Cherokee Ecology

A Tapestry of Mountains, Grasslands and Swamps

The Cherokees who traveled the vastness of eastern continental North America in 1700 would recognize only the perpetual mountain profiles today. The old growth forests have long been cut down, swamps drained, canebrakes erased and ancient trails paved, plowed and removed. 

The buffalo were mostly long gone before 1800, many times shot down and killed for sport and many times just to cut out and cook the tongue. The habitats of the wild game were converted into agricultural landscapes and eventually fenced off. Travel could not be effected without circumventing white settlements and hostile Anglo or Euro-Americans who stereotyped natives as savages that lurked in the dark forests, spilled copious amounts of blood and slunk back into their lairs at night. Young children aspired to grow up and become “Indian fighters.” In the early 1830’s, novelists cranked out such nonsensical literature in books that sold in cities to people who had no clue as to the reality of the frontier or the true nature of the natives. The technology and industrial advances of European countries instilled a racial pride grounded in a questionable philosophy that such a course for humanity must be better than a pastoral and harmonious existence based on natural technologies.

But now we are getting into the realm of another subject “The History of the World According to Me.” (link coming soon)

Rivercane was not only an essential natural resource for dozens of domestic and utilitarian technologies, but one of the best forages for grazers. When horses were adopted for travel by Native Americans, camps were generally made along trails at canebrakes near water. Bison, elk, deer, bear, and turkey were excellent sources of food and useful by-products.

The Buffalo Chronicles

This early map detail showing south of the Ohio River shows natives hunting buffalo. Note "les Cheraqui" lower right = The Cherokee. The hunter camoflauged under a deer or elk hide was taken from another early drawing.
This photo is from Kentucky of an authenticated buffalo trail or buffalo road as they were called in the early days. Some were so wide and trampled flat, that they became wagon roads. When the buffalo were extirpated, local settlers were ordered annually by county road courts to work a set amount of time in maintaining roads.
Cherokees riding across the grasslands of Tennessee or Kentucky on their annual buffalo hunt

Buffalo in North Carolina

Much of the Cherokee territorial claim in North Carolina is dominated and characterized by the Appalachian Mountains which consists of chains and cross chains of mountains with high elevation forests on steep side-slopes. Within the ridges and knobs are found both small and large river bottoms, coves, benches and basins where the land is fertile and flat. Early journals and travelers described variously that the paths or traces followed through grassy plains, strawberry plains, savannas, natural meadows, lawns, barrens and prairies.

It is a subject of debate among ecologists as to whether these natural meadows were here from the last ice age and maintained  by extinct larger herbivores and later by buffalo and elk.  Then, there is the extent to which Native Americans maintained or expanded buffalo range by design or by accident. The fact is that they existed when white explorers and traders first penetrated the eastern interior of the continent. Ample records confirm that buffalo were widespread across this eastern interior and that Indians hunted them and depended on them for robes, meat, hair for spinning and their horns and bones.

It is believed that fewer buffalo resided in the higher mountains but that they grazed the grassy balds and migrated from north to south following seasonal grass growth and warmer conditions on the eastern flank of the Appalachians. The salt region of northern Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia drew large herds of buffalo to the hundreds of salt licks. The Piedmont of Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas contained mineral springs and clay pits that were heavily used by bison as well as elk and deer. Bartram’s Great Buffalo Lick in east central Georgia on a trading path shows the connection between trading paths and buffalo paths which in many cases later were followed by railroads. The most viable natural passageways connecting Tennessee and the Carolinas through rugged terrain were long-established buffalo traces followed by Indians and white settlers.  Most researchers believe that the average herds size east of the Appalachians were fifty or less and a large herd perhaps a hundred. 

Chesquah or "the Bird" was born about 1765 in or near Buffalo Town modern Robinsville, NC. He told of playing stickball in a grassy field at modern Knoxville, TN. He also recalled seeing the last of a herd of buffalo cross over Hooper Bald in the Unicoi Mountains heading towards Tellico Plains, Tennessee.
The Natchez Trace (not labeled in map) is the highlighted trail upper left of map running through Nashville called the French Lick in early days, and up into the Big Barrens of Kentucky. On the southwest end, the Natchez Trace crossed the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama and terminated at Natchez, Mississippi.