Paddling down the Tennessee reveals local history, Cherokee culture

On a recent historical paddling trip along the Tennessee River, the group included (from left): Robert Smith, Eric & Pat Towers, Alarka Expedition guides Angela-Faye Martin and Brent Martin, and Mary Ann Litrell. They stopped at the Cowee Mound kiosk to rest and eat lunch and learn more about the ancient Cherokee site.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Birding, local history, and Cherokee culture were the topics presented to kayakers on a recent paddling trip down the Little Tennessee River.

At one time all along both sides of the Tennessee River in Franklin and beyond were thriving Cherokee villages, trade roads, council houses atop ancient mounds, and agricultural fields. Brent and Angela-Faye Martin led an April 25th educational kayaking trip from the Lake Emory Dam to McCoy Bridge in Cowee so that participating paddlers could understand what life may have been like for Cherokee in the 18th and early 19th century, before the Indian Removal.

The almost 10-mile stretch passed two ancient Native mounds, Watauga and Cowee. At the Cowee Mound, the group pushed their kayaks into a tributary and took a break to eat lunch and read the informational kiosk that is part of the Cherokee Cultural Corridor. 

Brent Martin referenced a historic map that shows the Cherokee villages and their names that once existed along the Tennessee River from the Franklin area through Cowee.

Brent Martin, who also serves as director of the Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy, informed the paddlers that what is now mostly farm land along the Tennessee River (some farmed by the same families for at least a century) was at one time, red with Cherokee-cultivated wild strawberries. 

“When William Bartram passed through here in 1775, he described horses’ hooves stained red from strawberries,” he told kayakers. “Bartram’s descriptions of life along the Tennessee at that time are the only detailed ones we have.” 

While paddling, Martin mentioned various passages from “Travels of William Bartram” Bartram was a famed naturalist who traveled extensively in the area to observe life, flora, and fauna. Bartram wrote about the strawberries. “The swelling bases of the surrounding hills fronting the meadows presented for my acceptance the fragrant red strawberry, in painted beds of many acres, indeed I may safely say, many hundreds.”

The kayaking group, when passing the Watauga mound, across from Mainspring Conservation Trust’s Gibson Bottoms project along the river, were informed about the Cherokee Chief of Watauga that Bartram met and wrote about. Martin shared that it is one of his favorite passages in the book: “During my countenance here, about half an hour, I experienced the most perfect and agreeable hospitality conferred on me by these happy people; I mean happy in their dispositions, in their apprehension of rectitude with regard to our social or moral conduct: O divine simplicity and truth, friendship without fallacy or guile, hospitality disinterested, native, undefiled, unmodified by artificial refinements.” 

Martin pointed out fishing weirs along the river, indicating dozens still exist in the stretch that the paddlers traveled. These mostly V-shaped areas in the river were constructed of stone by Cherokee, and baskets or nets were placed at the end of weirs to contain the fish. He also noted that Cherokee traveled down the Little Tennessee in dugout canoes, made from large hardwood trees, that could often accommodate several people. 

Both Brent and Angela Martin provided the group with information about the many birds sighted along the Little Tennessee, including kingfishers, barn and cliff swallows, a bald eagle, ospreys, and wood ducks. 

Through hiking, paddling, and camping, the Martins’ intention is to provide opportunities for individuals and groups to learn about nature and local history. 

Upcoming activities include “Wildcraft Kitchen Comes to Cowee,” Saturday, May 15, and “In Bloom: Silky Camellia,” May 29.