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Shining a light on the legends of the Brown Mountain Lights - Burke County Notebook
Burke County Notebook
'A glimmer' of folklore

Shining a light on the legends of the Brown Mountain Lights - Burke County Notebook

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I grew up hearing stories about the Brown Mountain Lights, and I have always wondered about them. What are they? What is their meaning?

Last month, my children went hiking and swimming in the Linville Gorge with friends. As twilight turned to dusk, two members of their day camping group were gathering sticks on Brown Mountain when they saw two small moving lights that they thought were headlights. The campers realized there was no oncoming vehicle when the lights kept moving but didn’t get any larger or brighter.

One camper, Leigh, said “The best way I can describe the lights ... you know how a diamond shines and there’s a glimmer? Little speckled dots from the diamond? It looked like that.”

The lights moved off the road and over to the water where they floated above a steep drop-off. Their movement was “weird and scary, but neat,” said Leigh, adding that they moved “almost like they were dancing.”

Most often visible around dusk from the Jonas Ridge overlook just north of Morganton, the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights are one of North Carolina’s oldest unexplained scientific phenomena and among its most famous legends.

These enigmatic orbs often don’t appear for weeks at a time. They have been seen from Table Rock to Grandfather Mountain to Blowing Rock, traversing Avery, Burke, Caldwell, and Watauga counties.

These strange appearances have spurred investigation and inquiry since at least the late 1700s, with written records of sightings predating the Revolutionary War. But their existence has never been conclusively explained.

Where science has failed to resolve the mystery of the lights, generations of observers and enthusiasts have given meaning to the phenomenon through local legends and folklore. Some of the more enduring stories are positioned within the accepted beliefs and cultural assumptions of their time and are presented as tragic morality tales.

The oldest known legend tells of a war near the mountain between the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. Some accounts date the war around the year 1200, others closer to 1740. The war is said to have resulted in a truce between the tribes to share a common uninhabited hunting ground. While there was an agreeable resolution to the battle, it took heavy casualties on both sides. The Brown Mountain Lights are said to be the women of the tribes carrying their lanterns on an eternal search for their lost mates, sons, brothers and fathers.

Growing up in Caldwell County, the legend that I heard most was immortalized in a popular bluegrass song called, “The Legend of the Brown Mountain Lights.” Recorded many times since the 1950s by artists including Tommy Faile and the Kingston Trio, the song tells of an enslaved man searching for his owner who lost the way while hunting on the mountain. According to the tale, the “faithful old slave” spent the rest of his life combing the mountain for his missing owner. Loyal even in death, the slave’s spirit continues a never-ending search.

Yet a third tale speaks of a virtuous but ill-fated young wife who met with a grizzly end at the hands of her violent, unfaithful husband. Shortly after telling her friends that she was pregnant, the woman went missing. As local authorities began searching for her, the woman’s husband became increasingly agitated. Shortly afterward, he ran off with another woman, never to be seen or heard from again. The lights are said to be the murdered woman’s spirit, trying to lead authorities to her body.

In life and in literature, the purpose of folklore and folktales is to help us understand the nature of humanity and to create cultural unity through shared beliefs. Such stories were originally passed down by word of mouth or in song, equipping the listener with knowledge of local norms and establishing common ways of understanding and navigating the world.

These legends attempted to portray the lives of indigenous people, African Americans and women, doing so in ways that both revealed and reinforced their social status. The fierce, noble and spiritual Native, the self-sacrificing slave of the old South’s “Lost Cause” narrative and the innocent, helpless, victimized woman were commonly accepted depictions of these marginalized groups when the stories originated.

Pondering the stories that have been told, and thinking about the ones that have not, offers a glimpse into the meaning and methods of life for the early inhabitants and settlers of the area. Whether or not we ever uncover the science behind the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights, the folklore surrounding them provides “a glimmer, little speckled dots” of meaning that chronicle the accepted views and social beliefs of a time gone by.

Leslie McKesson is a member of the Morganton Writers Group.

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