6 year old Dennis Martin and his family went hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park over Father’s Day weekend 1969. Minutes after Dennis was overheard plotting with his brother and friends to try to prank the adults, he went missing. What happened to Dennis Martin?
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America. One of the most popular destinations within the Smokies is Cades Cove. Some visit to drive the 11 mile loop road to observe wildlife, stop to see historic structures along the way and take photos of the stunning scenery in the fall and spring.
Some visit and stay a while in Cades Cove Campground which offers hiking and biking adventures.
Whether you drive through or choose to camp, you visit Cades Cove because it’s one of the best spots to catch a glimpse of wildlife in the Smokies. You’ll often see deer and black bears along with coyotes, groundhogs, turkeys and raccoons.
The beauty of the Smokies and the love of Cades Cove drew the Martin family from their Knoxville, Tennessee home every year. For generations, men of the Martin family set out for an annual Father’s Day weekend of camping and hiking in the Smokies.
On June 13th, 1969, William Martin and his sons , 6 year old Dennis and 9 year old Douglas were joined by Williams father Clyde for what would be Dennis Martin’s first Father’s Day weekend adventure.
Thy began their adventure in Cades Cove where they set out on their 13 mile hike along the Russell to Spence Field Loop.
Dad and Grandpa Martin were accustomed to the hike. Had done it for decades. 9 year old Douglas had done it before and Dennis kept the pace with his family due to his experience on family hikes.
The group followed the trail through Abrams Creek, passing the Crib Gap Trail junction, and on to the Russell Field.
The Martins arrived at camp in Russell Field on the evening of June 13th where they met up with family friend, Dr. Carter Martin of Huntsville, Alabama and Dr. Martin’s two sons. Dr. Martin and the Martin group shared the last name but there’s no relation between these Martins.
Early on the morning of June 14th, the group began their 90 minute hike along the Appalachian Trail to Spence Field, a popular spot to view mountain laurel in June. When the group arrived at Spence Field, they were met by other members of the family.
After eating a late lunch, Dennis joined in playing with his brothers and Dr. Martin’s children.
Dennis’s father William would later describe the little plot he overheard the boys putting together. William watched as the boys huddled up and joked about running to the edge of the field, sneaking around and carrying out a sneak attack to surprise and scare the grown ups.
The boys told Dennis he needed to walk alone and away from them because he was wearing a bright red t-shirt. They didn’t want that color to spoil their sneak attack.
It was endearing and typical kids plotting in whispers that sounded like gentle yells.
9 year old Douglas Martin teamed up with Dr. Martin’s boys and headed out in one direction, while little Dennis headed off in another alone, wearing that bright red t-shirt. Dennis’s father William watched for a few minutes as Dennis walked away.
Just a few minutes later, when the kids jumped out to scare the grown ups, no one immediately worried that Dennis wasn’t with them. William Martin had seen Dennis walk in another direction and assumed he would be right behind the other boys.
William knew in less than five minutes that somethig was wrong. The family split up and started calling for Dennis but there would be no answer.
Dennis’s father was very concerned because Dennis was quiet but when someone in the family called, he always answered. William and his father Clyde decided to head in opposite directions in their search for Dennis. William headed west and followed the nearby Appalachian Trail and called for Dennis along the way. He walked up and down a one mile stretch before heading west again. He hiked back to Russell Field and back again to Spence Field, thinking if Dennis had gotten confused, he may have followed the path the family had taken earlier in the day.
William Martin returned to Spence Field, alone.
This was 1969 in the middle of a national park. No cell phones or quick way to call for help. Dennis’s grandfather Clyde, hiked to the nearest ranger station at Cades Cove, about 9 miles down the trail.
It would be about 8:30 p.m when Clyde Martin reached the ranger station to report Dennis missing.
Around this time, a storm moved in. Nearly three inches of rain fell which complicated the already difficult search for Dennis. It was dark and he was lost in an area known for it’s complicated terrain and potentially dangerous wildlife.
A few rangers headed out to search the immediate area where Dennis had last been seen in Spence Field and notififed dispatch that they would search through the night.
