Hiking a designated trail involves prescribed origins and destinations, whether it be a four-mile jaunt from Clingman’s Dome to Siler’s Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or a 2,000-mile trek from north Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail. The designation “trail” implies official recognition by mapmakers, hiking clubs, periodic maintenance, and state or federal authorities monitoring its use.  

Trails are usually marked with guideposts and described in hiking guides. They involve advance planning, the accumulation of materials, and the toting of a load, whether it be a 60-pound backpack or a six-pound daypack.  They mean driving some distance to a trailhead and departing with some objective in mind.

Mountain pathways, on the other hand, are the reverse side of the coin.  They usually don’t have names and few are delineated in books. Rangers don’t patrol them asking where you’re going or if you have a permit. If they have destinations, they lead down to creeks or over the near ridge to an old homesite.

Many don’t lead anywhere. There’re just sort of there for no particular reason except enough people like a place well enough to go walking there from time to time. They’re maintained anonymously by succeeding generations. As such, they’re quiet links with our past and the people who have been walking these hills for many thousands of years.

The best are those just beyond your front door. You can walk them almost without forethought. All you need to carry is yourself. Without a particular destination or objective, you tend naturally to slow down and pay attention. My favorites are those that wind alongside the creek below our house. I’ve walked them day and night for going on 35 years. My feet quite literally “know” the way.

A mountain path has a life of its own. Darting here and there, it discovers the perfect route to a high gap. Have you ever marveled at the way paths merge and then diverge effortlessly? Or the way your feet find their way effortlessly over the softly worn ground? You can feel a good path in your bones. Each has a life of its own. Here’s a poem in which I try to say some of these things:

 

Don’t Walk Fast

At first just listen – after awhile

sound will distill in your body.

Slowly refocus mind and ear.

Attend the silences between

foot swings and boot falls.

 

Those spaces pulse making sound

complete and movement whole.

There’s the music – call it that.

It was not here before you came.

Won’t be here when you’re gone.

 

Do not avoid steeper slopes.

Against grade intervals widen.

In them you will feel the lovely

up-curving pathway arc in a manner

that is unrealizable coming down.

 

— By George Ellison from “Permanent Camp,” a collection of narratives and poems to be published in 2011.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I spent some time last week reading about the 18th-century Indian wars in Western North Carolina. These were the Cherokee battles with the British along the Little Tennessee and Tuckaseigee rivers in 1760 and 1761, as well as the Rutherford expedition in 1776. In doing so, by chance, I took a look at James Adair’s account of his life among the southeastern Indians. I hadn’t looked at Adair for some time and had forgotten (or perhaps never read) his description of Indian warfare.  

Adair (1709-c.1787) was born in County Antrim, Ireland. He moved to South Carolina in 1735 and immediately began trading with the Overhill Cherokees, whose towns were beyond the Great Smoky Mountains along the lower Little Tennessee River in present east Tennessee. By the early 1840s, he was trading with the Catawbas in the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina. From there, he moved west to present north Mississippi to trade with the Chickasaws. During the 1760s, Adair wrote a history of the Indians among whom he had lived. He voyaged to England in 1775 to get his book published. It appeared that year with the marvelously descriptive title page:

The HISTORY of the AMERICAN INDIANS, Particularly Those Nations Adjoining to the Mississippi, East and West Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. Containing an Account of Their Origin, Language, Manners, Religious and Civil Customs, Laws, Form of Government, Punishments, Conduct in War and Domestic Life, Their Habits, Diet, Agriculture, Manufactures, Diseases and Method of Cure, and Other Particulars … With a New Map of the Country Referred to in the History. By James Adair, Esquire, a Trader with the Indians, and Resident in Their Country for Forty Years. London: Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, in the Poultry. MDCCLXXV.

According to recent scholarship, Adair’s book is not always reliable as a history of his own time. But his first-hand descriptions of southeastern Indian cultures are still accepted, despite the author’s obsessive arguments that the lost tribes of Israel were ancestors of American Indians. Here are some of his descriptions regarding Indian warfare that caught my eye.

• They are all equal – the only precedence any gain is by superior virtue, oratory, or prowess; and they esteem themselves bound to live and die in defence of their country. A warrior will accept of no hire for performing virtuous and heroic actions; they have exquisite pleasure in pursuing their own natural dictates.

• As soon as they enter the woods, all are silent; and, every day they observe a profound silence in their march, that their ears may be quick to inform them of danger: their small black eyes are almost as sharp also as those of the eagle, or the lynx; and with their feet they resemble the wild cat, or the cunning panther, crawling up to its prey. Thus they proceed, while things promise them good success; but, if their dreams portend any ill, they always obey the supposed divine intimation and return home, without incurring the least censure.

