Sunday, September 19

The legend of Big Foot Spencer

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Folklore follows this early pioneer through a dubious history

Thomas Spencer left his mark on Middle Tennessee. He left large marks all over Middle Tennessee. They were called footprints, and Spencer’s were huge.

Just ask Timothy Demonbreun, who was a French trader. Demonbreun lived in a cave in Tennessee for half of the year and ran a store in Illinois the other half. One day Demonbreun saw a footprint much larger than any he’d ever seen. It scared him out of his wits.
A few years later, a settler was so scared at the sight of one of Spencer’s footprints that he jumped into the Cumberland River and swam for miles.

Encounters such as these gave Thomas Spencer the nickname “Big Foot.”

A statue, below, and marker, above, near Castalian Springs mark where Big Foot Spencer’s sycamore tree home once stood. After settlers left the area where he lived, Spencer moved into the hollowed-out tree.

So how big was Big Foot Spencer? Hard to say. These days, you don’t walk up to a big man with a scale and ask him to step on it. You didn’t do it back then, either. There are books that claim Big Foot Spencer weighed 400 pounds. Most of it was muscle.

Longhunters, as a fourth-grade teacher will tell you, came into the wilderness with long guns and stayed a long time. The most famous of the longhunters was Daniel Boone. But when I think about longhunters, I think of Spencer, tromping around the forest, leaving long footprints in the mud.

But it didn’t start off that way. Thomas Spencer was originally part of a settlement. He came to Middle Tennessee from Virginia in 1776. About the time they were writing the Declaration of Independence, Spencer and some other folks were trying to settle near Bledsoe’s Lick in what is now Sumner County.

They cleared a few acres and built a fort out of the trees they cut down. Having a big man helped. One day Spencer was sick, resting on a blanket by a fire. According to the story, two of the other settlers were trying to lift a big log on top of a wall they were building. Spencer watched and listened to them struggle. It went on and on.

“Can’t a guy get some sleep?” he wondered. Finally he sat up, brushed them aside, grabbed the log and shoved it into place.
After everyone got settled, they planted some corn and went hunting.

Life in Tennessee was rough. The attacks from Chickamaugan warriors were deadly and frequent. Within a year, everyone except Spencer wanted to go back to Virginia. The last one to leave was a man named Holliday. When he left, he and Spencer had to decide what to do with their only knife.

“No problem,” said Spencer, breaking it and handing half of it to Holliday.

From there the story gets hard to follow. Big Foot moved into a giant hollow sycamore tree and made that his home. Why? We don’t know. Maybe the Native Americans burned the fort down while he was out hunting. Maybe it was too much land to take care of. Maybe he preferred a more cozy setting. In any case, I’m not making the sycamore tree up. There is a statue of that tree near Castalian Springs.

In the 1780s, American and the British soldiers were chasing each other around the colonies. Big Foot Spencer was chasing bears around the Cumberland River. He also got into the occasional fight. One time, Spencer picked up another man and tossed him over an 8-foot fence. The man calmed down and politely asked Big Foot if he could throw the man’s horse over the fence as well.

Big Foot Spencer’s battles with Native Americans weren’t as funny. One time, Spencer and another man were hunting near the Duck River in what is now Humphreys County. While they were sitting around the fire that night, they were attacked. Spencer’s friend was killed. Spencer grabbed the body and both guns and retreated into some underbrush.

The attackers decided they had seen enough and left.

Thomas Spencer liked being alone. He never married. He went out of his way to provide settlers with food. Whenever a fort seemed likely to be attacked, Big Foot showed up to help defend it. The settlers loved him. The Chickamaugan warriors had great respect for him.

I’d like to end the story by telling you that Big Foot lived to be an old man. I’d like to tell you that maybe he’s still out there, tackling bears and leaving giant footprints in the mud. But that would be a lie. On April 1, 1794, Thomas Spencer was killed by Native Americans while returning from a trip to Virginia. In that part of Tennessee there is a hill named for him, along with the town of Spencer and a body of water called Spencer’s Creek.


About Author

Researcher and writer Bill Carey co-founded Tennessee History for Kids in November 2004. He worked as a reporter in Nashville through most of the 1990s, and he is the author of six books, among them Fortunes Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History; Chancellors, Commodores and Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University; and Leave No One Behind: Hurricane Katrina and the Rescue of Tulane Hospital. He is a native of Huntsville, Alabama, who spent five years as a flight officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1987.


    • Dennis Johnson on

      My family is supposed to be kin to big foot Spencer as well. Do you have any information about it? My closest relative who had the information died. I know that my grandmother on my father’s side was a Spencer before she married my grandfather. Any information would be appreciated. You never know, we may be related.

  1. Bill Spencer on

    Interesting, trying to find my ancestors around this time. ONe source shows Big Foot with children, one, never married. Guess will keep hunting

  2. I had a Spencer in my tree same story shared knife with one of Daniel Boone’s sons. Daniels son was the one to die. We are from Thomas Spencer 1721 and Elizabeth Julia Spencer.

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