Cherokee Heritage Itinerary -- Stop 7 Cherokee County Historical Museum
Leaving Robbinsville, head south on US129 for about 11 miles. 129 joins with 19 and 74 at Topton. Continues south on the highway for 25 miles to Murphy, and make a right on Peachtree Street, which will carry you downtown.
Near the southwestern corner of the state is the town of Murphy, which is the Cherokee County seat.Settlers developed it along the southwestern edge of the historical Cherokee Valley Towns region. In Cherokee folklore, Murphy was once a place of terror. Chief Nimrod Jarett Smith told a researcher in 1884 about the legendary monster who lived in the waters where the Valley and Hiwassee Rivers meet, at the northwestern edge of today’s downtown. He explained that present-day Murphy “is known among the Cherokees as Tlanusi’yi, ‘The Leech Place.’ … Just above the junction is a deep hole in the Valley River, and above it is a ledge of rock running across the stream, over which people used to go as on a bridge. . . . One day some men going along the trail saw a great red object, full as large as a house, lying on the rock ledge in the middle of the stream below them. As they stood wondering what it could be they saw it unroll—and then they knew it was alive—and stretch itself out along the rock until it looked like a great leech with red and white stripes along its body. It was rolled up into a ball and again stretched out at full length, and at last crawled down the rock and was out of sight in the deep water. The water began to boil and foam, and a great column of white spray was thrown high in the air and came down like a waterspout upon the very spot where the men had been standing, and would have swept them all into the water but that they saw it in time and ran from the place. More than one person was carried down in this way, and their friends would find the body afterwards lying upon the bank with the ears and nose eaten off, until at last the people were afraid to go across the ledge any more, on account of the great leech. . . . The great leech is still there in the deep hole, because when people look down they see something alive moving about on the bottom.” (From exhibit at the Cherokee County Historical Museum, Murphy.)
The Cherokee County Historical Museum at 87 Peachtree Street occupies two floors of a small brick building downtown, constructed in the 1920s as a Carnegie free library. Upstairs, visitors will find an exhibit space home to a collection of artifacts assembled in the 1900s by Arthur Palmer, and formerly housed at the Palmer Museum at Marble. A cut-away view of a one-room log schoolhouse interior shows how some area children were educated at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also photos, uniforms, and mementos illustrating the contributions of Murphy’s enlisted men and women during the world wars.
Downstairs is an exhibit completed in 2006, which provides a thorough and engaging overview of 19th-century Cherokee life in the area around present-day Murphy. The exhibit covers the years up to and through 1838, when thousands of families were forced west on the Trail of Tears. Visitors will learn about a nation that had a sophisticated government, featuring a bicameral legislature and hierarchical judicial system, including a supreme court, and whose citizens were highly educated. (The Cherokee Nation’s literacy rate in 1830 surpassed that of the United States, just a few short years after the tribe’s adoption of the Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah.) Home inventory records and a reconstruction of a period Cherokee cabin illustrate the variety of lifestyles lived in that day, from a highly traditional, conservative rural subsistence to a very “American” life, distinguished by economic ties with and cultural fluency in the white community, and adoption of ways of life that were scarcely distinguishable from those of their middle-class white neighbors.A nation with deep roots and sophisticated culture was nearly destroyed when the majority of the Cherokee people were exiled to Oklahoma. The exhibit tells in wrenching detail of the brutal hardships that Native Americans suffered on the Trail of Tears, and of the dangerous fugitive experience of those families who refused to leave the mountains -- who are the ancestors of many of the Cherokee people who live in North Carolina today.
The Cherokee County Historical Museum is located at 87 Peachtree Street, next to the Cherokee County Courthouse in downtown Murphy. It is open from 9:00 to 5:00 on weekdays. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children. Call (828) 837-6792 for more information.
Photo: Stands of rivercane; photo by Cedric Chatterly.
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