As more settlers came into the Pee Dee River valleys, it became necessary to divide what was then Anson County into smaller counties. In 1779, Richmond and Montgomery counties branched off the mother county of Anson.
More and more small farms sprung up along the many small rivers and creeks of the new counties. Places that, for centuries, had been inhabited by Indians and a few white trappers were now small farms.
For years, Indians had hunted and trapped animals in the Pee Dee region for their survival. Many Indian legends tell of the wild deer, bear, panthers, wildcats and wolves that roamed the vast area.
As the white settlers cleared more land for their crops along the Pee Dee and its tributaries, the larger wild animal population began to shrink. Why, some folks said that within 100 years, over 98 percent of the bear population had been killed, or had made their way to the western mountains or to the swamps of the coast.
From the late 1800s ‘til the early 1900s, only occasional sightings of large wild animals were reported. However, there were a few reports of bears and panthers killing and carrying off livestock in all the counties along the Pee Dee River.
One old river story tells of a rather large male black bear that still roamed up and down the rivers and streams of Richmond and Montgomery counties. He got to being called “Old Mose” because he had no set territorial route, but just seemed to “mosey around” and appear when least expected.
Things went fairly well for the old bruin until people’s livestock started being killed and drug off on a regular basis. Local hunters got together and managed to track and kill a large panther but the livestock killing didn’t stop.
Finally, large bear tracks were spotted beside a livestock carcass. Word got out that Old Mose was the likely culprit. With that, hunters and trackers gathered to track down and kill Old Mose — but, as always, he proved to be elusive and savvy about avoiding any hunters. You see, that was part of Old Mose’s legend, that was he could appear and disappear at his own will.
As time went by and more livestock were killed, folks got desperate. They began to leave poisoned carcasses around but Old Mose wouldn’t come near them. No siree, he was too smart for that.
Then bear traps were set along edges of fields and in creek beds in hopes of catching the old bruin.
It was in one of these creek traps that Old Mose just happened to get caught. He was spotted in the trap by a young boy who was walking up the dry creek looking for arrowheads. The boy took off like a scared rabbit to tell the men of the community about the large bear that he had seen in the trap. Several of the men grabbed their guns and headed to the creek bed, but when they got there, Old Mose, why, he was already gone. Seemed he had drug the heavy trap some distance from where it had been originally set. The only thing left in the trap was two bloody bear toes. Old Mose had escaped, but with a price. From then on, the story goes that Mose left his unique footprint — a mangled left hind paw with only three toes — wherever he went.
It seems for several years the livestock killing stopped. Folks just thought Old Mose had left the area or died.
Time went on and there was a farming family living on Thickety Creek in Montgomery County, just north of the Richmond County line. They were the John and Temperence (Tempy) Yarbrough family. They had been blessed with 10 healthy children until one summer evening, the Lord called one of the children home.
The story goes that one hot summer Sunday afternoon, the Yarbrough family was sitting around talking when someone suggested that they cut a watermelon from out of their patch. The second-born child, Elisha, volunteered to go down by the creek and pull one.
Seems everyone continued on with what they were doing while waiting for Elisha to return with the melon.
Some time had passed and one of the other children asked if Elisha had got back with the watermelon. Why, even Tempy started thinking that Elisha should have been back by now. She stuck her head out the door and hollered, “Elisha, Elisha, where you at boy?” But he didn’t answer.
Won’t long, John and some of the other children headed on down to the watermelon patch to look for Elisha but he was nowhere to be found. Why, they looked and hollered ‘til it started to get dark and they called off the search.
John and Tempy couldn’t sleep a wink that hot summer night from wondering where their boy had gone.
At daylight the next morning, all the family headed back down to the watermelon patch to search for Elisha. Soon someone hollered out, “We found him!” Tempy’s heart was overjoyed until she saw — lying there in the edge of the woods — her breathless Elisha, all cut up something bad. John said it looked like the boy had been mauled by a bear.
They carried Elisha’s lifeless body back to the house. His body was cleaned up and he was buried the next day in McCallum graveyard.
After the funeral, John and others gathered at the watermelon patch looking for signs of what might have happened to poor Elisha.
They knew that there were still a few bears in the woods between them and the Pee Dee River, but they usually stayed far away. As they searched the area, they spotted bear tracks. Further investigation showed the bear had only three toes on one of his back paws. One of the men in the group said that was the exact track that was left when they caught Old Mose in the bear trap a few years back. Could this be the return of Old Mose after all these years?
The next few weeks found hunters and trackers throughout the area trying their best to pick up Old Mose’s tracks. Why, they even turned out a pack of dogs, but try as they may, the animal could not be found. He had vanished as quickly as he had appeared.
Later, folks just figured the bear was after a watermelon, too, and Elisha must have just spooked him. Old Mose, nor any three-toed bear, was never spotted around the Thickety Creek area ever again.
Well folks, if’en you think this here story is a whopper, then how many legends do you think ever shrink?
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writers’ Club, the Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and co-author of the new book, “Just Passing Time Together.”