Lauren Reid Headshot

Dennis Lloyd Martin was a little less than a week away from his seventh birthday when he went missing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The year was 1969, and the boy had been on a camping trip with his family when he vanished into thin air.

It’s said that Martin and other children at the campsite had hidden in the bushes off a path nearby to try and jump out at their parents in an attempt to scare them. All the children jumped from their hiding spaces, except for Martin. Martin’s father ran along two miles of the trail Martin had hidden off of, searching for the boy and yelling his name, but there was no trace left behind.

Martin’s search holds the record for the largest search party in history of this national park. For more than two weeks, nearly 1,500 people were desperately looking for the little boy. There was never any luck finding him or anything that could explain what happened to him, besides a sock and a shoe.

But how could a little boy get so far in such a small amount of time? How does a human being just vanish with no clues of what happened? Was it the rain that washed away any trace of his footprints? Or is there something about national parks that we just don’t know about?

There are theories of national parks that circulate around missing people. While most believe national parks are just preservations, others, like myself, believe that national parks are homes to more than wild animals. These conspiracy theories claim that there are undomesticated, cannibalistic people living in national parks. It would make sense that small children are targets to these people.

Theorists call these people little feet — a play off of Bigfoot. These people have lived in the wild for so long that they resemble more of an animal than they do a human being. It’s said that they have their own language and a distinct petting zoo smell. Humans with unkempt hair, dirty, naked bodies, running on their hands and feet like animals, have been reported in numerous national parks.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park itself is 522,427 acres. There is so much land and forest that there is no way we know everything about the park or what’s in it. I believe Martin, along with the other four unsolved missing persons cases in the Great Smoky Mountains, didn’t just disappear.

Harold Key, the patriarch of another family that stayed nearby, believes he saw what took Martin. The Keys were just miles away from the Martin family’s campsite. They were out exploring around the time Martin went missing and had no idea about the search until weeks later. Once they saw the news, they called in to report hearing a horrible scream, followed by a ‘figure’ running through the woods near them.

Key’s son described the figure as a bear or bear-like. But Key says he saw a disarranged man, who he thought had been hiding from them. This claim is one of many that helped form the conspiracy theory of wild men living in national parks. It’s believed that the government is well aware of these humans, and that’s why there are distinct paths, campsites and areas that aren’t recommended to be traveled in national parks — to keep us away from what's really out there.

I believe Martin was prey. The little boy was out of sight for no less than five minutes before his father went searching for him. He couldn’t have gone out of earshot in those five minutes, and Key’s report of what he saw is just the cherry on top for me.

I ruled out animals as an explanation for myself because I don’t believe any animal would be that close to a campsite during broad daylight. People don’t just fall off the face of the earth — or the park, in this instance. I think Martin wandered too far off the path.

There are numerous other reports in parks all over the United States that claim having seen people who fit the description of feral people. A lot of these reports have been posted to social media outlets, just to be removed by the platform — a little suspicious to me.

Though these reports have not come out until recently, it would offer an explanation to what happened to Martin decades ago. The officials working on the case decided Martin had to have frozen to death the night he went missing because of a big storm that came through that resulted in temperatures dropping intensely. But, there was never a body found.

With multiple reports similar to those of Key’s, how can we rule out that it isn’t possible? We know that there are tribes of people on other continents who still have not evolved to modern technology, or really anything modern, so how do we know there couldn’t be similar people in our own backyard?

Again, with each park being so vast, and in some areas, heavily forested, I really think there’s no way we, as ordinary citizens, know about everything that’s out there.

Rumor has it... National parks hold secrets, and what happened to Dennis Martin is one of them

Lauren is a senior at UTK this year majoring in journalism. She can be reached at

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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