Big Bear John

Sketch drawing of man in overalls witha chopped down tree

Jacob Roquet

Magazine cover with photo of young Black boy at a protest holding a hand-lettered sign that reads "Clean should be more than a dream"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 21 No. 4, "Clean Dreams." Find more from that issue here.

Several years ago my friend Ron Vance and I embarked on an oral history project on Roan Mountain, Tennessee. There we discovered a whole world lost—except in the memory of some very sharp-minded and keen-witted older mountain people.

As they shared their “lost” worlds with us, the name of Big Bear John was inevitably raised. Some spoke of him with laughter and seeming pride. Others spoke more thoughtfully, knowing that the same independent spirit still lives today up on the ridges and back in the “hollers” of Roan Mountain. They considered John’s constant survival to be somewhat of a miracle.

The following is a composite of only a few of Big Bear John as they are still swapped around winter fireplaces and fox-hunting campfires.


Now I ‘low as how Bear John probably never killed any bears and he wasn’t exactly a folk hero, but he was a mighty fine timber cutter and moonshiner and he certainly gets my vote for being about the toughest man who ever lived.

Called him Big Bear John, they did… wasn’t called big for nuthin’ either. He stood six-foot-six in his bare feet and weighed a sight over 300 pounds stark “neked”! Why he was so big he could carry two quarts ‘shine under the bib of his “overhauls,” each hand hitched under a gallus, even the sheriff couldn’t tell it.

Lived up near Shell Creek, way up on Teaberry Knob whur he could see a mighty fer piece. Sheriff never did find that still; guess he never tried much. Made the best ‘shine in Carter County they tell me.

‘Bout everybody was a-skeered of Bear and for good reason! He was a fun feller to drink with, they said, ‘lessen you got him riled up, and then he shore lived up to his name.

One day Bear got into an argument with a man named Russ, and he sent word to Russ that he was going to come on a certain day and kill him. Russ didn't think too highly of that idea and he sat on his porch on that certain day cradling his .38 pistol on his lap. He saw Bear John a' comin' up that dusty dirt road a-ways off and he stood up to get a better look. When John got to the gate, Russ told him if he opened the gate and came in the yard, he was going to shoot. He did and Russ did- shot Bear John five times in the chest. John turned, still standing, and started through the gate, not feeling very welcome, to say the least. About that time Russ' s wife came running out and handed him a 12-gauge shotgun. Russ was reported to have said, "I drawed down right where his galluses crossed and gave him both barrels." John walked the two miles back to his home.

Everybody thought he'd die ... but he didn't.

Some time after that he was a-playin' cards down under the railroad trestle over the North Carolina line and got in an argument with his opponent. The man whipped out a razor, one of those kinds you have to sharpen on a "strop," and slashed Bear John across the abdomen. John just garnered up his intestines in his hands and walked four miles over to Elk Park to a doctor.

Everybody thought he'd die ... but he didn't.

He was over in Elk Park another time and had apparently been imbibing some of his own moonshine when he saw this good-looking woman and took a likin' to her. The only problem was that she was with another man. No matter, John just walked up, took her by the arm, and was a-headin' off with her. Now her original companion didn't cotton up to that much, ran around in front of John and stabbed him in the throat with a long-bladed knife. John's aunt just happened to be nearby and she filled the wound with snuff.

Everybody thought he'd die ... but he didn't.

John eventually left his wife and "took up" with a woman who had grown children. They just couldn't hardly love" John and one day they invited him out to help cut firewood. When they got him out in the woods, however, they hit him in the head with a peavey and dragged him over to the foot of a big tree which they felled across his body. Then they ran back home decrying the fact that poor John had been killed in a timbering accident and everyone must come see. When they got back and pulled the tree away, John was still alive, had been lying in a soft place on the ground. Some say blood actually gushed from his eyes.

Everybody thought he'd die … but he didn't.

Would you like to know how John finally met his demise? Well, hear this: When he was in his 80s, he went over to Jonesboro one night, got totally drunk, wandered out behind a schoolhouse, fell down across a stump, passed out, and froze to death. Everybody wondered how he'd die! And that's the truth!