A suggested itinerary for exploring Cherokee heritage sites in southwestern North Carolina.
The North Carolina high country was already home to the Cherokee people for thousands of years before the first white explorer pitched camp in a creek-side cove. Despite the U. S. Government’s campaign in the 1830s to expel the Cherokee from their homes in the southern mountains, forcing thousands of people west on the Trail of Tears, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and their ancient traditions of art and folklore thrive in these mountains today.
This tour suggests an itinerary in which the visitor to the North Carolina mountains can begin to explore the rich Cherokee heritage of the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains. If you decide to visit all of the stops on this tour, you’ll need more than one day to do so, as the round-trip is between 150 and 200 miles, and there is a lot to see. (Note that most, though not all, of these stops are open on Saturdays, and few are open on Sundays.) There are plenty of lodging options for the weekend traveler – major motels, particularly in the Cherokee, Murphy (and nearby Hiawassee, GA), and Franklin areas, and plenty of smaller inns and bed-and-breakfasts in between. Should you prefer roughing it, there is no end of spectacularly beautiful state and national parkland in which to camp. The Smoky Mountain Host website is a great starting-place to plan the nuts and bolts of your trip.
Cherokee, North Carolina, the starting point of this tour, is essentially the capital of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Though a sign in Cherokee welcomes visitors to the “Cherokee Reservation,” the Qualla Boundary is not actually a reservation. A land trust established formally in 1924, the 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary is made up of land that has been owned by the Cherokee for many generations, and it is still fully owned by the tribe. “Qualla” is derived from Kwali, the name of an elderly Cherokee woman who lived in the area in 1839. The largest single parcel of land owned by the Eastern Band, the hundred-square-mile Qualla Boundary is the home of about 8,000 Cherokees.
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
The stops along this tour relate to vastly different periods of Cherokee history, from many centuries ago to the present. Begin your adventure at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where the high-tech exhibits and dazzling collection of art and artifacts will equip you with a good sense of the Cherokee people’s ancient and still-blossoming culture in North Carolina’s high country.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian opened its doors – or more accurately, its door, as it was first housed in a log cabin – in 1948. Over the sixty-plus years of its existence, the Museum has grown to house major permanent exhibits telling the story of the last 11,000 years of Cherokee history. It is also a major research archive, and hosts many cultural events throughout the year. The Museum is a center for community artistic endeavors and education, and is the host of the distinguished Cherokee Potters Guild.
Created in collaboration with the community, the presentations feature the words and voices of tribal members. Life-size mannequins in diorama exhibits are startlingly realistic because local Cherokee people volunteered to be models, allowing artists to make casts of their bodies and faces. In the Museum, you’ll hear the Cherokee language spoken, and learn about the beautiful syllabary that was created by Sequoyah and adopted by the Cherokee nation in 1821. The Cherokee language is still in use here on the Qualla Boundary – check out the street signs as you drive around town – and is often spoken in the Snowbird Community to the southwest.
The Museum’s gift shop is a great place to see the work of many local artists; a visit to the Museum and to the nearby Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual and Bigmeet Pottery will give you a good feeling for the breadth and masterful creativity of today’s traditional Cherokee craftspeople. You’ll also find an excellent selection of books in the museum shop. Pick up a couple to make your tour of Cherokee country even richer. The Cherokee Heritage Trails Guide by Barbara Duncan and Brett Riggs is a particularly good resource.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is located at the intersection of Highway 441 and Drama Road in downtown Cherokee. It opens at 9:00 AM every day, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Admission to the museum is $9 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 – 13; children younger than 6 may enter for free. There is no charge for visitors who wish simply to visit the museum shop. Call 1-800-497-3481 for more information.
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual
The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual sits at the same intersection – Cherokee Road and 441 – as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and is an essential stop on the tour. This co-op is a gallery where you can see and purchase the work of many of today’s greatest Cherokee craftspeople. You’ll see how ancient traditions like basket-making, wood-carving, and pottery continue to evolve, incorporating techniques developed centuries ago, while reflecting the inspiration and skill of today’s artists.
The Qualla co-op is more than a gallery. It is also a vital economic, as well as artistic, hub for the Cherokee people in this region. By helping artists to make a living in their chosen field, it has made a tremendous contribution to the survival of art forms that might long since have been lost to the ages. Widely respected for its rigorous standards, the co-op helps maintain the high level of excellence for which Cherokee artists are known. And in a community that relies heavily on income from summer tourism, the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual is a year-round resource. So while you are at the co-op, if you spot a beautiful rivercane basket or dark, gleaming pottery bowl that you must have, your purchase will be of direct benefit to this community’s artistic life.
