Monday, August 27, 2007

Robbing the Land of its Memory



"Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future." The Ministry of Truth, in George Orwell’s 1984.

After a long day’s ride down the Valley River Valley, nothing hits the spot like a bottle of Moet’s Champagne. That’s what one old geologist would tell you. During the summer of 1837 George Featherstonhaugh meandered around the mountains of Western North Carolina. On the morning of August 26, he left Franklin and took a difficult trail across the Nantahalas. Eventually he reached the Valley River Valley near present-day Andrews:

At sunset we stopped at a very indifferent place called Whitakers about thirty-two miles from Franklin. Here we got a very humble supper, about which I was less anxious than to get a mattrass to myself. The setting in of night always brings its anxieties on this point to me, my travelling companions were more sympathetic, and seemed to prefer "turning in" in pairs.

Featherstonhaugh awoke the next day and continued down the Valley River:

August 27.--A most beautiful morning found me at early dawn dipping water out of the stream to make my ablution saperto cielo, preparatory to a very scrubby breakfast. The method the Indians adopt of taking fish in this stream is a very destructive one. They cut a channel parallel to the stream, and damming this last up, turn the water into the new channel, seizing all the fish that are left in the shallow pools of the old bed. We continued our course S.W. down the valley on the right bank of the stream, the valley enlarging to a mile of rich bottom land surrounded by lofty and picturesque hills covered with fine woods.

This was the Paradise of the Cherokees, their wigwams being built on graceful knolls rising above the level of the river bottom, each of them having its patch of Indian corn with indigenous beans climbing to the top of each plant, and squashes and pumpkins growing on the ground. The valley now contracted as we advanced, but contained a great many thousand acres of the most fertile land. Any thing much more beautiful than this fine scene can scarcely be imagined; two noble lines of mountains enclosing a fertile valley with a lovely stream running through it. The whole vale has formerly been a lake.

I’ve read Featherstonhaugh’s account several times in the past without giving much thought to his statement that the whole valley had formerly been a lake. Featherstonhaugh was a geologist and it may be that any student of geology would recognize that the valley had contained a lake many thousands of year ago. I just don’t know, and my cursory research on the matter hasn’t provided an answer.

"The whole vale has formerly been a lake." Did he hear this from the same sources that told of Spanish gold mines in the mountains? Unfortunately, Featherstonhaugh left no other clues to explain the remark.

In an archaeological study of the Valley River Valley, Trawick Ward observed the valley’s modern farmers growing corn and soybeans and hay:

Obviously this environment represents a drastic alteration of prehistoric conditions by modern man. Prior to these modifications, areas within the valley floor that were subject to intermittent flooding were most likely ensconced by willows, cottonwoods, sycamores, silver maple, boxelder, and sugarberry…From ethnohistoric accounts and the archaeological record, it is evident that the animals occupying these habitats were not only plentiful but also varied, including some species that are locally extinct, e.g. elk, wolf, mountain lion, and bison.

But, alas, no word on any possible lake. Ward studied the Valley River floodplain in the 1970s after construction had begun on a new route for Highway 19-129 between Andrews and Murphy. Ward and his fellow researchers identified 23 sites that were partially or wholly within the highway right-of-way. The sites represented human occupation from the Early Archaic through the Late Woodland Period. Before detailed archaeological surveys could be completed, though, road builders disturbed or destroyed or paved over all of the sites, spanning an area 160 feet wide and fifteen miles long.

Thirty years ago, Trawick Ward watched the evidence of ancient civilizations bulldozed away in the name of progress. One hundred seventy years ago today, George Featherstonhaugh traveled the same route and witnessed the preparations for the impending removal of the Cherokees:

Leaving the river, we met in a defile, at no great distance, a company of mounted Franklin volunteers moving to the mouth of the Nantayáyhlay, a part of the North Carolina State troops employed in a surveillance over the Cherokees until their evacuation of the country should take place. They would have been perfectly in character in the uplands beyond Terracina, on the road to Naples, for I never saw any fellows in my life that came so thoroughly up to the notion entertained of banditti. …

About 2 P.M., we ascended a hill to Fort Butler [near Murphy], a temporary camp with a block-house built for the State troops upon this occasion: from hence we rode a mile to Hunter's, a tavern kept by a person of that name who had been long in the Cherokee country; it was most beautifully situated upon an eminence commanding a view of the Hiwassee, gracefully winding through the hills, and of the lovely country around. There was a clever little hut in a retired part of the garden belonging to this house, and beds being placed in it, it was assigned to us exclusively, so that we had some prospect of comfort. Perceiving some ladies in the house, one of whom was the wife of an officer of the United States army, we made our toilette rather more carefully.


The dinner was excellent, good soup, and a fine large trout from the river. We seemed restored to civilization, an idea that lost nothing by the introduction of a capital bottle of champagne, of which Hunter had brought a basket from Augusta, thinking the officers of the State troops would not sneeze at it; but either the price or something about it did not please them, and there Monsieur Moet was likely to have remained for some time "unknowing and unknown" but for our appearance. As it is not every day that Moet's champagne, and in the finest order, can be drank on the banks of the Hiwassee, in the Cherokee country, we formed the virtuous resolution of appropriating the whole basket to ourselves, and lost no time in putting a taboo upon it.

I don’t know how ceremoniously George Featherstonhaugh lifted a glass, but he could have dedicated this old Irish toast to any who would rob the land of its memory:

May you have the hindsight to know where you've been,
The foresight to know where you are going,
And the insight to know when you have gone too far.

George William Featherstonhaugh was a geologist and linguist who traveled through the mountains of Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina and compiled A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor based on his diaries.

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