Saturday, July 1, 2023 / by Amy Brown
The humblest of beginnings can result in fairytale endings...
This can be said for a lot of circumstances in life and perhaps that's how Disney built its empire on movies of rescued damsels in distress. But heroes do live among us and there is not a culture with more fortitude, in my opinion, than the one right here in our mountains.
Legends abound in the Blue Ridge...Cherokee warriors, frontier pioneers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and artists...I can tell you a thousand stories of how this area came to be what it is today, who brought us here, and how these rugged peaks were whittled out on the backs of dreamers and survivors to create one of the most unique and transformative locales in the country.
We are a proud people steeped in tradition yet with an eye forward to the future...forever on our own terms and in our most eclectic manner.
We will begin at the beginning...I have a story to tell.
Gazing off into the bluish haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is easy to imagine these valleys as something much more primitive than they are today. And they were…a mere frontier outpost following the American Revolution, this entire territory was home to the Cherokee nation. Back then, the French Broad Plateau that modern day Asheville sits upon was nothing more than Indian trails and passes through the mountains and along the rivers to places further west. The ruggedness of the terrain and remote wilderness made this area undesirable for European settlement and pioneers preferred to keep moving to places such as the Watauga settlement in eastern Tennessee where farming was easier.
The first settlement was in the Swannanoa river valley around 1784 by Colonel Samuel Davidson following a land grant given to him by the state. It was in the present day community of Bee Tree. Friendly trade relationships developed with the Cherokee residing here but as more and more whites attempted the trek over the mountain passes, the Indians were pushed further and further west.
Today’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians live in their own sovereign nation known as the Qualla Boundary, located in Cherokee county to the west of Asheville. This 57,000 acre parcel is owned privately by the Cherokee nation and was purchased in the early 1800s. Many of the Native Americans that reside there are surviving descendants of the Trail of Tears. At the time of its purchase and formation, the Nation held 1,000 residents. Today, those numbers have grown to 14,000 as they continue to invite their ancestors home. The Qualla Boundary has its own private government and is not considered a part of the United States with sole control of its laws and factions being governed by the Chief, Vice-Chief, and a 12 member Tribal Council. The tribe is completely self-sufficient without any federal support from the United States. They continue to pass down their religion, culture, and heritage to future generations through their education system, including teaching and speaking the Cherokee language.
And so comes a tale of love...
The Cherokee believed the gorge between Hickory Nut Gap and Lake Lure to be one of their most sacred lands, a place where the bridge between the Gods and man was much closer. Here they held ceremonial rituals, buried their dead, and where boys became warriors on the slick faces of the granite walls.
One such legend is that of Lovers Leap, or the Perilous Cliff Trail, that traverses a narrow rock ledge from the top of Chimney Rock across to Hickory Nut Falls. The spot brought to dramatic life in the movie, Last of the Mohicans, is a slick rock cliff ledge that is said to ensure that your soul will meet your lover again in the Big Sky if you leave the earth at this point. And many did...
Here Alice meets Uncas again as she turns away from the beckoning Huron.
The Perilous Cliff Trail closed to the public in 2007 because of the dangers of hiking this narrow path but the scene is a tribute to our Cherokee legends.
The Cherokee Today
The Qualla Boundary’s main economic source is tourism. They have created an authentic experience for visitors to come and learn about the Cherokee Nation at the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Here they tell the story of their struggle with the early settlers through an outdoor drama called “Unto These Hills”. There are also numerous other attractions such as The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Fire Mountain trail system for hiking, biking, or running, and the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. This makes for a fun weekend getaway where you can take in some history about the area’s founding.
I encourage you this holiday weekend to explore a bit of the origins of the Blue Ridge, get out on the mountain, and reminisce about the Big Sky.