Archived Mountain Voices

Wolf lore

In the beginning, the people say, the dog was put on the mountain and the wolf beside the fire. When winter came the dog could not stand the cold, so he came down to the settlement and drove the wolf from the fire. The wolf ran to the mountains, where it suited him so well that he prospered and increased, until after awhile he ventured down again and killed some animals in the settlements. The people got together and followed and killed him, but his brothers came from the mountain and took such revenge that ever since the people have been afraid to hunt the wolf.

— James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (1900)


I’ve been thinking about wolves. This past weekend my family watched the VHS version of “Jeremiah Johnson,” starring Robert Redford. Directed by Sydney Pollack, who passed away this past May, the movie premiered in 1972.

Having seen less than 100 movies in my entire life, I’m not a film critic by any means. But I think it’s a good movie, with exciting scenery (apparently in Utah), sparse dialogue, and lots of action.

One of the episodes involves an attack on Jeremiah’s horse and burro in which he helps fight off a pack of wolves. The savagery lasts for several hectic minutes, with hooves flying, wolves snarling and gnashing, guns blazing, and Jeremiah severely wounded before the pack retreats.

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Timber or gray wolves formerly ranged over most of North America, but no longer exist in the wild in the eastern United States. The demise of the wolf began with the arrival of the colonial settlers, who brought an inbred fear and hatred of the “blood-thirsty varmint” from Europe and would not tolerate raids upon their livestock.

The first wolf bounty was set in eastern North Carolina in 1748 at 10 shillings for each wolf scalp. Bounty hunters pursued them with guns, dogs, and wolf pits. After the American Revolution, the bounty in North Carolina climbed to $5 per scalp.

This intense pressure helped drive most of the remaining wolf population into the North Carolina mountains by the early 1800s, where skillful hunters familiar with the upcountry terrain were required. The period of the Civil War marked a resurgence of wolves as many excellent marksmen were pulled out of the mountains or otherwise occupied by the conflict so that the multiplying wolves became increasingly brazen.

But by the 1880s, they had become a scarce commodity even in Western North Carolina. According to Mammals in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1985) the “last gray wolf was killed in Haywood County in 1887.

That date seems unlikely as “The Bryson City (NC) Times” was referring to wolves being “up around Clingman’s Dome” on into the early 1890s. And reports of their presence in both WNC and east Tennessee lingered on into the early 20th century.

Scalp bounties were paid in both Swain and Clay counties North Carolina in 1889. The Swain County bounty was paid by the county commissioners, who “allotted Q.L. Rose $5 for wolf scalp.” That was, of course, the legendary fiddle-player, storyteller, blockader, and hunter Aquila (“Quil”) Rose, who made his home on Eagle Creek in the present day Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In Cherokee lore, wolves were known and revered as Wa’ya. They were the companions and servants of Kanati, the mythical master hunter of the Cherokees. One of Kanati’s wolves had magic powers that enabled it to cure another wolf that had been bitten by a snake. Because of its ability to remain awake during the first seven days of creation, Wa’ya was given the power of night vision so that it could be active at night and easily prey upon other animals for sustenance.

According to anthropologist James Mooney, who collected Cherokee lore during the late 1880s, primarily in the Big Cove community of the Qualla Boundary, an ordinary Cherokee would never kill a wolf “if he can possibly avoid it, but will let the animal go by unharmed, believing that the kindred of a slain wolf will surely revenge his death, and that the weapon with which the deed is done will be rendered worthless for further shooting until cleaned and exorcised by a medicine man.” Certain hired killers who followed elaborate rituals for atonement could slay wolves that raided stock or fish traps.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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