— John DeBrahm, “Report of the General Survey in the Southern District of North America,” ed. Louis de Vorsey, Jr., (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1971)
Making it through most winters here in the Smokies region isn’t that big a deal. The lower elevations where most live (1,700 or so feet) don’t normally get a lot of snow and the temperatures only occasionally dip below zero each winter. However, once you get as far north as Boone or Blacksburg, Va., that scenario changes drastically.
The ancient Cherokees, who settled in the Smokies and adjacent regions as well, were no doubt well aware of the importance of winter weather and the stresses it can make upon a culture. Their settlement and housing patterns clearly reflect this awareness.
Charles Hudson, author of The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1976), has noted that “Although the winter temperatures drop below freezing in the Southeast, the Indians wore relatively little clothing … and when they were outside they made it a virtue to tolerate being cold and wet.” Oh how many times I have tried my very best to make a virtue out of being “cold and wet,” usually without any success whatsoever.
According to Jefferson Chapman’s Tellico Archaeology: American History (Tennessee Valley Authority, 1985), pre-historic Cherokee domestic buildings in the Smokies region were of three types: (1) a small winter house; (2) rectangular (often open-sided) structures attached to the winter house but designed for leisurely summer occupation; (3) and sometimes separate, rather large, rectangular (often partitioned) structures more substantial than summer houses but not as confining as winter houses.
There were also townhouses (often situated atop ceremonial mounds), sweat lodges, storage buildings, menstrual huts and corncribs. After European contact, the most typical structure was a small, rectangular building that resembled a log cabin and was, indeed, modeled on white pioneer designs.
Theda Perdue describes the winter houses (“asi”) in The Cherokees (NY: Chelsea House, 1989) as “small, round, wattle-and-daub structures. The fire constantly smoldering in the hearth made the windowless ‘asi’ dark and smoky.” Wattle-and-daub structures are supported with poles interwoven with cane or branches that are, in turn, plastered with clay. These were attractive structures that were quite serviceable.
Inside the winter houses were raised wooden seats or couches on which the inhabitants or visitors sat or slept. They were, as the Indian trader James Adair observed, “high enough that fleas could not reach them in one jump.” Each seat/couch was covered with split-cane mats and animal skins. A stone- or mud-lined hole in the center of the structure was usually excavated as a fire pit. It was often the duty of the elderly, who remained inside more than younger members of the family, to maintain the fire throughout the day and bank it back at night. Fire tending was not an onerous task for the aged but a sign of prestige.
“Europeans who visited these winter houses complained of smoke and poor ventilation, but these buildings were able to maintain heat efficiently,” Hudson noted. “A small blaze or a few coals kept the winter house as warm as an oven. In fact, James Adair described the winter house as being like a ‘Dutch oven.’ Beneath their beds they stored pumpkins, winter squash, and other vegetables to protect them from frost.”
To my knowledge, the most significant description of Cherokee winter houses yet published was Charles W. Faulkner’s “Origin and Evolution of the Cherokee Winter House,” published in the Journal of Cherokee Studies (Spring 1978). Faulkner, a long-time archaeologist at the University of Tennessee, describes winter and adjacent summer homes excavated in Tennessee that date back to 75-440 A.D.
Of interest are three winter houses that Faulkner calls ‘double-oven” winter houses because they were unique in that they each contained “two earth ovens on the floor averaging 4.5 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep and filled with limestone blocks that served as a heating and cooking surface.” One of the structures was “almost 45 feet in diameter with interior ovens 7 feet in diameter and 2.5 feet deep.”