William Marion “Black Bill” Walker lived on the Middle Prong of Little River in Tennessee. Born in 1838, this frontiersman was a stout young buck of twenty-three at the opening of the Civil War, he stood six feet two in his woolen socks and weighed, in hard muscle, 190 pounds.
In 1859, Walker moved to Tremont with his wife Nancy. The couple had 7 children, only 3 of which lived beyond their childhood years. “Black Bill” was a religious man, who interpreted the Bible in a rather literal manner. With the understanding that patriarchs of the Old Testament had more than one wife and fathered numerous children, Walker took for himself a second and third wife whom he moved into the valley. In total, Walker fathered at least twenty-four children, most of whom grew to adulthood.
“Black Bill” was famous for a flintlock rifle he owned, known as Old Death. The rifle was a handcrafted weapon, made using a homemade headblock and screw. Old Death was six feet long and fired half-ounce lead balls that Bill cast himself.
Bill suffered a stroke in 1918, and died a year later.
In the Fall of 1914, Robert Lindsay Mason interviewed “Black Bill” about the legendary bear hunts he had with Old Death as a young man. The interview was printed in the January 1915 issue of Recreation Magazine. The following is adapted from that interview:
I always was somewhat of a fool about the woods. I live in ‘em just because I love ‘em. When I was young they wasn’t nothing about the mountains I didn’t want to learn, and they wasn’t a risky thing I didn’t want to do. In them days I was mostly muscle and the rest fool.
I never had a bear to run me but once, but I reckon that was unbeknownst to him. But it wasn’t unbeknownst to me! It was on just such a day as this. I was up in the spicewoods yonder, where ye see that little gap in the mountains. I was standin’ behind a chestnut watchin’ the trail for a big buck that was usually ‘round there, when I seen this big bear come shamblin’ along down the trail lookin’ this way and the other. He sorta stopped with his hinderparts up on a log. I was afraid to risk shootin’ him in them, so I pulled up Old Death and hit him in the eye.
Well, he took straight toward me with some power before I could reload my gun, which was a flintlock. I turned and run ‘round that tree with that bear after me. I run so swift that I could’ve caught him by the tail if it hadn’t been so short! I wasn’t thinking of doing that, however. I was watching the other end!
How did I get out of it? Well, I just kept runnin’ until somethin’ else happened. Soon I seen the bear was crazy from the shot in the eye. He blowed blood all over me, and shammacked off into the bushes, buttin’ into everything. I mighty soon got off out of the way of trouble and loaded again. It didn’t take but one good shot to finish him.
I was sure risky in them days, I was was just a plain fool in many respects. I remember Jeff Weir one time offered me the hide of a bear if I would go in a cave and get it, so to speak. He’d made a spear to stick her to death with. I stuck at her, but she splintered the spear handle on the first pass I made. And then I crawled in close to shoot her, but she smacked the gun out of my hand. Ye can still see the marks of her claws on the stock, she splintered it some too! There wasn’t room enough for both of us hardly in that cave, but I’d pull up close and shoot and then duck for her to run by if she wanted to. I killed her and captured the little cubs, but Jeff, he plumb forgot about the hide in the flustration. Fool? I was just plain risky!
The most bears I ever seen killed in one hunt was six, as far as I know for numbers. I seen twenty in all that day. The woods was swarmin’ with bears! The reason was, I found out afterwards, the mast [nuts/food] had failed in all the mountains but there. I thought I’d gone crazy and was seein’ things. Here’s how it happened:
To begin with, I wanted for to take a hunt. But I couldn’t get nobody to go with me. Several men was there in Tuckaleech refugeeing from the war, but they wouldn’t go a step. So, I just gets up my provisions and sets out alone one evening. I stayed all night on Meig’s Mountain so I could be on the bear’s feeding grounds again daylight. I found a power of sign there on the mountain.
I comes on my first bear sudden the next morning, as I crossed the mountain. My flint failed to fire the pan several times, but I managed to shoot him as he run off. I follered until I come to a spring on the Timbered Ridge, there I looked across and seen another bear sittin’ on his hunkers on the side of a ridge. He was rakin’ leaves in a pile under hisself and looking for chestnuts. He was comical.
I whipped over the ridge and come up the knob under him. When I got there, he’d gone further down into the timber, where I found him at the same business as before. He appeared to be studyin’ and very serious about it. I looked about and saw six or seven more bear there doin’ the same thing! Right there I got nervous! I thought I had come to a bear convention. I drops on my knee and aims, but my flintlock was working bad. I pulls the trigger, but the chop just goes ‘click,’ and not a spark. The bear raises up his head, tryin’ to wind me, but not knowin’ what he was scared at. I takes out my butcher knife, silent, and turns the flint so there’s a sharp corner to hit the steel. The next time I pulls, there’s a shower of sparks big enough to fill a pint cup, and the smoke spurted. I had took a rest against a tree. My bear drops in his tracks.
You heard of buck ague [buck fever]? Well, right there is where I got bear ague! I shivered and shook so I couldn’t load my gun and I reckon I poured powder all over the ground trying to hit the muzzle. I was too eager. I had to set down awhile.
