Friday, June 20, 2008

Finding Tamahaka and Tlanusiyi

If you can get beyond viewing these mountains through 21st century eyes, there’s no telling what you might see.

Take, for instance, William C. A. Frerichs. The artist visited the mountains during the 1850s, and painted at least two scenes of Tamahaka Falls in Cherokee County, NC. Tamahaka Falls is a place that I've yet to visit. That doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. But you won't find it with modern eyes.

That’s true of many places in these mountains. Tlanusiyi is another such place in Cherokee County. If you want to go, get onto Business 19 in Murphy and cross the bridge over the Hiwassee River. Find a place to park and take a good look at the stretch of water just downstream from the bridge. In May of 1848, Charles Lanman stood here and examined the river he called “Owassa”:

The Cherokee word Owassa signifies the main river, or the largest of the tributaries: and the paraphrase of this name into Hiowassee by the map-makers is only a ridiculous blunder. So I have been informed, at any rate, by one of the oldest Cherokees now living. The Owassa is a tributary of the noble Tennessee, and is as clear, beautiful, rapid and picturesque a mountain river as I have ever seen….

Today’s bridge crosses the Hiwassee (or “Owassa”, if you please) where the thousand-year-old Unicoi Trail forded the river. From this point, we have the luxury of seeing it as Lanman saw it:

I may here mention what must be considered a remarkable fact in geology. Running directly across the village of Murphy is a belt of marble, composed of the black, gray, pure white and flesh-colored varieties, which belt also crosses the Owassa river. Just above this marble causeway the Owassa, for a space of perhaps two hundred feet, is said to be over one hundred feet deep, and at one point, in fact, a bottom has never been found.

A couple of miles due west, the Nottely River makes the final approach to its confluence with the Hiwassee. Lanman reported that the two rivers were connected by a underground channel through the marble:

I have heard the opinion expressed that there is a subterranean communication between this immense hole in Owassa and the river Notely, which is some two miles distant. The testimony adduced in proof of this theory is, that a certain log was once marked on the Notely, which log was subsequently found floating in the pool of the Deep Hole in the Owassa.

Fifty years after Lanman’s visit to Murphy, James Mooney described the view along this portion of the river:

On the south side the trail ascended a high bank, from which they could look down into the water. One day some men going along the trail saw a great red object, full as large as a house, lying on the rock ledge in the middle of the stream below them. As they stood wondering what it could be they saw it unroll--and then they knew it was alive--and stretch itself out along the rock until it looked like a great leech with red and white stripes along its body.

It rolled up into a ball and again stretched out at full length, and at last crawled down the rock and was out of sight in the deep water. The water began to boil and foam, and a great column of white spray was thrown high in the air and came down like a waterspout upon the very spot where the men had been standing, and would have swept them all into the water but that they saw it in time and ran from the place.

More than one person was carried down in this way, and their friends would find the body afterwards lying upon the bank with the ears and nose eaten off, until at last the people were afraid to go across the ledge any more, on account of the great leech, or even to go along that part of the trail.

And so it is that the spot where the Valley river joins the Hiwassee was known among the Cherokees as Tlanusiyi, or "The Leech place." Mooney mentioned the underground waterway linking the Hiwassee with the Nottely. A deep part of the Nottely, where it bends toward Murphy, was also known as Tlanusiyi because the leech would emerge and make the water boil, just as it did on the Hiwassee.

There you have it. The next time you visit Murphy, you can look for Tlanusiyi on the Owassa, Tlanusiyi on the Nottely, and the underground river that connects them. And while you’re at it, you can look for Tamahaka Falls. But remember: if you view Cherokee County through 21st century eyes, you might never find those places.

Good luck.

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