Towns & Trails

Towns and Trails

Since we are presenting historical-era information, we are freed of the burden of “assertions, assumptions, theories, and DNA” relating to the Cherokee prior to 1600+. Most scholars agree that the Cherokee had a strong presence in Virginia and moved down the Great Valley over time, establishing towns in and around modern Johnson City and Elizabethton, Tennessee and on down to the western flank of the Great Smoky and Unicoi Mountains to establish the Overhill Towns and some outlying satellites west and south of there. 



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 1761 John Stuart map identifies a trail connecting Cowee and Kituwha.  The path crosses the Cowee Mountains, then Alarka Creek and appears to follow Kirkland Creek to its mouth just west of Kituwah, or Governer’s Island. A chart of towns lists Cowee with 130 gun men, and nearby Usanah or Oosarlah with 45; Coweechee, 50; Burning Town, 60; Allejoy, 60; Ayoree, 100; Watauga, 95; and Nikwasi, 120. Stuart’s figures indicate that there were at least 830 Cherokee families living on the Little Tennessee River in a 17-mile stretch as the crow flies from near Franklin to the Needmore area.
War broke out between the Cherokee and the English in 1759, leading to two incursions by the British army. The first was repelled by the Cherokee, who soundly defeated Archibald Montgomery at Echoy near modern Franklin.  Outraged, the British beefed their troops to 2,600 men, and enlisted Stockbridge, Catawba and Chickasaws to lead the way and scout the Cherokees. The 1761 military record notes that the soldiers carried no tents but essentials: bearskins, blankets and liquor.  Eighty-one black slaves were forced to serve the army.  Six hundred pack horses carried flour bags and ammunition. The Cherokees, having been blockaded, did not have enough guns and ammunition to withstand the most powerful army in the world. 
In 1761, British Lieutenant Colonel James Grant invaded the Middle Towns and burned 15 total which included some Lower Towns
Some of the 1820 reserves claimed across the river from Cowee Mound in and along Cowee Valley.
From Cowee Mound facing east up Cowee Valley 5 miles to the Bald
One of my rough sketches showing how the trails radiated out from Cowee
The British burned their way to Cowee and commandeered the council house on the mound as their field hospital and headquarters. From there they sent detachments over the Cowee Mountains to the Tuckasegee River in a circular march,  burning every town in their path. 
When they made their way back to the Little Tennessee River north of Cowee, they recorded: “We marched to Allejoy, the only remaining town in the middle settlements, having in our way passed the Etchoe River. Our Indians found five Cherokees in this place, one of them was killed and one taken prisoner. The other three tho’ closely pursued made their escape but when these Cherokees get into the mountains none of the other Indians can come near them. After destroying the town and country we marched about three miles further, passed the Etchoe River [Little Tennessee]again with great difficulty at a very bad ford and encamped on the north side of it within six miles of Cowhitchie.”
Fifteen Cherokee towns including Cowee were burned, crops destroyed and every prisoner murdered. The headman of Kituwha was killed by the Chickasaws.
In 1767, Thomas Griffith dug white kaolin clay from the famous Ayoree mine located between Cowee and Nikwasi; the clay was hauled on horses to Charleston, SC, and shipped to the Wedgewood Company in England.
In 1775, naturalist William Bartram passed through Nikwasi to Cowee Town where he stayed for several weeks. While exploring the Nantahala Mountains, he met and was advised by Attakullakulla to leave Cherokee country before the looming Revolutionary War broke out. 
In 1776, the Cherokees were convinced by the British that a joint British-Cherokee victory over American rebels would guarantee Cherokee possession of their lands west of the Appalachians. Attacks on the Carolinians brought two U.S. armies into the Cherokee heartland only 15 years after the previous war. Fifty-two Cherokee towns, along with their crops, were destroyed that fall. The starvation, suffering and death that followed into the winter of 1776-1777 is unrecorded. 
 After these two wars and continued attacks by North Carolina and Tennessee militia, Cowee rebounded and resumed its role as an important Cherokee town. 
In 1819, about 27 Cherokee families opted to become American citizens and claimed reserves of land in and around Cowee. Since each reserve was a square mile, this totalled 27 square miles of land and included the prime farmland along the river bottoms. Driven by greedy and ruthless land speculators, the government of North Carolina extinguished the rights of these families and their claims were sold to whites. Some of the Cherokee families who were displaced included those of Euchella, the Old Mouse, Yellow Bear, the Axe, Little Deer, Trout, the Wolf, Jenny, and the Fencemaker.  Euchella, a headman, claimed a reserve containing Cowee mound and lived close by.  
Detail from a 1796 land patent entry which was determined to be fraudulent

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.


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.


Indian Gap Trail - photo by Lamar Marshall
Detail from 1857 North Carolina Map
Detail from a modern Great Smoky Mountains National Park map