Bartram Trail: Mystery tract with no heirs provides critical link for long-distance hiking trail
It took more than a decade, a lot of detective work and a protracted legal case to clear the way for a new portion of the Bartram Trail in Macon County now under construction.
The Bartram Trail Society maintains a 100-mile memorial trail in Western North Carolina in honor of the naturalist William Bartram, who traveled through the region in 1775 on a botanical mission to collect exotic, new-fangled plants from the New World for the English crown.
A large section of the trail in Macon County is stymied either by private land or the Little Tennessee River. Hikers trying to do the entire Bartram Trail have to come out of the woods and hoof it along the highway through Franklin from the Fishhawk Mountains section to the Nantahala section, or they must find a canoe or kayak and boat down the river.
Some 10 to 15 years ago, Burt Kornegay, then president of the Bartram Trail Society, began an effort to cut down on the amount of highway hiking. The Bartram Trail Society wanted to reroute a portion of the Bartram Trail in the Otto community, specifically from its Buckeye Branch exodus in the Tessentee Creek area to Hickory Knoll Road.
“This would knock out several miles of road hiking,” Kornegay said. “We were trying to reduce that.”
Kornegay saw a for-sale sign on one piece of property where the society wanted to reroute the trail. He and his wife went out on a limb, he said, and bought the piece of property for about $17,000 in expectation that the society would buy it from them, which it ultimately did.
“But then, there was still a little weird piece of private land,” Kornegay said. “For some reason, it had just been sort of a lost piece of land and had sat there for all this time, for over 100 years.”
Unsorting the story of that “weird” piece of land — a critical link to get the trail rerouted — became the task of Highlands lawyer Richard Melvin, who donated his time to helping the Bartram Society on the matter.
Deciphering boundary lines and surveys of old tracts are never easy.
“In the old titles, you’ll often find overlap with descriptions to this rock and that tree,” Melvin said. “We had to find out where it lies.”
But, there was a rather unusual hurdle for this particular tract: figuring out who the heck owned it.
“We finally found out the last owner was Nimrod Jarrett,” Melvin said.
Nimrod Simpson Jarrett was a major landowner across Western North Carolina, owning thousands of acres. Jarrett also farmed, traded ginseng, and owned mica and talc mines. He owned slaves and served as a colonel in the Macon County militia. Jarrett lived in the Nantahala community where Appletree campground is today.
In September 1871, Jarrett set off for Franklin from Nantahala on a business trip and was robbed and killed. A man named Balias Henderson was found guilty of the crime and was subsequently hanged in May 1873.
Melvin said he couldn’t determine that there were any heirs to the piece of property in the Hickory Knoll area of Macon County that Jarrett had owned. Melvin said that Jarrett had had children, but that those children had moved west or otherwise left the county and abandoned this particular piece of property. Perhaps he had so much land, the executor of his will couldn’t keep track of it all, and this piece was simply lost in the shuffle. But for whatever reason, the title was still in his name — 150 years after his untimely murder.
The land is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land on all sides but one.
Melvin filed a quitclaim deed on the land on behalf of the Bartram Trail Society. The group, after the seven required years passed, gained legal title after no one came forward to contest the claim.
Walter Wingfield, current president of the Bartram Trail Society, said the land was then sold to the U.S. Forest Service for its appraised value.
The Bartram Trail Society does not build trails on private land because of liability issues, which is why it sold the property to the forest service. Some of the money from that sale will be used to help build the new 3.8-mile section of the Bartram Trail.
The new property is very steep and rugged, Wingfield said, meaning that private contractors with trail-building equipment will be required, not just volunteer labor. A grant is also being sought to help pay for the new trail.
As for the robbery and subsequent murder of Jarrett that led to this legal quagmire?
“I think the murderer got 50 cents and a pocket watch out of it,” Wingfield said.