Ancient Footpaths of the Cherokee
Article Originally Published in the Smoky Mountain News
Editor’s note: In April 2009, the non-profit organization Wild South was notified by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that it and partner organizations Mountain Stewards and the Southeastern Anthropological Institute had been awarded a grant to complete a project called the Trails of the Middle, Valley and Out Town Cherokee Settlements. What began as a project to reconstruct the trail and road system of the Cherokee Nation in Western North Carolina and surrounding states became a journey of geographical time travel. The many thousands of rare archives scattered across the eastern United States that proved “who, what, why, when and where” also revealed new information as to what transpired on and around these Cherokee trails that we were mapping.
By Lamar Marshall • Contributing writer
It was a hot day even at 5,000 feet elevation when we parked the car at Indian Gap on the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains and began mapping the route of the ancient Indian Gap trail that connected the Cherokee claims and hunting grounds of Kentucky with the Middle and Out Town Cherokee settlements.
Armed with 10 years of research, 50 years of cross-country experience, maps, GPS, food and water, the two-person Wild South team (Duke intern Kevin Lloyd and myself) started south toward Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, which lay about 14 miles away. Of course, it would take many days to map the route across the rugged terrain we were about to encounter.
We slid down the mountainside on slick, rocky talus, grabbing hold of tree after tree to prevent us from falling. Eventually our descending compass course intersected the bed of the Oconaluftee Turnpike, a road that was built along portions of the Indian trail in the early 1800s. We attempted to walk along the centerline of the long-abandoned roadbed that contoured down the mountain towards Beech Flats.
I am sure that the original and oldest sections of the trail followed the drainage up where it crosses modern U.S. 441. More than one early record notes that Cherokees rode and walked straight up and over the mountains. The English complained that they couldn’t follow the steep Cherokee trails on horseback, so they switch-backed up the mountains to lessen the grade. Some of the trails between deadly mountain precipices were so narrow that terrified horses, on approaching from opposite directions and being forced to pass one another, rubbed each other’s hair off. As Cherokee trails were enlarged and upgraded for pack horses and wagons, they were sometimes lengthened to lessen the steep grades.
What had begun as a fairly open road soon vanished in chest high stinging nettle and treacherous, hidden, wet rocks. We inched our way along, sliding our boots over the slick rocks and taking GPS waypoints every few hundred yards, our legs burning like fire. The quarter mile of nettles yielded to a hundred years of encroaching rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets that obviously only rabbits, short bears or the Cherokee Little People could negotiate. We climbed over, detoured around and eventually found that the best way to move ahead and make progress was on our bellies. Our backpacks hung up on the lowest limbs and we detoured around steaming piles of bear scat. The black bears, it seems, regularly used the old turnpike as a main travel-way.
This didn’t make us feel overly safe as we would certainly be eaten before we could extract ourselves from the impenetrable thickets. True, the bear would probably only have gotten one of us, but as I was 61, I’m not sure that I could have outrun a 20-year-old intern. He attempted to scare any rambling bears whom we might run into by yelling “Heyyyyyy Bear.” I wondered if the numerous raw garlic cloves on my sandwiches would repel large omnivores or just make their mouth water for a human condiment.
The weeks of fieldwork went by and we negotiated more of the same on other trails. One trail over the Snowbird Mountains crisscrossed a creek 18 times within a couple of miles. I left Kevin at lunch one day to GPS a trail and was jogging back thinking how tough and in shape I was for an aging redneck. At that instant I tripped on a branch, dove headlong and hit the rocky trail face first, GPS, pen, and trail book scattering in every direction. I bruised both shins and every one of the thousand rhododendron snags that my shins hung up on the rest of the day reminded me that “pride goeth before a fall.”
I got stung over a dozen times by yellow jackets on four different days, and was near hypothermia from a blinding rain storm that took us by surprise on Chunky Gal Mountain. We never stepped on a timber rattler, though old timers warned us religiously to beware, the mountains were full of them and that a strike from a large rattler could knock a full grown man to the ground. After seeing a road-killed ratter that looked like the leg of a hog, I dug through my many boxes of old, outdoor gear and found my camouflaged snake leggings. Being a flat-land Alabama refugee, I didn’t think I would need those up here in the mountains. I was wrong.
Those were some of the harder days, but the many sunny days of immersion in the wild Appalachian mountains overshadowed them. I leaned up and became much stronger with the intense climbing up and down mountains and tangles of laurel and rhododendron. This is not easy work. Researching and documenting Indian trails requires an extensive knowledge of cross country navigation, surveying skills, historic map collections, and state and federal archives and physical ability.
