Spooky Legends of Our National Lands

Before the days of social media, the inter­net, tele­vi­sion, or even broad­cast radio, peo­ple passed along sto­ries of unre­solved cir­cum­stances. There are still some things that, despite our mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy, we just can’t explain. Some­times it’s a lack of evi­dence or oth­er times too much time has passed to research the sto­ry. Our coun­try is a place full of mys­tery, folk­lore, and…people that are full of crap.

Among the most inter­est­ing of unsolved mys­ter­ies are the ones that hap­pen in/near our Nation­al Parks, Forests, and His­toric Sites. If you’re a fan of mys­tery, a his­to­ry buff, or just pass­ing through, here are five intrigu­ing Amer­i­can mys­ter­ies that you can explore and inves­ti­gate for yourself.


roanoke-colonyThe Lost Colony at Roanoke; Fort Raleigh Nation­al His­toric Site

In the 1580s, against their bet­ter judg­ment, colonists estab­lished a colony on Roanoke Island, which is now a part of the Out­er Banks of North Car­oli­na. From the very begin­ning of set­tling, colonists expe­ri­enced prob­lems with Native Amer­i­cans, a gen­er­al lack of sup­plies and food stores, and the unfa­mil­iar­i­ty of the area. Sup­plies from Eng­land were promised but nev­er deliv­ered for a vari­ety of rea­sons rang­ing from weath­er con­di­tions to an ongo­ing war with Spain. Final­ly in 1890, when help final­ly arrived, all to be found was a com­plete­ly dis­man­tled vil­lage with no sign of strug­gle. The only mes­sage left was the inscrip­tion “Croa­toan” on a near­by fen­ce­post and “Cro” etched into a near­by tree. The men, think­ing this was a sign that the colonists had moved to near­by Croa­toan Island (now Hat­teras Island) and see­ing the lack of evi­dence of any kind of a strug­gle, decid­ed to depart.

To this day, the­o­ries rage on from the idea that the colonists end­ed up inter­min­gling with near­by Native Amer­i­can tribes to the the­o­ry that the colonists gave up on wait­ing for rein­force­ment sup­plies and tried to return home on their own, sub­se­quent­ly being lost at sea (the area of ocean out­side the Out­er Banks is affec­tion­ate­ly known as “The Grave­yard of the Atlantic” due to its shal­low and unpre­dictable sand bars off­shore). You can learn more by check­ing out Fort Raleigh Nation­al His­toric Site. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out Kill Dev­il Hills, site of the Wright Broth­ers’ first flight, along with sev­er­al oth­er mar­itime won­ders like the Cape Hat­teras Lighthouse.


roy-sullivan-spark-rangerRoy Sul­li­van – The “Spark Ranger”; Shenan­doah Nation­al Park

As the say­ing goes, “light­ning nev­er strikes the same place twice,” but what about the same per­son? Accord­ing to local leg­end (and for awhile, even the Guin­ness Book of World Records), Roy Sul­li­van the man known as “The Spark Ranger” was struck sev­en times. Sul­li­van was a ranger at Shenan­doah Nation­al Park, and he grew up in the forests sur­round­ing the area. He had a hand in devel­op­ing sev­er­al attrac­tions at the park, includ­ing the now famous Sky­line Dri­ve (where has was report­ed­ly struck at least once while driving).

The mys­tery lies in the fact that every sin­gle time that he was sup­pos­ed­ly struck, there were few or no wit­ness­es at all. Roy was a respect­ed man in the area, so his word was tak­en as truth, and his evi­dence (accord­ing to a recent arti­cle, he kept a burnt cam­paign hat and fried wrist­watch with him as keep­sakes) was com­pelling. Also lend­ing cred­i­bil­i­ty to the leg­end is the fact that Sul­li­van, in his wan­ing years, began to exhib­it tell­tale symp­toms of a light­ning strike vic­tim; post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der and cer­tain­ly did not do well with the fair­er sex (the guy was mar­ried four times). Even his death is shroud­ed in mys­tery. He was found in his bed with a gun­shot wound to the head and while his death was ruled a sui­cide (which would be con­sis­tent with the PTSD rumor), there are rum­blings that yet anoth­er wife had grown tired of him and tak­en mat­ters into her own hands.


