TRAILS

The database of southeastern Native Trails covers several states surrounding Western North Carolina with the emphasis being on Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and to a lesser extent, Kentucky. There were several principal corridors that are considered Eastern Continental trails which generally were northerly or southerly. 

There are really no beginnings or endings for most trails because they rarely just dead-ended unless they hit the surf of an ocean. Most just tied into the larger continental system of travel used by early humans and animals and they changed through time as animal-human migration patterns changed due to climate, extirpation, or extinction. 

Regional or continental routes followed “paths of least resistance” for many reasons. Early on, calories were critical to life in the remote and rugged parts of the earth. Calories fueled the body. Calories meant the difference in life and death. Animal fat and high protein sources produced lots of fuel but even nutrient-rich plants were low energy providers. The Appalachian Mountains and much of eastern North America did not resemble, for example, the Mediterranean bread basket.  Hunting and gathering and supplemental agricultural foods made for a sustenance life-style. There were periods of over-abundance and periods of want. Or as the phrase goes “feast or famine.” 

Only a limited supply of food could be carried on long trips. Hunting, fishing and gathering along the way always supplemented meals if resources were available. Unless there was state of war or conflict between tribes, natives generally welcomed travelers who brought news from different regions. Inter-tribal trade prevailed during times of peace and at other times, loot from the “spoils of war.” 

 Ultimately, the straightest, most level and sheltered routes were the most expeditious way to travel. So, looking at the map above, the two routes (No. 1 and No. 2) as noted were the main highways for travel north to south (or vice versa) and many trails fell into and out of these trunk trails. Long rivers and/or valleys made good travel ways which included water for bathing, drinking and fishing. Long mountain chains and ridges were obstacles to long distance travel when speed was the desired factor. Hence, the wisdom of following long parallel valleys that were separated by chains of mountains. Mountain ranges were almost always crossed by crossing the crests by trails that followed either a drainage or a spur off of the crest or ridge. These spurs were called leads and crossed the mountains at gaps (aka passes) or swags (aka saddles). These places were then and are today the easiest places for travel, if you measure in calories or gallons of gasoline. 

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. 

 

The Cataloochee trail & turnpike (Trail 11)

The Cataloochee Turnpike

Trail No. 11 in the trails database and vicinity map at the top of the page.

The Cataloochee Trail is an ancient Cherokee path that was a part of the local, regional and continental trail system present before Europe discovered the Americas. This corridor is significant in that it skirted the eastern flank of the Great Smoky Mountains in the general corridor of the Pigeon River that connected the valleys of modern Waynesville, NC,  with the Great Valley to the north. The Great Valley connects Alabama, Tennessee to Virginia and was a  natural travelway as is was moderately flat. Sevierville, Tennessee, the gateway to Gatlinburg is connected to the Great Valley.

Vicinity map of the old trail. 

This map detail is from an 1865 Civil War map with the old roads hand-sketched in red. The Cataloochee Turnpike connects Waynesville, NC, to Newport TN. Also note the connection to Quallatown which followed Jonathan's Creek across Soco Gap and down Soco Creek to modern Cherokee.

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. 

This GIS snapshot shows the location of many historic Cherokee towns in the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounding vicinity. Note the Great Valley to the north.
Trails connected all the towns and tied into the continental-wide travel system that included trading routes and war paths.
The simplified map above shows some of the major trail crossings through the Smoky Mountain area. Purple lines: far left: Unicoy Turnpike; Little Tennessee River Trail and the path through Asheville follows the French Broad River Valley.
Indian Gap Trail - photo by Lamar Marshall
Detail from 1857 North Carolina Map
Detail from a modern Great Smoky Mountains National Park map