In 1969 there was no large scale established search and rescue operation plan for the park. Smoky Moutains National Park Chief Ranger Sneddon organized a search crew that set up a headquarters camp in Spence Field and began their search early on June 15th.
The initial search crew consisted of 30 men with 5 leaders and 10 additional crews of 2-4 men. By 1pm, the poorly coordinated search party grew to 240 people with Boy Scouts volunteering to help along with rescue squads from the North Carolina side of the Smokies who brought in Jeeps, trucks and helicopters.
Throughout the next two weeks, more and more volunteers would arrive on site to join in the search for Dennis Martin. Evenually more than 1400 would take part in the search that had no clear leadership and coordination. Day after day more people arrived to join in the effort, unaware that the large number of search teams were likely destroying evidence or any clues that could lead them to Dennis Martin.
As search and rescue efforts continued, there were many suggestions and predictions as to what had happened to Dennis Martin. Suggestions from psychics and fortune tellers who had called in to try to help with the search.
One psychic from Los Angeles called in to say he had seen the boy 2-1/2 miles to the left of where last seen by his father or brother. Dennis had fallen off a steep area and was hung up in the bushes but was alive.
A psychic from New Orleans said authorities should stop looking on the ground…and start looking up in trees and treetops to find Dennis.
In all, there were dozens of calls from psychics who were convinced they had answers that could lead to Dennis. The team leaders followed up on every call and every call led to a dead end
When the search passed the one week mark, the FBI was brought in to investigate whether Dennis’s disappearance could be a kidnapping. FBI Agent Jim Ride headed up the investigation into the Martin Family background, to see if there was any information that could point to Dennis having been kidnapped or hurt by someone known to the Martins.
They found the Martins had no enemies. No one connected to the family appeared suspicious enough for the FBI to investigate. Which led the FBI and the Martins, back to the Smokies.
The Martin Family sat with authorities and went over every detail they could remember from the time they arrived in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, until that fateful last moment when William saw Dennis walk away from the group as he was playing with his brother and friends.
The Martins recounted all that had happened during the initial search for Dennis, in the hours before Clyde Martin reached the ranger station. Dennis went missing around 4:00pm and it would be 8:30pm before Clyde got to the ranger station.
People around Spence Field offered to help look for Dennis as word spread that the family was concerned.
The Martins noted some things were suspicious and asked authorities to investigate.
First, an unnamed man from Dandridge, Tennessee. He had been camped at Spence Field when Dennis went missing and William Martin, Dennis’s father, told park rangers that that this Mr. Doe as he was described, sort of clung to William during most of the search.
Then in a strange twist, an unknown woman claiming to possess extrasensory perception, contacted the Miami Police department and asked to speak with Dennis’s mother. Mrs. Martin agreed to call this woman who told her to watch out for Mr. Doe from Dandrige, Tennessee. Mrs. Martin asked police if Mr. Doe and the lady from Miami could be working together and may have taken Dennis? Authorities followed up on the suggestion but there’s no public record showing they believed this to be suspicious enough to pursue further investigation.
The Martins were desperate to find their son and tried to think of every possible scenario that could end with their son being alive. They asked investigators if someone may have confused the Martin families. Remember Dr. Martin and his sons who had met up with the Martins in Russell field? Mr. and Mrs. Martin wondered, could someone have gotten the two Martin families mixed up and kidnapped the wrong Martin boy? The FBI followed up but there’s no public information that shows any evidence this could be true.
The public can’t know for sure because the FBI has refused to release the official report on their investigation into Dennis’s disappearance. Countless Freedom of Information requests have been filed by reporters, members of law enforcement and others who want to know more of what the FBI found but the report has never been released.
Of particular interest in that file are leads their investigators followed and witnesses they interviewed, including a man named Harold Key.
Harold was from Carthage, Tennessee. He and his family were in the park the day Dennis disappeared. They were in the Sea Branch area near Rowan’s Creek, about a 7 mile hike from Spence Field.
