Mystery in the Smokies: What happened to Dennis Martin?

Image shows a blurred child figure disappearing into the woods

Dennis Martin was 6 years old in June of 1969. His disappearance in the Smoky Mountains has sparked wild theories decades later (image rendering by TheSmokies.com)

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Dennis Martin was 6 years old in June of 1969.

He was wearing a bright red shirt when he and his brother – along with two boys from Louisiana they’d just met – planned a sneak attack on the relaxing adults in Spence Field bald along the Appalachian Trail.

It was a Father’s Day Hike near the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

William Martin, his father Clyde, the two boys and others started at Cades Cove, hiked to Russell Field where they camped overnight and then made their way to Spence Field, where they met a group – ironically also named Martin – from Louisiana.

It was late in the afternoon and the boys were enjoying each other’s company.

The boys weren’t especially sneaky with their sneak attack.

The adults knew what the boys were up to; a pincer movement was afoot.

They watched as three of the boys went one way to sneak back through the bush.

They watched as Dennis and that bright red shirt, sneaked off in the other direction and, for all intents and purposes, off the face of the Earth.

The disappearance of Dennis Martin

The three boys performed their scare, all in good fun. When Dennis didn’t pop out from another angle, William got up to look for him.

He hadn’t been out of sight for more than five minutes, but William’s search quickly turned frantic.

The father ran back up the trail toward Russell Field, hoping the boy had gotten turned around and went in the wrong direction. The others combed the area.

Clyde hiked out to the Rangers Station, arriving after 9 pm.

By then, a massive storm had arrived, drenching the mountains in a massive rainfall and dropping overnight temperatures into the 50s.

The next day, the search was hampered by conditions, but as word spread of the missing boy, a massive response grew.

A map shows the area of Cades Cove nearby Spece Field, on the North Carolina state line
The boys camped overnight and then made their way to Spence Field. This map is meant to be used as a reference and may not be to scale (rending by TheSmokies.com)

The search party grows to a counter-productive size

Over the next few weeks, the search party grew to an unwieldy and counter-productive size.

Boy Scouts, National Guard members, even a group of 71 Green Berets who had been on maneuvers in Western North Carolina came and searched for the boy.

With so many searchers tramping over the wet and muddy ground, any clue or scent that survived the massive rain was quickly lost.

Denny turned 7 that week as searchers exhausted themselves to no avail.

There were boy-sized footprints of someone wearing one Oxford shoe– like Denny had – and the other foot bare.

Family members said the prints were too big to belong to Denny, and searchers were skeptical as that area had been searched by Boy Scouts previously who could have left the prints.

A single sock and shoe were also found, but it is unclear if the shoe was the right type or size, or if it was the correct foot to correspond with the footprints.

That’s pretty much it for clues.

Dennis was 6 when he disappeared and was never seen again …. Probably.

The Key family’s odd testimony

A family from Carthage, Tenn., was in the mountains that day looking for wildlife in Cades Cove, several miles from where Dennis went missing.

They left without ever knowing about the search or the missing boy.

Weeks later, when the father, Harold Key, learned about the search, he called officials and reported hearing a terrible scream and a figure running through the woods.

News reports at the time indicated that Key’s son thought the figure was a bear. Later they determined it was a disheveled man hiding in the bushes.

“He was definitely avoiding us,” Key was quoted at the time.

Officials discounted a connection because of the distance and the rough timeline Key provided.

It was impossible to think someone could have snatched the boy and carried him away to that spot.

Still, many have seized on this reported sighting and dozens of internet-driven embellishments as indication that Dennis was carried off the mountain.

Reportedly, Dennis’s father believed the boy was kidnapped and did not die on the mountain.

The theory of feral humans is one of the many wild conspiracy theories that have arisen due to the mysterious nature of the disappearance (stock photo)
The theory of feral humans is one of the many wild conspiracy theories that have arisen due to the mysterious nature of the disappearance (stock photo)

Feral humans in the Smoky Mountains

Over the years, this account made it to the internet where charlatans, shysters and hucksters have teamed with conspiracy theorists and other curious folks who formed wild theories about feral humans in the Smoky Mountains regarding what really happened to Dennis Martin.

