Archived Mountain Voices

Making use of natural surroundings

When the Cherokees emerged as a distinctive culture more than a thousand years ago, they situated themselves so as to take advantage of the many resources available in the southern mountains and adjacent foothills. By locating major settlements in the Piedmont Province (the Lower Towns in South Carolina and Georgia), the Blue Ridge Province (the Middle Towns in northwest South Carolina, western North Carolina, and north Georgia), and the Valley and Ridge Province (the Overhill Towns in east Tennessee), they could purposefully exploit the varied commodities available in each of these regions.

For the most part, the Cherokees were generalists; that is, they utilized a variety of animal, vegetable, and mineral products in an orderly manner. They knew exactly where to find suitable rock and earth materials. They knew which plants and animals could be harvested in each season and forest zone. They knew exactly when to venture into the high country to pursue certain game or procure choice fruits, nuts, and roots. In other words, there lives were ordered to a great degree by the abundance available in the region they had made into a homeland. In essence, they became dependent upon these landscapes for both their material welfare and their spiritual well being.

Nevertheless, they did favor certain commodities more than others. And it’s interesting to consider which items were especially prized. There is certainly room for debate in this regard, but I do have some candidates in each category.

The quality of fine stones available for crafting arrow and spear points was somewhat limited in the Cherokee homeland; accordingly, they often traded westward into present day Tennessee, up into the Ohio River valley and elsewhere for choice stones that could be utilized for these purposes. Quartz crystals suitable as divining stones were available within their homeland, but superior quartz was more often obtained by again trading westward into such areas as present day Arkansas. The primary items in this category that were available within their homeland were excellent varieties of soapstone and fine clays. From these pots, bowls, and ornaments were crafted that made their lifestyles more functional and pleasurable.

In regard to plant items, the basic food source for the Cherokees was, of course, southern dent corn. This was a cultivated plant that had had its origins in central Mexico about 4,000 B.C. Of the various native plants, many could be nominated from among the trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous, and other vascular species that flourish throughout a region that is to this day noted worldwide for its flora. But several years ago it dawned on me that cane (both river and upland varieties) was probably as important as any other item. It was used for countless purposes: within house walls, as mats and benches, garden fencing, blow guns and dart shafts, fish traps, candles, arrow shafts, baskets, and so on. It is even recorded that during the great small pox epidemic of 1738 cane shafts were “used as knives as a last resort in committing suicide.”

Although they are no longer extensive, canebrakes once dominated many of the bottomlands throughout the region. I once saw a late 19th century photo of several Cherokee families using canoes to harvest cane along the Tuckasegee River just east of Bryson City.

Within the animal world, the Cherokees utilized numerous species on both the material and spiritual levels: eagles, falcons, turkeys, bears, buffalo, and so on. But, in my opinion, the most significant was the white-tailed deer. According to Arlene Fradkin in her Cherokee Folk Zoology: The Animal World of a Native American People (Garland Publishing, 1990), deer were, by far, the major mammal hunted and the most important game animal in the Cherokee economy. Virtually all parts of the deer served some purpose. Its flesh (venison) provided over 50 percent of the total animal food consumed. Its skins were the most widely used nonfood animal product, providing the basic constituents for the native dress of both men and women. Sinews functioned as string for tying points and feathers, and as thread for sewing. Bones, antlers and hooves were made into ornamental or utilitarian items. Tallow was mixed with white clay to make paint.

And starting from about 1700, deerskins provided the major item traded by the Cherokees with the Europeans for woven blankets, metal pots and knives, guns, horses, and other items that were becoming essential during the historical period.

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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