Today, Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee is a sportsman’s paradise; but it is also very much a haunted place–and some say an ancient curse hangs over this drowned land.
According to an old tradition, way back in December of 1811, the Great Spirit, angry at the Native American tribe who dwelt by the placid stream they called Reelfoot (or perhaps it was Redfoot—can’t be sure about that), extended his great invisible foot and stamped it down on the area where the lake now stands. The mighty Mississippi reversed its course just this once and rushed in to fill the cavity the Great Spirit created. All who lay beneath his invisible foot were crushed or drowned and the people of Reelfoot were no more.
It wasn’t as though the folk residing there hadn’t been warned. By some accounts it was an aged Choctaw medicine man who delivered the prophecy; by others it was none other than the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh himself. Then too, there was a powerful omen: a Great Comet appeared in the heavens terrifying both Red man and White. The cause of the Great Spirit’s wrath was because the chief of the folk of Reelfoot–a clubfooted young man named Kalopin–dared to love a Choctaw Princess, or Beloved Woman. He defied man and god and stole her away in the night and brought her to his village.
Even as Kalopin and his bride celebrated their marriage the earth moved. The Great River—whom the Choctaw called He-Whose-Age-Is-Beyond-Counting (Mishasi-pokni Huch-cha), which their Negro slaves simplified to “Old Man River” and the land-stealing Whites garbled into Mississippi—ran backwards, and the land around the Reelfoot villagers sank beneath their feet, even as the waters of the Big River came in a great wave and drowned them all,
Now there are always those cynics in the crowd, with their bowties and smug assumptions, who call the Legend of Kalopin “fakelore”. But the Great Quake was quite real: the Great Comet was real: both occurred in 1811; the Great River did indeed run backwards; the land around Reelfoot Village did collapse into the shape of a great footprint and the Native Americans who dwelt there and elsewhere along the Mississippi were drowned by the hundreds, perhaps the thousands. But only a few White people died and it was the Whites who wrote the history, so the fellows with bowties and smug assumptions say only a few people ever died in the quake.
However, our concern here is not about the Legend but about the consequences. A curse was laid upon the land—whether by the Choctaw shaman or by Tecumseh we can’t say. The great quake, the awful and sudden death and the eerie stillness that followed as the drowned land settled into a placid body of water, all combined to create a lake like none other.
White hunters, unaware of the curse, soon discovered the drowned land and found it was a great place to hunt game and wild fowl; fishermen came later and found it good for fishing as well; today it is a sportsman’s paradise—for White folk at least. But for Native Americans, a dread lay upon the land and for them it was nothing but bad medicine. So when the Whites came with their Land Stealers (surveying compasses), the natives who held title to the land sold it and were glad to be shed of the cursed ground. But even if Whites loved the lake for its hunting and fishing, throughout the years strange things have happened there, things which even the most rational of men cannot explain.
To this very day hunters sitting in their duck blinds just before dawn will hear an eerie tom-tom beat coming across the misty grey lake; fisherman on the lake say the sound comes from beneath the surface, from where the Indian village once lay. Other sojourners swear to have seen a canoe with two Native Americans quietly gliding across the surface of the lake, only to disappear into the morning mists. Other ghosts and haunts have also been seen elsewhere around the periphery of the lake, as I recount in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.
Then there is the curious case of the Reelfoot eagles. Every year, almost like clockwork, a tribe of eagles arrives to take up residence around the lake. They are magnificent creatures and their noble bearing and befeathered visage is breathtaking to behold.
What is curious is that the eagles always seem to arrive in mid-December, on the anniversary of Great Quake. They dwell by the waters of the lake until March, exactly when the aftershocks of the quake finally ceased. Could they be the spirits of Kalopin and his tribe, reincarnated as the proud feathered creatures we see today?
For more about the Legend of Reefoot Lake and other ghost stories about the haunted lake, see Dixie Spirits and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. On the other hand, you could go visit the lake and see if you too see or hear something strange.
For more information about Reelfoot Lake and its hauntings you can also call Reelfoot Lake State Park Office at: (731) 253-8003.