The prior post was a condensed list from Catalogue of Prehistoric Works East of the Rocky Mountains (1891), by Cyrus Thomas. Though they have all but disappeared now, many stone cairns were on that list.
James Mooney, in Myths of the Cherokee (1900), went into some detail about the cairns, their location, and the occasion for their construction:
Cairns—Stone cairns were formerly very common along the trails throughout the Cherokee country, but are now almost gone, having been demolished by treasure hunters after the occupation of the country by the whites. They were usually sepulchral monuments built of large stones piled loosely together above the body to a height of sometimes 6 feet or more, with a corresponding circumference. This method of interment was used only when there was a desire to commemorate the death, and every passer-by was accustomed to add a stone to the heap. The custom is ancient and world-wide, and is still kept up in Mexico and in many parts of Europe and Asia….
DEGAL`GÛÑ'YÏ: "Where they are piled up," a series of cairns on both sides of the trail down the south side of Cheowa river, in Graham county. They extend along the trail for several miles, from below Santeetla creek nearly to Slick Rock creek, on the Tennessee line (the first being just above Disgâ'gisti'yï, q. v.), and probably mark the site of an ancient battle. One at least, nearly off Yellow creek, is reputed to be the grave of a Cherokee killed by the enemy. Every passing Indian throws an additional stone upon each heap, believing that some misfortune will befall him should he neglect this duty. Other cairns are on the west side of Slick Rock creek about a mile from Little Tennessee river, and others south of Robbinsville, near where the trail crosses the ridge to Valleytown, in Cherokee county….
On the southern slope of the ridge, along the trail from Robbinsville to Valley river, in Cherokee county, North Carolina, are the remains of a number of stone cairns. The piles are leveled now, but thirty years ago the stones were still heaped up into pyramids, to which every Cherokee who passed added a stone. According to the tradition these piles marked the graves of a number of women and children of the tribe who were surprised and killed on the spot by a raiding party of the Iroquois shortly before the final peace between the two Nations. As soon as the news was brought to the settlements on Hiwassee and Cheowa a party was made under Tâle'tanigi'skï, "Hemp-carrier," to follow and take vengeance on the enemy….
For days they followed the trail of the Iroquois across the Great Smoky mountains, through forests and over rivers, until they finally tracked them to their very town in the far northern Seneca country. On the way they met another war party headed for the south, and the Cherokee killed them all and took their scalps. When they came near the Seneca town it was almost night, and they heard shouts in the townhouse, where the women were dancing over the fresh Cherokee scalps. The avengers hid themselves near the spring, and as the dancers came down to drink the Cherokee silently killed one and another until they had counted as many scalps as had been taken on Cheowa, and still the dancers in the townhouse never thought that enemies were near.
Then said the Cherokee leader, "We have covered the scalps of our women and children. Shall we go home now like cowards, or shall we raise the war whoop and let the Seneca know that we are men?" "Let them come, if they will," said his men; and they raised the scalp yell of the Cherokee. At once there was an answering shout from the townhouse, and the dance came to a sudden stop. The Seneca warriors swarmed out with ready gun and hatchet, but the nimble Cherokee were off and away. There was a hot pursuit in the darkness, but the Cherokee knew the trails and were light and active runners, and managed to get away with the loss of only a single man. The rest got home safely, and the people were so well pleased with Hemp-carrier's bravery and success that they gave him seven wives….
John Henry Logan, in A History of the Upper Country of South Carolina (1859) said this about the stone cairns of the Cherokee:
They frequently raised monumental piles of loose stones on the tops of their mountains, hills, and near famous passes. These were in honor of departed chiefs, and other great men. Sometimes the stones were collected and piled on the very spot where a distinguished warrior had fallen in battle; and though rough and unlettered, these rude monuments have mocked, in their durability, thousands of structures of marble and brass, whose exquisite forms were carved and fashioned by the hand of genius and civilization. Many of them are standing at this day, nearly as entire as when the last stone was placed upon their conical summits, at a period in the fabulous past, up to which no history runneth. But whether standing erect or scattered promiscuously around their original sites, they are equally monumental, and never fail to teach the curious passer-by the simple story they contain of aboriginal history.