• If a small company be out at war, they in the day time crawl through thickets and swamps in the manner of wolves – now and then they climb trees, and run to the top of hills, to discover the smoke of fire, or hear the report of guns: and when they cross through the open woods, one of them stands behind a tree, till the rest advance about a hundred yards, looking out sharply on all quarters. In this manner, they will proceed, and on tiptoe, peeping every where around; they love to walk on trees which have been blown down, and take an oblique course, till they inswamp themselves again, in order to conceal their tracks, and avoid a pursuit … Every one at the signal of the shrill-sounding war-cry, instantly covers himself behind a tree, or in some cavity of the ground where it admits of the best safety. The leader, on each side, immediately blows the small whistle he carries for the occasion, in imitation of the ancient trumpet, as the last signal of engagement. Now hot work begins – The guns are firing; the chewed bullets flying; the strong hiccory bows a twanging; the dangerous barbed arrows whizzing as they fly; the sure-shafted javelin striking death wherever it reaches; and the well-aimed tomohawk killing, or disabling its enemy. Nothing scarcely can be heard for the shrill echoing noise of the war and death-whoop, every one furiously pursues his adversary from tree to tree, striving to incircle him for his prey; and the greedy jaws of pale death are open on all sides, to swallow them up. One dying foe is intangled in the hateful and faltering arms of another: and each party desperately attempts both to save their dead and wounded from being scalped, and to gain the scalps of their opponents. On this the battle commences anew — but rash attempts fail, as their wary spirits always forbid them from entering into a general close engagement. Now they retreat: then they draw up into various figures, still having their dead and wounded under their eye. Now they are flat on the ground loading their pieces – then they are up firing behind trees, and immediately spring off in an oblique course to recruit — and thus they act till winged victory declares itself.

• On returning to the place of battle … their first aim however is to take off the scalp, when they perceive the enemy hath a proper situation, and strength to make a dangerous resistance ... This honourable service is thus performed — they seize the head of the disabled, or dead person, and placing one of their feet on the neck; they with one hand twisted in the hair, extend it as far as they can – with the other hand, the barbarous artists speedily draw their long sharp-pointed scalping knife out of a sheath from their breast, give a slash round the top of the skull, and with a few dexterous scoops, soon strip it off. They are so expeditious as to take off a scalp in two minutes. When they have performed this part of their martial virtue, as soon as time permits, they tie with bark or deer’s sinews, their speaking trophies of blood in a small hoop, to preserve it from putrefaction, and paint the interior part of the scalp, and the hoop, all round with red, their flourishing emblematical colour of blood.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series regarding the Cherokee Ghost Dance.)

A recent column focused on a so-called Ghost Dance movement that took place among the Cherokees in 1811-13. That, of course, was almost 80 years before the infamous era in the American West that culminated in the Indian massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. The western Indians initially believed the dance would unite them with friends and relatives in the ghost world. As the movement spread from tribe to tribe, however, the dancers began to imagine that the dance would make them invincible.

The unity and fervor that the Ghost Dance movement inspired, however, only brought fear and hysteria to white settlers and contributed to the events ending in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. When the smoke cleared and the gunfire ceased, more than 300 Sioux, some wearing ghost shirts, lay dead.

In the previous column I relied upon an essay titled “The Cherokee Ghost Dance Movement of 1811-1813” by William G. McLoughlin in the book The Cherokee Ghost Dance: Essays on the Southeastern Indians, 1789-1861 (Mercer University Press, 1984). McLoughlin’s essay is presented as an overview of the extant 19th century accounts of the movement. He treated the various episodes as part of an interrelated related “Ghost Dance” movement:

“In the troubled years 1811-1812 … a prophet named Charlie [i.e., Tsali, but not the individual involved in the Removal events of 1838] appeared among the Cherokee and described a dream or vision in which the Great Spirit … said he was angry with the Cherokees because they had departed from the customs and religious practices of their ancestors and were adopting the ways of the white man … Though Charlie met some opposition, he found many ready to accept his revelations, and he went on to say that it had been revealed to him that on a specific date, three months hence, a terrific wind and hailstorm would take place that would annihilate al the white men, all the cattle, and all the works of the white man … After the storm, these true believers would be able to return to their towns where they would find all of the deer, elk, buffalo, and the other game that had disappeared. Then they would live again as their ancestors did in the golden era before the white man came.”

There was no storm or eclipse. The Ghost Dance fervor withered and died without a return to a golden era.

