Built on a Nation: Franklin steeped in Cherokee history

photo by Vickie Carpenter

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Residents of Franklin drive by it daily. Its origins are the fodder for much rumor and speculation. Is it an old lookout? A sacred burial ground? A landing site for extra-terrestrials? The mound, encompassed by Main Street, Depot Street, and Palmer Street, has a name – Nikwasi Mound – and it once had a significant purpose. 

The Indian Mound, as it is often known, was the foundation of a crowning council house and sacred fire in the heart of Nikwasi, a sacred town of the Cherokee Nation. The pile of dirt, in fact, is a silent reminder of a people who lived, worked, and thrived long before the town of Franklin materialized. 

Franklin was officially incorporated as a town just five years shy of the Civil War, in 1855. But the building of a community began here hundreds of years before. Today the full-time population of Franklin is just shy of 3,000, with thousands visiting year-round. Yet, the tribe of a few hundred or so that resided here was, according to peopleofonefire.com, a significant one.   

“Although the Cherokee people lived in what is today Macon County for thousands of years, many of the current residents are unaware of this,” wrote Anne F. Rogers, Ph.D, and a former professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University (WCU), in “A Lasting Legacy,” published in the Macon County Historical Museum newsletter, for which she is a contributor. Even though she retired from teaching at WCU in 2015, Dr. Rogers still retains an office there and is a professor emerita; she volunteers her time at the Macon County Historical Museum, sharing her wealth of Cherokee knowledge with visitors. However, although she has co-authored and/or edited several books on the Cherokee, a significant achievement is the co-editing – along with William L. Anderson and Jane L. Brown – and annotating The Payne-Butrick Papers, based on the observations of John Howard Daniel S. Butrick who wrote their observations of the Cherokee from the late 1700s to early 1800s. 

In “A Lasting Legacy,” Dr. Rogers explained that in the late 1700s and into the 1800s, European settlers began to edge out these native people. Then, in 1819, much of the land in the county was officially acquired in a treaty with the Cherokee. The name Macon honors a Revolutionary War patriot, Nathanial Macon, who became a United States congressman and then senator. The town of Franklin was named for Jesse Franklin, a North Carolina governor. 

But long before this modern era, Nikwasi – which means “center of activity” – was the name given to the area. 

What is impressive, according to Cherokee Heritage Trails, is “Not only has it escaped destruction by excavation, farming, and development, Nikwasi Mound remains something like its original size. Its stature cannot be appreciated driving by on the street, because the level around the mound has been filled for modern construction. Only when one stands at its base can one appreciate the sheer bulk and graceful lines of this earthen construction, which was once even larger. Originally crowned with a large townhouse, this mound held the ever-burning sacred fire, and was the dwelling place of the immortal spirit-beings, the nunnehi.”

The mound’s accurate age is undeterminable because dating it would require excavation. But the “mound builder” era, cites Franklin’s Ancient Mound, was in the A.D. 1000-1550 time frame. The book, available at the Macon County Historical Museum, provides information about the structure of a village where the mound is the central aspect: “The mound builders typically located their settlements in broad river valleys suitable for agriculture (i.e. along the Little Tennessee River). They built fortified towns, arranged around a large plaza. One or more platform mounds supported the ceremonial buildings and, sometimes, the house of the ruler or high priest. … The people of those early villages built their homes and public buildings of poles. They covered the roofs with grass and made walls of reed mats, daubed with mud on the outside. Their council houses were square in shape.”

There is evidence that other such communities existed along the Little Tennessee River. The people living in those communities maintained agriculture and orchards in the bottom lands along the river. 

Nikwasi was still in existence in the late 1700s when botanist William Bartram, for whom the Bartram Trail (which can be accessed in Franklin and goes to Wayah Bald) is named, traveled through the area and wrote about it. 

“He observed about 300 Cherokee who attended a council meeting at Nikwasi,” said Dr. Rogers, who added that it is difficult to determine when the mound was last used as the center point of activity in the area. “Certainly, for a long time, into the 1800s, the Cherokee gathered at Nikwasi to trade and meet, and many lived there – although it’s difficult to know exactly how many.”

Other mounds, said Dr. Rogers, have been destroyed over the years, but two known existing ones are in Cowee and Watauga; the former is owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and the latter is on private lands. 

The name Nikwasi still exists as a street near the mound. Other names like Wayah, Ulco, Iotla, and Watauga reflect the Cherokees’ occupation of the area, shared Dr. Rogers, who concentrated an aspect of her teaching at WCU on Native American studies. Some names carry significant meaning: Cartoogechaye means “new town”; Cowee means “Deer Clan town”; and, Ellijay means “new earth.” 

Other evidence of the Cherokees’ prospering existence in Franklin is on display at the Macon County Historical Museum on Main Street in Franklin. Hundreds of locally found arrowheads, primarily made of flint or quartz, are in cases. Plus, there are baskets, tools, musical instruments, and pottery. Museum Curator Robert Shook said the museum is occasionally visited by Cherokee, who “appreciate that we are not trying to profit off of their history, but use these items to tell their story truthfully and accurately. The items show and teach the real culture.”

In The Payne-Butrick Papers, which is in the museum’s library for anyone to read, the culture is expressed in the primary source by people who were there to document. For example, regarding an observation of a Cherokee corn harvest: “The corn to be plucked when soft and ready for roasting ears. The outer husks to be taken off; and the ears to be boiled thoroughly. The inner husks, after this, are to be drawn back so as to enable it to be tied up in bunches.” Also in the book is the dramatic journaling of incidents like “the killing of Bone Cracker” and letters like one written by Path Killer, principal chief, on Oct. 28, 1823. 

