The History of the Native Smoky Mountains
The “Smoky Mountains” as they are termed are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains. They span from Tennessee to North Carolina. The mountains are anywhere from 200-300 million years old, and they are rich with history and tales. With 800 square miles, the Smoky Mountain National Park has tons of sights to see. From trees dating more than 100 years old to more than 90 historic buildings such as cabins, churches, and schools, there are many things to discover.
Not only does this mountain range hold history for settlers, but it also holds a rich history for America’s native people. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created in the 1930s, but it was home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians long before we knew this place even existed. Cherokee natives branch from the Iroquois nation, and they have occupied these mountains for more than a thousand years. The resources that the land provided housed, fed, and clothed them. The fertile rivers usually had wood framed houses surrounding them. The natives needed for nothing because nature provided, and they had knowledge of farming that the white man craved.
Eventually, the white man invaded. The white man not only invaded but also demanded trade, food, and labor among other things. The first wave of eradication began in 1818. The Chickasaws gave up their land in a treaty made by the state of Tennessee. Towards the late 1830s, most natives were forced from their land. Those who remained were essentially enslaved for the white man’s profit of cotton. The land needed cultivated. The rich soil and flowing rivers provided the nutrients, and the Cherokee provided the back breaking work. Homes were burned. Livestock was stolen. Innocent people were murdered in cold blood as their children looked on. People still say they can hear the screams and cries of the natives deep within the forest. White Oak Flats Cemetery in Gatlinburg houses those passed on. Established in 1830, this cemetery has several unmarked graves. The soil the natives cared for and the soil that nourished them through life now holds masses of their families. The natives are now always part of the land. The white man worked hard to cover up their existence. They were tossed aside and covered with soil to rot several feet below. They were seen as savages, yet the white man is the one who stole, murdered, lied, and enslaved the natives.
Those who left were forced to walk the “Trail of Tears” which spanned hundreds of miles. At the end of this trail was a small “Indian territory” that laid just across the Mississippi. The journey was not easy. I, Elizabeth Watts, was forced along this journey as a small child. My entire family was forced to leave. Our cattle were stollen, our hogs were slaughtered, and my sister was raped and killed before my very eyes. As we started the long journey, I looked over my shoulder and saw my community my grandparents built being burned to the ground. The white man smiled as the fire blazed in his sky blue eyes. The wind created by the heat of the fire tussled the sandy blonde hair in his face. He cheered and shouted as we left in a hurry with fear in our hearts. I clutched my grandmas had and buried my face into her side. That night, not just our hope was slain. Grandpa was sick, but the white man did not care. We were lined up at gunpoint and shackled. At five years old the weight of the chains was almost too much to handle. We were forced into a holding barn for days with little to no food. We were treated worse than animals. Mothers were unable to provide milk for their babies due to their own starvation. Before we even started the journey, we lost several young children and older adults.
The day came to finally start the real journey. Our neighbor loudly protested and stood in front of his small son. He tried his best to protect him from the white mans blows. Eventually, the leader stood up and held a gun to his head. They sliced the throat of his wife. He pleaded and begged for them to stop, but after the grueling bloodshed, they decided to kill him too. This left their son an orphan. Another pair of parents begged to stay another few minutes because their sons were nowhere to be found. This request was denied and they were forced to move along without their children.
The first night away was the hardest. Mothers and fathers cried themselves to sleep. Children cried and screamed they were hungry and thirsty, but no relief was granted. I had never known pain in any manner of my life before then. I hugged my grandpa as he coughed all night long. His condition was worsening by the hour.
As soon as dawn approached and the purple hues danced in the skies, we were forced to keep moving. Sturdy metal guns were shoved in our backs. The oldest and most frail were able to ride in the wagons or on horses, but everyone else had to walk. Step by step my feet were burning and swelling. I cried and begged for a drop of water, but I was threatened with a beating. We pressed on.
Each day the journey got harder. Food was scarce. We were stripped of our clothes. People kept dying. Those were seen as very weak were sometimes tossed aside like they were already dead. They were left to die a slow and lonely death. Grandpa was getting worse, but we tried to hide it. His breathing was labored and we all gave him our rations of water. Eventually, it wasn’t enough. We awoke one morning to find grandpa gone. We never saw him again, and we do not know what happened to him. We were forced to keep going without him. His spirit will live on with every sunset. Every new ray of sunshine will contain his warm smile I once remember.
The sun turned to grey and it began to snow. At first it was light and tolerable. The fluffy flakes floated through the sky, and it became a game among the children to catch them on their tongues. As the days went on, it got colder. The snow reach up to my dad’s knees and up to my chest. We had to keep going even if it was nearly impossible to walk. Food was getting more and more scarce. The plus side to snow was that we could put it in our mouths for water. That day we likely marched ten miles in the snow, and it continued for days. The spirit of the wolf kept us going. During the night, we could hear his howls.
