Unicoi Highway and Trails of Tears
For hundreds of years the Cherokee Nation covered large areas in four states: Georgia, North and South Carolina and three-quarters of Tennessee. Most of the Native Americans east of the Mississippi were semi-agrarian; they lived in centralized villages –referred to as ‘towns’- consisting of hogans and planted fields. The land surrounding the towns were communal hunting grounds shared with other communities. The largest concentration of Cherokee were in the Unicoi Mountains.
The Southern Appalachias were home to the Cherokee people for thousands of years. The Unicoi Mountain Range runs along the Tennessee-North Carolina border and is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the southern region of the Appalachian Range, the oldest mountain range on this continent. The Unicois are directly south of the Smokey Mountains and west of the Cheoah Mountains.
The name "Unicoi" comes from a Cherokee word which means "white." It refers to the low-lying clouds and fog that often drape the Southern Appalachian mountains in the early morning or on humid or moist days. We saw (and even rode in) this several times while we were there.
Native Americans used for centuries a footpath in the southern Unicoi Mountains to travel from one side of the southern Appalachian range to the other. Known then as the Wachesa Trail (or Trading Path), the path stretched from modern Murphy, NC to a point near Beaverdam Creek and descended through Unicoi Gap to Coker Creek. Present-day Joe Brown Highway roughly follows a section of the ancient trail.
By the time Euro-Americans arrived in the region in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Cherokee had established many villages in the outlying areas of the Unicoi Mountains. The Middle towns were located in the Robbinsville, NC, area and included Tassetchee, Elijay, and Nequassee. The Overhill towns included Tallassee, Chilhowee, Citico, and other villages in the Little Tennessee Valley. At the range's northern extremes; Great Tellico along the Tellico River in modern Tellico Plains, and Great Hiwassee along the Hiwassee River at the western base of Starr Mountain. Excavations at a Citico site (at the mouth of Citico Creek) revealed periods of occupation stretching back thousands of years.
Topographical features such as rivers and mountain ranges separated clusters of towns. Like most civilizations, geographical and demographical areas had a centralized town where the chief and his people lived with smaller satellite villages nearby. These clusters were called ‘chiefdoms’. However, lacking European-style political structure, the central town moved with the current chief; chiefs did not move to a specific town established as a ‘capital’ or ‘seat’ (such as our concept of county seat town).
Trails were established between towns and clusters to enable visiting, trading, hunting, war, etc. The Unicoi Turnpike was the major route. Cherokee transported furs along the trail for trading on the eastern seaboard in the early 1700s. During the American Revolution, the trail was used for raids between colonists and Cherokee. The trail was used to move livestock, mined minerals and rock, wagon loads of produce, and armies. Some sections were as wide as a modern two-lane highway; some were as narrow as one person.
The trail was widened in the early 1800s, closely following the old Wachesa Trail, and became the Unicoi Turnpike. A toll was charged on sections making the Unicoi Turnpike the first toll road in American history. The route was also the first leg of the Trail of Tears. In modern times, highways took other routes through the mountains and the original trail, of which more than 50 percent is located in the Cherokee National Forest and Nantahala National Forest, was forgotten except for occasional use as farm roads.
In 1838 many of these mountain trails were used to march around fifteen thousand Cherokee people from their homes and towns to various emigrating depots at forts and temporary stockades. At some of these locations, hundreds of people were crowded into fenced pens like cattle or horses for days or weeks, and sometimes, entire seasons. From these depots they were herded by federal military on a long journey to foreign land called Indian Territory: modern-day Oklahoma.
Some groups of Cherokees were allowed to take a wagon crammed with family or neighbors, pulled by a horse, mule or ox. Most walked and carried very few personal possessions with them except food and water. Everything else they had was ordered left behind. Some had nothing but the clothes they wore or carried upon their backs.
These trails upon which they traveled –by water and land- are referred to by the Cherokees themselves ‘the trail on which we cried’. Now they are known as the Trail of Tears.
Old trails literally crosshatch the land here in southeastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. On any of these trails or roads, stories and stories through time layer their use. The Wachesa Trail, now known as Unicoi Turnpike, was a major route for traveling between the Lower and Overhill (or Upper) Towns. The section we rode on is referred to by locals and on maps as Joe Brown Highway and extends between Hwy 68 at Coker Creek, TN, through the Cherokee and Natahala National Forests and to Murphy in NC.
Joe Brown Highway is a misnomer. It is certainly not a road that we now associate with the word ‘highway’. It begins as a roughly paved road with patches of asphalt and potholes, giving way to packed gravel and dirt (still with potholes). Yet, in places it is indeed ‘high’. Not one person whom I asked knows the derivation of ‘Joe Brown’. Maybe I’ll discover that answer some day.
Soon after we turned off modern Hwy 68, small houses with vegetable and flower gardens gave way to tall pine, pine and hemlock trees crowding sides of the gravel road. Soon we came upon an intersection, if you can call it that, of three trails. This was the historic Unicoi Gap.
To the left a long trail winds through Cherokee National Forest and the mountains for miles and miles; part of the Benton MacKay Trail. To the right is a small marker for a single-track trail: hiking, mountain biking and motorcycles. The beginning of the trail steeply ascends the bank with a sharp right hand turn near the top. Of course, Ed had to see if the KLR would fit through the trees on this. As he rode the bike up I heard one of the panniers scrape something. I thought it was a tree, but he later ascertained from the scrape on the pannier bottom corner that it was a boulder. I still don’t know how he turned that tractor around on the trail.
