Memorable Mountain People - James Speer

This is the strangest story in all Watauga County's history. Trust us. James Speer lived in the Beaver Dam community sometime before the Civil War. As the historian John Preston Arthur put it, he "had no more brains than were absolutely necessary."


James fell in with two crooks. The three of them hatched this plot: They would all go to South Carolina, where James would put lampblack on his face and pose as a slave. The other two would sell him. James would remove the lampblack and escape. When everyone was safely back in Beaver Dam, the money would be split three ways.

When James made it home, he found his partners had indeed divided the money, but only between themselves. Neighbors heard him argue with one of the men at a militia gathering, but that was the last anyone heard of the problem.

Or of James Speer. In 1893, what was believed to be his skeleton was discovered in some rock cliffs in Beaver Da There is a presently lost ballad about James Speer's strange life and death. The late "Tab" Ward of Sugar Grove knew it (and perhaps wrote it) and, hopefully, an old recording of it will someday be discovered.

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