top of page

The Cumberland Dragon 

The Article


December 4, 1794: The Caledonian Mercury ran a story entitled “Curious Animal.” The blurb is as follows: 

In February last, a detachment of mounted infantry, commanded by Captain John Beaird, penetrated fifteen miles into the Cumberland Mountain: On Cove Creek, ensign M'Donald and another man, in advance of the party as spies, they discovered a creature about three steps from them: it had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and a light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes of a fiery red. It stood about three minutes in a daring posture (orders being given not to fire a gun except at Indians,) Mr. M'Donald advanced and struck at it with his sword, when it jumped up, at least eight feet, and lit on the same spot of ground, sending forth a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger. The Indians report, that a creature inhabits that part of the mountain, of the above description, which, by its breath, will kill a man, if he does not instantly immerse himself in water.

The tale told bolsters ideas of adventure and journeys to lands unknown to man, a place where the brave venture and may never return. It is the opinion of the author (me) that this is exactly the sentiment the publisher sought to instill in the reader back in 1794, and with some research a more dubious agenda can be speculated…


The History

After the Revolutionary War, westward expansion was the next step for colonizers. Often clashing with the native populations of the area, most notably in the southwestern region with the Cherokee, Men like Capt. John Beaird used their military skills for hire as “Indian fighters.” This places Beaird in the right place at the right time for this newspaper story to be true. He was fighting the Cherokee in Tennessee, and his militia was wreaking havoc across the land, displacing and murdering natives in cold blood. On the night of June 12, 1793, President George Washington’s federal agents were visiting a friendly Cherokee chief named Hanging Maw and other leaders at the town of Coyatee, planning a treaty meeting. Captain Beaird led a renegade militia company charging into the town, killing a dozen people and wounding others, including Hanging Maw. Beaird’s men then burned the goods that the agents had brought as gifts.

The federal government tried Beaird in a military court, but public opinion forced his acquittal. The secretary of the territory reported, “To my great pain, I find, to punish Beaird by law, just now, is out of the question.” The next month, Beaird and his men attacked another Native town and killed half a dozen more people. Clearly, he intended to stir up a war, scotching any treaty that limited white settlement. And it worked. Cherokees counterattacked at Cavett’s Station. That fall, John Sevier led a larger militia force against the Cherokees, driving them further west. (Some authors say Sevier had urged Beaird on in his early attacks against the Cherokee.)


The Monster

The newspaper article tells of a scaly bipedal creature with fiery red eyes and poison venom. As a child of the 90s, this brings to mind that fateful Jurassic Park scene where embryo thief Dennis Nedry falls victim to the Dilophesaurus. Modern pop culture aside, there is a regional mythological precedent within Cherokee lore that may shed some light on the subject. Enter Ustutli, described in Cherokee folklore as the “foot snake.” This creature of legend is a great serpent with flat three-cornered feet (Goosefoot?) that moves in swift strides, ever in pursuit of the brave Cherokee hunter. Also, there is the Ukenta, the great serpent with a magical diamond crest on it’s head who is said to spit poison on any who dare to challenge it.

The Parallels between ancient myth and possible yellow journalism of the time are very interesting. Could the writer of the article have known the stories and traditions? Was it a lucky guess? Was the story somehow true, and were the dark intentions of the Beaird militia enough to open a mythological portal? For a few moments in time, the lines blurred between grisly history and ancient myth. No one can know. Both the newspaper story of the Cumberland Dragon and the legend of Ustitli and Ukenta follow the narrative of a brave hunter meeting a monster, defeating that monster, and going on to use it to further the prosperity of their people.

Possibly, the lore was used and whitewashed in favor of the “heroic” Beaird, the article architect, hoping to inspire more people to join the cause and move west in search of wild wonders and adventure. Was it a masked marketing campaign? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit.


Moving Forward

The story of the Cumberland Dragon, like lots of other cryptid encounters, can be dissected utilizing the politics and sociological themes of their time and place. Most boogeyman narratives, historically, serve to pass on generational knowledge and to keep the children out of danger. In my opinion, this might be the opposite. In my opinion, the article published in 1794 was an allegorical call to action using a civilization’s lore against them and in favor of their oppressors. The Cumberland Dragon may not have been an actual event with an actual creature, but a movement of the time, a movement of aggressive colonial expansion.


Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney

Occoneechee, The Maid of the mystic Lake by Robert Frank Jarrett

bottom of page