The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual is located at the intersection of Highway 441 and Drama Road, and is open from 9:00 to 5:00 on weekdays. Call 1-828-497-3103 for more information.
Photo: Amanda Swimmer, potter and North Carolina Folk Heritage Award winner; photo by Rob Amberg.
Another outstanding place to see and purchase the work of Cherokee artists is Bigmeet Pottery in Cherokee. The Maney family, proprietors of Bigmeet Pottery, turn some of their pottery on a wheel and then finish it with ancient methods — pressing geometric or natural designs into the clay, firing the pots in open flame rather than in a kiln, and burnishing the fired pieces until they have a smooth, shining surface.
Louise Bigmeet Maney, a recipient of the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, was the longtime proprietor of Bigmeet Pottery. She passed away in 2001, and is remembered today as a Beloved Woman, an honor bestowed by the tribe. Members of her family, going back at least as far as her great-grandmother’s generation, were potters of high renown. In a wonderful display area at Bigmeet Pottery, you will see the work of Mrs. Maney’s family and of other local artists (in pottery, basketry, and other forms), made over the course of the last hundred years. Historical photographs show Principal Chiefs of the tribe in past generations, as well as pictures of Iwi Catolster – Louise Maney’s great-grandmother – and other traditional Cherokee craftspeople, past and present.
Bigmeet Pottery is in downtown Cherokee, just north of the intersection of US 19 and 441. The shop is open most Mondays through Saturdays from 10:00 to 5:00, but call first (before 9:00 at night) to confirm if you’re traveling on a tight schedule, at (828) 497-9544.
Photo: Pot by Mabel Bigmeat, on exhibit at Bigmeet Pottery; photo by Julie Stovall.
Unto These Hills
Cherokee’s Mountainside Theater is host to one of North Carolina’s longest-running outdoor dramas. “Unto These Hills” tells the story, through music and dance, of Cherokee history, from early days to the Trail of Tears catastrophe to the tribe’s resurgence and vitality today. 2009 will mark the 60th season of “Unto These Hills,” but the play, originally written by Kermit Hunter, has recently been updated and transformed to reflect even more closely the values and cultural richness of modern Cherokee life. Kiowa playwright Hanay Geiogomah, founder of the American Indian Dance Theater, is the author of the innovative new production of “Unto These Hills –a Retelling,” which he wrote in close consultation with members of the Eastern Band, and many of the actors are local members of the tribe.
The Mountainside Theater is located off of Highway 441-N in Cherokee. The 2006 season runs through August 19th, with performances held nightly except for Sundays. Pre-show entertainment begins at 8:00, and the drama starts at 8:30. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or by calling 1-866-554-4557.
Photo: Soco Gap; photo by Sarah Bryan.
Stecoah Valley Center
Coming from Cherokee, take 19 to Route 28. Follow 28 southwest, through Bryson City and southwest towards Robbinsville. Before reaching Robbinsville, turn left on SSR 1228, and follow it to the Stecoah Valley Center, the stone school building at the end of 121 Schoolhouse Road.
The Stecoah Valley lies outside of Robbinsville, separated from town by the Cheoah Range. An impressive rock school building built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s serves as a museum and gathering-place in this valley. The Stecoah Valley Center has information panels about the nearby site of an ancient Cherokee town, and about the life of Tsali, an important figure in the resistance to the Cherokees’ forced removal on the Trail of Tears. Tsali was from nearby Wesser, just over the Swain County line, and was ultimately executed by the U. S. Army.
The Stecoah Valley Center also has exhibits on the traditional life of the white mountain residents, and it hosts classes and bluegrass and oldtime music concerts throughout the year.
Photo: Cherokee musician and language expert Eddie Bushyhead, with Kituwah Mound in the background. Kituwah Mound can be seen from Route 19, about seven miles west of Cherokee on the way towards Bryson City; photo by Cedric Chatterly.
Backtrack, and make a left on 28. You’ll soon reach Route 143. Make a left on 143, and follow that road into Robbinsville.
In Robbinsville you can visit the Junaluska Memorial, at the burial site of one of the most important figures in North Carolina’s Cherokee history. Junaluska was born in 1776 near Dillard, Georgia, just below the present North Carolina – Georgia state line, and spent part of his life here at Cheoah (present-day Robbinsville). The Snowbird area today is one of the major Cherokee population centers outside the Qualla Boundary, a place where old traditions thrive and the Cherokee language is still widely spoken.
