Our March 31 article on Pond Mountain in northwestern Ashe County mentioned Wilkes County native Wilburn Waters, for whom Wilburn Ridge in Virginia’s nearby Grayson Highlands State Park is named.
Waters and his exploits as a bear and wolf hunter in the early- and mid-1800s were recorded in a biography written by his friend, Charles B. Coale, a newspaper editor in Abingdon, Va., for over 30 years.
Coale’s “The Life and Adventures of Wilburn Waters: The Famous Hunter and Trapper of White Top Mountain” is written in the glorified style that lifted some figures from American history to legendary status. It was first published in 1878, ironically a year before both Waters and Coale died.
Broader awareness of the Wilburn Waters story was revived in 1960, when the Rev. M.D. Hart, a Baptist minister in Ashe, reprinted Coale’s biography and added a chapter about Waters’ last days and burial.
This was during the period when famous hunters from the past like Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett rose to pop-culture fame.
Hart raised money for a unique monument on Waters’ grave, a life-size black bear on a large base of stone blocks. The grave is atop a hill above Big Horse Creek in the Tuckerdale community of northwestern Ashe. Relatives of Waters are buried nearby.
Waters was a prolific hunter of bears and wolves in the period when they were viewed as a menace and county governments paid a bounty for their pelts. In 1801, the legislature authorized Ashe County government to levy a tax for funding these bounties.
Early Wilkes County records document that Waters was the son of John P. Waters and Elizabeth Collum, who apparently lived together as husband and wife on Mulberry Creek and owned property there. They weren’t legally married because law prohibited marriage between whites and non-whites.
According to Coale, Waters’ mother was part Catawba Indian. There are records that indicate Collum’s father was Cherokee.
According to Coale, John Waters left Wilkes with some of the couple’s children when Collum died. The Wilkes County Court ordered that constable John Chambers bring Collum’s children to court to be “bound out” to adult caretakers, as was customary with orphans.
Wilburn Waters lived in a series of households in Wilkes and what now is Alleghany counties while bound out, acquiring hunting skills along the way. He moved to White Top Mountain in 1832, when he was about 20, and became known as “the hunter hermit of White Top.”
Waters also became affiliated with Methodism from attending a camp meeting and joined a Methodist church in Ashe.
According to his obituary, in the Abingdon Standard, Waters died from nose cancer at the home of his sister, Zelphia Waters, on Big Horse Creek in Ashe. He was 66.