db-cooperD.B. Coop­er Mys­tery; report­ed­ly near Mount Hood Nation­al For­est, Washington

On Novem­ber 24th, 1971, a man under the alias “Dan Coop­er” board­ed a Boe­ing 727 in Port­land, Ore­gon due to arrive in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton. The man, report­ed by pas­sen­gers on the plane, was cor­dial and qui­et before hijack­ing the plane and sub­se­quent­ly extort­ing $200,000 upon their arrival. After releas­ing the pas­sen­gers, he calm­ly instruct­ed the flight crew to head toward Mex­i­co City, while main­tain­ing a rather low alti­tude. Soon after the sec­ond take-off, the man now known as D.B. Coop­er (due to a hur­ried media mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion) opened the aft airstair and jumped, car­ry­ing the loot and a para­chute. Though the man dis­played what seemed like a fair­ly exten­sive knowl­edge of avi­a­tion, it is wide­ly believed that such a poor­ly equipped per­son could nev­er have sur­vived the night jump in frigid-at-alti­tude tem­per­a­tures. Nev­er­the­less, a large-scale inves­ti­ga­tion was under­gone by the FBI for many years, yield­ing no remains or evi­dence out­side of a bit of debris that may or may not have been part of Cooper’s parachute.

Reen­act­ments and sev­er­al stud­ies have put Cooper’s land­ing area some­where in or near the Washou­gal, Wash­ing­ton area, near the Colum­bia Riv­er. This the­o­ry was aid­ed by the dis­cov­ery of a bag full of cash bear­ing the same ser­i­al num­bers as those giv­en to Coop­er, found on the banks of the Colum­bia by an eight year old boy. If Coop­er indeed sur­vived and land­ed some­where near the Colum­bia Riv­er, the near­by Mount Hood Nation­al For­est would’ve been a great hid­ing place.

Many men have claimed to be the infa­mous hijack­er, includ­ing some on their deathbed, but sub­se­quent inves­ti­ga­tions have nev­er been able to nail down a sus­pect in con­crete. Many oth­er mys­ter­ies sur­round the heist, includ­ing the fact that the man who packed the para­chutes stolen and used by Coop­er was lat­er found dead in his home, a vic­tim of an appar­ent homi­cide. There are a mul­ti­tude of the­o­ries, con­jec­tures, and claims all over the inter­net, so if you’re head­ed to the Pacif­ic North­west and like a good mys­tery, do your home­work. To this day, the D.B. Coop­er case remains the only unsolved case of air pira­cy in Unit­ed States history. 


billy_the_kidThe Leg­end of Brushy Bill Roberts, aka “Bil­ly the Kid”
His­to­ry tells us that William H. Bon­ney, aka “Bil­ly the Kid” was killed by Pat Gar­rett at Fort Sum­n­er, New Mex­i­co in 1881. How­ev­er, in 1948, a man claimed to be the infa­mous gun­slinger, and that Pat Gar­rett had actu­al­ly wrong­ly iden­ti­fied the man that he shot as The Kid. “Brushy” Bill Roberts claimed to William Mor­ri­son, an inves­ti­ga­tor, that he agreed to come for­ward to clear his name and receive the par­don guar­an­teed him by the Gov­er­nor in 1879. Roberts knew many, many things about the life and times of the Kid, and shock­ing­ly revealed to the inves­ti­ga­tor his twen­ty-six bul­let and knife scars.Many of the scars matched loca­tions of known wounds that Bon­ney was said to have sus­tained. He told Mor­ri­son some rather tall tales about what he did after he was sup­pos­ed­ly “killed” by Gar­rett, which includ­ed work­ing with Buf­fa­lo Bill Cody at his Wild West Show and join­ing the Pinkertons.