One woman who was pregnant was having a hard time keeping up. Any time she stopped to take a break and breathe, a rifle was shoved into her side. “Keep moving!” We didn’t know much English, but we knew this phrase.
Days turned into weeks. The pregnant woman who struggled earlier in the journey gave birth prematurely. She had to birth on a wagon while we kept moving as a group. As she screamed she was told to keep quiet. The older ladies on the wagon comforted her. Her silky black hair was drenched in sweat. Someone was kind enough to brush it from her face and wipe her brow. She was given a bundle of flea-ridden blankets to scream into to prevent the white man from being disturbed. She begged and begged for it to end.
Finally, her baby was born. Grandma looked with horror as there was silence. The baby did not cry or move. The skin was dark purple rather than a tea stained tan. The baby being premature was small enough to fit in the palm of their hands. They rubbed it and held it close out of the cold winter snow hoping for a miracle. Nothing they did could wake the baby up. The mother wept as she bled more and more. A river of crimson poured from the wagon and a river of tears streamed down her face. The ladies tried their best to help her and the baby, but it was out of their control. Once the white men heard the commotion, it was all over. The baby was tossed off the trail like it never existed. The mother still weeping and bleeding was forced up to keep walking with the group. They handcuffed her to the wagon to assure she would keep up. Eventually her legs gave out from blood loss. Her lifeless body was being drug through the snow. She was still barely conscious and asking for help. Nobody dared to help for fear of death and torture. Her cries got weaker and weaker before they ceased into whispers. Before we met our resting spot for the night, she was gone.
My journey was getting tougher. My ribs poked through my shirt like the mountains poked through the horizon. My mother gave me some of her food because she knew I was getting weaker. The cold and snow did not stop. The pain, sickness, and death did not stop. These mountains were tough to get through. All the rocks and hills. One fall on the icy rocks and that’s the end. I feel like I can hear the whispers of those lost through the howling winds of the brutal winter. Not only were we forced to keep going, but we were forced to cut our hair and learn English. If we didn’t understand what the white man asked, there was hell to pay.
Our group was not just family and neighbors, but along the way black slaves joined the journey. They were treated even worse than us which I didn’t even know was possible. They were forced to do the hunting, wash the clothes, and tend to the sick. They did most of the physical labor like chopping wood for the fire. They too were stripped of anything valuable or meaningful. They too felt pain and sadness. This is something that we shared.
A little girl my age stuck with me through to the end. She had skin that was darker than my hair and hair thicker than weeds tangled together. She cried missing her mother that she lost before her journey began. We tried to keep our friendship a secret because we knew what would come if the white man found out.
One day we were playing quietly after dark so that we would not be found. The white man slept and the others were either sleeping or preparing for the next day. I made a funny face as to make her laugh. This was the worst mistake of my life. Sleeping white man popped up from his slumber and rushed towards us. His skin was bright red against his snow white hair. He was fuming with anger when he saw me standing next to her. I immediately dropped my smile and my soul ran cold. Her laughs turned to screams as she was beaten several times over. She was unable to speak for weeks likely due to a broken jaw.
Through all of the hardship, the land continued to provide for us what we needed. Even through winter, the mountains and forest yielded berries, deer, pheasants, hare, and medicines. The land soaked up our tears and created life with new plants for next season. Out of our loss, the land gained. Our ancestors watched above and flew through the sky with the eagles. These thoughts kept me going.
Thoughts only get you so far. Being only five, I didn’t have much strength to move on. My feet were still swollen and I had bruises on my ankles. My vision went blurry and I held on to my mother to help me move along. That night I remember fading into sleep, but then awakening as a floating butterfly. My mother wept, but I followed her all the way to the Indian Territory. The flowing river provided water. The soil provided nourishment for the plants we ate. The deer provided us with a great meal. Nature provided for the Cherokee all along. Nature never failed.
Next time you are in the mountains of Tennessee, just listen. Listen to the rushing water. Listen to the wind rustling the leaves. Listen to the squirrel crunching nuts in the trees. Listen to the birds singing their songs. Nature is alive, and it always will be. Nature will always remember the history even if humans don’t. These forests that are thousands of years old tell a story. Carved into rocks for all eternity, our story will not be forgotten. The spirits of our ancestors still roam the forests in ways we may not understand. A grasshopper flits by and wishes good luck. A wild boar charges by and asserts dominance. The wolf howls to the moon until nights end. Nature never lies. Our history will forever remain as part of the spirit within the soil, mountains, and trees.