Tennessee State Library and Archives
Tennessee Myths and Legends
The Heroine of Kaintuck, 1840, Illustration from The Crockett Almanac
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Jack Daniel

Jack Daniel’s Postcard, undated,

Tennessee Postcard Collection

Jack Daniel
Jack Daniel was a man who understood that image is everything.  This belief contributed to the myth and legend that surround Jack to this day.  Like most stories, his would start at the beginning (if we knew when that was).  According to record, Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was born on September 5, 1846.  However, he would never tell anyone his real age and his tombstone says he was born in 1850.  The 1850 date seems quite impossible as Jack’s mother died in 1847. 

Many believe that Jack started his own whiskey business at the age of 16.  This belief earned him the moniker, “the boy distiller.”  This may be where the 1850 birth date would fit in as the labels on Jack Daniel’s Whiskey bottles proclaim that Jack Daniel’s was “Est. & Reg. in 1866.”  There is some documentation to support the fact that Jack Daniel did not register his business with the government until 1875.  If this is correct and you believe the 1846 birth date that would have made Jack 29 when he started.

Age aside, many stories surround Jack Daniel’s life.  There were rumors that he dated numerous women at the same time throughout his adult life, although he never married.  Reportedly, his family had to set chairs out at his grave for all the young women who came to visit after his death.  It was also rumored that most of the women he dated were half his age (whatever that might have been) or less.  And, if you ask people in Lynchburg, most would tell you that at some point or another, he donated money to every church in Moore County.  All of this mystique lent credence to Jack’s idea that if you remember the man, you’ll remember the whiskey. 

Jesse James

Birthplace of Jesse James Jr., undated,

Library Photograph Collection

Jesse James
Few outlaws can claim to be as notorious as Jesse James.  This notoriety has lent itself to the creation of many tall tales that could be fact or fiction.  One such story about James has he and his gang stopping at a farmhouse to ask a poor widow woman for something to eat.  The widow, having three small children, didn’t have much but she shared what she did have with the outlaws.  While they were eating lunch, the widow told James that the mortgage was due on her house and she did not have the money to pay it.  James gave the widow $1500 to pay the mortgage and told her to be sure she was given a receipt.  James and his gang waited in the woods near the house until the man from the bank collected the money from the widow.  They rode after the man and stole their money back.

Jesse James

J. D. Howard (Jesse James) Correspondence,

1878, Martha DeBow Casey Collection

At the request of his wife, Zee, Jesse James tried to settle down and live a normal life.  He changed his name to J. D. Howard and lived for a time in Nashville with his wife and children, Jesse Edward and Mary.  During the time James lived in Nashville, his neighbors liked him.  He was said to be a friendly, family man who attended services at a Methodist church every Sunday.

When You and I Were Young, Maggie
In 1924, a booklet was published about the origin of the song: When You and I Were Young, Maggie.  The booklet was written by Daisy Rice Spradling and stated that “both the author and the subject…were native Tennesseans.”  According to the booklet, the setting of the song was the Unaka Mountains (a chain of the Great Smoky Mountains) in Polk County, Tennessee.  It stated that the author of the song, George W. Johnson, lived near the mouth of the Hiwassee River and that his parents were early settlers from Virginia that leased land from the Indians.  As the story goes, Johnson went to the Unaka Mountains to look for gold.  Johnson rowed up the Hiwassee River to Spring Creek.  Going up the stream, he came to what was then known as the Harris Mill.  As he strode toward the mill, he saw a young girl, Maggie Harris, standing in the doorway.  He fell in love with her and, supposedly, they later married.  He wrote the poem (that would later become the song) to memorialize their love. 

Click here to read the 1924 booklet on the origin of When You and I Were Young, Maggie from the Library Vertical File


Mrs. D. B. Todd Dressed as Maggie, 1930,

Library Vertical File
Mrs. D. B. Todd dressed as Maggie for

the unveiling of a D.A.R. Marker about the song

"When You And I Were Young, Maggie." 

The photograph was taken in Athens, Tennessee.

