Sumner County’s “Big Foot” Legend

A legend is a story from the past that is regarded as historical although not necessarily verifiable. They come in all shapes and sizes. This one in particular is a quite large one. So large in fact, his footprint alone gave him his nickname. He is referred to as Thomas “Big Foot” Spencer, and literally left his mark all over Sumner County.
Big Foot Spencer was a longhunter. They were some of the first explorers in what we now call Tennessee. During the 1700’s Tennessee was plentiful with wild game. So plentiful that longhunters could make a pretty good living trading and selling furs and pelts back east where animals like deer and buffalo were beginning to thin out.
Longhunters had to master many arts. They could predict the weather, tell time and direction, and had knowledge of plants and where to find them, and knew which had medicinal value.
The longhunters most important tool was his rifle, followed by his skinning knife. He knew how to use it and repair it if necessary. He was aware of the habits of the animals he hunted as well as their true call, not to be confused with the imitation call of the Native American.
The longhunter’s name is derived from the extensive hunting trips that they took. Generally, they would depart on their journey in October and return in late March or early April. They most commonly hunted in small groups of two or three people. They did this for several reasons: 1) large parties were more likely to scare away the game, and 2) smaller groups were less likely to be discovered by the natives.
So imagine spending a cold Tennessee winter in the woods with a rifle and perhaps a friend or two, and sleeping under the stars each night with nothing more than a makeshift lean-to in which to keep the cold off of you.
Now that you better understand who and what a longhunter was and did, let’s get back to Big Foot. Spencer came to Tennessee sometime around 1776. He and his partner, John Holliday, began exploring Middle Tennessee. According to State Historian Walter Durham, Big Foot Spencer planted the first recorded crop by a person of European decent in Middle Tennessee in the spring of 1778. The fall of that same year, John decided that he had had enough and returned to Eastern Kentucky or Virginia. Spencer would settle in Castalian Springs at Bledsoe’s Lick, which was a fertile area for growing crops and was full of wildlife as well. Spencer’s choice of lodging that year was a little odd. He spent that winter inside a giant, hollowed out sycamore tree that was twelve foot in circumference. From inside this tree he could watch the area around him for Indians. It is said that somedays he would have to spend the whole day hiding and watching as the natives were hunting in the area surrounding him. There is a marker where the tree once stood on the property of Wynnewood.
Big Foot Spencer was said to have weighed between three and four-hundred pounds and was solid muscle. A hunter from Illinois once stumbled across Spencer’s footprint and immediately returned saying he had no intention of hunting in a land of giants. Another man who crossed his track jumped right into the Cumberland River and swam a couple miles, hoping that whoever left the prints would not spot him.
My favorite Big Foot story takes place around 1786 at a campsite where two men were arguing over a knife. Nearby, Spencer became irritated by the quarrel and decided to intervene. As he broke up the fight one of the fellas made a poor decision and hit Spencer right in the mouth. Well, Spencer barely flinched, and by now the fella, most likely shaking, prepared for the worst. You are probably guessing that Spencer gave him a good beating, but that was not the case. Instead, he picked the fella up by the trousers, carried him to the edge of the camp, and tossed him right over an eight-foot fence. As he stood up and dusted himself off, he asked, “Mr. Spencer, if you would be as kind as to throw my horse over, I’ll be on my way.”
Now there are more stories on Big Foot Spencer as well as other colorful characters from Sumner County’s rich history. Swing by the Sumner County Museum to hear some of those stories sometime and pick up one of our new longhunter t-shirts while you are there.

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