Feral Humans in the Smoky Mountains? What Happened to Dennis Martin

a young boy runs in 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)

Social media revives rumors of feral humans in the Smoky Mountains linked to old cold case

Dennis Martin was 6 years old in June of 1969. It was Father’s Day weekend and they hiked near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, a Martin family tradition. William Martin (his father) and Clyde (his grandfather) and the two boys started at Cades Cove and hiked to Russell Field where they camped overnight. Afterward, they made their way to Spence Field, where they met another family with young boys – also named Martin.

It was late in the afternoon and the boys were enjoying each other’s company. Dennis was wearing a bright red shirt when he and his brother – along with the other boys – planned a prank on the relaxing adults in the Spence Field area bald along the Appalachian Trail. The goal was to hide behind the adults and pop out to surprise them. However, the adults knew what the boys were up to. They watched as three of the boys went one way to sneak back through the bush while Dennis went in the other direction and all intents and purposes, off the face of the Earth.

Over the years, there have been people who have mysteriously gone missing from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the most famous cases is the disappearance of a young boy named Dennis Martin. These baffling disappearances like that of Dennis Martin have sparked internet rumors and theories of feral people and wild men in the mountains.

The disappearance of Dennis Martin

The three boys performed their prank, 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 gone in the wrong direction. The others combed the area.

Clyde eventually hiked out to the Park 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 2.5 inches of rain and dense fog. As word spread of the missing boy, a massive response grew.

Map of Dennis martin disappearance spot
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 (rendering by TheSmokies.com)

The counter-productive search party

Over the next few weeks, the search party grew to an unwieldy and counter-productive size. Boy Scouts, National Guard members, multiple rescue squads and even a group of 71 Green Berets who had been on maneuvers in Western North Carolina came and searched for the boy. Helicopters arrived as well.

With so many searchers and volunteers tramping over the wet and muddy ground, any clue or scent that lingered after 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. Those were essentially the only clues. The search for Dennis was the largest in the park’s history. Dennis was 6 when he disappeared and was never seen again … probably.

An odd testimony from the family

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 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 the connection because of the distance and the rough timeline Key provided. It was nearly impossible to think someone could have snatched the boy and carried him away to that spot. Still, many have seized on this reported sighting along with dozens of internet-driven embellishments as an indication that Dennis was carried off the mountain. Reportedly, Dennis’s father believed the boy was kidnapped. At one point, a reward was offered for his safe return.

A figure in the woods
Some speculate that Dennis had been kidnapped in the mountain wilderness (photo by andreiuc88/stock.adobe.com)

The theory of feral humans

Over the years, this alleged 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 Great Smoky Mountains National Park regarding what happened to Dennis Lloyd Martin. One of the most popular theories involved Wild Men – feral humans who live and survive in the mountain wilderness and go about snatching livestock (and children) at night.

There are videos on YouTube and social media – 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. People believe some humans have lived in the wild so long they are closer to beasts than men. Some believe 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.

Wild Men may not be 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 that a feral person could be indigenous people who slipped away before the Trail of Tears and survived in the forest well into the 1900s. He said some of the feral 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 the feral population before Dennis’s disappearance. Remember those Vietnam-era Green Berets? Our friends with conspiracy theories would have us believe they weren’t there as part of a search party. People theorize that their real mission was to find feral humans.

View from Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a very popular tourist destination. It would be a difficult spot to hide (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Conflicting reports

His account is conflicting with most reports, though. If they were hunting feral people, they would be armed. No one reported seeing heavily armed Green Berets looking for Dennis. So if we have – or had – bands of cannibalistic 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. We’re evidently 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.

Debunking the theory

While the idea of feral Wild People isn’t exactly likely, the mountains are indeed 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? Sure. Could a hermit do it anywhere near Cades Cove? No. We read stories of people who adopt new identities and go live on the hiking trail as long-hikers. We hear about wanted criminals who go into the mountains to hide in remote areas of the park. 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, hermit homesteading deep in the woods is unlikely. For example, could they build a structure, hunt and live off the land? I’d think they’d have to do a little farming as well. I suppose it is possible. People hid stills and moonshine operations up there – but it still seems unlikely.

Black bear eating berries
People also theorize that bears or wildlife could have had something to do with the disappearance of Dennis Martin (photo by Jillian/stock.adobe.com)

What about, you know, bears?

The area where Dennis went missing is known for wildlife. Bears, snakes, bobcats and feral pigs, for example, all roam the woods in that area. Officials say it’s unlikely that any of those animals would have been the reason for his disappearance. However, officials at the time conceded it was a dry summer. There were reports of animals seeking food in places and ways they normally wouldn’t. Had Dennis been snatched up by a wild animal, it seems likely that the hundreds of searchers would have found at least scraps of that bright red shirt.

