I’ve had a story that I’ve been wanting to tell. It concerns a petroglyph, not far from here, that you probably don’t know about. And I don’t want to tell you much about it. Least of all, where it is.
That petroglyph fits into a bigger story, or actually, into a whole web of stories. So many that I couldn’t decide where to begin. Then, after reading a bit about John Sevier lately, I finally decided he could kick this off.
In 1782, the notorious Indian fighter of Tennessee fell into a conversation with the Cherokee chief Oconostota about mysterious ancient fortifications along the Hiwassee River. Oconostota repeated a story that has been told by many – that an ancient race of white people had inhabited the region, and built the forts, long before the Cherokees moved in.
Oconostota explained to Sevier that those white people had descended from Welsh travellers who had crossed the mighty ocean several centuries before and landed near Mobile Bay. The story of those immigrants will eventually take us to quite a few places, including that petroglyph. But not today. For today, John Sevier's letter about his meeting with Oconostota is enough.
John Sevier Knoxville, Tennessee, October 9th, 1810
To Amos Stoddard
I shall with pleasure, give you the information required, so far as my memory will now serve me, and the help of a memorandum I hastily took on the subject, of a nation of people called the Welsh Indians. In the year 1782, I was on a campaign against the Cherokees, and during my route, discovered traces of very ancient fortifications. Some time after the expedition, I had occasion to enter into a negotiation with the Cherokee Chiefs, for the purpose of exchanging prisoners. After the exchange had been settled, I took an opportunity of enquiring of a venerable old chief, named Oconostota, (then, and for nearly sixty years had been, a ruling chief of the Cherokee nation,) if he could inform me of the people that had left such signs of fortifications in their country and particularly the one on the bank of the Highwassee river? The old warrior briefly answered me as follows;
It is handed down by our forefather, that the works were made by white people, who had formerly inhabited the country, while the Cherokees lived low down in the country, now called South Carolina, and that a war existed between the two nations for many years. At length, it was discovered, that the whites were making a number of large boats, which induced the Cherokees to suppose, that they intended to descend the Tennessee river. They then collected their whole band of warriors, and took the shortest and most convenient route to the muscle shoals in order to intercept them down the river. In a few days, the boats hove in sight, and a warm combat ensued, with various success for several days.
At length the whites proposed to the Indians, that if they would exchange prisoners, and cease hostilities, they would leave the country, and never more return; which was acceded to, and, after the exchange, parted in friendship. The whites then descended the Tennessee to the Ohio, and then down to the big river, (Mississippi) then up it to the muddy river, (Missouri) then up that river to a very great distance. They are now on some of it's branches; But they are no longer a white people; they are now all become Indians; and look like the other red people of the country:"
I then asked him, if he had ever heard any of his ancestors say what nation of people those white people belonged to? He answered; "I have heard my grandfather and other old people say, that they were a people called, Welsh; that they had crossed the great water, and landed near the mouth of Alabama river, and were finally driven to the heads of its water, and even to Highwassee river, by the Mexican Indians, who had been driven out to their own country by the Spaniards."
Many years past I happened in company with a Frenchman, who lived with the Cherokees, and had been a great explorer of the country west of the Mississippi. He informed me, "that he had been high up the Missouri, and traded several months with the Welsh tribe; that they spoke much of the Welsh dialect, and although their customs were savage and wild, yet many of them, particularly the females were very fair and white, and frequently told him, they had sprung from a white nation of people; also stated they had yet some small scraps of books remaining among them, but in such tattered and destructive order, that nothing intelligible remained." He observed that their settlement was in a very obscure part of the Missouri, surrounded with innumerable lofty mountains. The Frenchman's name has escaped my memory, but I believe it was something like Duroque.
In my conversation with the old chief Oconostota, he informed me, that an old woman in his nation named Peg, had some part of an old book given her by an Indian living high up the Missouri, and thought he was one of the Welsh tribe. Unfortunately before I had an opportunity of seeing the book, the old woman's house, and its contents, were consumed by fire. I have conversed with several persons, who saw and examined the book, but it was so worn and disfigured, that nothing intelligible remained; neither did any one of them understand any language but their own, and even that, very imperfectly.