Johnson City Press: Fact or fiction? One man's quest to find a silver mine in the Unaka Mountains
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Fact or fiction? One man's quest to find a silver mine in the Unaka Mountains

Jonathan Roberts • Jul 13, 2019 at 8:00 PM

Randall Ledford is determined to find out if the tale of John Swift and his hidden silver mine in the Unaka Mountain Range is true.

The story, as all folktales, has a multitude of variations with one common theme: Somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky or Virginia, there lies a silver mine reportedly untouched for more than 100 years. In Tennessee, legend says Swift’s secret mine is located right in the heart of the Cherokee National Forest in Unicoi County.

Ledford, who’s working on a book about the mine, believes he knows exactly where the mine is.

Careful not to divulge too many details about where the supposed entrance is, Ledford can only say it’s at the top of Unaka Mountain, about seven miles from Rock Creek Recreation Area in Erwin.

“It’s either right on the money and that is the entrance, or it’s all wrong,” Ledford said.

The story is more than just a mine though, with all versions blending fact and speculation.

One version proposes a different motivation for the real-life Limestone Cove Massacre, where eight unarmed civilians were killed by Confederate forces in 1863. History says they were killed because they were going to join the Union Army, but the tale provides another reason. One of the men, B. Blackburn — an actual victim — was said to be related to a man on Swift’s first expedition crew in 1760, J.C. Blackburn, and was in possession of a map to the silver mine.

The Confederates, led by Col. W.A. Witcher, wanted it for themselves and, as the story goes, William Johnson, part of the detachment with Col. Witcher, became owner of the map after the murders. Johnson family lore suggests this was the true cause of the killings, and it’s all told in “Silver in the Unaka,” a book written by a descendent of William Johnson, Hubert Johnson.

Speaking to the Press, Hubert — who goes by Buddy — said the tale has “been relayed through my family for so long I have no choice” but to believe its authenticity. Johnson, however, has had a long and complicated history about hunting the mine and at 81, he's ready to let somebody else take the lead in the hunt for Unaka silver.

Ledford hopes to be that person who finds the mine, and that, after decades of research, he will be able to prove once and for all the story of John Swift and a secret silver mine is more than just a campfire tale.

Doing that, however, takes resources, and Ledford is hoping to raise $6,500 to pay for a digging permit, as he believes the entrance is located on federally owned land in the Cherokee National Forest. He knows it’s a gamble, but he may be on the right track.

In 1983, the United States Department of the Interior conducted a geological survey of the Unaka, where iron and manganese deposits are “known to occur.” In the Garland Prospect — where Johnson and Ledford believe the mine is — the USDI noted that the mine was reportedly mined for silver and, in their survey, they found traces of silver in that mine and in another mine nearby, the Cansler mine, which held a gold and silver prospecting permit until 1982.

Unfortunately for would be treasure-hunters though, those numbers weren’t exactly significant.

“Interest by prospectors is based on historical references to silver rather than geologic investigation,” the report read. “Spectrographically determined silver values did not exceed 0.052 oz/ton in pan concentrates taken from streams draining the prospect and no gold was detected … the reported silver mineralization was not confirmed.”

0.052 ounces per ton of material equals roughly $0.72. Hardly enough to justify a large-scale mining operation, but that doesn’t faze Ledford.

“It makes me feel that the government is hiding something,” Ledford said.

Johnson agreed, calling it a “coverup,” with both men saying they wouldn’t expect the government to be forthcoming about it if there’s as much silver as they believe hidden in the mountains.

Regardless, Ledford hopes that, if he doesn’t find the mine, they’ll be able to make a documentary or a movie about the legend and their quest to find what either doesn’t exist or hasn’t been seen for more than 150 years. Ledford also says that anyone interested in joining the effort can call him at (423-283-7770.

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