Junaluska and other members of the Cherokee fought with whites against the Creek nation in the Creek War of 1812 – 1814. The story is told in Cherokee oral history that during the battle of Horse Shoe Bend in Alabama, in 1811, Junaluska saved future president Andrew Jackson’s life. Junaluska lived to regret his act of heroism.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Treaty of New Echota, in 1835, paving the way for the forced removal of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma. Junaluska traveled to Washington and had a personal audience with Jackson, pleading the case of his people, and tradition says that Jackson peremptorily dismissed the man to whom he owed his life. Three years later, during the Van Buren presidency, Junaluska and about 13,000 other Cherokees (of whom about 3,000 were from North Carolina) were forced to travel the thousand miles to Oklahoma. Junaluska, having been arrested after leading an escape from the trail in Tennessee, was sent west in manacles and leg irons. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died during the removal and on the Trail of Tears.
Junaluska passed a couple of years in Oklahoma, before riding home to North Carolina in 1841 – a journey on horseback of seventeen days. According to Cherokee legend, he was heard to lament, “If I had known what Andrew Jackson would do to the Cherokees, I would have killed him myself that day at Horse Shoe Bend.” He eventually received some of the respect that was due him from the state of North Carolina, which in 1851 gave him 337 acres of land in Cherokee County, where he died in 1858. Many of his descendants live in western North Carolina today.
The graves of Junaluska and his third wife, Nicie, are marked with a monument commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1910. There are also several granite markers here, which tell the story of his life. Just down the hill is the Junaluska Museum. Operated by the Friends of Junaluska, the museum features ancient artifacts from this Cheoah Valley, as well as modern artwork by local Cherokee artists and more information about the hero of the Snowbird community. A trail on the grounds of the memorial features many of the medicinal plants that play important roles in traditional Cherokee medicine.
The Junaluska Memorial and Museum is on Main Street in Robbinsville, north of downtown, about a half-mile from the courthouse. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 to 4:00. Call (828) 479-4727 for more information.
Photo: Junaluska’s gravesite; photo by Roger Haile.
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.
Rivercane Walk at Campbell Folk School
From Peachtree Street in Murphy, take 64 east. After about 4.5 miles, turn right onto 1548/Old US 64, which will carry you 2 miles into Brasstown. The John C. Campbell Folk School is located on Folk School Road in Brasstown. At Clay’s Corner, a small convenience store, turn right onto Brasstown Road. You’ll see the entrance to the Folk School as soon as you cross Brasstown Creek. Folk School Road is on the left.
The John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown is a good place for a day-long adventure. Founded in 1925 by John and Olive Dame Campbell, the Folk School was originally envisioned as both an economic and cultural catalyst, a community center where area residents could learn to make and sell traditional crafts. Today the Folk School draws students from around the world to learn weaving, blacksmithing, pottery, woodcarving, and many other crafts from some of the best artists in their respective fields.
Along Brasstown Creek on the Folk School property is the newly-created Rivercane Walk, a 1.5-mile self-guided tour on which visitors can learn about Cherokee life in Aquohee, a village that stood nearby until the time of the Trail of Tears. Patches of rivercane line the creek today, as they would have in the 1830s. These canebrakes are an indication of the fertility of the ancient floodplain, where generations of Cherokee people lived and farmed. An important material for building, as well as for tools and artwork, rivercane is still used by today’s Cherokee craftspeople.
Contemporary sculpture lines the Rivercane Walk. A sourwood sculpture by Cherokee artist John W. Grant depicts Uktena, a feared serpent in Cherokee folklore. Joel Queen’s “Corn Maiden,” carved of black locust, is an abstract vision of Selu, the first woman in Cherokee mythology, who brought corn to the earth. Another Cherokee artist, Davy Arch, contributed locust sculptures representing the seven clans – the Bird, Deer, Wolf, Wild Potato, Long Hair, Blue, and Paint Clans.
Photo: Rivercane basket by Eva Wolfe; photo by Rob Amberg
Clay County Historical and Arts Council Museum
As you leave the Folk School, return to Clay’s Corner at the intersection of Brasstown Road and 1548/Phillips Rd. Make a right on Phillips, and then a left on Settawig Road. After about 2.5 miles you will find yourself at US 64 again. Take 64 east for 6 miles, where a left onto Business 64 will take you to downtown Hayesville.
The Old Clay County Jail in downtown Hayesville, home of the Clay County Historical and Arts Council Museum, is an attractive and intriguing building, but one wouldn’t guess at first glance that such an apparently small museum could hold a fantastically rich collection of art and artifacts.
