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.
The 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 – 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.
D.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.
The 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.
The 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.