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The Disappearance of Dennis Martin: Mystery in the Great Smoky Mountains

Dennis "Denny" Martin was six years old when he disappeared.

Dennis "Denny" Martin was six years old when he disappeared.

Father's Day Weekend

On Father’s Day weekend, 1969, six-year-old Dennis Martin went on a camping trip with his family to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. This was a tradition for the Martins, who went there for one weekend each summer and had a family reunion of sorts, with several other relatives meeting them there each year.

This would be the first time that young Dennis, or “Denny” as he was known to his family, would join them.

On the afternoon of June 14th, 1969, the Martin family had set up their campsite in Spence Field. Dennis, along with his older brother Doug and two other boys from another family they were camping with, decided that it would be funny to play a prank on the adults. This prank would entail them going off into the woods to hide and then jumping out at their respective parents, who were sitting around and talking nearby.

It was decided amongst the children that Denny, who was wearing a bright red shirt and green shorts that day, would go off alone and hide, while the other three would stay together. The logic behind this choice was that they believed that Denny’s bright red shirt would give them away. Bill Martin, Denny’s father, last spotted his son stepping off the trail to hide behind a bush.

A few minutes later, when Doug and his friends jumped out at the adults, the latter group laughed and pretended to be surprised. But when Denny failed to appear after several minutes, his father became worried and ventured into the forest to search for him.

He ran down the trail for nearly two miles, calling out for his son the whole way, but he neither saw nor heard Denny at any point. Soon thereafter, they notified the park rangers that he was missing.

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Spence Field, formerly the site of an old Appalachian homestead, is an area characterized by jagged ravines and steep slopes. It’s also home to a wide array of wildlife, from feral hogs to bears to copperhead snakes.

The search for Dennis Martin, to this day the largest search in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was conducted by over 1,400 volunteers, FBI agents, bloodhounds, helicopters, Boy Scouts, and the Green Berets (who were already in the area for training exercises).

Unfortunately, shortly after Denny went missing, a downpour started and it became very windy. Three inches of rain fell in a matter of hours. It’s possible, if not likely, that clues to the boy’s location they might otherwise have come across during their search were washed away beforehand as a result of this storm.

What they did find was a set of child-sized footprints, one bare foot and one wearing an Oxford shoe, leading to a stream. The tracks stopped at this point and there were no further clues in the area as to his whereabouts. It’s worth noting that Denny had been wearing a pair of Oxford shoes the day that he went missing. His parents felt that the tracks were a bit too big to be his, however.

All told, 13,420 man-hours and approximately $70,000 were invested in the search for Dennis Martin, but to no avail. The little boy, who at the time of his disappearance was less than a week away from his 7th birthday, was never seen or heard from again.

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Strange Sighting

A state highway engineer named Harold Key came forward to tell the authorities that he and his family had been visiting Cades Cove the weekend that Denny had disappeared, hoping to find a bear to photograph.

That Saturday, Key recounted, they heard the piercing scream of what sounded like a child. When Key went to investigate, he found only an odd, unkempt man who darted out of the woods. A paper with a hand-drawn map on it was laying on the ground in the area where the man had seemingly been hiding.

The stranger, who was never identified, drove off in a white Chevrolet.

It was later concluded that Key must have been near Sea Branch, a small stream located at least five miles away from where the Martin family had been camping. Both the strange sighting and the chilling scream were ruled out as having anything to do with Denny’s disappearance, in the belief that Denny could not have traveled that far on foot in just a few hours.

Bones Discovered

A ginseng hunter came forward in 1985 claiming to have found a child’s skeleton in Big Hollow, Tremont, roughly 10 miles away from Spence Field, a few years after Denny’s disappearance. He did not notify authorities of this at the time, he explained, because he had been looking to harvest ginseng that day, an illegal activity in the park. However, when that area was searched in 1985, they found nothing.

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Watershed Case

Park officials later admitted that it was a mistake to have had so many searchers out and about, especially so early on in the investigation, and that this likely hindered their efforts to find Dennis. The unsuccessful search for Dennis Martin became a watershed case and changed the way that searches would be conducted in the park from that point on.

Still Unsolved

As of yet, there have been no further leads or developments in this case and Denny’s family hasn’t spoken publicly about his disappearance since the search officially ended back in 1969.

Sadly, the disappearance of six-year-old Dennis Martin, one of the most enduring mysteries of the Great Smoky Mountains, is likely to remain unsolved.

Theories

Over the years, a series of myths, rumors and theories have sprung up around the disappearance of Dennis Martin, ranging from the plausible to the ridiculous. It should be noted that none of these theories are espoused directly by officials or the Martin family.

The video below covers some of these speculations.

Sources

"Missing in the Smokies: Dennis Martin's disappearance still haunts park," Matt Lakin, Knoxville News Sentinel, June 6, 2019

"Inside the disappearance of Dennis Martin," Genevieve Carlton, ati, January 23, 2022

"Disappearance of Dennis Martin," Wikipedia