Despite the ham­my claims, Mor­ri­son believed that much of what the old cow­boy told him could very well be true. After agree­ing to help Roberts to clear his name, Mor­ri­son spoke with liv­ing wit­ness­es to the sup­posed shoot­ing of Bil­ly the Kid and many who knew him before the event. Almost all of them agreed that Roberts could actu­al­ly be Bon­ney. Mor­ri­son also took Roberts to the loca­tions of many of Bonney’s old haunts, includ­ing Fort Sum­n­er and Lin­coln, where Roberts was able to recount exact­ly how the Kid was able to escape cer­tain exe­cu­tion by flee­ing from offi­cers in a har­row­ing event.

Armed with a moun­tain of evi­dence includ­ing signed affi­davits from many of Bonney’s for­mer acquain­tances, Mor­ri­son was able to secure a pri­vate hear­ing with Gov­er­nor Thomas Mabry on the mat­ter. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Mabry did not hold up his end of the “pri­vate” part of the hear­ing, and when Mor­ri­son and Roberts arrived at the Governor’s home, they were dis­mayed to see a ver­i­ta­ble scrum of media, rel­a­tives of many of the key char­ac­ters in the Bon­ney saga, and his­to­ri­ans. Flus­tered, scared, and con­fused (and some say suf­fer­ing from a mild stroke due to the shock), Roberts buck­led under the pres­sure, failed to answer many of the ques­tions, and was basi­cal­ly laughed out of the room with­out ever hav­ing a real chance to prove his iden­ti­ty. One month lat­er, Roberts suf­fered a sud­den heart attack and per­ished, nev­er get­ting a fair chance to clear his name. While the sto­ry of Brushy Bill Roberts and Bil­ly the Kid geo­graph­i­cal­ly spans a great deal of the west­ern Unit­ed States, you should def­i­nite­ly stop by Fort Sum­n­er or Lin­coln, where many of the Kid’s most famous exploits took place. Bon­ney is also buried (if it’s actu­al­ly him…) in Fort Sumner.


lost-dutchman-mineThe Lost Dutch­man Mine

The Super­sti­tion Moun­tains (isn’t the name enough to keep you away?) lie east of Phoenix, Ari­zona, and are home to one of the most fabled “lost gold” leg­ends in his­to­ry. In the late 19th cen­tu­ry, a Ger­man immi­grant named Jacob Waltz found what was said to be a mine full of some of the rich­est gold ore ever found. Waltz being a smart man kept its loca­tion to him­self, and only told of it while on his deathbed. The recip­i­ent of the infor­ma­tion, his care­tak­er, was sub­se­quent­ly unable to locate it. Sev­er­al peo­ple through­out his­to­ry have report­ed find­ing it, and some have even been able to pro­duce very rich gold ore which they claim to have come from the mine. Where the mys­tery gets deep is when con­sid­er­ing the lives lost in the moun­tains. Native Amer­i­cans (notably the Apache) con­sid­ered the moun­tains to be some­thing of a sacred place, and took any­one who dared tread them to task.

While some of the deaths have been attrib­uted to the Apache, many oth­ers have sim­ply been clas­si­fied as sui­cides or acci­dents. Folks have gone miss­ing, only to be found years lat­er as noth­ing but a skele­ton. Bod­ies have been found decap­i­tat­ed or with gun­shot wounds to the head, as behead­ing seems to be a com­mon thread with many of the remains. Even today, peo­ple have gone miss­ing or have per­ished in the moun­tains, often­times with the cause of death being deter­mined as a fall or oth­er nature-relat­ed acci­dent. Despite the inher­ent dan­ger of the area, thrill-seek­ers, hik­ers, and aspir­ing prospec­tors still fre­quent Super­sti­tion Wilder­ness Area hop­ing to find their own lit­tle nugget of history.