Family donates photo of Tiger Whitehead to Archives of Appalachia

Published 12:24 pm Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Photo by Brandon Hicks For more photos visit

A tiny man with a big story.
That could be one way to describe James “Tiger” Whitehead, a local legend who is a noted hunter having reportedly killed 99 bears and is also the individual who Tiger Creek and Tiger Valley is named after.
On Tuesday afternoon, a local family donated an original photograph of Whitehead to the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.
V. Sandy Hopson Banks, Sherry Freeman and Brian Freeman presented the photograph of Whitehead to Collections Archivist Jen Bingham to be kept in the archives.
The photograph shows Whitehead in his elder years staring directly into the camera. He is dressed in a dark coat and hat with a white shirt.
“He was a tiny man,” Banks said. “When you hear the story about him, you expect him to be larger than he was.”
Banks said the photo had been passed down through her family for generations. She said she made the decision to donate it to the archives to keep it safe.
“I am a little sad,” she said. “We have had it for so long, but I want it to be safe.”
Banks said it was possible Whitehead was a relation since the family had the picture for so long.
“The picture has been around for as long as I have,” Banks said. “It was always hanging in the spare bedroom, and I would ask Daddy who that was. He would say it was Tiger Whitehead and then tell me the story.”
Whitehead operated a mill, but was most well known for being a bear hunter. Legend is he killed 99 bears during his bear hunting career. When he became sick and it became clear he wasn’t going to survive, his friends trapped a bear cub and brought it to him to kill to hit the 100 mark.
The traditional story is Whitehead declined to kill the bear because it was “free and running wild,” so the bear was released.
The episode was also recorded in a Johnny Cash song, “Tiger Whitehead.”
Whitehead earned his nickname in another hunting escapade. Banks said Whitehead had been contacted to find a tiger that had escaped from a circus. When he was successful, he was dubbed “Tiger” and it stuck with him for years.
Whitehead was born in 1819 and died in 1905. He is buried in a small cemetery at the top of Tiger Creek with a tombstone calling him “A Noted Hunter.” He is buried next to his wife Sally, who was named “the mother of all mankind” on her tombstone after she reportedly nursed two bear cubs and a fawn back to health after being abandoned by their mothers.
Banks said she believed her family would have been happy with her decision to donate the photo to the archives.
“It is our history,” she said. “It is history to be shared. It needs to be protected.”
Bingham estimated the picture to have been made in the late 1800s to early 1900s. She said the photo would be stored in the archives and would be used for research or exhibits. She noted the archives were open to the public.
“This is something that has a lot of cultural and historical meaning,” Bingham said. “For people to be able to see the original means a lot. There is a story that goes along with this, and it is about the local community.”

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