Of course, what is also conveyed at the museum is America’s historical stain: European manipulation and control, and ultimately the U.S. government act that resulted in what is known as the Trail of Tears. Franklin Chamber of Commerce history includes how the British first developed an important trading network with the Cherokee. Thus, the French and Indian War, which was not between the French and Native Americans but between the British and the French warring over lands in the new world, resulted in the Cherokee siding with the British. However, relations between allies weakened and a June 1760 conflict ended in British and Colonial forces under Colonel James Montgomery losing to Cherokee at Nikwasi. The following year, though, another skirmish ended with Cherokee at the Village of Etchoe near present-day Franklin, suffering defeat. 

Fast forward to the War of 1812 and Cherokee sided with settlers, according to nctrailoftears.org. In fact, the general feeling of all people in the area at that time was to maintain peaceful coexistence. The site shares: “An example of trying to conform to the ‘whiteman’s’ way would be in 1827, when the Cherokee Nation drafted a constitution modeled on the United States with a system of checks and balances.”

Despite best efforts, the 1830 Indian Removal Act prevailed with the support of President Andrew Jackson. The Great State Road was built to connect Franklin to Fort Butler in Murphy, which was the Army headquarters for Cherokee removal in North Carolina. In June and July 1838, Cherokee prisoners traveled the road and then departed their homeland on the long and dangerous 1,200 mile walk to Oklahoma. Of the total 17,000 Cherokee gathered from not only North Carolina but other states such as Georgia,            an estimated 6,000 men, women, and children died along the way.

Several hundred of the 3,500 North Carolina Cherokee hid in the Western North Carolina mountains, but many more made the Midwestern trek. Interestingly, according to Dr. Rogers, “If a Cherokee woman was married to a non-Cherokee man, they did not get removed, but if a Cherokee man was married to a non-Cherokee woman, they were removed. “Eventually, many Cherokee (or their descendants)  who were forced to relocate to Oklahoma returned to Western North Carolina and reside on the 57,000 acres (known as Qualla Boundary) purchased in the latter 1800s by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee – lands that are now, ironically, protected by the United States government. There the Cherokee language, culture, and tribal identity is protected as well. A recent drive through the reservation, in fact, witnessed a field of young men – shirts off – playing stickball, a game played by the Cherokee for centuries.”

Instead of residing along the Tennessee River in Franklin, modern Cherokee families of the Eastern Band consider the Oconaluftee River, which joins the Tennessee River, as part of their home. Presently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation with more than 14,000 members.

Cherokee history and Trail of Tears is acted out on Qualla Boundary, Cherokee, N.C., in a summertime outdoor drama called “Unto These Hills.” Not all white settlers supported forced removal of Cherokee. Some, like farmer John Welch, were imprisoned for providing secret shelter and food to Cherokee families. 

Tom Belt, a Cherokee studies professor at Western Carolina University since 2005, knows of ancestors who walked the Trail of Tears. 

“I can trace my paternal great-great grandfather to Shooting Creek Town in Clay County, North Carolina. He was interned at Ft. Hembree at what is now Hayesville before being sent to Oklahoma with hundreds of other Cherokee from this area. I believe that my mother’s people came from North Georgia. The stories I heard as a child about the removal were accounts of suffering and sadness. The harsh conditions of the removal left a bitter legacy that was passed down to the next generations. We were told to never forget what had happened and where we came from.”

Although Cherokee as a tribe no longer reside in Franklin, Shook says those he has befriended do not convey bitterness to him. 

“It’s all hard to understand … why it happened, why early 1900s boarding schools tried to forbid their culture and language. But it’s history. And the best way to deal with history is to know it and get over it. As Winston Churchill once said, ‘Those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it.’”

Dr. Rogers echoes Shook’s sentiments. 

“I concentrated on archeology and Native American studies and when I went to teach at Western I was told I would teach Cherokee culture, so the first thing I did was to take a class to learn the Cherokee language. I got to know many people in Cherokee and I count some of them as friends. It’s really amazing to be in a place where I can work with descendants of the original Cherokee; everyone has been so nice and helpful. I so much respect Cherokee culture and what the people have accomplished.” 

Belt said he was born in Oklahoma in 1951 but “returned” to live on the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee in 1991. He explained the connection Cherokee have with the land:.

 “My memory of the stories told by my elders, who are now deceased, validates the spiritual connection I have with these mountains. These mountains were our home for at least 10,000 years. We nurtured our culture and our people in a manner that coincided with the stewarding of the environment. In this long period of time we learned that the health of the mountains was proportionate to the health of all life, especially ours. The people that now reside on these ancient sites should be appreciative of the longevity of the occupancy and stewardship that existed here. They should know that an understanding of the sciences of biology and astronomy existed here long before the first Europeans arrived and provided sustainability for centuries along these waterways and valleys. They should know that the histories of Nikwasi, Cowee, and Watauga towns are older than the arrival of Europeans and yet are still connected to every living Cherokee child today. They should know that they reside on ground that is an inalienable part of their own history; it is in fact American history.”

In 1980, the Nikwasi mound was listed on the National Register of Historical Places. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians asks that visitors not climb the mound or walk on its top, in order to help preserve it. A future plan is for an interpretive center to be built on property adjacent to the Nikwasi mound so that more people will recognize and understand the heritage of a people – past and present. 

Dr. Rogers shared that she has seen Cherokee-generated signs around Western North Carolina over the years that solidify the obvious. “We are still here,” they read.