From there on we rode many miles on winding, swerving, up-and-down packed gravel, missing a few potholes, avoiding looking down steep mountainsides to our side, marveling at the shady tunnels created by tall pines while the sun lit the mountain tops beyond. All we heard was the purr of our engines with an occasional grunt as we climbed and the crackle of gravel stones under our tires.
The miles and time had no units and were not even measured as we rode over mountains and then threaded down into the river valley in NC. As we neared the river, little quiet clusters of small farms and hamlets littered the roadside and the road once again wore a hard mantle of tarmac. These are residual homes that were once Cherokee villages and towns. Gravel roads threaded off on each side, again snaking into the mountain sides or down towards the river.
Newer and larger homes announced close proximity to Murphy. This location by Hiwassee River was known by the Cherokee as the Leech Place because of a legend of a giant leech that lived in the river. Because the Unicoi Trail went alongside the river, small trading posts and settlements grew. In 1836 during the Cherokee removal, the United States army built Fort Butler on a hill overlooking the present town. The Fort was the main collection point for Cherokee east of the Unicoi mountains. From Fort Butler the Cherokee were marched over the mountains on the Unicoi Turnpike to the main internment camps at Fort Cass ( in today's Charleston, TN).
Wondering about the route from the trail, I later learned that we rode on several sections of it; they will be mentioned in later posts.
We rode down into town and greeted by a familiar sight that suggested a courthouse. Sure enough, as we rode closer, the courthouse loomed. We pulled in front of the building and parked our bikes in the only spot available. What was most odd about this courthouse was its location; kiddy-corner on a sharp triangle of land and bordered by narrow streets. The stonework appeared relatively new, but I was unable to find any information about it.
While I was was photographing the building an local older gentleman came up and said, “Well, this is the modern courthouse after the first three burned, and……”
Judging from the hanging sentence and the laughter on his face, I knew that his comment was a satire on the typical life of a courthouse.
I replied, “Well, that sounds just like a Texas courthouse!”.
We both laughed.
Now out in full sunlight along with eastern humidity (and covered with dust), I had a strong desire for something cold and refreshing. Cold coffee was my first choice. I asked a tall young and smartly-dressed young man exiting the courthouse with reams of legal papers in his hands, “Excuse me, can you direct me to a coffee shop in town?”
With a smile and nod, he proceeded to annotate two small coffee cafes in the town’s square(s) where people like to stop, sip coffee, chat, tap on their wifi laptops and enjoy a visit. I discovered quickly after arriving in this area of TN and NC that his friendly manner and easy conversation is so very typical of people living in the small towns and rural communities. They will stop whatever they are doing to visit and chat with a genuine interest in who you are, where you are from, and to share their local communities with everyone. It was so welcome and refreshing compared to where we live in Texas.
We walked the three blocks to a street lined with shops and found the Daily Grind. Ordering a coffee and scone, we sat outside at a small table on the sidewalk and watched the town. A DR650 whizzed up alongside and parked a few spaces down from where we sat. The rider wore white shorts, white T-shirt, white socks and sneakers, and white helmet with black stripes. After removing goggles and helmet, he donned a white visor over his long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.
On the luggage rack was a long orange milk carton, with black canvas bags hanging over the sides of the carton. From that he withdrew a messenger bag which, judging from the size, probably contained a laptop. We complimented his luggage setup as he walked by us.
We decided to walk up the street a bit after finishing our coffees and check out a historical marker at the intersection. I chuckled as I read it; it was a ‘He did it here’ marker. The inscription on the sign claimed De Soto’s expedition traveled by here in the 1500’s. Like the generic “Washington slept here,” “Goodnight’s cattle drank here,” and “Coronado’s men camped here,” this one was a ‘De Soto did it here’ sign.
I wondered about the authenticity of the sign’s claim and asked Jack about it later. As I suspected, no one can accurately say where the route was that De Soto’s men traveled. It reminded me of the same in regards to Coronado’s route through Texas. And I bet Washington slept in many, many places, so why not here or there?
At the end of the street stood a building looking very typically colonial. Not obvious at first, but we discovered it was a church. And like the courthouse, it was situated on an angled plot, like the tip of a triangle.
Next to the parked bikes was a brick building housing the police headquarters. It was then I saw the Trail of Tears logo and sign. Here was one of the certified historical points on the National Trail of Tears Trail.
I paid a donation for the two of us and we proceeded to the ground floor where a series of displays presented Cherokee history and life in the local area and as a Nation, even up to modern times on the Eastern and Western reservations. The details and first accounts by Cherokee members, early colonists and military individuals were incredible. It all became so much more personal. I would have like to have had more time to read it all but time was slipping away and I had to be back to camp soon. My sister and Tom were on their way.
Refreshed, we were ready to head back, again on the Joe Brown Highway. On the forest map I had noticed a symbol for a falls. We agreed to take a detour and see if we can find it. About three-quarters of the way back, we found the forest road turnoff which wound down a series of tight turns while we looked for a sign or turnoff that might be the falls. Soon the road narrowed to almost a two-track a ways up on the mountainside, but no falls. After a while, we pulled to the side, munched a protein bar and decided to give up. Who knows where it is?
We turned the bikes around and headed back up the gravel road. A flicker off to the right caught my eye; I slowed, turned my head to see a rocky stream through the trees. And there it was: a waterfall. A series of falls. At this point, we were both tired and didn’t see an easy way to get down to the stream which was almost straight below the right side of the road through the trees. We laughed and wondered how we had missed it riding up the road.
We had to stop a few times for pit stops.
Soon we reached the end of Joe Brown Highway and back on Hwy 68 at Coker Creek. At this point of time, late in the day, we barreled north on the smoothly paved Hwy 68 and into the campground; tired and happy after a long day of riding dirt.Next: Jack leads us on a ride through the forest