It took many years of studying rare historic maps, records and documents to lay the groundwork that would enable us to produce a master map whereby we could overlay a network of old Indian trails on top of modern roadmaps. What is beginning to unfold is clear evidence that the main arteries of our 20th century road system were built directly on Cherokee trails and corridors. The evolution of our modern highway system originated from a continent-wide, aboriginal trail system that connected Native America before De Soto, Columbus, the Vikings and all other uninvited visitors who used the words “first discovered” even though these words were misnomers. It is obvious that Indians discovered America several thousand years before Europeans invented the sail and recruited sailors to transport their illegal immigrants.
With the mapping of these trails, we can now begin to add a missing dimension to the emerging story of Cherokee geography and hopefully come up with a snapshot of the cultural and ancestral landscape. This mechanical beginning will not be complete without the help of the older generation of Cherokee people and the collective memory that recalls the trails and roads that their parents and grandparents used.
After a year and a half, trails have been mapped across the Great Smoky, Nantahala, Cowee, Snowbird and Blue Ridge Mountains. A subtotal shows that there are about 148 miles of known Indian trails and corridors on the Pisgah, Nantahala and Cherokee national forests. U.S. Forest Service Archaeologist Rodney Snedeker has assisted Wild South in the trails research and plans to incorporate the final maps and reports into forest planning as required by the National Historic Preservation Act. Though many trail-beds have been erased by agriculture and development, some trails were simply abandoned in the forests or survived as unpaved forest service roads. Others became our modern paved roads and major highways.
Success is measured by the identification, interpretation and designation of a historic trail. Wild South began historic trail mapping in north Alabama where 200 miles of Cherokee Indian trails were researched, identified and field mapped. Several hundred yards of the original Cherokee wagon road from Gunter’s Landing to Fort Payne was discovered in the woods of Guntersville State Park. Working with the Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association, the findings were incorporated into a 300-page report that documented the removal of 1,100 Cherokee Indians in 1838 from Fort Payne, Ala., to the Tennessee state line. Other state Trail of Tears groups are mapping additional sections of the route between there and Oklahoma. To the Cherokees who were forced west, the trail became known as “The Trail Where They Cried.”
The same trails that had been here for millennia were used by migrating settlers before and after the time of Indian Removal in 1838. By then, most foot and horse trails had been improved for wagons. A number of them were “cut out” by American armies during the Cherokee War of 1776 to 1786. Many of the roads that were here in 1838 were used in the Civil War, and those used in the Civil War were still in use when the U.S. Geological Survey began its systematic topographic mapping in the 1880s, providing us with a snapshot of the 19th century road system.
Next, these same roads were graded, graveled, widened and paved for automobiles. Some major Cherokee trails remain deeply entrenched on National Forests and private lands. Before the era of blasting away mountains and arbitrarily laying interstates from points A to B, people followed the natural, flowing geography of the land through valley corridors, mountain gaps and shallow fords. Therefore, Indian trails represent original America, long before the era of strip malls and lifeless ribbons of asphalt.
By walking these ancient trails, we are traveling through corridors of time. Today, people can stand in the deeply worn recesses of these travel ways and look at the surrounding mountains with the assurance that they are seeing from exactly the same viewpoint, the shapes, colors, ridge tops, balds and wooded slopes that were seen by the Cherokee a thousand years ago as he or she walked in this same spot. I once rode by horseback down a remote and high mountain trail deep in the Smoky Mountains behind three Cherokees at dusk. There was a distinct feeling that this moment could have been in the year 1700, and we would soon smell the smoke of a hundred fires as it hung suspended over an Indian village in a valley below.
Along these trails are the blood, sweat and tears of those who lived, laughed and died here. Their bare feet, moccasins and horses hooves touched the earth that yet remains. The trails were the travel arteries of the land and they are fibers that connect this generation with the history of the land.
The history, like the rugged mountains, is rough, challenging and not always easy to revisit. Most people living in WNC know little of the story of its painful settlement and the events that transpired across the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Few people are aware that the most powerful army in the world invaded what would become Macon and Jackson counties in 1761 and burned 50 or more towns of the Cherokee Nation in order to make them subservient to the King of England. Or that in 1776 those British-Americans who were rebelling against the King would send three armies comprised of militia from three colonies and the help of Georgia to burn 36 more Cherokee towns to destroy the Cherokee-British alliance and punish the Cherokees for attacking illegal settlements and encroachments on Indian lands.
In 1820 there were Cherokee citizens, in Macon and Jackson counties who had their family farms stolen out from under them by locals who defied federal law and trampled the Constitution. When these U.S. citizens got an attorney and defended their private property rights through legal recourse, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the illegal sales and confiscation. The citizens were paid a pittance and kicked off their land. They were forced to moved away and after that, forced to move away again. If this happened today, the public outcry would ring from coast to coast. It would be illegal, unthinkable and no doubt the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn such an insidious violation of constitutional rights.
Yet it happened to Cherokee citizens, and because they were a non-white minority, they were stripped of the very rights that were guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The white minority and missionaries who tried to fight for Indian rights were overwhelmed by the public tide of greed and racism.