by Sandra Nipper Ratledge
~ Starr Mountain above Jalapa Foothills ~ photographed by Stephen Ratledge ~Typically, legends multiply long after the demise of a colorful character, admired hero, or even a notorious scoundrel whose antics they record. Rarely are folks so brave or so foolhardy, as the case may be, that their eccentricities make them legendary in the first place. Only a few of these unique individuals ever become local legends in their own lifetimes. Yet, there was one such woman Aunt Rachel Hughes, or so folks in the Knobs always said. Tucked into a shadowy cove in the heart of the Knobs stood her lonely cabin. Somewhere between Jalapa in Monroe County and Archville in Polk County, Tennessee, high in the hills, she lived out a lifetime of loneliness.
According to local legend, "Here was one of the little tragedies of the Civil War." To her, however, it was a great personal tragedy and became the scale by which all other losses in her life would be measured. Before cannons fired from Fort Sumter provoking the onset of Civil War, she had wed a man by the surname of Hughes. With help from their family and neighbors, they had felled trees and built a tiny log cabin far up a mountainside. Together, they had cleared a small field, planted corn and other vegetables, and settled down with dreams of beginning a family.
The outbreak of war, however, suddenly interrupted their domestic plans. Her husband marched away with the rest of the men in gray from the Knobs, and never a line nor a word came back to the lonely girl left behind on the mountainside in Monroe County. So, she worked the patches herself, fed the chickens, slopped the hogs, chopped wood, kept house, and waited. For necessities, she bartered brown eggs at the store at Jalapa. In spring, she not only planted corn to be ground into meal but picked dewberries and then later blackberries for stewing with dumplings and making jam. She searched the hills for poke, dock, watercress, lamb's quarters, and other wild greens to simmer with fat back and then eat with corn pone and ramps. Summer always brought muscadines, crab apples, and other bounties of nature to harvest. It was only a subsistence, but she managed to eek out a living in the shade of Starr Mountain. There was always plenty of work to keep her busy as she waited and anticipated her husband's homecoming. No matter how long she waited, "she never lost heart and never lost faith."
At last, the Civil War finally ended, but her husband never came home to Starr Mountain. Still she waited. Years crept by, and Aunt Rachel Hughes grew into middle age; yet she always expected her man to return. Alas, he never did. Not only did she lose her husband in the war, but her father died on October 9, 1865. Then, less than two years later, her mother passed away on Valentine's Day in 1867. Both of her parents were buried nearby in Prospect Methodist Church Cemetery, located just inside the McMinn County, Tennessee line.
She had experienced grief sufficient to destroy even a robust soul. Yet she survived. Because of her independent spirit, self-reliance, and fearless solitary exploits, "she became a legend in these mountains. Daytime or nighttime, she carried her rifle, hunted bear, panther, and catamount." This was a word shortened about 1664 from cat-a-mountain. To hill country folks, catamount meant any of the various wild cats such as bobcats and cougars. To people in the hills, mountain lions or cougars were usually called panthers or in local dialect "painters." These wild animals once roamed freely throughout the mountainous regions of the United States.
Most women shuddered in terror upon hearing the squall of ferocious panthers on the prowl at night. These wild animals could smell smoke and aromas curling from chimney tops as food roasted on the hearth. Thus, they were attracted to the roofs. They would climb trees, leap onto the rooftops, and claw at the wooden shingles and clay-chinked chimneys in search of food. Hungry animals have been known to try to descend a chimney in pursuit of a meal after the hearth fire died.
Unlike fearful women in the mountains, Aunt Rachel was as brave as any man. She lived alone and provided for herself by farming and hunting. Even at night, using only a homemade lantern for a light, she hunted wild animals for meat and for their pelts, which could be exchanged for shot. She rendered fat from bears to make candles as well as soap and smoked the meat. It was said that while hunting at night she always trailed a long switchcane pole behind her. This she had tied securely to her back. Then, if trailed by any of the cat family, her dragging cane pole would attract these naturally curious animals. "Thinking that the bobcat could not resist playing with the dragging pole, whereupon, feeling the tug of the pole, she turned her headlight (a fire pan with burning pitch pine) upon it and shot it." By dragging the long switchcane behind, she had just enough forewarning to turn around and shoot the catamount before it could attack her. With her forethought and cunning, she "had the jump on" any cat, so to speak. Relatives said that Aunt Rachel's "deeds and sayings became folk stories of the mountain people."
Eventually, though, she withered away into an old woman, gave up the ghost, and was buried in Shady Grove Baptist Church Cemetery on Mecca Pike in Monroe County, Tennessee. There in the older section stands her tombstone. The birth year is thought to be mistakenly chiseled; it is recorded as "Rachiel Hues, born Feb. 9, 1844 died Oct. 18, 1908." Alongside hers is a tombstone inscribed "Thomas Baker born Feb. 1823 died Sept. 5, 1896." It is believed to be her brother's grave. If so, both were children of James C. and Nancy J. Baker, Sr.,* residents of Polk County, Tennessee near the Monroe County boundary line.
So, when the wind whips and sways the tall, whispering pines between Starr Mountain and Chilhowee Dome, lonely and mournful sounds echo -- sounds reminiscient of a woman's sighs. Here then, in the vast shade of Starr Mountain, how can one ever forget "Aunt Rachel Hughes" and her endless expectation of her beloved husband's return?
* great-great-great-great-grandparents of Sandra (Nipper) Ratledge through their daughter Dolly (Baker) Barnett
Also, many thanks to Joy Locke for help with census records pertaining to Rachel Hughes!
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