It was a late October afternoon in the 1990s, and I left my class at the branch community college campus where I taught, in McMinnville, to drive up highway 70 to take a graduate class at Tennessee Tech. in Cookeville. The coolness and freshness of the afternoon prompted me to roll down the windows in my 4×4 truck. On my drive, I got so taken in by the scenery of hills, the red, orange, and yellow color of these fall leaves on sugar maple, tulip poplar, sweet gum, and red oaks that I frequently drifted onto the ridges on the highway’s shoulder.
I crossed one of the small bridges with green water and rocky features. It was the Calfkiller river; one allegedly named for an Indian chief in the area no one now remembers. I thought it was a strange name, but what was even stranger was the fact that someone at Tennessee Tech had recently told me about John Haywood, known as the father of Tennessee history. He had documented giant skeletons discovered in a cave in Tennessee in his 1823 book titled The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee.
I wanted to pull off, find the cave, and investigate further, but I would have missed class and was already running late. I had an early Tennessee dinner on the run. For those of you unfamiliar, that’s a Sun Drop full of sugar and caffeine, cheese crackers, and a Moon Pie for dessert. Curious to know more, I wondered if these giant skeletons were found in other parts of America and what the natives might have reported about them.
While a discussion of American giants mostly conjures images of great historical people: George Washington, Henry Ford, or maybe a film star like Tom Hanks, to think there might have been a group of giants simply doesn’t fit into our understanding of history. However, for most of us, memory pulls us back to Sunday School, when a teacher might have shared the story of “David and Goliath.” We learned from the lesson that we could take on something bigger than ourselves and win and defeat a bully at school, but they never addressed the issue of murder with the slingshot. I don’t recall any of my Sunday School teachers ever saying giants really existed. Of course, most children also read the fairy tale about Jack and the Beanstalk at some point, which is yet another example of a child defeating a giant who lives in the sky by chopping down the beanstalk. Jack’s robbery from the giant is somehow overlooked or justified, much like the murder of Goliath.
I learned that there are more mysteries about giants in history than we ever learned in school and that the neat little history we’re taught (Columbus, the Pilgrims, etc.) is just a piece of a much more significant history. Digging into the subject, however, one discovers giants are often referred to in Hebrew as Nephilim and are found in the book of Genesis. While there are a variety of interpretations, the Nephilim or giants are purported to be the hybrid offspring of fallen angels mating with human females. This sounds all rather fanciful or even otherworldly, but if we interpret biblical history as accurate, then we can assume that these creatures did exist.
For starters, giant skeletons have been found worldwide. In addition, giants have been discovered all over the South. It may just be that Homer and other historical literary “giants” who wrote about giants might not have been writing fiction as is often assumed.
Skeletons have been discovered in various West Virginia locations: along the Cheat River, Moundsville, Fairmont, Wheeling, Rivesville, Marion County, Smithtown, Charleston, and more. In the Charleston area, numerous mounds were excavated by an expedition team from the Smithsonian, including the Kriel Mound. Numerous giants were discovered, along with many artifacts. In at least one of the West Virginia cases, these giant skeletons were almost eight feet long, and, in at least one case, they had reddish hair (LegendsofAmerica.com).
In Ancient Life in Kentucky (1928) by Professors Funkhouser and Webb from the University of Kentucky, who did an extensive archaeological survey of mounds, caves, and graves across the state, there was at least one report of a giant skeleton from Richmond that had been reported in Richmond Register in October of 1924. Another giant’s grave was reported near Simpson in Franklin County.
In Denver Michael’s work “Giant Skeletons in Virginia,” several examples of giants have been provided. In Fauquier County, Virginia, a report from the Staunton Spectator in 1866 reported giants and a tablet containing “hieroglyphics” (see the reproduction). Another example of a giant’s skull the size of a watermelon was found along the Potomac Creek near George Washington’s childhood home and reported in the Washington Post. In addition, skeletons nearly eight feet tall have been discovered near Berryville and near Bristol along the Tennessee border.
Other tales of giants come from the oral tradition of the Cherokee people of North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. In Old Roots of the Cherokee, as quoted by DNAconsultants.com, we learn of a race of white giants referred to as the Moon People. In some accounts, the Moon People are not reported as giants.
Outside the South, however, native tribes, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Navajo, all report accounts of giants from Ohio to California. Much of these remains have been well-documented throughout history. Rumors about evidence being hidden or covered up also abound, but it’s certainly much easier to dismiss evidence, mainly when it takes us out of our comfort zones and disputes our worldviews.
One horrific account of eight feet giants comes down through history from the Paiute tribe of Nevada. They tell us of a race of red-hair giants that lived in the Lovelock caves of Nevada and were cannibalistic. Some folklorists have recorded beliefs in cannibalistic giants from Florida’s Seminole Indians to native tribes in Washington state. Though the evidence seems to exist that there may have been giants, it’s my hope that many of the cannibal stories were created to teach caution to children and maybe adults (stay on the path, be careful in the woods, don’t go alone, etc.), like “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel.” More recent tales of Bigfoot, Skunk Ape, or Yeti are similar, whether those creatures exist or not. Some may even assert that the American Bigfoot and the giant skeletal remains discovered in the past are one and the same.
Whether we want to accept the skeletal remains of giants that once populated the earth, including America, and perhaps they still do in the form of a nine feet tall hairy beast known as Bigfoot, is totally up to us. Still, when cooler weather invites us outside to enjoy nature when bugs are less, and we build campfires, roast marshmallows, or make smores and begin to share and tell stories, giants make for adrenalin-boosting tales, and who knows? Maybe hiding behind that tree out back, we’ll see some eye shine, hear a whistle, or hear a rock land near the campfire.