Cherokee Trails Project Uncovers Lost Cherokee Town

don_wells_tom_belt_robert_wellsAdditional Discovery of Trails and 1837 Government Spy Mission

by Lamar Marshall, Wild South Cultural Heritage Director

“Trails of the Middle, Valley and Out Town Cherokee Settlements” is a partner project of The Mountain Stewards and Wild South that aims to document the historic native trails that connect Western Northern Carolina.

The project is being finalized for presentation to the Cherokee Preservation Foundation who funded the project and the Tribal Heritage Preservation Office who will manage the distribution and access to the work.

Pictured: Don Wells (left) and Robert Wells (right) of partner Mountain Stewards with Tom Belt (center), Cherokee Language Revitalization Program talk trails.

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The project is multi-functional. The trails mapped across North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest will mandate the U.S. Forest Service to protect and restore the historical context of Cherokee trail corridors. The project also contains great potential for increased regional heritage tourism. Yet, while the project will yield very rare records and documents, they will not be made available to the public because of their archaeological, sacred or sensitive nature.

Most importantly, our work has introduced us to traditional Cherokee speakers who help us to gain a better understanding of the Cherokee worldview and the ecological paradise that was and is the greatest asset of Western North Carolina. The Cherokee language is the key to understanding the economy and philosophy of a life-style that was much different than that which evolved in Europe.

trail_trees_kituhwaThese Cherokee trails played a critical role in the European and Anglo-European’s idea of “Manifest Destiny.” The British saw it as the “American Canaan,” or European “Promised Land.” For thousands of years, the heart of the Cherokee Nation was a stronghold safely hidden beyond walls of high, barrier mountains accessible only by narrow trails that armies depending on supply wagons could not cross. Once those trails were widened for trade and traders, the British Trojan Horse was established.

Today, we have a documented, expandable base of intriguing Cherokee geography that can be used to teach children and design outdoor field trips. Fifteen major trails have been documented and mapped from the Balsams, Great Smoky, Blue Ridge, and Unaka Mountains.

During the process of researching thousands of maps and records, we uncovered some previously lost historical places and trails. “Tillinoah Old Town” has been identified as being on the upper headwaters of the Tuckasegee River. According to the Cherokee, the entire corridor of the Tuckasegee River had special significance in regards to their ancient legends about the area between the Balsam Mountains and Toxaway area.

This Tuckasegee corridor crossed the Blue Ridge near Cashiers and connected to the Lower Cherokee Towns including Keowee and the site of Fort Prince George. We found that a Lower Cherokee named Black Fox had a hunting camp on the Blue Ridge near Great Hogback Mountain. In addition, we discovered the first historical reference to the Cowee Path following Green’s Creek.

Spying on the Cherokee

Our research turned up some sensational and previously unanalyzed history regarding Cherokee Removal. In 1837, the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers set up a base of covert operations to spy on the Cherokee Nation in preparation for removal.
The Army sent three undercover surveying teams to map the trails and mark out wagon roads for military use. They were to keep “voluminous notes” on everything they encountered, however trivial it might seem. They wrote down everything they saw or could find out about the Cherokees.

The Army wanted to know how many warriors could be assembled, where Indian houses were located, and whether the Cherokees were inclined to resist removal. It was proposed that special agents be sent into the “nation” to buy up all their corn “at any price” so they could starve them if they resisted being removed.

“The passes of the mountains will be noted and located by a judicious description, the character of the roads or trails by reference to their capability to serve the purposes of transportation designating those on the sketch that may serve as footpaths only, or as adaptable to which of whatever kind.” ~ Captain W. G. Williams, U.S. Army, 1837