(ODD)yssey, Blog Post

The story of the Tennessee giants

Below is a story about people who, like Sweetums, are oversized. It is an excerpt from my book “Forgotten Tales of Tennessee.”

Tennessee is known for its hearty pioneer families, but a few of its early citizens had reputations as big as the beautiful land they settled. In fact, some would say these men were giants.

At a time when the average male was five feet, six inches tall, two men stood out: Mills Darden, who was seven feet, six inches tall and weighed more than one thousand pounds, and Big Joe Copeland, who was seven feet and three inches tall and weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds.

Mills Darden

Mills Darden, whose name was often misspelled “Miles,” was born in North Carolina in October of 1799 to John and Mary Darden. He came with his family to Lexington, Tennessee, where he died on January 27, 1857.

(Photo by Sonja Meyer Turner from Findagrave.com)

A retrospective article in the Lexington Reporter on August 27, 1875, headlined “The Largest Man in the World” stated: “We find the following in an old scrapbook without date. Probably some of our readers know something about him: ‘The funeral services of Mr. Miles Darden, who died at his residence in Henderson county, was preached on the fourth Sunday in June, 5 miles southwest of Lexington, Tenn. The Masonic fraternity were in attendance, in full regalia, on the occasion. The deceased was beyond all question the largest man in the world. His girth was 7 feet 6 inches — two inches higher than Porter, the celebrated Kentucky giant. His weight was a fraction over 1000 pounds! It took over a hundred feet of plank to make is coffin; he measured around the waist 6 feet, 4 inches.’ — West Tennessee Journal.”

The month of the funeral was incorrect, but no one disputes the other information in the initial article. The Reporter continued: “Several of his children still reside in the county, also his widow. His weight was never known, as he never permitted himself to be weighed, but was guessed to be about 1000 pounds and many of the citizens of this town and county have seen him pull an ox anywhere he desired which would use all its power against him. The tailor here, Mr. Pinkaton, says it took 10 yards of cloth to make a coat for him. His mode of traveling in the latter part of his life was in a wagon as nothing else could stand his weight. Mr. Wm. Brooks, who sold the funeral material, we learn that 16 yards of 4-4 cambric was used for the winding sheet; 17 yards of 34 flannel for lining coffin; three pounds of nails were used in making the coffin; 44-yards of ribbon were used for trimming and 4 boxes of tacks in fastening the lining and covering.”

(Photo by Sonja Meyer Turner from Findagrave.com)

Before his death, Mills, a farmer and innkeeper, had become famous throughout the world. According to the book Every Day in Tennessee History by James Jones, “a typical Miles Darden breakfast consisted of a dozen eggs, two quarts of coffee, a gallon of water, and 30 buttered biscuits.”

Mills was married and had several children with his wife Mary, who died in 1837.  Mills was four feet, eleven inches tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. The tallest of the Darden sons was five feet, eleven inches tall.

Mills’ entry in the 1892 volume of Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography stated: “DARDEN, Miles, giant, b. in North Carolina is 1798; d. in Henderson county, Tenn., 28 Jun., 1857. He wits seven feet six inches in height, and at his death weighed more than one thousand pounds. Until 1838 he was active, energetic, and able to labor, but from that time was obliged to remain at home, or be moved about in a wagon. In 1850 it required thirteen and is halt yards of cloth, one yard wide, to make him as coat. His coffin was eight feet long, thirty-five inches deep, thirty-two inches across the breast, eighteen across tie bead, and fourteen across.”

As Mills grew older, he refused to be weighed. According to legend, people who lived in Lexington guessed Mills’ weight by marking the depth the wagon wheels had sunk when Mills was in it and then loading it with stones to see how many it took to match the same depth. Using this method, they recorded his weight at one thousand pounds.

Mills’ tombstone said he was “aged 57 years, 3 months and 16 days.” He was buried about six miles southwest of Lexington on what is now private property on Mills Darden Cemetery Road.

Big Joe

Joseph Jefferson Copeland, known as “Big Joe,” was born in 1783 in Jefferson County, the son of Colonel Stephen Copeland, the first settler of Overton County, Tennessee, where Joe died on April 17, 1857.

Big Joe was reportedly seven feet, three inches tall and weighed 350 pounds. His wife, a Cherokee named Hannah Thatcher Ward Carrier, also was said to weigh about 350 pounds. Their children were James Richardson, Moses Wilkerson, Stephen Harrison, William Ellison, Solomon Addison, Jefferson Madison, Joseph Anderson, Louisa, Agnes, Sally and Octavia.

According to “Lend an Ear: Heritage of the Tennessee Upper Cumberland, an article edited by Calvin Dickinson, Larry Whiteaker, Leo McGee and Homer Kemp, Big Joe was known for cracking walnuts with his teeth, lifting 40-gallon kegs of brandy and lifting 200 pounds hogs from a pen to put them on the scales. The article stated that a strong man rode a horse from Virginia to fight Big Joe but changed his mind upon seeing the giant.

Another legend tells that Big Joe, also a legendary hunter, killed sixty-two bears one winter.

Big Joe is said to have owned most of the land in the Copeland Cove area. Some historians believe he is buried in a now unmarked grave in Roaring River Cemetery off Old Highway 42 in Overton, where he spent many hours roaming.

Of the sons who survived him, all were reportedly more than six feet tall. Stephen was allegedly seven feet, while Joseph Anderson’s enlistment papers listed him at six feet four inches. William Ellison, known as “Little Ellis,” would eventually weigh 360 pounds.

2 thoughts on “The story of the Tennessee giants”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.