To the north loom the Snowbird Mountains, green wooded and thicketed with laurel and back of them nestles the valley of Cheoah, which is to say, “Otter Place”. From here in the valley of Konehete – “the Long Place” – a winding dirt track climbs toward the sky to breach the mountain barrier and yoke together in a historic way the towns of Andrews and Robbinsville.
The road is little known and seldom traveled, yet every foot of its twelve miles is history haunted. It was born not as a highway of hope and promise, but as a road of banishment. Soldiers with bayoneted rifles drove an uprooted people over it on a tragic march into exile 178 years ago.
For the dispossessed Cherokee Indians of Cheoah Valley it was the first dozen miles of the long and bitter “Trail of Tears” to an alien land beyond the Mississippi. The old road whispered to the moccasined feet of the aging Chief Junaluska on his flight from Oklahoma and exile to sanctuary or death – he didn’t know which – from his beloved homeland.
William H. Thomas, the white trader who saved the mountain Cherokee from extinction, ran pack trains over the route to supply his trading posts at Robbinsville and Murphy. With the fall of the Cherokee Nation, settlers nursed their wagons over it to take up land grants in Cheoah Valley and farm the rich earth that had been the Cherokees’ from time out of memory.
For years after, the road echoed to the sound of creaking wagons and the hollow thud of hoof beats. But then came new and better roads and the old one sank into disuse, a horse and buggy thoroughfare outmoded by the gasoline age.
Today, the old track is a U.S. Forest Service road. Some six miles of it runs through the Nantahala National Forest. Originally it was a military road and nothing more. It was built by the soldiers of Gen. Winfield Scott to remove the Cherokees from the Cheoah Valley in 1838 on the first leg of their march into exile.
Young James Tatham was hired by Gen. Scott to lay out the route between what are now Andrews and Robbinsville. Tatham, who had a keen eye and a sense for contour, surveyed it and staked it out without compass or instrument. The soldiers, following his line, hacked it out of a virgin wilderness, where their axes mocked a silence as old as Adam.
Gen. Scott built a stockade in Cheoah Valley which he named Fort Montgomery (later to become Robbinsville). Into it he herded some 500 Cherokee men, women and children. Among them were George, the chief of Otter Town; Sweetwater, the beloved old man of Cheoah; Culsutee, a medicine man; Crying Bear, the renowned hunter, who had helped Andrew Jackson defeat the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. When the last of the Cherokees had been rounded up, the soldiers moved them out over the Snowbird Mountains, first to Fort Delaney, which is now Andrews, and then onto Fort Butler, which is now Murphy.
In October of 1838, they began the 1,200 mile trek to Oklahoma and into exile – a trek that lasted six long, bitter months.
There is a sign at the entrance to the road that says:
“Tatham Gap Road – A part of the Trail of Tears. Originally built about 1838 to remove the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma”
A short distance from the sign, on a hill above Robbinsville’s main street, is the grave of Chief Junaluska who came back from exile over the old road to find sanctuary in his beloved mountains. Four years after his return, in 1847, the state of North Carolina by special act of the legislature made him a citizen and gave him 337 acres of land in Cheoah Valley and $100 in cash as a reward for his services at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. He died in 1858.
The historic old road gets little traffic these days. Yet, for those who seek out the back roads for peaceful wandering, it is a gem in all seasons – in spring when dogwood, azaleas and laurel bloom in the darkening places; in summer when the world is green; in the fall when the trees hang out their battle flags; and in winter when snow blankets the Snowbirds.
It’s the kind of unique dirt track that should be left with the memories and ghosts of the past.