My bear, had rolled down a little holler towards me, so directly, I went over to get it. When I got there, it was gone! Not a sign of that bear anywhere. I had lost my prize. I was somewise put out. But I follered the bloody sign and come to where my bear was down against a tree, a-rollin’ from side to side, just like a pet playin’. I took a good rest on a stump, this time aimin’ at the bulk of him. When I fired, he riz up and made off with great power into the bushes, gone again.
I soon seen that the place where he was layin’ was bloody. Pools of it! I knowed then that I’d hit his vitals. I run up quick and discovered him again. This time I was so eager that I hadn’t primed my pan good, so when I pulled the trigger the powder just fizzled. It seemed like half a minute before she went off. But when it went off, the bear was trying to climb over a fallen hemlock and the bullet just knocked him in under it. He set up straight under there just like a man. He took to groanin’ and thrashin’ about awful, like he had a terrible belly-ache. And I reckon he had. His nose was high in the air.
The next time, I shot so eager that I hit him in the nose, and he began to snort blood and make a terrible noise, like he had the asthmy. He looked so nigh gone, that I pulled out my butcher knife and thought I’d save a load by sticking him. I sorta punched him with my gun muzzle to find out where his ribs was, to keep from hittin’ a bone, when ‘whack!’ he smacks the gun between his paws ,and his teeth clashed down on it like a steel trap. Ye can still see the marks on the barrel yet. So, I shot him instead. I made sure he was dead this time, too. He weighed nigh over two hundred.
I took out his entrails and lifted him to my shoulder, but I hadn’t gone fifty yards before I run across a little cub, climbin’ down a tree backward, lookin’ first to one side and then the other. I was just takin’ a rest to shoot him when the bushes shook nigh the tree, and its mammy come up to a log and looked over at me. She skinned her lip back, threatenin’-like. She was a whopper! I aimed right at the spot in the stickin’ place in her throat, and fired. After the smoke cleared away, I run up close to see what’d become of her. I heard her beller some piece off in the bushes: “Oh Lord!” like that. “Oh Lord!” Now that might sound strange to you, but whenever a bear bellers ‘Oh Lord!’ she’s dyin’. You can count on it.
But there was that little cub, climbin’ down the tree backwards, and I hadn’t reloaded yet. So, I rushes over to whip him back up the tree again so I could get a shot. As I lit into the bushes around the tree, an old he-bear riz up and spit in my face! I could feel the warm breath of him. As I jumped back, I seen a yearlin’ there with him. Before I could load, all three of them bears put off together.
So I goes over quick to where the old she hollers “Oh Lordy!” and there she lays with one paw hangin’ over a big hemlock log—she’d died tryin’ to climb over. I split her like I did the other, and throwed her high up on the log, away from the varmints. After I loaded my gun again, I found that I’d rammed my last drop of powder down the barrel, and hadn’t a grain to prime with, so I takes my picker and picks out some from the touch-hole to prime the pan. Then, I rams the ball down good and tight again. I hurries on with my load of bear meat for it was getting late.
Just as I turned the top of the ridge where I’d camped the night before, I seen another bear rakin’ up leaves and looking ‘em over very careful-like, as if he was afraid he’d miss somethin’ important. He was on the other side of a log, and I circled ‘round to get in below him, keepin’ the wind right. I takes very careful aim—for it’s my last load. He drops in his tracks. He moves just a little afterwards, and I ain’t so sure he is dead. So, I steps up with my butcher knife to stick him. I gets close, riz up, and struck quick, springin’ back from the slap that’d come if he was alive. None come. I’d pointedly stuck that knife through him and into the ground! He was dead as a pine knot!
So I splits him like the others and throws him up on the log. He weighs nigh three hundred. It now is nigh dark, so I takes up my first bear and hurries on, lickety-split ! I left my provisions and gun in a cave at The Forks. I knowed I looked some flustrated, when I opened the door at home in Tuckaleech, and Uncle Danny and Sammy Walker is settin’ there in the firelight, talkin’.
“What on earth’s the matter, Bill?” says Uncle Danny.
“I got a bear,” I staggered out between breaths, “and seen twenty more!”
Well that astounded ‘em much! And that was the beginnin’ of the biggest bear hunt I ever saw. Next day, pap and five of us went back up there at daylight, and by careful plannin’ and lots of shootin,’ we got six more bears, and four of them was killed in ten minutes. Pretty good work for old flintlocks, eh? That’s the biggest hunt any green boy ever had I’ll wager!
Could I a-killed more bears that day if I had one them intermittent high-powered rifles as ye call ‘em? Well, now as for shootin,’ they ain’t nothin’ against the old-time flintlock or cap and ball rifle with me. I’d just as soon have Old Death. But as for quick loadin,’ that’s another matter. You-all would have me beat. But let me tell ye, if we’d had your quick shootin’ guns all this time, they wouldn’t be no game left now to tell the tale. And it’s goin’ mighty fast!
There was a cowbrute killed by bears up at the Crooked Oak the other day, and they was some pigs that got took up by a big stock killin’ bear that’s rangin’ ‘round the Devil’s Courthouse up there. I reckon I’ll have to take Old Death and try him a crack.
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