The following maps and research is based on historical records and field work, including archaeological documentation, confirming general locations of towns and trails. The work was done over a period of ten years and primarily funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian’s Cherokee Preservation Foundation. Broadly categorizing, the time is after 1600 until after the 1838 Removal and Trail of Tears in order to tell the story of those Cherokees who refused to leave their homeland in the mountains of western North Carolina including some residing in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
The Cherokee once had a strong presence in Virginia and gradually moved southwesterly down “The Great Valley” of the Holston River over time. They established towns in and around modern Johnson City and Elizabethton, Tennessee and along the northern rim of the Great Smoky Mountains. They established a cluster of towns that became known to the British colonists as the Overhill Towns. The Middle Towns of the Little Tennessee River and nearby Out Towns of the Tuckasegee River were situated in the heart of the mountains. The Lower Towns were located southeast of the Blue Ridge along the foothills and Piedmont of upper South Carolina.
This map displays approximately 1700 Western North Carolina and adjacent Tennessee (Calhoun, Maryville, Sevierville). Note the Great War Path from Virginia which terminated on the Gulf of Mexico at Pensacola. East of the great Blue Ridge Escarpment the Cherokee Trading Path to Virginia and the Trading Path from Charles Town, South Carolina are depicted. The green shading represent the fertile valleys along river bottoms where the majority of the towns were located.
Cowee Town - A Brief Historical Outline
The first contact by English colonists with the Cherokee is believed to have been in 1654 when a large band of Rickahockans settled at modern Richmond, VA. Rickahockan was the Powhatan name for the Cherokee. In 1673, Major General Abraham Wood sent James Needham and Gabriel Arthur from Virginia to the Overhill town of Chota in order to establish trade.
According to the January, 1845 edition of the Cherokee Advocate, a South Carolina manuscript reveals an 1684 agreement between eight chiefs of the Lower Towns and authorities in Charles Town.
By 1700, Cowee and Nikwasi were the two most important and centrally located of about sixty towns of the Cherokee Nation.
In 1716, Cowee and Tennessee (an Overhill Town) were chosen by the British as the first two towns to host factories or trading posts supplied from Charles Town, South Carolina. By 1716 George Hill was the principal trader residing in Cowee.
Cowee was located at the crossroads of two major trading travelways. A northern fork of the Charles Town Trading Path left modern Clayton, Georgia and followed the Little Tennessee River through Nikwasi, Watauga, and Ayoree to Cowee. From Cowee, a path called the Yona Canara Road led west across the Nantahala Mountains. This path name is believed to be a variant of the Cherokee name Yonah Ganela, or “where the bear lives.” This path passed through Burningtown Gap and descended the Nantahala Mountains at Junaluska Gap.
Nikwasi, or “Star Place,” was only seven miles upstream of Cowee on the Little Tennessee River, connected by a trading path that was later used in the 1838 Trail of Tears to transport Cherokees from Fort Lindsey to the site of ancient Nikwasi, located at modern-day Franklin, North Carolina.
Both Cowee and Nikwasi towns had sacred mounds on which council houses overlooked the surrounding houses and fields. Nikwasi was a “mother town” and a significant council place where chiefs or headmen from the Lower, Overhill, Out, Middle and Lower Towns convened for important meetings. Both towns were located at crossroads of major travel ways.
According to James Adair, smallpox brought to Carolina on slave ships in 1738 broke out among the Cherokees and killed half the tribe within a year. Population estimates around this time numbered the Cherokee at around twelve thousand, with over sixty towns previous to the smallpox plague.
In 1750, some Cowee headmen were noted as Corone the Raven and the Mankiller of Cowee, titles of rank. Other Cherokee headmen and chiefs included The Raven of Nikwasi and the Blind Warrior of Watauga. The White Buffalo Calf represented Nikwasi and Cowee in the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785. Sharp Fellow of Watauga was also a noted warrior. The Warrior of Cowee was a prominent figure in 1768.
In 1752, Cowee had an estimated 110 fighting men. Most of the records of the 18th century show that Cowee had over a hundred households at any given time.
In 1751, the Board of Trade in Charles Town (Charleston) divided 39 Cherokee towns into 13 trading districts with one trader per district. Cowee, Tarsalla (Usanna), Coweechee and Elejoy were in the same district. Tarsalla was located about two miles northwest of Cowee, and Coweechee and Elejoy were downstream several miles.
The map above is from USGS shaded relief maps showing the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia to north Georgia. The brown represents high elevations of mountains, greens the flatter and lower elevations. The three red arrows are the three principle routes that Great Britain and the United States used to send their armies during about 30 years of war against the Cherokee from 1760 to the death of Dragging Canoe in 1794.
TRAIL EXAMPLE SHOWN BELOW:
An ancient trail connected what is modern Cherokee, NC to Gatlinburg, TN crossing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It became a very rough wagon road before the Civil War. It crossed the main ridge of the Smokies just west of Newfound Gap Road at Indian Gap, hence it was called the Indian Gap Trail. A photo of the trail north of Indian Gap is shown below. A detail from an 1857 North Carolina map shows the road then from Quallatown, the old name for the precedent of modern Cherokee. A modern map of the same area is shown with Indian Gap Trail now known as “Road Prong Trail.” This historic trail can be walked today. Parking is located at Indian Gap on the road to Clingmans Dome and also at the Chimneytops trailhead parking area. As the trail is not featured by the National Park Service, it is not well marked so a little GPS and map ability is required for the visitor.