David Greer, Hermit of Bald Mountain: A Romantic Alternative to the “Wild Man” Myth

By Luke Manget

By Daniel Manget

Last week I wrote about how popular perceptions of the “wild man of the woods” in the late nineteenth century led to something of a round-up of human forest dwellers across the nation, including in western North Carolina.  Men, claiming to act on behalf of the public good, hauled these “wild men” into towns and, often, into so-called “lunatic asylums,” delivering the coup de grace to a way of life, albeit a fringe one, that had more or less existed since early Euro-American settlement.

 

 

But not all Americans saw these “wild men” in the same negative light.  Indeed, some romantics, like Silas McDowell, found in them something to appreciate, even admire.  Around 1829, McDowell penned a biography of the “celebrated hermit of the Bald mountain,” David Greer, based on “floating legends of the country” and parts of Greer’s own writings.  In a highly sympathetic picture of the mysterious hermit, McDowell’s eyes, Greer was not a “wild man,” driven insane by years of solitary confinement to the wilderness.  He was a wild-eyed dreamer, a man of beauty and romance who chose to leave civilization because he fell in love with wild nature and a woman he could not have.  In McDowell’s storybook fashion, here is Greer’s story:[1]

 

 

David Greer was born in the early 1780s in upstate South Carolina to humble parents.  After losing his mother, Greer decided to leave his father’s house at age 19 and pursue his fortunes further west.  He set out for Kentucky but made it only to Asheville where he was immediately hired by David Vance, governor Zebulon Vance’s grandfather, to manage his farm in nearby Rivercreek.  He spent three happy years on the farm, during which time he developed a “nice perception of the beautiful and sublime in Nature.”  He watched Vance’s eldest daughter blossom into a lovely woman.  By the time he realized he was hopelessly in love with her, she married another man, and Greer sank into deep despair.  Days after the wedding, Greer settled his business with Vance, and with a rifle, a knapsack, and $250, he disappeared over the western horizon, looking for a home.

 

 

He didn’t make it far.  Upon summiting what is now known as Big Bald Mountain in Yancey County, he encountered a feeling of what romantics had only recently begun calling the “sublime.”  The term itself had been used by Christians since at least the 17th century to connote a religious encounter with the divine, but by the end of the 18th century, deists and budding romantics had begun to use the term to describe aspects of nature.  In his putative autobiography, Greer, who according to McDowell was a deist, offered the best description of the romantic sublime feeling that I have ever read—better, even, than Wordsworth, Thoreau or Emerson: “On arriving here on this lofty naked mountains-top and casting my gaze around, my heart began to heave and swell with strange sensations I had never before experienced;  look which way I would, Heaven, Earth, and Ocean (for the distant smooth blue horizon looked like an Ocean) seemed exhibited to my view in such a magnificent boundless prospect that my senses were bewildered and my mind filled with a dreadful idea of the Omnipotent power of a creative God!  At length these overwhelming reflections seemed to nearly annihilate my personal identity and I felt as a mere atom of animate organism in the boundless universe.”  At that point, he realized he had found a home.

 

 

Using his $250 to buy some basic tools, Greer constructed a hut in a rich cove and began a long process of carving out a farm.  At first, he lived off the commons, hunting, fishing, and gathering for subsistence, and after a few years he raised vegetables and grains and tended a fruit orchard and a vineyard.  He also purchased cattle.  For 31 years, he lived alone in his mountain hut with only occasional interactions with other humans.  He supposedly wrote a treatise on religion and a another on government, but so far as I know, they have not survived the ages.  Eventually “civilization” caught up with Greer.  Each year brought more people and their cattle into nearby mountains, and he felt they were encroaching on his land.  According to McDowell, he fell into a dispute with a man named Holland Higgins over cattle, whereupon Greer killed him.  Some months after being acquitted in court on a plea of insanity, Greer was on his way back to his mountain when one of Higgins’ friends ambushed and killed him.

 

In many ways, Greer seems a tragic figure in McDowell’s story.  He represented a time and place that was becoming increasingly untenable in the face of commercial expansion and a burgeoning livestock economy.  To McDowell, his death symbolized the passing of a frontier era in which an enterprising and romantic individual could find romance and solitude in the mountain wilderness. It was a lifestyle being increasingly overrun by cattle.