Key told investigators he heard a quote “sickening scream” that afternoon. He and his wife looked around to see what was going on because they worried one of their children was being attacked by a bear. Within a few minutes he spotted a rough looking man moving at a pretty fast pace through the woods nearby and Key said it was obvious the man was avoiding them.
Days later, when Key and his family went home and turned on the news, he learned about the disappearance of Dennis Martin. When Key reported the incident to park officials, they determined that Rowan’s Creek was too far away from Spence Field for the incidents to be connected.
As far as we know, nothing and no one was pursued. But again, this is from information in the national park service report. We don’t know what’s in that ever elusive FBI file on Dennis’s disappearance.
All we know is that the FBI continued to coordinate with Park officials for the duration of the search.
The seventh day of the search for Dennis was Friday, June 20th. An especially difficult day for his family because this was Dennis Martin’s 7th birthday.
This was also the day park ranger records show plans for how to proceed if Dennis was not found alive.
The following day, with more than 1400 volunteers on scene and concerns that the volunteers could do more harm than good…complicating the uncoordinated search, park officials ask that volunteers stop joining the search that had now covered more than 56 square miles.
The cost of the search and the fading hope of finding Dennis alive led to park officials announcing on Wednesday, June 25th that the search for Dennis Martin would be ending soon.
A heartbroken and devastated Martin family broke camp and drove home to Knoxville.
On Sunday, June 29th, Great Smoky Mountain National Park Rangers suspended all major search operations for Dennis Martin and the FBI met with park officials and reported they found no evidence supporting theories Dennis Martin was kidnapped.
Over the next few days, the Martin Family raised a $5,000 reward to be offered for any information leading to their son.
Weeks passed and by September 11, 1969, the park officially closed the search for Dennis Martin.
To this day, no one knows what happened to Dennis. We only have theories, including the possibility that as Dennis walked away he became disoriented and kept wandering in rugged terrain and perished due to the elements or possibly after being attacked by wildlife.
The theory the Martins were more inclined to believe was the theory that would have meant Dennis could have survived and did not perish in the park…they strongly believed he had been kidnapped.
More than 50 years later, the disappearance of Dennis Martin remains a mystery.
There have been tips and leads through the years. Like the tip that came in 1985 from illegal ginseng hunters. A few years after Dennis disappeared the men were hunting illegally when they found a skull and remains of what appeared to be a small boy. The skull was allegedly in an area about three miles from Spence Field, where Dennis was last seen alive.
Fearing arrest, almost two decades passed before one of the men called in the tip. By the time a search team looked for the remains, their search came up empty. Too much time had passed and nothing was found.
We may never know what happened to sweet little Dennis Martin but we do know the search for Dennis was, by park officials own report, a noted failure.
With so many people on the scene, any evidence that could have been preserved after all of the rain the week Dennis disappeared, well it was likely trampled by countless well intended folks who showed up to help.
The failure to properly organize the search for Dennis Martin led the National Park Service to overhaul their search-and-rescue operations throughout the National Park Service. Agencies across the United States and around the world followed their lead.
Due to changes made in large scale search and rescue operations following Dennis Martin’s disappearance in 1969, lives have been saved.
It’s just so tragic that those changes didn’t happen in time to bring Dennis Martin home.
Dennis Lloyd Martin. The Charley Project. Updated March 2018
Dennis Martin Search, National Park Service Chronological Narrative,
Regional Director Southeast Region NPS, Sep. 26, 1969.
The Disappearance of Dennis Lloyd Martin: 50 Years Later. Mysterious Universe. June 2019.
Inland SAR Planning Course (2001). Dennis Martin Case Study. National Search and Rescue School http://online.fliphtml5.com/zdcs/awqm/#p=1
Cades Cove. National Park Service
Russell Field – Spence Field Loop. Hiking In The Smokies.
Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.
Atlantean Twilight, Ambient by Kevin MacLeod; Magic Forest by Sir Cubworth; Wood by Dan Henig; There’s Probably No Time by Chris Zabriske Licensed under Creative Commons.