A new exhibit, in the entry hall, tells about the nearby Cherokee community at the time of the Trail of Tears. Particularly wrenching is an inventory of all the worldly goods – furniture, buildings, livestock – that Richard Walker, a justice on the Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court, and his family lost when they were forced to leave North Carolina. The exhibit also explains the Cherokee origins of many of the curious place names around Hayesville – Shooting Creek, Peckerwood Branch, Chunky Gal Mountain, and others. A large map of the area pinpoints the locations of dozens of Cherokee households at the time of the Removal, giving a sense of what a very established community was destroyed in this valley.
A collection of beautiful modern traditional masks are an example of a very old art form that continues to hold deep meaning for modern Cherokees. Ancient artifacts on display were excavated from the nearby Spike Buck Mound.
And there’s a great deal more. The 1920s – 1940s office of a local doctor, Dr. Killian, is reconstructed downstairs. There are over a hundred photographs by Gideon Laney on display throughout the building, showing various scenes of early-20th century life in Cherokee and Clay Counties. An early telephone switchboard is on display, which was in use in Clay County through most of the first half of the 20th century. A Victorian loom is upstairs, a marvel of folk carpentry. And the building itself, used as a jail from 1912 to 1973, is a remarkable artifact in itself. The original iron cells are still upstairs, along with a real moonshine still, the makers of which probably landed in stir here, and an iron file, found during the museum’s renovation, that a Clay County scamp used to break out of his cell in the 1960s.
The Clay County Historical and Arts Council Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am – 4pm, during June, July, and August.
Photo: Old Clay County Jail, home of the Clay County Historical and Arts Council Museum; photo by Sarah Bryan
From Hayesville, proceed east on 64 to the town of Franklin, about 32 miles. Take a left (north) on 23/Georgia Road, into downtown Franklin. Once downtown, take a right onto East Main. The Nikwasi mound will be on your left, on Nikwasi Lane. Visitors can view the mound close-up, but please do not climb or walk on it.
In the summer of 1775, Philadelphia naturalist John Bartram passed through this area, and visited in the Cherokee communities between present-day Robbinsville and Franklin. He wrote of seeing, from the ridge of the Nantahalas, “…a view of many other villages and settlements on the sides of the mountains, at various distances and elevations; the silver rivulets gliding by them and snow white cataracts glimmering on the sides of the lofty hills; the bold promontories of the Jore (Nantahala) mountain stepping into the Tanase (Tennessee) river, whilst his foaming waters rushed between them. After viewing this very entertaining scene we began to descend the mountain on the other side. … Here had formerly been a very flourishing settlement, but the Indians deserted it in search of fresh planting land, which they soon found in a rich vale but a few miles distance over the ride of hills. Soon after entering on these charming, sequestered, prolific fields, we came to a fine little river, which crossing, and riding over fruitful strawberry beds and green lawns, on the sides of a circular ridge of hills in front of us, and going round the bases of this promontory, came to a fine meadow on an arm of the vale, through which meandered a brook, its humid vapours bedewing the fragrant strawberries which hung in heavy red clusters over the grassy verge…”
A thousand years before Franklin, the Macon County seat, existed, this site was the important Cherokee village of Nikwasi. The Nikwasi mound and the townhouse that was built atop it were the ceremonial heart of the village, holding a perpetually-burning flame. The Nunnehi, a race of spirits, lived underneath the mound, according to Cherokee tradition.
Cherokee folklore tells of an attack by the Creek Nation on Nikwasi. Just as the Cherokee were on the verge of defeat the mound opened up, and from underneath came a band of Nunnehi warriors, who routed the Creeks and saved the village. Folktales tell of a similar incident much later, when the Nunnehi again emerged from the mound to drive away a company of Union soldiers.
The mortal people of Nikwasi were resilient as well. The village and fields were burned by the British in 1761, and the townhouse on the top of the mound used as a field hospital. The Cherokee rebuilt Nikwasi after the British attack, but it was again destroyed in 1776, this time by American Revolutionary soldiers. Though white settlers seized ownership of the site in the early nineteenth century, and the Cherokee village became the town of Franklin, the Nikwasi mound remains a site of deep importance to the modern Cherokee people.
Franklin is the final stop on this itinerary, but your tour of Cherokee country doesn’t have to end here. 23 South will carry you into north Georgia, which is also rich with Cherokee history. 23 North will carry you to Sylva, a beautiful river town; from there you can take 74 West back to the Bryson City-Cherokee area, or east towards Asheville. In these mountains there are countless places of interest to the traveler who wishes to learn more about Cherokee culture. The Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, by Barbara Duncan and Brett Riggs, and www.cherokeeheritagetrails.org are great companions to help you explore the region.