The Internet rumors about the sad disappearance

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 a scream – was wearing a bear skin. Allegedly. He was carrying something on his shoulder. That something was boy-shaped and wearing red. Each version I’ve seen of online theories adds details that aren’t found in the original reports. Did Key see something? Maybe. What did Key see? Was it really a person? It’s hard to say.

Cars line up around Cades Cove
Cades Cove has millions of park visitors each year (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

The problems with Key’s reports

Key’s report came weeks after the actual encounter. Published reports at the time were thin on details. In 2016, Michael Bouchard, a researcher and author, spoke to Key who was 90 at the time. Key said he observed an unoccupied white vehicle. It was parked along the road in the Sea Branch area of the park near Rowan’s Creek. In his book, “Forever Searching”, Bouchard provided this account:

“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.’”

“Forever Searching”

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

The problems with these theories and unsubstantiated claims

First of all, neither Wild People nor hermits drive white vehicles. Also, 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. Finally, 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.

The only Wild People are on the internet. I knew some of the last families to ever live in the park. Some of those people 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 and ghost story in the mountains. Glowing graves, and Satanic churches, we followed all the rumors. However, I’ve never, ever heard any hint of a tribe of Wild People. I’ve been in the woods after dark. Bears? Sure. Watch out for bears. Spearfinger? I’ve heard the legend. If there are Wild People out there, several people I know are going to get some very sternly worded letters.

Spearfinger illustration
Locals have heard many ghost stories and legends, including the legend of Spearfinger, but never of Wild People (artist illustration by Michael Chambers/TheSmokies.com)

For better or worse, the people of East Tennessee wouldn’t cover up Wild People

In pre-World War I, there was an incident with a person and a mistreated circus elephant in Erwin. A mob of East Tennesseans demanded that the elephant be hung in the street to serve as a warning, I suppose, to other elephants. Am I to believe that 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. 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.

So what did happen to Dennis Martin?

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 most likely, easy explanation is he went in the wrong direction and panicked. He likely passed alone cold and terrified in the woods. The second likeliest is that an animal got him. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

But it was only a few minutes. How 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 scared, which can go 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. Finally, 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, he hid from them. Maybe he called out and they couldn’t hear him.

It’s worse than Wild People (and heart-breaking)

It’s worse than feral Wild People or – in a way – strange abductors hiding in the woods. It’s mundane and gut-wrenching to think that, when he got lost, he may 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 and 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. For example, scents would have been 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. Lessons were learned.

If he passed from natural causes, why didn’t they find him and that bright red shirt? The rain would have driven the boy to seek shelter. Perhaps in some thick underbrush or someplace as dry as he could find. Had he done that, you could stand right beside him and never see him.

Unsolved disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains
The book ‘Unsolved Disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains” discusses cold cases and other cases of missing people and strange disappearances (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

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 heck, my guys? It’s the 70s. Go to a pay phone and make an anonymous call. Drop an unsigned note in the mail. 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 conscience and told one of the original searchers about what he found.

As a result, 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 mountain wilderness gave him the burial it gives to everything that perishes on its floor. I think he met his end as 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 unexplainable theories.

It’s been more than 50 years since Dennis disappeared in the woods. That’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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

27 thoughts on “Feral Humans in the Smoky Mountains? 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.

    • I think he was most likely taken by a Cougar. They are not supposed to exist here but too many sightings have occurred, they are here. A big cat would have taken him little way off and put him in a tree, where he would be hard to spot.

  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.

    • I still feel bad for the elephant. Poor thing was abused and scared, and got killed for it. Its a situation that could have been handled much differently.

  3. There are wild cannabalistic humans in the forests of north America and are snatching people and probably eating them.. Read missing 411 and then speak…

  4. So sad still today. I picture my boys in his shoes, and it makes me extremely sad. I think your theory is the most plausible. They had one of the best tracking rangers, whom I know, looking for him. The good intentioned public, I believe, made this a tragic and mysterious ending. As for feral humans, I don’t believe it. But back then, there were moonshiners who were dangerous if you came upon their moonshine still. But, I’m sure searchers would have found the stills if they were in that area. We will never know what happened to that sweet little boy. The only good ending is that just maybe he’s now reunited with his parents in Heaven.

  5. Missing 411 is not a trustworthy book. There are no canabals living in any national parks. I’ve worked in a few parks from Tennessee to Alaska.

  6. I believe that you mean Sasquatch’s and not feral humans, that inhabit every state except Hawaii. They’re on every continent. I would probably think that it could have been a Dogman. They’re more likely to eat humans than Sasquatch’s.

  7. Yeah, “I don’t know” is still the best theory. A boy with a bright, red shirt could get lost out of ear shot quickly in woods that an experienced wildman couldn’t hide in. Perhaps, but it’s hard for both to be likely.

