The Cherokee Indian Trails Mapping Project
– a Travel through Time
It was a hot day even at 5000 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, aboriginal Indian Gap trail that connected the hunting grounds of Kentucky with the Cherokee heartland of Western North Carolina.
Armed with ten years of research, fifty 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 fourteen 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 the Indian trail in the early 1800’s. We attempted to walk along the centerline of the long-abandoned roadbed that contoured down the mountain towards Beech Flats.
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 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 or short bears 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 their main travel-ways.
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 am now 60, I’m not sure that I could have outrun a 20 year old intern.
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 eighteen times within a couple of miles. I bruised both shins in one fall and got stung over a dozen times by yellow jackets on four different days, and was near hypothermia from a blinding rain storm that we were stuck in. We never stepped on a timber rattler, though old timers warned us religiously to beware and that a strike from a large rattler could knock a man to the ground.
Those were some of the harder days but the many sunny days of immersion in the wild mountains overshadowed them. I leaned up and became much stronger with the work. We have mapped Cherokee trails across the Great Smoky, Nantahala, Cowee and Snowbird Mountains.
Not all of the 14 Cherokee trails we are mapping are abandoned in the forests. Many have survived as unpaved Forest Service Roads, modern paved roads, or even major highways. Researching and documenting Indian trails requires an extensive knowledge of cross country navigation, surveying skills, historic map collections, and state and federal archives.
The satisfaction comes when a historic trail becomes designated and interpreted. Wild South researched, identified and field mapped about 200 miles of Cherokee Indian trails across north Alabama. On a field trip one day we discovered several hundred yards of the original wagon road in the woods on public land in Guntersville State Park in Alabama.
Working with the Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association, we integrated our findings into a 300-page report that documented the removal of 1,100 Cherokee Indians in 1838 from Fort Payne, Alabama, to the Tennessee state line where the roads became “The Trail Where They Cried.” Because of this accomplishment, the National Trail of Tears Association held its national conference in Guntersville, Alabama in October of 2009, where members of both the Eastern Band and the Western Band of Cherokee Indians attended.
Photo: Members of the Cherokee Nation, Guntersville State Park Officials, Gail King, President of Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears and Lamar Marshall at new kiosk site.
Every person has and is entitled to a cultural inheritance, no matter where their ethnic roots may lead. We are all connected to a past where our ancestors took for granted that their natural world was not separate from their traditions, historical events, practices and landmarks. Some Native Americans referred to their holistic lifestyle as the “Old Ways” or the “Old Beloved Path.” It represented a time when people lived in tune with the cycle of the seasons and in the freedom of a vast natural world that supplied every need.
The vanishing network of Indian trails is one element in the historical landscape that once linked landmark with town with sacred place. It is our charge to find and preserve our cultural legacy.