Cherokee Footpaths

The following article, by William Harwood, appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, and is used here by their permission:

“The exercise will do them good.” The statement seems benign enough until you consider its source – a decidedly corpulent General Winfield Scott referring to the Cherokee’s forced exodus from the Southern Appalachians.

The year was 1838, and the white-folks-in-charge had decided it was time for the Cherokee to go. Despite opposition from some – Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, who urged his countrymen not to inflict “so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation” – the removal at gunpoint proceeded and became known as the infamous “Trail of Tears,” a national disgrace in which thousands died on a forced march west. As wicked as it was, the crime would have been even worse had it not been for an extensive network of trails which cut through the gaps and ran along the ridge lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Several hundred Cherokee used them to evade Scott’s troops, helping to form what is now the Eastern band of the tribe. Many of today’s most popular trails – including sections of the Appalachian Trail – are former Cherokee trails.

These trails were originally blazed by the “buffalo,” the North American bison. Back in the day, these big bovines – six foot plus at the shaggy shoulders and a ton of chunk on the hoof – thrived in the thick forests of the Southeast. Migrating across millenia between seasonal feeding grounds on opposite sides of the Appalachians, the bison bulled their way through the Blue Ridge, leaving in their wake a network of pathways which, for the first Cherokee who finally came along, was nothing less than the information superhighway of its day. Its existence allowed for various forms of communication over distances and landscapes that otherwise would have been impossible. Since the first horse would not be seen in the Blue Ridge until Hernando de Soto came clopping along in the sixteenth century, all communication would have proceeded at the speed of feet. Champion Cherokee trail runners must have been treated like some combination of rock star and FedEx delivery guy.

By the time the settlers barnstormed their way in, punctuating the equilibrium with their pigs and cattle, gunpowder and iron, whiskey and exotic diseases, the Native Americans had developed the trails into a web of continental proportions. Archaeologist William Myer documented dozens of such trails. One of the most important, the Great Indian War Path, linked what is now upstate New York to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile, Alabama. Along the way, this spinal column of a trail intersected major east-west routes which connected the Carolinas to Tennessee, and Virginia to the Ohio Valley. If you could travel back in time to 1492, it would have been possible to run for years east of the Mississippi without ever having to step off a trail. Even the mighty Appalachian Trail can only gaze upon such well-endowed mileage.

But things fall apart and centers cannot hold. Almost nothing of the original Cherokee trail network remains. In fact, its very existence facilitated its destruction as it provided a convenient avenue of entry for all those settlers with their wagons full of stuff. Some stretches, to be sure, remain in use to this day, but those tend to be the valley sections and are now state highways with big trucks and SUVs zooming over them.

Then there’s Warrior’s Path State Park in Tennessee, named for the Cherokee section of trail that once cut through the Holston River Valley and reached all the way north into Iriquois country. The park is lovely, but its 12 miles of trail fail to measure up to the original trail by almost three orders of magnitude.

Still, a few of the Southern Appalachian trails today are based on previous Cgerokee trails, including sections of the Mountains to Sea Trail in North Carolina. One of the most popular stretches is the “Bull Gap” section, which got its name when, in 1799, a settler by the name of Joseph Rice shot the very last buffalo in North Carolina.

— William Harwood