Newark, Ohio, has its own historical barefooter, John Sparks. In fact, he is “historical” enough to have his very own historical marker:
Here’s what that says:
As a private in the infantry of the 1st United States Regiment, and during the years 1805 to 1807, John Sparks (1758-1846) acted as guide, scout, and hunter for the two expeditions of Zebulon Pike, which helped to open up largely unknown areas in the headwaters of the Mississippi River and also in the far Southwest to the increasing westward expansion of the United States. Sparks spent his later years living on the north banks of the Licking River, and was often seen walking barefoot around Newark. He died on February 28, 1846, and was buried in this cemetery.
There’s actually a bit more to the story than that.
He’s mentioned in the 1881 book History of Licking County, O.: Its Past and Present, compiled by N. N. Hill, Jr.:
One of the “queer” characters around Newark in the early days was John Sparks. He was generally seen barefooted, walking along the streets and in alleys with a fishing pole on his shoulder, for he was a true discipline of Isaac Walton. He had an overpowering repugnance to labor and irresistible vagabonding proclivities. He was born on the south branch of the Potomac in 1758, and when in 1803, President Jefferson organized an exploring expedition to cross the continent, he joined and thus became a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition; from this fact alone, he acquired his importance. The expedition started in the Spring of 1804, and from their next winter’s quarters on the Missouri River, John Sparks was sent back to Washington with dispatches. He arrived late in the summer and was honorably discharged.
Sparks was vigorous, robust, and adapted to a life of hardship and adventure. He had no family, and lived a sort of haphazard, precarious life, dying in 1846.
Another book, John Sparks: Scout/Hunter, Zebulon Montgomery Pike expeditions: forgotten trail blazer, written by Glenn Cunningham in 2003, goes into much more detail. (And it is Mr. Cunningham’s book that led to the historical marker.)
It also includes some other remembrances of Sparks from around 1908 from men who knew kids back when Sparks roamed the city barefoot. Here’s one from William D. Nutter:
Following the Mt. Vernon Road just this side of St. Louisville is where I met with the man Sparks—who was a rather big man. His appearance left a memory that I shall never forget. He was barefooted and bareheaded and carried a fishing pole. We were perfect strangers, but as was the custom of those days, acquaintances soon sprung up; and from then on, ’til his death in 1848, we met quite often. And in fact, we were neighbors for a time before his death.
And here’s one from C. M. Wilson, who was 11 years old when Sparks died:
He took a fancy to me and I often helped him dig bait for fishing and went with him. He had all the clothes he wanted and a good home with his brother, George, just above St. Louisville—whenever he wished to come to it. My understanding is that the forty acres west of John’s grave took off a flat iron piece of ground east of the road from which they made a graveyard. He, as you see, was born ten years before the Revolution, so he was too young to enlist. He was just a good age for the Lewis and Clark explorations and told me a good many Indian stories.
You may have noticed that everybody refers to Sparks being part of the Lewis and Clark expedition (including another quote from his nephew), but the historical marker says the Zebulon Pike expeditions. It turns out that there was no John Sparks in the Lewis and Clark expedition, but that there was a John Sparks in the Zebulon Pike expedition.
Thus, folks figured that that was the expedition he was one, and that is why he has the historical marker.
I’m not so sure—I can construct another possible explanation.
The records of the Zebulon Pike expeditions are fairly complete. They have a lot of detail including a story of having to leave two men behind because of frozen feet. One of those men was John Sparks. Here’s a piece from Pike’s Journal Entry of February 17, 1807:
[T]he other two—Daugherty and Sparks—were unable to come. They said they hailed them with tears of joy, and were in despair when they again left them, with the chance of never seeing them more. They sent on to me some of the bones taken out of their feet, and conjured me by all that was sacred not to leave them to perish far from the civilized world.
Pike did end up rescuing them.
However, I wonder how it is that, if the John Sparks went barefoot in Newark all the time, nobody mentioned that his feet were missing bones? Surely that would have been noticed and commented on, don’t you think?
There is another discrepancy: Sparks’ gravestone says he died in 1848 at the age of 88, which agrees with his being born in 1758. However, the Pike expedition records that in 1806, John Sparks was sworn in as a trial witness and stated that he was 31 years old, which would put the year of his birth to be 1775 or so.
My guess: there was more than one John Sparks. It’s not that uncommon of a name, after all. The Newark John Sparks may have heard about the other one being in one of the major exploratory expeditions, and just started telling stories about it (and picked the wrong expedition—that would explain why all the folks who knew him got the wrong one; they got it straight from his mouth). Over time, nobody would have known otherwise.
So, what’s the truth? I don’t know, and I’m not sure there is any way to know for sure. What I do know is, either way, John Sparks is a colorful, and barefooted, character.