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. He was wearing a bright red shirt when he and his brother – along with two boys they’d just met – planned a prank on the relaxing adults in the Spence Field area bald along the Appalachian Trail.
The boys weren’t especially sneaky with the prank. The goal was to hide behind the adults and pop out to surprise them.
However, 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 six-year-old 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 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.
The search party grew 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, 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 search in the park’s history.
Dennis was 6 when he disappeared and was never seen again … probably.
An odd testimony from the Key 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.
The theory of feral humans in the Smoky Mountains
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 really happened to Dennis Lloyd Martin.
One of the most popular theories involved Wild Men – feral humans who live in the mountains 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 there are humans who 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.
Others believe 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 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 added that 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 prior to 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.
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.
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.
Why this theory doesn’t make sense
While the idea of feral Wild People isn’t exactly likely, it’s true that 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?
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.
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.
The problems with Key’s reports
Key’s report came weeks after the actual encounter. 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.
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 which 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.
If you ask me, 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 and ghost story in the mountains.
Glowing graves, Satanic churches, we followed all the rumors. 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.
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 really happened 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 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 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.
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 payphone 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.
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 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?
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.