Southeastern Indian Trails Project

Indian Gap

by Lamar Marshall

Remnants of ancient trails can still be found today throughout the Southeast. The Indian trail system, which climaxed around 1800, laid the blueprint for the basic circuitry of our modern road and interstate system. The early routes were logical and inevitable–the result of thousands of years of Native Americans’ interactions with animals, tribal migration, relocations, population shifts, and lifestyle changes due to European contact and trade.

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WHAT IS AN ETHNO-HABITAT?

“An ethno-habitat can be defined as the set of cultural, religious, nutritional, educational, psychological and other services provided by intact, functioning ecosystems and landscapes. An ethno- habitat refers to the cultural survival of a people within its traditional homeland. A healthy ethno-habitat is one that supports its natural plant and animal communities and sustains the biophysical and spiritual health of its native peoples through time…

These lands encompass traditional Indian homelands, places, habitats, resources, ancestral remains, cultural symbols, and cultural heritage. The presence of and access for traditional use to healthy habitats is fundamental to useable and harvestable levels of resources significant to Indian peoples as well as to healthy ecosystems.”

–Stuart G. Harris of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

Remnants of ancient trails can still be found today throughout the Southeast. The Indian trail system, which climaxed around 1800, laid the blueprint for the basic circuitry of our modern road and interstate system. The early routes were logical and inevitable–the result of thousands of years of Native Americans’ interactions with animals, tribal migration, relocations, population shifts, and lifestyle changes due to European contact and trade.

It was an evolutionary process that involved geographical, geological, and ecological factors. The resulting trail system was a product of human interaction with the natural world and became a permanent human imprint on a living landscape. They evolved within a landscape of obstacles and destinations that followed corridors that provided efficiency with the path of least resistance.

The last remnants of these early trails and roads remind us of a time when society was intimately connected with the land and the earth. It was a time when feet touched the earth with only the thin skins of animals separating them. They walked along the soils, plants, rocks, and roots.

In contrast, we speed hundreds of miles a day across the land at 70 miles an hour in metal carriages with rubber wheels that ride on asphalt pads and concrete bridges. When we walk today, we wear thick-soled, engineered shoes and boots on sidewalks and floors. Our feet have become soft and tender. It is a rare occasion when we feel the earth directly under our feet, with minds tuned to an awareness of the natural flow of life.

As a people, we have lost much of our naturalness and connection to the natural world. Yet, we remain connected to living ecosystems. Our food, medicine, clothing, traditions, and recreation are directly dependent on the sustainable use of working, intact, healthy ecosystems. You might call them “ethno-habitats.”

Modern development has erased and paved over much of the ancient Native trail system of the Southeast. The historical corridors and remnants of these trails and roads should be identified, mapped, recorded and their history preserved as a valuable element of Native American heritage.

Wild South Charting the Course

Wild South is partnering with two other non-profit organizations,The Southeastern Anthropological Institute (SAI) and The Mountain Stewards, to produce a map of the roads and trails system of the Cherokee Nation prior to 1838.

Once completed, this map would benefit the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians by identifying and making known the many modern roads in and around the Smoky Mountains and North Carolina as having Native American origin. Historical markers and kiosks could be developed that would enhance the experience of and attract more people to visit Cherokee and its amenities. The product would be a valuable historical resource for schools, historical societies, researchers, and the public. The designated Trail of Tears routes would be highlighted within the boundaries of the Nation.

The Southeast Indian Trail project will produce a snapshot of the complex transportation network that evolved over thousands of years into a mosaic of foot-trails, horse paths and wagon roads. Our effort will bring together decades of work from independent researchers, historical maps, early travelers (such as William Bartram), and the first federal surveys, which also provide the last look at the Native American domain.

The work has already begun. Wild South and SAI recently teamed up with the Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears to submit over 200 miles of unrecognized trails and roads to the National Park Service for inclusion into the National Historic Trails System.

To follow our progress, check our website periodically for updates, as we uncover our past and preserve it for future generations.

1 Comment

  1. DANIEL PAUL WILLIAMS on March 20, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Have you any idea where “Old Tuff Trail” might be? It is said to be used in the Civil War days to run ammunition…somewhere in the Matney Community, east of Banner Elk, NC.