One of the most popular involved Wild Men – feral humans who live in the mountains and go about snatching livestock (and children) at night.

There are videos – not of the Wild Men, of course – but of authoritative-sounding people discussing the Wild Men and the FBI cover-up as if it’s simply common knowledge.

These Wild Men are something akin to Little Big Feet, humans who have lived in the wild so long they are closer to beasts than men.

They have their own language, and apparently quite a putrid smell that forewarns of their arrival, which is just ineffective feraling if you ask me.

Allegedly they’re cannibals, too. Makes you wonder what they’re doing with the livestock.

Others speculate the Wild Men aren’t quite that feral

Wild Men could be descendants of mountain people who went deep into the forests before there was a park – and like the tribes of the rainforest – operate outside the realm of society.

One guy, who made a very nice video walking his fairly rotund weenie dog through a cemetery, speculated the wild people could be indigenous people who slipped away before the Trail of Tears and survived in the forest well into the 1900s.

He added that some of the Wild People spoke English, others their own language and still others were without discernible speech.

The same guy indicated his uncles were paid by the FBI to hunt and kill the wild people prior to Dennis’s disappearance.

Remember those Vietnam-era Green Berets?

They were reportedly brought in because of their experience in dense, wet jungle. But our conspiracist friends would have us believe they weren’t there as part of a search party.

No. Their mission was to hunt out and exterminate the feral humans once and for all.

For the record, the pictures from that time do not show the Green Berets carrying long guns into the woods, although I did see a few sidearms.

That’s not conclusive, of course. A weapons drop could have been arranged up in the mountains out of sight, but no one reported gunshots.

No one reported seeing heavily armed Green Berets looking for the boy.

So if we have – or had – bands of cannibalistic feral humans roaming the park and abducting and eating folk, why don’t we know about it?

Well, that answer is as simple as it is idiotic.

We, the good people of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, make a lot of money off the park and we don’t want to lose the cash cow by telling the world of feral humans.

Apparently, we’re willing to go on living next to these humanoids out of an H.G. Wells novel to keep y’all coming to our theme parks.

Hermits, nomads and getting off the grid

While the idea of feral Wild People isn’t exactly likely, the mountains are a good place for people who want to get lost.

While I don’t believe that – even in 1969 – a tribe of people could go undetected in the forest for long – could a loner or hermit live in the mountains for months or, even years?

Yeah.

Could a hermit do it anywhere near Cades Cove? No.

We read stories of people who adopt new identities and go live the trail as long-hikers.

We hear about murderers – even the terrorist bomber Eric Rudolph – who go into the mountains to hide.

The key is most of those people interact with some version of civilization, either coming out to restock or resupply or meeting other hikers along the trail.

But in today’s society, the hermit homesteading deep in the woods is unlikely.

Could they build a structure, kill enough game and live off the land. I’d think they’d have to have a little farming as well.

I suppose it is possible – I mean people hid stills and giant marijuana growing operations up there – but it still seems unlikely.

What about, you know, bears?

The area where Dennis went missing is known for wildlife.

Bears, poisonous snakes, bobcats and feral pigs all roam the woods in that area.

Officials say it’s unlikely that any of those animals would have attacked the boy, but at the time conceded it was a dry summer and there were reports of animals seeking food in places and ways they normally wouldn’t.

Had Dennis fallen victim to a wild animal, it seems likely that the hundreds of searchers would have found at least scraps of that bright red shirt.

Black bears in the Smokies are unlikely culprits when people go missing for a number of reasons (stock photo)
Black bears in the Smokies are unlikely culprits in this particular case (stock photo)

The rest of the Dennis Martin story

If you fall down the online rabbit hole, you’ll find some folks pushing hard on the idea that feral humans live in the mountains.

You’ll find people embellishing the words of Harold Key and his family. The scruffy person key and his family encountered – just after hearing the scream – was wearing a bear skin. Allegedly.

He was carrying something on his shoulder. That something was boy-shaped and wearing red.

Each version adds details that aren’t found in the original reports.

Did Key see something?

Probably.

What did Key see? Was it really a person? It’s hard to say.

Key’s report came weeks after the actual encounter and published reports at the time are thin on details.