An old chronicler [the trader James Adair] observes: "To perpetuate the memory of any remarkable warriors killed in the woods, I must here remark that every Indian traveler, as he passes that way, throws a stone on the place, according as lie likes or dislikes the occasion or manner of the death of the deceased. In the woods we often see innumerable heaps of small stories in those places, where, according to tradition, some of their distinguished people were either killed or buried, and their bones suffered to remain till they could be gathered for regular sepulture at home. On these piles they added Pelion to Ossa, still increasing each heap, as a lasting monument and honor to them, and an incentive to great actions."
Several of these Indian cairns were standing a few years ago, on the romantic top of Gilkey's Knob near Limestone Springs. They were built of white quartz rocks, and looked, in the deep shade of the huge chestnut oaks that surrounded them, like so many motionless spectres on a visit from the blest abodes of the ancient warriors in whose memory they were reared….
From the Charles C. Jones classic, Antiquities of the Southern Indians (1873):
In order to designate the grave of a remarkable warrior, who had fallen in battle, and whose body could not at the time be brought home by his companions, the Cherokees and other nations inhabiting hilly regions were wont to cover the body of the slain with stones collected on the spot. Every passer-by contributed his stone to the pile, until it rose into a marked and permanent memorial of the dead….
At a point where a decisive battle had been fought between the Carolinians, under General Middleton, and the Cherokees, in which many of the latter had been killed, and the survivors compelled to abandon their settlements in the low countries and betake themselves for safety to inaccessible retreats in the mountains, Bartram observed " vast heaps of stones," indicating the graves of the red warriors who had perished during the conflict….
In various parts of middle and Cherokee Georgia these stone-piles have attracted our notice. They consist simply of fragments of rock and loose bowlders collected from the beds of adjacent streams, or picked up on the surface of the ground, and piled one upon the other until the structure attained an altitude of from three to twelve feet. It is intimated by some of the early travellers that these tumuli were temporary in their nature, and were designed merely as a protection to the bones of the dead, until they could be collected and carried home for interment in the burial-grounds of the tribe or community of which the deceased were members….
Indeed, the botanist William Bartram did observe cairns while traveling alongside the Little Tennessee River, several miles south of present-day Franklin, NC:
…surface of the land level but rough, being covered with stones or fragments of rocks, and very large, smooth pebbles of various shapes and sizes, some of ten or fifteen pounds weight: I observed on each side of the road many vast heaps of these stones, Indian graves undoubtedly. (Note – At this place was fought a bloody and decisive battle between these Indians and the Carolinians, under the conduct of general Middleton, when a great number of Cherokee warriors were slain, which shook their power, terrified and humbled them, insomuch that they deserted most of their settlements in the low countries, and betook themselves to the mountains as less accessible to the regular forces of the white people.)
John Brickell explored much of North Carolina in the 1720s. He mentioned cairns in The Natural History of North Carolina (1737):
They have other sorts of Monuments or Tombs for the dead, as where one was slain, in that very Place they raise a heap of Stones, if any are to be met with in the Place, if not, with Sticks, to his Memory; that every one that passeth by that place augments the Heap in respect of the deceas’d. Some Nations of these Indians have great rejoycing and Feasts at their Burials.
Modern fans of such curiosities have tried to find some significance in the clustering of stone cairns, suggesting they were more prevalent near the eastern continental divide. If that is the case, and I’m not convinced, it could be that the invisible line between the headwaters of one river system and another was more likely to be a site of mortal conflict between tribes. Who knows?
For a real stretch in explaining the stone piles, check out John Haywood’s 1823 book, The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee. He claimed it was part of a native custom of stoning adulterous wives:
For they have a tradition that the stone hillocks which are at all the gaps in the mountains and other parts of the country were originally erected by the casting of stones upon women who had been guilty of adultery, and that their bodies were under them. The same practice anciently prevailed in the Crimea amongst the Tartars, whose law it was to make a hole in the ground of depth enough to cover the adulteress up to her chin; then to stone her to death, and to cover her with stones, thrown by hand upon the body.
Because the relatively small rock piles were even more vulnerable than mounds and were so often wrecked by curious treasure hunters, few were left for study modern archaeologists. I did find one article in the archaeological literature that goes into considerable detail about stone piles in Georgia and surrounding areas. Recommended reading for anyone wanting to know more on this subject.