Encounters of the Unknown—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, September 2019
Cherokee Little People Were Real
by: Mary A. Joyce
I never knew about Cherokee Little People until I moved to the mountains of North Carolina. At first, I dismissed the stories about them as old legends told around campfires, but that opinion began to change when 82-year-old Walter Middleton told me Little People were real and he’d seen evidence himself.
Now Walter was no ordinary old man. He was a well-respected World War II hero who survived the
Bataan Death March and nearly four years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Later, he served as a pastor in Western North Carolina for 42 years and authored four books.
This quiet hero got my attention one day when he told me that after the war, he was part of a work crew that uncovered three ancient little tunnels during a construction project on the college campus that is now Western Carolina University (WCU). He described the tunnels as being about two feet wide and three feet high.
He also told me about a child-size skull that sat on a science professor’s desk like a novelty paperweight. The professor claimed it was a child’s skull from an Indian mound on campus. His theory quickly fell apart when a high school English teacher noticed the skull on the desk, picked it up and carefully looked at it. She declared it couldn’t be a child’s skull because it had a full set of teeth, including wisdom teeth. This was a significant observation because a person has to be at least 18 to have wisdom teeth.
Walter also introduced me to Johnny Clayton, 85, who was only six or seven years old when he first learned about Cherokee Little People in 1921-22. At that time, his father operated a mica mine not many miles south of campus. Johnny recalled the day four excited miners came to their house to tell his father they’d cut into an ancient tiny tunnel when they were digging for mica.
Johnny had plenty of other stories. As an adult, he saw two small tunnels during the construction of the McKee Building on campus. It should be pointed out that the network of tunnels eventually discovered during WCU construction projects were all square cut with arched ceilings, not holes that an animal might dig.
Johnny told me about the day a small skeleton was uncovered during the excavation of what was believed to be an Indian mound on campus. The skull is the one that later weighed down papers on the professor’s desk. Johnny added that he and other old-timers didn’t believe it was an Indian mound. He said multiple construction projects over the years had uncovered many tunnels spoking out from the mound. The men believed it was just a pile of dirt formed when Little People of long ago were digging out their tiny tunnels.
The old-timers might have been right because there was another odd thing about that mound. As boys, they remembered it once had a vertical tubular hole at the top. It was so large that the man who once farmed the land put large logs into it to keep his cattle from falling into the hole.
After hearing these and other Little People stories from Walter and Johnny, I searched for books, articles or other records of Little People and their tiny tunnels on the WCU campus. I found absolutely nothing. There was no written record of this very unique piece of mountain history. That’s when I decided to record the old-timers’ eyewitness accounts before they all passed away.
Since Johnny seemed to know every old-timer in the area who’d ever seen evidence of Little People, I solicited his help. Along with his wife, Cathie, he set up interviews for me with other eyewitnesses. So, I spent many Saturdays around kitchen tables recording eyewitness accounts of the old-timers.
They told me tales of moonshiners finding “a pile” of Little People bones when they were building a secret still at the top of a mountain south of campus. They told me boyhood stories about hiding cigarettes in little tunnels beneath the McKee Building when it was a primary school. These and other stories about Little People and their tiny tunnels were told to me back in 2000-2001. At that time, my only goal was to record the old-timers’ information for the university and area museums and libraries.
But after those interviews, I continued learning about the Little People and their tunnels; my academic report was coming alive with photos and so much more. There was an interview with Ruth Youngbird Beck who was a great, great granddaughter of Tsali, the legendary hero of the Cherokees. There was the man who discovered an ancient artifact after an historic flood washed away centuries of soil and exposed a leprechaun-like face on a small but heavy metal oval. There was a large petroglyph that nobody has been able to decipher.
Finally, I wove all my information together with lots of photos and maps and published “Cherokee Little People Were Real” in 2014. While the book is about a unique aspect of North Carolina history, it is not written in a scholarly style. It is concise and easy to read. It’s also printed on quality paper so the photos and graphics are clear. It is available through Amazon.
Mary A. Joyce has worked for two major metropolitan area newspapers as a feature editor, Sunday magazine editor, columnist and artist. On the side, she’s written magazine articles and books. Currently she is editor of the Sky Ships over Cashiers Website (www.skyshipsovercashiers.com) which features a variety of cutting-edge topics.
Her career includes working for a Fortune 100 company coordinating art and printing for talking children’s books. In that capacity, she worked directly with many creative teams including those at Marvel Comics, Golden Books, Mr. Rogers and Steven Spielberg’s “ET” book staff.
Early in her career she taught in an experimental non-graded inner-city school and later worked for the world’s largest private printing company, a major metropolitan air pollution control agency, political campaigns and a community college.