In 2016, Michael Bouchard, a researcher and author, spoke to Key who was 90 at the time. In his book, Forever Searching, Bouchard provided this account:

“Mr. Key reported before walking into the woods with his family, he observed an unoccupied white vehicle parked along the road in the Sea Branch area of the park near Rowan’s Creek. Mr. Key said at first, he did not pay any attention to the vehicle.”

“Mr. Key said he walked about 300-500 yards into the woods and observed a middle-aged white male. Mr. Key said the man was by himself; the man walked quickly to the road and entered the white vehicle and drove off at a high rate speed throwing gravel in the air.”

“The vehicle was heading in the direction of Cades Cove. Mr. Key later recalled that when the man saw him and his family, he began walking faster. Mr. Key said the man appeared to be perspiring heavily and was acting nervous. Mr. Key recalled he said to his wife ‘That man, he is thinking strange thoughts.’”

Bouchard later adds that Key now said he heard a child scream for help and then a scream of pain which came from some distance away. He did not, however, see a child.

Random thoughts about the theories around Dennis Martin

  1. Neither Wild People nor hermits drive white vehicles.
  2. It was 1969. Let’s just say disheveled people acting funny in the woods wasn’t as strange then as it would be today. It’s more likely that Mr. Key found someone on a trip than a deep-hiking child abductor.
  3. The idea you could carry a 6-year-old struggling human being through miles of rough brush to get back to your car is almost as implausible as a tribe of wild people.
  4. The only wild people are on the internet.

I knew some of the last families to ever live in the park. I knew people who raised livestock on the edge of the park. There was a large group of us that spent the summer of our junior year driving around to the site of every occult/ghost story in the mountains.

Glowing graves, Satanic churches, we followed all the rumors. I’ve never, ever, ever, ever heard any hint of a tribe of Wild People attacking folk.

Read More: The Cherokee legend of Spearfinger: What did she look like?

I’ve been in the woods after dark.

Hell, I’ve been in the Cove after dark. No one ever said anything about keeping an eye out for bands of underground dwelling cannibals.

Bears? Sure. Watch out for bears.

Cannibals? Not a damn peep.

If there are cannibals, several people I know are going to get some very sternly worded letters.

If there were roving bands of feral cannibals kidnapping families, I can promise you this: My high school would not have had a football team.

Every able-bodied boy, and several of the girls, would have been up in the mountains heavily armed and hunting Wild People like deer.

I’m not a hunting guy but we’d have been up there spot-lighting wild people like deer. We’d be capturing them and putting them in zoo cages to show the tourists.

We’d have guys showing up to class with a Wild Man carcass in the bed of their pickup.

For better or worse the people of East Tennessee wouldn’t play with that

In pre-World War I, a poor, mistreated circus elephant killed someone on a rampage in Erwin and a mob of East Tennesseans demanded that the elephant be hung in the street to serve as a warning, I suppose, to other marauding elephants.

The people of East Tennessee are going to hang an elephant from a crane but are going to keep bands of feral, cannibal humanoids quiet just to get a few more tourist dollars? No.

The question of whether a person or group of people could effectively hide in the woods is not a lightly considered one.

In 1984 a group of impossibly good looking teens fled to the Western wilds and mounted a counter-insurgency against a massive communist invasion force of Russians and Cubans in the well-known Oscar-snubbed classic “Red Dawn.”

Now, from a realistic standpoint, the teens led by the brother team of Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen were impossibly well supplied and if we were to try such an endeavor it would be pretty costly.

However, they also had to fight the Russian Army which you or I, presumably would not have to do if we decided to go native. So let’s call that a wash.

One thing to consider is that the Red Dawn crew, which included a mentally traumatized but still quite plucky, C. Thomas Howell, had the advantage of youth. It’s a lot harder to pull yourself up after a night of sleeping on the cold, mountain ground at 17 than it is at 47.

Then there is the issue of staying hidden.

The youths could only pull it off for a limited time. The kids repeatedly had to return to civilization to resupply and never established even rudimentary attempts at farming.

