Cherokee Trails

Before there were roads, there were only trails. Before there were wheels, there were only feet. Before the Norsemen and Columbus stumbled upon North America, the continent was crisscrossed by a trail system chiseled into the earth by animals large and small and the silent moccasins that followed them.

Three hundred years ago, the southern Appalachians were home to the sovereign Cherokee Nation. Over sixty towns and settlements were connected by a well-worn system of foot trails, many of which later became bridle paths and wagon roads. This Indian trail system was the blueprint for the circuitry of the region’s modern road, rail, and interstate systems.

Cherokee towns and villages were scattered across Southern Appalachia. The most isolated of these towns were in the remote valleys of western North Carolina along the Little Tennessee, Cheoah, Valley, Hiwassee, Nantahala, and Tuckasegee Rivers. Mountainous barriers reaching into the sky surrounded these towns and European explorers described them as “impassable” on early maps.

These trails are not to be confused with modern recreational trails, although portions of some of them have become a part of the Appalachian, Bartram, and Benton MacKaye Trails. They are abandoned and deeply entrenched in some places, and overgrown in rhododendron and laurel in others. Sometimes a trail abruptly disappears where early 20th century logging operations stripped the mountains of trees.

We can stand in the deeply worn recesses and look at the distant profiles of the mountains from the exact vantage point of Cherokee ancestors a thousand years ago. These trails were the travel arteries of the land, the highways of their day, and they connect our generation with the history of the land.

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