Museum hike explores 18th century frontier borderlines

Local historian Wendell Begley shares some of the Swannanoa Valley's history with group of hikers.

The Swannanoa Valley Museum hikes to the 18th century, easternmost boundary of the Cherokee nation on Saturday, Feb. 18. The Cherokee Boundary trek is the second hike in the museum’s popular Swannanoa Rim Explorer Hiking Series, a sequence of hikes around Eastern America’s highest and most historic skyline. Hikers do not need to sign up for the complete series to participate in the hike.

This difficult, 4.25-mile hike traverses part of the boundary between the Cherokee and American colonists, as well as the Eastern Continental Divide at the crest of the Blue Ridge Range southeast of Black Mountain. It continues to near the Swannanoa Gap. Following the Cherokee Boundary, the hike ascends to elevations between 2,560 and 3,560 feet.

Since the Cherokee Boundary is trackless, the hike involves many ups and downs across steep knobs and fallen leaves. The hike also requires some steep slope bushwhacking and crossing downed timber.

While strenuous, the hike rewards hikers with 360-degree views of the upper Swannanoa Valley, the Black Mountain Range, and the Great Craggy Range, a landscape rich in natural, social and cultural history. Most interesting, the Cherokee Boundary Hike takes folks through the wildest and most remote sections of the 31-mile Swannanoa Rim. Participants will also be able to see the most inaccessible sections of the Catawba River’s headwaters in addition to discovering the river’s historic bubbling source. The hike is led by volunteer historians and hike guides.

Western North Carolina remained an uncharted territory for much of the first century of European settlement in North America. Prior to the arrival of European explorers, the Cherokee were the largest group of  Americans Indians in the Southeast, occupying 135,000 square miles from the Ohio River to Alabama. Beginning in the early 17th century, the Cherokee engaged in trade with Europeans, primarily for deerskins in the Black Mountains.

By the mid 1700s, yellow buckskin breeches were so popular they were “the eighteen-century equivalent of modern blue jeans” in the words of historian Kathryn E. Holland Braund. Some estimates figure that a skilled Cherokee hunter in the Black Mountains could collect 300 pounds of leather per year, most of which made its way to London haberdasheries. Venison, wild turkey, chestnuts (a seasonal delicacy in colonial households) and fur pelts were also lucrative trade items. In exchange, Cherokee traded for European cloth, blankets, tools, guns and ammunition, in addition to novelties like mirrors, scissors, and belt buckles. The Cherokee even began to cultivate imported crops such as peaches and watermelon.

The view of the Swannanoa Valley and Swannanoa Rim from start of Cherokee Boundary hike is extraordinary.

While the trade and cultural exchange continued relatively peacefully into the 18th century, through the contraction of epidemic diseases like smallpox, European contact led to the decrease in the Cherokee population from more than 36,000 to only 7,000. In this climate of mutual suspicion, disputes over trade and land became prevalent and negotiations became increasingly challenging.

In 1766, provincial Governor William Tryon entered negotiations with the Cherokee to extend the boundary of the western frontiers of the Carolinas into Cherokee hunting grounds. Tryon mounted a personal military expedition to engage in the talks. The Cherokee were flattered by the governor’s visit and deemed him the “Great Wolf of North Carolina.” The Cherokee Boundary, signed on July 13, 1767, called for the removal of white settlers west of the boundary running north to south from Virginia to South Carolina by January 1, 1768 and required traders west of the line to obtain a license. The treaty proved difficult to enforce.

At the outset of the American Revolution, the British commissioned the Cherokee to fight against the colonists. In 1776, the Irish-born, middle-aged, recently appointed brigadier general Griffith Rutherford led 2,400 white men from Davidson’s Fort (today’s Old Fort) against the Cherokee, decimating more than 50 villages (including sacred council houses), plundering livestock and burning acres of crops in Western North Carolina. Interestingly, a few of the museum’s Swannanoa Rim guides/historians are direct descendants of men that crossed the Cherokee Boundary with Rutherford in 1776.

By the close of the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee recognized their defeat and eventually ceded 75 percent of their land through a series of treaties, while still maintaining their political autonomy. The early 1800s was period of “Cherokee renaissance” as the Cherokee adopted European customs such as schooling and legislative government and Sequoyah codified the first Cherokee written language. Yet, following Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, further contests over land led to the Indian Removal Act in 1830, forcing most of the Southeast’s Cherokee to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears from 1838 to 1839. However, about 300 to 400 Cherokee in WNC defied the removal and received federal permission to remain in the Qualla Boundary. The state formally recognized the Eastern Band of Cherokee 1866, followed by the federal government in 1868.

Hikers should allow most of the day to complete the trek. Due to the rugged terrain, hikers should wear sturdy hiking boots (rather than tennis shoes) and long pants, and bring rain gear, a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, and hiking poles. Participants should also bring lunch, snacks, and plenty of water. Hikers should pack all gear in a daypack to keep their hands free. Advanced registration is required.

Swannanoa Valley Rim Hike

Hike: Cherokee Boundary

When: 8 a.m. Feb. 18

Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 W. State St.

Difficulty: Difficult, 4.25 miles

Cost: $35 museum members, $50 nonmembers

Register:, 669-9566