On June 14, 1930, the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) placed a marker on Spring Creek, in Polk County, Tennessee, to commemorate the old song.  After the marker was set, Donald H. Johnson of Seattle, Washington, wrote a letter to the D.A.R. requesting that they take the marker down.  He stated that George W. Johnson (the author of the song) was his great-uncle.  He also stated that his uncle was from Canada and was never in Tennessee.  He claimed that the song was written about Maggie Clark, his uncle’s wife, and not Maggie Harris as the D.A.R. marker claimed.  He said the mill in the song was in Canada near where George Johnson and Maggie Clark grew up.  Mrs. Elizabeth C. Badgham, Maggie Clark Johnson’s sister, also wrote the D.A.R., expressed the same sentiments as Mr. Johnson and asked them to take the marker down.  The D.A.R. did not take the marker down and, in 1991; it was rededicated as an Eagle Scout project. 

In 2005, the song was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.  As you can see, the debate about this song’s origin continues into the current day and the controversy surrounding it has been the subject of numerous blog entries and websites (http://gulahiyi.blogspot.com/2008/01/maggie-revisited.html).  In the end, the story of this song is a great representation of how legends are written and, in the words of the old song, “time alone was the pen.”

Rain of Blood
On August 17, 1841, a rain of blood was reported on a tobacco farm near Lebanon (Wilson County).  Slaves on the farm reported that drops of blood fell from a red cloud that was flying overhead.  Dr. Troost visited the field and his findings were reported in the American Journal of Science.  He theorized that a tornado like wind “might have taken up part of an animal which was in a state of decomposition, and have brought it in contact with an electric cloud.”

Rain of BloodRain of Blood Rain of Blood Rain of Blood  

Walter B. Morris Correspondence, August 1841, Eastin Morris Papers
Letter from Walter B. Morris to his brother, Eastin Morris, describing a rain of blood that took place on a tobacco farm near Lebanon, Tennessee, on August 17, 1841.

“Rain of Blood” Diary Entry, September 5, 1841, Cooper Family Papers
Pages 80 and 81 from a "scrapbook" kept by William F. Cooper.  The pages describe the rain of blood that occurred on a tobacco farm near Lebanon, Tennessee, on August 17, 1841.

American Journal of Science, 1841, Cooper Family Papers



Shooting Star Quilt, undated,

Quilts of Tennessee Collection

Stars Fell on Alabama
On November 12 and 13, 1833, there was a dazzling occurrence of the Leonid meteor shower.  The meteor shower was most visible in the deep South, particularly in Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana.  Many people, having witnessed nothing so sensational before, began to say the sky was falling and dubbed the night of November 12 “the night the stars fell.”  Since that time, numerous songs, books, poems and artworks have been produced to commemorate the event.  The song, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” has become an anthem to Southerners and, in 2002, the state of Alabama added the slogan to their license plates.

Giant Catfish
For years, divers in the Tennessee River have told stories about giant catfish.  The divers say the catfish are big enough to swallow a man whole.  The stories have gained so much public appeal that snopes.com even has a section on them.

Catfish Catfish  

Two Women Standing Next to a Giant Catfish, 1939, Looking Back At Tennessee Collection
The fish was caught in the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing.

Tom Woods with a Giant Catfish, August 18, 1939, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection



Opossum, May 6, 1938,

Department of Conservation Photograph Collection

Many myths and legends revolve around animals.  One such myth surrounds the opossum and his bare tail.  The story goes that an opossum was walking in the woods one day and stumbled across a raccoon.  The opossum, having always admired the raccoon’s striped tail, asked the raccoon how his tail had become striped.  The raccoon, seeking to play a joke on the opossum, responded that he wrapped his tail in tree bark and stuck it in a fire.  The places where the bark burned off were turned black.  The opossum decided to try this and when he stuck his tail in the fire, all of the fur burned off his tail.  Opossums’ tails have been bare ever since.

Palmer Mine

Miner on a mine rail train at the Palmer Mine,

undated, Library Photograph Collection

Tommy Knockers
Tommy Knockers are said to be the spirits of dead miners.  There are good Tommy Knockers and bad Tommy Knockers.  The good Tommy Knockers help miners find ore and knock on the walls of the mines before a cave-in to alert the miners of danger.  Bad Tommy Knockers shake ladders and cause dangerous rock slides in the mine.  When a Tommy Knocker is warning miners of a cave-in, the first miner that hears the Tommy Knocker knocking is believed to be cursed. 

"Grand Old Gal"
The Samuel Anderson Weakley Papers, at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, contain an article from the June 29, 1952, edition of The Nashville Tennessean Magazine. The article is titled Grand Old Gal and it tells the story of Betsy Trantham.  Reportedly, she died at the age of 149 and bore her last child at the age of 65. A native of Germany, she was living in Maury County, Tennessee, at the time of her death in 1835.