Following the Little Tennessee River miles away from modern civilization in Franklin — past the pavement and subdivisions and through the grassy pastures that line the Cowee Valley — a large piece of Cherokee history remains.
While most people come to Macon County in the summer for a relaxing mountain vacation, Kathryn Sampeck makes the trip down south with a more important mission in mind.
With a wide-rimmed straw hat to shield her face from the beaming sun and a pair of worn-in brown leather boots she’s owned for at least 20 years, Sampeck returned again this summer to walk among sacred Cherokee land along the Little Tennessee River banks.
A mountainside in Macon County once destined for a housing development is now destined to be a community forest area comparable to the arboretum in Asheville.
The Hall Mountain Tract is a 108-acre swath of land overlooking the Cowee mound — a sacred Cherokee site — and the Little Tennessee River. Local conservationists and Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal members have been pushing hard since 2005 to save the site from becoming a large subdivision.
Cherokee students and teachers have undertaken the first part of a long-term monitoring project of birds at the Cowee Mound in Macon County.
A group with the Robbinsville-based Cherokee language camp in July participated in a breeding-bird sample survey at the tribally owned mound. Shirley Oswalt led the effort.
The event proved an opportunity for the students to familiarize themselves with native bird species, the traditional Cherokee names for these birds, and with the historic property itself.
Staff from Southern Appalachian Raptor Research, a local nonprofit group dedicated to the conservation and protection of birds of prey in the southern Appalachians through monitoring, education and field research, organized the survey. Mike LaVoie of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Fisheries and Wildlife Management program participated in the event, as did staff from the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, which has been collaborating with the tribe on the management of the property.
The survey is part of a nationwide program known Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship that is coordinated by the Institute for Bird Populations to monitor the health of breeding birds throughout North America. Last year, the Raptor Research group established a monitoring station in southern Macon County, and is continuing that work this summer.
“We chose the Cowee Mound site due to its diverse mix of early successional habitat along the floodplain,” LaVoie said. “Such habitat has been disappearing throughout the Southeastern U.S., yet is critical for the survival of many of our native wildlife species.”
Cowee is considered one of the most significant archaeological sites of the Mississippian period in North Carolina, when intensive agriculture first became established in the region. Pollen sampling has verified the presence of agriculture on these bottomlands dating back at least 3,000 years. The mound is thought to date from approximately 600 A.D. The council house of the Cherokee town of Cowee was located on this mound in the 18th century, at which time the town of Cowee served as the principal diplomatic and commercial center of the mountain Cherokee. For this reason, Cowee was also the center of significant historic events on the eve of the American Revolution in the South, including the target of the Rutherford Expedition in September 1776.
The 70-acre tribal property along the Little Tennessee River encompasses Cowee Mound and Village Site, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The Eastern Band purchased the property in early 2007 with assistance from the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The latter holds a conservation easement on the property that permanently protects its conservation values and prevents commercial and residential development.
The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee has saved a key tract from development along the Little Tennessee River near Cowee Mound.
The Land Trust bought three acres that were being marketed for an RV park. The low-lying land, which sits between N.C. 28 and the river, has 900 feet of river frontage and lies directly across the river from the Cowee Mound.
“This is a great acquisition that will support a community vision of heritage-based development in this historic landscape,” said LTLT’s Sharon Fouts Taylor. “With some modest investment it can provide a safe place for people to pull of the highway, park, and view the river and the mound.”
The purchase was made possible by a gift from Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, key philanthropists for land preservation in the mountains.
In 2007, Cowee Mound itself was protected by LTLT in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the state, now augmented by the protection of a near-by parcel.
The ancient Cowee Mound was at the heart of the principal commercial and diplomatic town of the mountain Cherokee in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. A council house on the mound seated hundreds. In the mid-18th century, Cowee was at the geopolitical center of the South due to its position in the principal trade route through the southern mountains into the interior of the continent.
An 1837 map of Cowee shows a bridge crossing the river at the site of LTLT’s new purchase.
“When the river was low during the severe drought two years ago, large squared boulders that must have buttressed that bridge were clearly evident in the river channel between this parcel and the mound on the opposite bank,” said Paul Carlson, LTLT’s Executive Director. “The Little Tennessee River and the largely-intact historic landscape of northern Macon County are the greatest local assets we have for future economic development as well as for enhancing the fine quality of life we enjoy in this area.”
www.ltlt.org or 828.524.2711.
As a child growing up in Oklahoma, Tom Belt often heard that there were reasons a group of Cherokee had remained in the East when others were forcibly marched west.
When it comes right down to it, the good will of private landowners is often what stands between saving Indian mounds and losing these pieces of ancient history.
Cowee Mound, a 71-acre site in Macon County and once a major Cherokee village, will be preserved thanks to a joint conservation effort between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.