There was some hunting but much of this resulted in close calls with the Russian Army and resulted in poor C. Thomas Howell getting riddled with approximately 1,374 bullets while defiantly lifting his long gun to the air and shouting “Wolverines,” which is pretty much how I imagine it would end for any Feral Wild Cannibal who was trying to steal livestock or people from a farm in East Tennessee.

So what really happened to Dennis Martin: The rule of Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states the simplest theory should be preferred to more complex theories or unknown phenomena.

What happened to Dennis Martin?

I don’t know.

But the likeliest thing is he went in the wrong direction, panicked and died, alone cold and terrified in the woods.

The second likeliest is an animal got him. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

But it was only a few minutes. How lost can you get so lost in a few minutes?

Up in the big forest you can get lost very quickly.

And when you’re a 6-year-old boy, you can be terrified and that terror leads south very quickly.

The winds up on a bald can be deafening, especially when a big front comes through ahead of a storm.

You could be feet away from someone and not hear a word they say over the wind.

But why wouldn’t searchers have found him? Why wouldn’t he answer their calls?

In the days after he went missing, the creeks were up. If he was near water he wouldn’t have heard searchers.

Or maybe disoriented and terrified, he hid from them. Maybe he called out and they couldn’t hear him.

It’s worse than feral people and all too heart-breaking

It’s worse than feral wild people or – in a way – strange abductors hiding in the woods.

It’s mundane and horrible and gut-wrenching to think that, when he got lost, he’d have been found if he’d simply sat down somewhere and waited.

The other thing we know now is the search was a mish-mash of good intentioned people who had no business being part of a search party in the high mountains.

The coordination was impossible.

The introduction of Boy Scouts was ill-conceived.

The Green Berets maybe could have been helpful, but if a disoriented boy lost, suffering from hypothermia saw a group of Army men scouring the woods for him, would he have reached out?

Any tracks, trails or clues were likely trampled.

Any scents lost as hundreds of people combed the same ground. If Dennis survived the first night or more, the massive search party ended up working against the hope of finding him.

The fact is, the park system completely revamped the way it conducted search parties after the Dennis Martin case.

If he died of natural causes why didn’t they find him and that bright red shirt?

The rain would have driven the boy to seek shelter, some thick under bush or someplace as dry as he could find.

Had he done that, you could stand right beside him and never see him.

Possible remains are found years later

Years after Dennis went missing some ginseng poachers came across the remains of a human boy that had been scattered by scavengers not terribly far from where Dennis went missing.

Not wanting to go to jail, the poachers kept their mouths shut. What the hell, my guys?

It’s the 70s. Go to a pay phone and make an anonymous call. Drop an unsigned note in the mail.

Call a TV station and leave a tip.

D.B. Cooper can jump out of a plane with $200,000 and never be found, I think you can risk an anonymous tip or two.

Well, one of the tipsters finally grew a conscious and told one of the original searchers about what he found.

A search party of 30 made the trek from the North Carolina side of the mountains but years had passed since the sighting.

They didn’t find anything.

Ultimately, I think that’s where Dennis is now.

The mountains gave him the burial it gives to everything that dies on its floor.

I think he died a scared little boy, cold and lost and frantically praying his father or grandfather would find him.

Despite his dad thinking he was kidnapped.

What would a father assume kidnapping?

It’s easier.

William watched his boy walk into the woods and five minutes later he was gone forever.

It would be maddening. He was just right there and then he was gone.

The crushing guilt.

The pain.

It’s almost unimaginable. How could you possibly cope? Maybe by clinging to wild theories about wild men in the woods.

It’s been more than 50 years since Dennis disappeared and likely died in the woods.

It’s enough time that the wild internet theories don’t seem so wrong.

It was another era, after all, with much more in common with the 100 years that preceded it than today, 50 years later.

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2 thoughts on “Mystery in the Smokies: What happened to Dennis Martin?”

  1. This is an excellent article, well written … perhaps I should not say entertaining, but touches of humor kept it from total darkness. I never knew this story. And in one compact article, you’ve provided so many insights into the natural wonders of mountain living. Thank you.

  2. Hi im from Erwin, the elephant didnt kill anyone here. They brought her to the railyard because we had a crane big enough to hang her. She was abused by her handler and trampled him.

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