Lesson Four: Trails

Ancient Trails of the Appalachians

“By 1600 buffalo paths, or traces, began merging with trails. Traces circled hills and stabbed through tangles of laurel, leading to licks, pastures, rivers, creeks, and canebrakes. Buffalo cut a narrow path in the woods as they walked nose to tail in one long line, threading their way up and down ridges, across creeks, around bushes, rocks, and trees. Their sharp hooves pounded down trails in open land, chipping out dirt and rocks until the paths lay three or four feet below ground level. Banks along the sides rose as high as six feet. In Shelby County, Kentucky, a surviving trace measures forty feet across and four feet deep.  Alanant-o-wamiowee, meaning “the Buffalo Path,” cut through north-central Kentucky from Big Bone Lick in Boone County to Maysville in Mason County, 225 miles to the east. South of Big Bone, it ran to Drennon’s Springs in Henry County and on to the Scott County town of Stamping Ground- “so named from the fact that the herds of buffalo which resorted here for salt water tramped or stamped down the undergrowth and soil for a great distance around.” Limestone Street in Lexington follows part of this old trace. From Scott County, Alanant-owamiowee crossed the Licking River in Nicholas County, then ran north to the Ohio to May’s “Lick. Thirty miles north from Big Bone, the Buffalo Path merged with a network of trails leading to Indian towns along the Ohio.

Indian-marked paths and buffalo traces often overlapped, but telling them apart was easy for hunters. Simon Kenton, a frontiersman who was in Kentucky by 1775, observed that war roads were not worn as deeply as traces, and trees along war roads were blazed and marked with red paint in deeply carved Indian pictographs.”

Ted Franklin Belue,  The Long Hunt (Stackpole Books, 1996) p. 16-17

The Little Tennessee River originates from tens of thousands of springs that emanate from the many mountain chains that comprise the western North Carolina area of the Appalachian Summit. When the glaciers retreated northward, rich coves along the headwaters of the river provided a unique diversity of plants, animals and fish that eventually enticed nomadic hunters and gatherers to build permanent settlements along floodplains.

The prehistory of western North Carolina is divided into four basic time periods: Paleo, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian. They span a time from about 9,000 B.C. with the arrival of the Paleo-Indians, until around 1,500 A.D. and the arrival of Europeans. Through these millennia, the nomadic lifestyle that included the hunting of mastodons and mammoths was lost to changing climatic conditions and the extinction of those megafauna. Although the Pleistocene animals are believed to have vanished by 8,500 B.C., it was another 7,000 years before permanent or semi-permanent villages became widespread. Over time, the wandering bands of hunters grew larger and embraced the introduction of plant propagation around permanent camps and villages.

About 1,000 B.C., the widespread use of pottery marked the beginning of the Woodland Period and a continuing increase in the practice of horticulture. As distinct tribes emerged in various regions, farming and the hunting of resident bear, elk, bison, deer and turkey led to the eventual territorial claims of the Cherokees as well as other bands of Indians. Cherokees propagated native plants and began growing imports like corn and maypops (Passiflora incarnata) from Mexico. An extensive aboriginal trade evolved between tribes of the Americas became an important part of their local economies.

To support trade, travel, hunting and warfare, a complex continental-wide Indian trail system evolved. Trails in western North Carolina and the Little Tennessee River watershed closely followed the river and its hundreds of tributaries, tying settlements by crossing mountain gaps. Seasonal or permanent camps have been found in the uplands and gaps of the mountains that predate the migration to the flood plains. Mountain gaps were natural travel ways for big game and early hunters laid in wait for nature’s provisions. Before 1725, a Cherokee told a trader that the buffalo were their cows, the deer their sheep and the bear their hogs.


Native American fishing weirs are found along most southeastern rivers and numerous fish weirs are preserved in the Little Tennessee to serve as historic landmarks where fish harvesting and processing camps were located. Thirteen weirs have been identified in one seven mile section of the Little Tennessee between Iotla Creek and the McCoy Bridge.  Archaeologists have found that camps were usually located nearby where drying racks were set up. The fish were smoked and dried using fire-heated rocks. After a quantity was processed, it was taken to nearby towns where it was stored and eaten. Red horse was a principle migratory fish targeted during spring spawning runs.

European contact with the southeastern Indians included the Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo Spanish expeditions which passed through the Appalachian summit area in the mid 1500’s. By the 1670s, a fur and deerskin trade had begun with the Virginia traders. In the early 18th-century, English traders began to press across the Blue Ridge Mountains and set the stage for Cherokee dependency on foreign trade that would entangle them with a colonial superpower that led them into as series of wars for title to their lands. In 1738-39, an introduced smallpox epidemic destroyed half of the tribe.

About nineteen Cherokee towns or settlements were located between the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River near Rabun Gap, GA, to its junction with the Tuckasegee River.  Some of the more important towns were located near Dillard, GA, and Otto, Franklin, Iotla and Cowee Community in North Carolina. Twenty eight Cherokee Citizen Reservations were located on the Little Tennessee and tributaries.  Yellow Bear, Trout, Little Deer, Beaver Toter, Whippoorwill, and Six Killer were among those who took reserves in 1819. With over a hundred houses, Cowee Town was one of the most prominent Cherokee Middle Towns up to and after the American Revolution.The Council House was located on Cowee Mound on the west side of the Little Tennessee River just downstream from the influx of Cowee Creek. The town itself lay on both sides of the river. A smaller yet prominent mound is located on the east bank on private property at the junction of Cowee Creek and the river. There are dozens if not hundreds of cupules or mortar holes in numerous rocks on both sides of the river. Pottery shards are found in fields on both sides of the river upstream and downstream of the mound. In addition, pottery shards have been found far up the Cowee Valley on the bottomlands of Matlock, Rickman, Cowee, Shepherd, and Mica City Creeks. Archaeological sites have been found along Burningtown, Tellico, Iotla and dozens of other feeder streams.

Tradition tells us that many waterfalls such as Burningtown Falls were sacred places to the Cherokees. Alexander Long, an English trader who lived with and knew the Cherokees well, wrote a journal in 1725. He noted that the Cherokees purged themselves in a ritual associated with the ripening of their corn in late summer. Long describes how they fasted and took herbal physics before their holy man led the people to the river to wash off their pollutions.

Iotla Town was situated where the modern Macon County Airport is now located. The original Cherokee name was Ayoree or Jore Town. A great trading path that originated in Charles Town, South Carolina passed through Nikwasi, modern Franklin and Ayoree, and crossed the Nantahala Mountains to the Valley towns and Overhill towns of the Cherokees. It was called the Iona Canara Road in 1761. Important archaeological discoveries were made at Iotla in April of 2009 when archaeologists surveying a proposed runway expansion at the airport found two palisaded villages dating to about1100 A.D.  Some artifacts on the site dated as early as 2000 B.C. but most of what was found dated back to the Woodland Period, 500 A.D. This included structures, storage and cooking pits. The excavations also turned up artifacts and the remains of structures and pits dating as late as 1600-1750 A.D. which may have coincided with the burning of Ayoree town by the British General James Grant in 1761