  8. the FBI has refused to make their file public, even after multiple requests citing the freedom of information act.
    What are they hiding and why?

  9. The people who have lived around the Smokies knopw a lot of things that don’t get parlayed around, as the Smokies re the major source of income in one way or another for the regional population. That leaves two possibilities for those tryiing to seek out elusive facts–live there a long time and find elderly friends willing to share their knowledge and experiences with you regarding many disappearances in the Appalachians, or do enough deep research to discover who and where on the internet the whistleblowers are to be discovered. …

  10. I find Dwight McCarter’s book and various interviews to be quite factual and detailed regarding the search for Dennis Martin.

    The park’s official report, which is 100-plus pages and is provided when requested, also has very interesting details regarding the FBI and Harold Key.

    The point about the smell that he was not allowed to investigate/search is a legitimate question and certainly not something to joke about. This would also be somewhat similar to the area where the ginseng hunter claimed he had seen bones a few years after the disappearance.

    I’m not at all certain what would possess someone to attempt to make anything about this case funny.

  11. To those trying to tie cannibalistic humans to the 411 books is LUDACRIS. Dave NEVER has stated a THEORY on how these [people are disappearing. He gives the FACTS of them and NO THEORIES whatsoever on the cause. Anyone saying anything different is spreading hearsay at best and lies at worst.

  12. Very easily could have fell in a hole that had a cavern or a large raptor could have plucked him up. It’s a heartbreaking scenario anyway you look at it. I first heard the story on the 411 and it broke my heart.


  14. I think the most plausible theory is the one tendered at the end: the poor boy got lost, passed from hypothermia, possibly eaten by a bear, & the ill-executed mass search parth defeated it own purpose.
    I do think it plausibe, if not relevant to this particular incident, that the “feral people” stories (universal as they are in communities at the edge of the wilderness) could be encouraged by ‘shiners with a vested interest in discouraging foot traffic in the deep woods.

  15. The term “conspiracy theory” is bantered around a lot. But have any of the nay sayers ever looked up just how many of the conspiracy theories have come true. It doesn’t happen quickly of course because the media constantly ridicules those who might suspect something different than mainstream. But the majority, yes the majority are proven fact, over time! Start researching and you will see.

  16. I agree with some of what you said about the feral humans. I am native to the area, and both my grandfather and my mother were born in what is now national park land (my mother at Cherokee Orchard, and my grandfather in the mountain above Gatlinburg in 1920, before the national park existed). He also work in the park, fighting fires and packing supplies to LeConte before they were flown in. Yet I never heard of feral humans in the park until I saw an episode of “Expedition X” on it in 2021. If my grandfather was willing to tell me stories of his time as a Merrill’s Marauder in World War II, I’m quite certain he would have told me about wild people, Bigfoot, or anything else of that nature had he known of it. As it was, the only thing paranormal he ever told me about regarding the park was ghost stories.

  17. …. In one large(7000 acre) area park, i have seen evidence of people living,or at least passing through. I think the(collective) use of the term “Feral People” reflects on our romantic desire for an untamed,unchanged,non developed world that we could escape to for 10 paid work days . We WANT for there to be Chupacabras, Big Foot …… but people untamed, unchanged living off the land.

  18. They had kids going missing in the Angles National Foret in Southern California back in the 1960’s/70’s some within sight of a Summer Camp

  19. I have relatives who live in NC who would lie to your face if they knew firsthand who, where, and when. They will protect their own to the grave. Bless that poor family; my husband and boys have hiked and camped all over, and we would just lose our minds.

  20. I was a student at U T the summer this happened. I worked as a student research assistant in the bottom department and hiked every weekend to Spence field or Andrew’s bald to conduct research for a graduate student’s masters thesis. A few days after Dennis disappeared a call went out for search volunteers. Because I was familiar with the area I joined the search. I rode to Cades Cove with off-duty firemen on a school bus. I was airlifted to Spence Field with other volunteers by Army helicopter. This was my first helicopter flight. ( I later became a Navy hero pilot). We were instructed by rangers that if we found the body to not touch anything and mark the spot and report the location. That night I shared a tent with some of the army guys. I made two trips down off Spence Field bushwacking through rhododendron, once toward North Carolina and once down to Cades Cove.

  21. There is nothing in the 411 books that says there are wild men taking children to eat. These books state facts that have happened throughout history with missing people. There are fascinating circumstances that are common to a lot of the missing people that David Paulides, the author and researcher of the 411 books, writes about. He lets the reader decide for themselves as to what may have happened to the missing people. I live near the Great Smokey Mountains. There are many secrets kept among families that live up in these mountains. I have had a couple of things happen to me that were unexplainable near the Cataloochee Valley. I do not talk about it because people will only laugh.

  22. You have an amazing writing style that sucked me in. If you haven’t thought of writing a book, you need to!


Leave a Comment