 

 

Another version of Greer’s life

Charles Lanman, Senator Daniel Webster’s private secretary, traveled through western North Carolina in the 1840s, and recorded a very different version of David Greer’s life.  According to Lanman, Greer lived in a cave on Bald Mountain as a “literary recluse” for 20 years, during which time he wrote books, tortured cattle that wondered onto his property, and occasionally terrorized the community.  He was known to test his rifle’s range by shooting into his neighbors’ farmsteads and once threw rocks through the courthouse and chased the judges and lawyers out of the village in protest of having to pay poll taxes.  He declared himself “sole proprietor” of Bald Mountain and accosted people who wondered onto his property.  In Lanman’s telling, Greer killed Holland Higgins for hunting deer on what he considered his property, and Greer himself was killed by a fellow iron-forge worker in Tennessee.[2]

 

The two portrayals of Greer’s life could hardly be more different, but it is hard to determine which is the more accurate.  On the one hand, Lanman’s stories of Greer are more detailed, demonstrating a degree of familiarity that McDowell does not evince.  It is not colored by romantic exultation or flowery descriptions; indeed, it is an outright indictment of the character of David Greer.  On the other hand, Lanman’s account was from the point of view of an outsider writing nearly two decades after Greer’s death; stories of Greer were probably third- and fourth-hand, and there is a tendency for stories to become exaggerated as they are repeated from person to person.  Moreover, it bears a curious resemblance to the “wild man” stories that were beginning to become popular with an American audience.

 

Subsequent sources are also divided on the character of David Greer.  East Tennessean David Deaderick recorded in his diary that Greer was “thought to be deranged.”[3]  But one traveler from South Carolina defended the hermit of Bald Mountain.  “His disposition was generally kind to his fellow creatures, and he would never fail to display hospitality towards the visitors of the mountain,” he wrote in the Charleston Courier. “He had some peculiar notion, however, which led him to commit acts of great violence.”[4]

Silas McDowell

Silas McDowell, from Dunbar, “Silas McDowell and the Early Botanical Exploration in Western North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (Autumn 1964)

 

It may be impossible to tell the story of David Greer with any degree of confidence, but it is possible to use Greer’s story to understand something of the culture that produced it.  In McDowell’s version, Greer so clearly embodies many of McDowell’s own sentiments that is appears probable that he projected his own feelings and thoughts into the narrative.  McDowell, who moved to western North Carolina as a teenager in 1812, was remarkable in that he was so clearly influenced by the budding Romantic Movement in the United States.  During a time in which the movement was only beginning to attract popular attention primarily in northeastern cities, McDowell carried the romantic gospel into the North Carolina mountains.  Indeed, he (along with Greer?) was probably one of the movement’s first adherents to live in the southern mountains.  He may have been a deist himself.

 

 

McDowell may have developed his romantic sentiment while enrolled at the Newton Academy in Asheville in 1812.  As an adventurous 19-year-old student, he accompanied the British botanist John Lyon on his summer jaunts through northwestern North Carolina, where he first developed his love of botany.  Lyon may have passed on his own romanticism to McDowell, who was at Lyon’s bedside when he uttered his final words before succumbing to typhoid fever.  Whatever its source, McDowell’s sentiment led him to purchase a farm along the Cullasaja River in 1820 in recently ceded Cherokee territory where he could be closer to the plants, animals, and mountains he had grown to love.  He would live there until his death in 1879.

 

 

Although never educated as a scientist, he devoted his life to the study of nature by first-hand observation.  His only biographer, Gary Dunbar, called him a “gentle genius.”[5]  His writings, passed down through his granddaughter to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, contain the most flowery descriptions of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and forests.  He published short stories, travel narratives, and poems.  Indeed, when he wasn’t seeking out wild fruits with potential market value or experimenting with different growing methods, he was seeking out the sublime in nature and writing about it.  He also corresponded with some of the leading botanists and geologists of his day, including Moses A. Curtis and Asa Gray, and even collected specimens for herbariums across the nation.

 

 

Although the details of Greer’s life will probably remain obscure, it is clear that McDowell found in Greer a kindred spirit, and that says a lot about both men.

 

 

[1] Silas McDowell, “Undated, unsigned manuscript, possible a draft, in Silas McDowell’s hand,” in Silas McDowell Papers, 1827-1961, Rutherford and Macon counties, North Carolina [microform], Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

[2] Charles Lanman, Adventures in the Wilds of the United States and British American Provinces, Vol. I (Philadelphia: John W. Moore, 1856), 446.

[3] Quoted in David Hsuing, Two Worlds in the Tennessee Mountains: Exploring the Origins of Appalachian Stereotypes (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 125.

[4] “David Greer,” Southern Rose, 27 October 1838.

[5] Gary S. Dunbar, “Silas McDowell and the Early Botanical Exploration in Western North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (Autumn 1964), 425-435

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