Following in Cherokee footsteps across WNC

Crossing the green field and climbing the hill, Lamar Marshall stops and unfolds his topo map from his backpack. This wind-whipped summit overlooking a bend of the Little Tennessee River is not a natural feature, but a mound made by the land’s ancient inhabitants in a town once called Cowee.

Standing where the Cherokee council house once held a sacred fire, Marshall can point out the path below, winding beside native canebrakes into a nearly forgotten past of the Cowee Valley.

For the last eight years, Marshall has been following in the footsteps of the Cherokee along trails that once linked dozens of their ancient towns along this river and across Western North Carolina.

“These are arteries into the past that connect us with the culture of this place,” Marshall said. “When I walk along these trails, I am seeing the exact same views, the same mountains that natives have seen for thousands of years. We’re standing in the same spot that William Bartram or Dragging Canoe may have stood.”

As the cultural director of Wild South, a regional conservation group, Marshall has charted more than 1,000 miles of Cherokee trails. Using both GPS technology from orbiting satellites and combing dusty archival records, Marshall can look back to a time when the Cherokee traveled a network of pathways through the mountains, now buried in many places beneath modern roads, highways, railroads and even interstates.

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