Remembering the Mother Town

By Michael Beadle


To the Cherokee, it represents one of the most sacred sites in the world, the first Cherokee town, a mound where the sacred fire burned for centuries. It is from this site that the Cherokee named themselves Ani-Kituhwa-gi, the people of Kituhwa.

This month, a team of anthropologists from the University of Tennessee has been working under the direction of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to survey Kituhwa (pronounced Gi-DOO-wah), which is located just outside of Bryson City along the Tuckasegee River. Using non-invasive instruments that read electric pulses, radar and magnetic fields, the team has been able to chart a map outlining the underground remains of structures that stood centuries ago.

In this serene, grassy valley just off U.S. Highway 19, University of Tennessee graduate students Heather Welborn and Palmyra Moore plant a series of orange flags along the mound. Dividing up the property into 20-foot-by-20-foot squares, the two map out the area for global positioning system coordinates. Using high-tech instruments that measure what’s underground, they’ll collect data, feed it into a computer, and form a rectangular grid of Kituhwa.

After nearly a month at the sight, the team has been able to gather enough data to form an image of where the council house likely once stood. There are also outlines of walls and an entrance gate facing east. In the center of the mound looks to be the place where the sacred fire once burned.

For religious purposes, Cherokee elders would keep an eternal ceremonial fire burning as a reminder of the Creator. Once a year, according to tradition, all the village fires would be put out and rekindled using the sacred fire from the center of the village. During the Civil War, soldiers encamped near Kituhwa reported seeing smoke rising from the mound.

Piecing together oral history with today’s modern technology, the Kituhwa Mound is rising once again.

On a sunny afternoon, Moore puts on rubber boots since metal in her shoes would destroy the signal from her fluxgate gradiometer. With this instrument, she reads the magnetic field of the area and can pick up traces of burned material. The village suffered destruction at the hands of the British and then from American Patriot forces. From the burned out remains found under the Kituhwa Mound, Moore and her colleagues have located the foundations of buildings.

The team uses another tool, which measures electrical resistance in the ground. A short electrical current is forced into the ground. Any disturbance in the current means something is down there, perhaps a wall or a rock. They won’t know what lies beneath until the computer processes the information onto the grid.

“We don’t find things; we find things that are different,” Moore says. “The interpretation comes after you collect the data.”

It’s a methodical survey — 3,200 readings in the grid — and it helps to have good weather when using these high-tech instruments. Fortunately the weather on this particular day is good, but recent rains have delayed the survey.

“You don’t want to work in a downpour,” Moore says.

This is the second Kituhwa survey she’s been involved with; the last one was back in 2001. Back then, it was the place for Cherokee archeology, she says. The valley has been inhabited for thousands of years and still holds the ancient reverence of a Stonehenge or Machu Picchu.

“Just being here is very special,” Moore says.

Though it has long been known by Cherokees as a mother town, Kituhwa has also been home to farmers both Cherokee and white. Yonaguska (Drowning Bear), leader of the Oconaluftee Cherokees, once owned a 640-acre tract of farmland that included Kituhwa according to Tyler Howe, the Tribal Historic Preservation Specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Then white settlers moved in, and over time plowed down much of the mound, once thought to be more than three times as high as its current rise of roughly six feet. Each year, Cherokee families bring soil to place on top of the mound to build it back up.

According to Howe, man has inhabited this valley for about 14,000 years. Protected by the Smokies, nourished by the Tuckasegee River and home to temperate weather patterns, the land was an ideal site for a village.

The British burned Kituhwa in 1761 during a campaign led by Col. James Grant. American Patriots burned the town again in 1776 as part of Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s Revolutionary War expedition known as the Rutherford Trace.

Kituhwa passed out of Cherokee ownership from 1820 until 1996, when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians purchased the mound and its 300 acres to preserve it from further development. While the site is open to the public, visitors are asked not to walk on the mound out of reverence. It’s a place of reflection, history and endurance.

Russell Townsend, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is excited about the team’s initial survey of the mound at Kituhwa — especially since the researchers don’t have to dig up large piles of soil. Townsend is hoping the remote sensing equipment used in the Kituhwa survey can be carried over to other historic Cherokee sites throughout the Southeast so researchers can learn more about the history of a site while avoiding large-scale excavations. Protecting and preserving these historic sites is his job, and it’s especially rewarding to have such a scenic treasure right across the street from his office.

Just what exactly can still be found underneath the Kituhwa Mound and its surrounding property will be published in a report due out at the end of 2007.

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