.: Overmountain Press, 1990.
John Redd. "Reminiscences of Western Virginia, 1770-1790." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 6, No. 4, April 1899.
Ida G. Walling letter to Samuel Cole Williams, Samuel Cole Williams Papers, January 2, 1936.
Thomas Speed. "The Wilderness Road: A description of the routes of travel by which the pioneers and early settlers first came to Kentucky." Filson Club Publications, No. 2. Louisville, Ky.: J.P. Morton & Co., 1886, pages 9-10.
Gordon Belt is a public historian and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.