The Cherokee of the Nolichucky River

Big NOli RiverGorge

As a young kid growing up just over the border of East Tennessee I can recall hearing the stories about a place called the Nolichucky.  The stories that people would tell when referencing Indian locations of upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia always seemed to end in a familiar sequence- “but the Nolichucky…”

The word Nolichucky is the anglicized version of a Cherokee word that sounded more like nana-tu-gluncky, which depending on who you ask, means “spruce tree place” or “rushing waters”.  The exact meaning of the word may never be fully known but both have plausible explanations and sources.  James Mooney interpreted the word to mean “spruce tree place” but the Nolichucky is also known for it’s spectacular class 3 and 4 whitewater rafting (in the gorge area).

The last few days I have had the luck to tag along with Dr. Katheryn Sampeck and her crew from Illinois State as they surveyed Late Mississippian/Cherokee sites along the middle Nolichucky River Valley.  It’s amazing how little is known about the Cherokee presence in upper East Tn.  Dr. Sampeck introduced me to a couple of different massive Cherokee Town sites.  Dr. Sampeck, along with Dr. Jay Franklin and others, are starting to lay the foundation to discovering the full extent of the Cherokee population along the Nolichucky River.   Most of these sites are best described as town sites rather than using the terminology of “village”. A typical town site on the Nolichucky River would have encompassed an area of 8-15 acres which is in clear contrast to the more nucleated Pisgah Village types (2-5 acres) of prior centuries.  What, if anything, triggered the emergence of these town sites during the 16th and 17th centuries remains unclear but an important research topic that we are actively exploring.  Does the spatial increase of artifacts indicate a change in settlement patterning?  Or could it be that the Nolichucky is swelling with population movements in response to regional movements that are better documented elsewhere?

It has been widely documented that tribal groups in other areas became coalescent societies after the breakdown of culture that occurred following sustained contact with European Explorers, but new archaeological ways of thinking have emerged that suggest “culture breakdown” is not entirely satisfactory.  So many dynamics are at play during the 17th century, such as Westo slave raiding, that are causing archaeologists to rethink prior models. This idea of coalescent societies is particularly relevant to the Nolichucky because many of the pottery types of the protohistoric (1500-1700) period seem to express the blending of cultures. The patterning of these town sites appear to be spaced out in 1-2 mile intervals from  Chuckey Tn to  Embreeville Tn, yet oddly enough they seem to disappear in areas further south.  Charles Hudson noted a strange phenomenon that no late Cherokee (Qualla) sites are known to have existed on the French Broad, Powell, Clinch, and Holston Rivers in his work “The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolina’s and Tennessee” (Hudson 86).  It should be noted that at the time of Hudson’s writing very little archaeological research had been conducted in and around these areas.  For instance, today we now know that at least 15 major Qualla/Protohistoric sites are known to exist on the Nolichucky from Chuckey to Embreeville but Hudson could only identify one site  (Plum Grove). The Cherokee of the Nolichucky settled almost exclusively in the flood plain (Cane Notch, Plum Groove, 40WG20, 40WG11, 40WG9, 40WG36).

They built wattle and daub houses by thatching together clay and rivercane as the base of the house.  The architectural layout of the houses probably resembled paired winter/summer houses as excavated at the Alarka Site and elsewhere.  The winter house would be the more expansive of the two units while the summer house would resemble a light structure, almost like a front porch.  Each house would have contained a central hearth, likely constructed in a shallow clay lined basin or pit.  The Nolichucky Indians of the protohistoric practiced agricultural practices that would not look uncommon today.  They utilized the massive sandy loam bottom lands of the Nolichucky for the growing of maize and other high caloric foods.  They supplemented this diet with the hunting of wild game or picking of seasonal fruits.  They were interconnected to other tribal groups in which European trade items flowed into the region.  The sheer number of trade items that are found on the Nolichucky Valley stand in sharp contrast to the immediate surrounding regions, namely Southwest Virginia and the river systems of the upper East Tn (Holston and Clinch). This could be indicative of population movements because it’s firmly documented that not many post 1600 archaeological sites exist in SWVA or the upper Holston/Clinch Rivers of East Tennessee. zzzzzz The Cherokee mortuary practices vary considerably from region to region but we know from Plum Grove that they buried their dead in and around housing structures. It’s most likely that the Anglo term “burial ground” would be a foreign idea to the Cherokee because it equates modern cemeteries with ancient Cherokee practices, or better put, the idea of taking the dead miles away from the home to be buried with strangers in a designated area.  There are other faulty myths that circulate in our communities about the Cherokee, such as the “eternal sacred hunting ground” myth.  This is the belief that our region was never permanently occupied, only used as a “sacred” hunting ground.  The only time period the Nolichucky was not permanently occupied was likely between 1720 and 1772, or the time of European Settler expansion.


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