The Disappearance of Dennis Martin

Six-year-old Dennis Martin went camping with older family members in June 1969. He was last seen preparing to spring a surprise on his father and grandfather alongside his brother and other children. He never emerged from his hiding place and despite the largest search in the history of the national park, no trace of him was ever found.

The Martin family, from Knoxville, had a long-established traditional of the male members of the family taking a camping trip to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park to celebrate Father’s Day. Dennis traveled to the park for his first camping trip alongside his father, grandfather and older brother, initially arriving at Cades Cove. The group then hiked to Russell Field, where they camped overnight. The following morning they set off for Spence Field, a highland meadow and popular camping spot bisected by the famous Appalachian Trail.

Dennis Martin, photographed shortly before his disappearance.

On arrival, the two Martin children were allowed to play with others camping nearby. His father watched the boy disappear into bushes to hide alongside the other children as they set about springing a surprise on the adults. However, while the other children quickly emerged, Dennis did not. Immediately his father and grandfather began searching for him, with his father running two miles along the trail shouting his name before returning to camp. His grandfather hiked out to raise the alarm, arriving at Cades Cove ranger station at around 8:30 pm. 

An extensive search was launched, with National Park Service personnel supplemented by National Guard troops and Green Berets. In total, around 1,400 searchers found no sign of the child. The search was later criticised, in part due to the large number of personnel involved potentially obscuring tracks in ground that was already difficult to track over due to heavy rain. The tracks of a child were found but dismissed as belonging to one of the Boy Scouts that were helping with the search, however the tracks were later reported to have come from a child who was missing one shoe and which disappeared on the banks of a stream, suggesting they likely belonged to Martin. This was supported when a shoe and sock were found three days into the search.

US Army Green Berets during the search. Image: Knoxville News Archive

Despite searchers continuing their effort for over two weeks, no further trace of Martin was ever found. A $5,000 reward offered by the family turned up a number of calls from psychics, but never anything that led to a breakthrough. Some years later a man who had been illegally collecting ginseng in the park claimed to have come across the skeletal remains of a child but failed to inform authorities until 1985 for fear of prosecution. When followed up, searchers again drew a blank.

In regards to what happened to the boy, most researchers believe that he became disorientated and lost after straying away from camp, or that he lost his footing and fell down one of the numerous steep slopes and ravines in the area. Despite wearing a bright red shirt that should have been easy for searchers to spot, Martin’s small size and the thick brush in the area means a body could well have been overlooked. Other researchers points to the presence of black bears in the area, as well as copperheads and feral pigs. One underweight bear had been caught in a boar trap in the area two weeks earlier before being released, suggesting that the animals may have been struggling to find enough food.

Dennis Martin’s father assisting police with the initial search. Image: Knoxville News Archive

Martin’s father, however, believes that his son was taken by another person. This theory appears to be based largely on the eyewitness account of Harold Key, a visitor to the park that reported hearing a loud scream on the afternoon Martin disappeared. Shortly after, he claims to have seen a disheveled man, covered in hair and attempting to remain unseen, fleeing through the woods. Key’s family elaborated than the figure had a red object slung over his shoulder, matching the clothing Martin was wearing.

Despite the report, FBI investigators ultimately dismissed it, given that the sighting had taken place more than five miles from where Martin had vanished and Key was unclear on the timeline. Key later speculated that the man may have been a moonshiner, explaining his reluctance to be seen. One retired park ranger lamented the failure to properly follow up either the footprints or the sighting of the rough-looking man. He arguing that as the location of the sighting was downhill from where Martin disappeared it was more than reasonable for a relatively fit individual to cover that distance in the time frame, even carrying a child.

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