Archived Mountain Voices

Bartram’s early accounts of Cowee

The preservation of the Cowee mound and village site alongside the Little Tennessee River in Macon County is truly significant in regard to this region’s cultural history. The Hall and Porter families are to be commended for making this possible through the agencies of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.


It serves as the perfect occasion to take a look back to the year 1775 when William Bartram (1734-1823) became the first traveler to describe the site in considerable detail. Through his eyes we can glimpse the setting when it was already perhaps more than 700 years old and still bustling with life.

Bartram is the patron saint of American naturalists. In regard to his ability to combine intimate personal experience with genuine scientific observation, this country — indeed the world — had seen nothing like him before he appeared and nothing quite like him since. He was an American original whose influence on his contemporaries in numerous walks of life was enormous and continues to this day.

Bartram was born near Philadelphia in 1739. As a youth he showed a talent for drawing specimens collected by his father, John Bartram, America’s first botanist, but he initially worked as a merchant and trader. In 1765, he accompanied his father on an expedition to Florida and remained in the American South, drawing natural flora, gathering botanical specimens, becoming an accomplished ornithologist, and befriending both colonial planters and members of indigenous tribes. Between 1773 and 1777 he made his famous journey throughout what was to become the southeastern portion of the United States.

The riveting summary of his adventures appeared in 1791 as Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territory of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws.

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Bartram’s Travels — as the volume is generally known — quickly became an American classic, being described by one modern scholar as “the most astounding verbal artifact of the early republic.” Bartram was only in Western North Carolina for a short while during the late spring of 1775. His route was up the Indian Path through present day Clayton, Georgia, and along the Little Tennessee River to present day Franklin, N.C., where he described the Nikwasi mound and community site. From there, he continued on to the Cowee site some miles north of Nikwasi:

“ I travelled about five miles through old plantations, now under grass, but appeared to have been planted the last season; the soil exceeding fertile, loose, black, deep and fat. I arrived at Cowe [i.e., Cowee] about noon; this settlement is esteemed the capital town; it is situated on the bases of the hills on both sides of the river, near to its bank, and here terminates the great vale of Cowe, exhibiting one of the most charming natural mountainous landscapes perhaps any where to be seen; ridges of hills rising grand and sublimely one above and beyond another, some boldly and majestically advancing into the verdant plain, their feet bathed with the silver flood of the Tanase [Little Tennessee] whilst others far distant, veiled in blue mists, sublimely mount aloft, with yet greater majesty lift up their pompous crests and overlook vast regions.

“The vale is closed at Cowe by a ridge of mighty hills, called the Jore mountain [i.e., Nantahala Mountains], said to be the highest land in the Cherokee country, which crosses the Tanase here.

On my arrival at this town I waited on the gentlemen to whom I was recommended by letter, and was received with respect and every demonstration of hospitality and friendship.

“I took my residence with Mr. Galahan, the chief trader here, an ancient respectable man who had been many years a trader in this country, and is esteemed and beloved by the Indians for his humanity, probity and equitable dealings with them ....

“The town of Cowe consists of about one hundred dwellings, near the banks of the Tanase, on both sides of the river.

“The Cherokees construct their habitations on a different plan from the Creeks, that is but one oblong four square building, of one story high; the materials consisting of logs or trunks of trees, stripped of their bark, notched at their ends, fixed one upon another, and afterwards plaistered well, both inside and out, with clay well tempered with dry grass, and the whole covered or roofed with the bark of the Chesnut tree or long broad shingles ....

“The council or town-house is a large rotunda, capable of accommodating several hundred people; it stands on the top of an ancient artificial mount of earth, of about twenty feet perpendicular, and the rotunda on the top of it being above thirty feet more, gives the whole fabric an elevation of about sixty feet from the common surface of the ground ....

“About the close of the evening I accompanied Mr. Galahan and other white traders to the rotunda, where was a grand festival, music and dancing. This assembly was held principally to rehearse the ball-play dance, this town being challenged to play against another the next day.

“The people being assembled and seated in order, and the musicians having taken their station, the ball opens, first with a long harangue or oration, spoken by an aged chief, in commendation of the manly exercise of the ball-play, recounting the many and brilliant victories which the town of Cowe had gained over the other towns in the nation, not forgetting or neglecting to recite his own exploits ....

“This prologue being at an end, the musicians began, both vocal and instrumental, when presently a company of girls, hand in hand, dressed in clean white robes and ornamented with beads, bracelets and a profusion of gay ribbands, entering the door, immediately began to sing their responses in a gentle, low and sweet voice, and formed themselves in a semicircular file or line, in two ranks, back to back, facing the spectators and musicians, moving slowly round and round; this continued about a quarter of an hour, when we were surprised by a sudden very loud and shrill whoop, uttered at once by a company of young fellows, who came in briskly after one another, with rackets or hurls in one hand. These champions likewise were well dressed, painted and ornamented with silver bracelets, gorgets and wampum, neatly ornamented with moccasins and high waving plumes in their diadems, who immediately formed themselves in a semicircular rank also, in front of the girls, when these changed their order, and formed a single rank parallel to the men, raising their voices in responses to the tunes of the young champions, the semicircles continually moving round ...”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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