Cherokee Trails

Cherokee Trails and Pioneer Roads of the Southern Appalachians

Before the era of blasting away mountains and arbitrarily laying interstate highways from point A to B, people followed the natural, flowing geography of the land through valley corridors, mountain gaps, and shallow fords. Native American trails connected towns and villages. Some trails led to sacred places, while other trails were trade routes that led to needed resources. Regardless, these trails were part of everyday life.

The same trails were used by migrating settlers. Most foot and horse trails were altered for wagon use. A number of the trails were “cut out” by American armies during the Cherokee War of 1776 to 1786. Many of the roads of 1838 were used in the Civil War and were still in use when the U.S. Geological Survey began its systematic topographic mapping in the 1880s, providing us with a snapshot of the 19th Century road system. Later, these same roads were graded, graveled, widened, and paved for automobiles.

Pack train on Cherokee path

Today, some Cherokee trails remain deeply entrenched on National Forests and private lands. Though many trail-beds were erased by agriculture and development, other trails were simply abandoned in the forests or used as unpaved Forest Service roads. Some trails even became our modern paved roads and major highways.

Along these trails are the blood, sweat, and tears of those who lived, laughed, and died here. These trails were the travel arteries of the land, and they are fibers that connect this generation with the history of the land and earlier peoples.


Special thanks to the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and Community Foundation of Western North Carolina:

For making possible this important work to map and bring to life the historic Cherokee trail system of western NC, eastern TN, northern GA and northwest SC. We are hopeful that some trails included in this project will qualify as candidates for the National Historic Trail System. This project includes research, documentation, and the development of a composite Google Earth map of the cultural and historical landscape focusing on historic trails and in particular, surviving remnants of these trails. Our graphically-rich presentation will serve as a resource for future educational curriculum for Cherokee schools and this colorful history will instill pride in Cherokee youth and serve to connect them to their ancestral past.  It will also be used to promote the cultural tourism of the Qualla Boundary/Cherokee area by the designation of historical sites and interpretative media.

The U.S. Forest Service will include Cherokee trails in their cultural heritage resource management and hopefully designate Cherokee trails of special significance on the Nantahala, Pisgah, Cherokee, Chattahoochee and Sumter National Forests. Cultural heritage prescriptions provide a level of protection which will preserve trail remnants and their corridors. This project explores and documents the evolution of our modern road system and clearly shows that it was developed from and on an ancient, continental-wide system of Native American trails. Many Cherokee trails became “pioneer” roads” or early county roads and no primary sources to prove Native American can be found to date. For that reason, I have included pioneer in the title of this report in order to have those historic roads protected by the USFS and the National Historic Protection Act.