Michelene E. Pesantubbee is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Iowa who specializes in Native American religious traditions.  In “When the Earth Shakes: The Cherokee Prophecies of 1811-1812” American Indian Quarterly (1993), Pesanttubbee took a closer look at the evidence and concluded that there was no “Ghost Dance” movement per se among the Cherokees. Unlike McLaughlin, she also felt that the Cherokee incidents were, in part, fueled by rumors about the Shawnee movement led by Tecumseh. Even so, her descriptions of various incidents provide evidence of stress-related symptoms … dreams, visions, phophecies, and apopalyptic forecasts … in Cherokee society 35 years before forced removal took place:

[According to Charlie’s vision] the Cherokee were adopting the customs of the white people. They had mills, clothes, feather beds, and tables-worse still they had books and domestic cats! This was not good-therefore the buffalo and other game were disappearing. The Great Spirit was angry, and had withdrawn his protection. The nation must return to the customs of their fathers ... They must discard all the fashions of the whites, abandon the use of any communication with each other except by word of mouth, and give up their mills, their houses, and all the arts learned from the white people. He promised, that if they believed and obeyed, then would game again abound, the white man would disappear, and God would love his people. He urged them to paint themselves, to hold feasts, and to dance ...

[In] the next record of a prophecy …Big Bear, a Cherokee man, informed the missionaries of a vision another Cherokee man experienced in December 1811. According to Big Bear, this man and his sick children were in their house when: A tall man, clothed entirely in the foliage of trees, with a wreath of the same foliage on his head … said to him ... “I am not able to tell you now whether God will soon destroy the earth or not. God is not pleased that the Indians have sold so much land to the white people. Tugalo [along the GA-SC border], which is now possessed by white people, is the first place that God created. There in a hill he placed the first fire, for all fire comes from God. Now the white people have built a house on that hill. They should abandon the place; on that hill there should be grass growing, only then will there be peace.”         

The third pattern of prophecies was apocalyptic. It began in 1812 after the appearance of a comet and a series of earthquakes. The Moravian records contain three entries describing apocalyptic predictions. On February 23, 1812, the missionaries wrote that David McNair, an intermarried white, told them about the stories he had heard. Later in the entry, the missionaries wrote about an incident in which the residents of one town fled into the hills to hide from a storm of hailstones, the size of half bushels, that were to fall on a certain day. That day passed without incident and the people returned to their homes. A March 1 account came from Laughing Molly, an elderly Cherokee woman, who heard that a sorcerer predicted that in three months the moon would become dark and afterwards hailstones as large as hominy blocks would fall, all the cattle would die, and the earth would come to an end.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Editor’s note: The second installment in George Ellison’s research into the Ghost Dance has been delayed due to the inability to reach certain sources. Look for the article in next week’s Smoky Mountain News.

This article first appeared in SMN in February 2003.

Surprisingly, a recent column about wood-burning cookstoves attracted as much attention as anything I’ve written for years. Folks who live in the Smoky Mountain News distribution area and can pick up the print edition were the most numerous e-mail correspondents, of course. But a lot of people outside of the region must read the publication online as well because at least 10 people living in different parts of the country contacted me to reminisce about their woodstove experiences.

None of the people here or abroad had anything but pleasant memories. None seemed to recall the days when the chimney smoked or there was no dry wood ... or no wood at all. They remembered grandma baking bread or a Thanksgiving turkey baking in the oven or canning vegetables in the fall. Several reported they are still using wood-burning cookstoves, at least on a part-time basis, but for most they are a part of the nostalgic past. Best of all, two people said they liked my “Woodstove” poem.  

So coming up with the topic for this week’s column was a no-brainer. As with cookstoves, Elizabeth and I have been lighting our home with oil lamps for 30 years. Are there people out there who are nostalgic about oil lamps? I’m betting on it.          

The story of how we first started using woodstoves and oil lamps is both complicated and boring, so I’ll spare you the details. Using them isn’t a big deal. Lots of folks living in the Smokies region today grew up that way. And most folks today would much rather use electric or gas burners and switch on the electric lights. But in many ways that count our lives have been enhanced by doing the opposite.    

I don’t know when the first oil lamps arrived here in the mountains. It must have been well before cast-iron wood-burning cookstoves arrived. And before lamps, of course, there was firelight and candle light.

About 20 years ago I purchased in a used bookshop a little 45-page pamphlet by Cecil A. Matthews titled “Discovering Oil Lamps.” It was published in 1972 in England. A note about the author advises that Mr. Meadows “was apprenticed to the ironmongery trade in the late 1920s when there was still a small demand for oil lamps in rural East Anglia ... He has built up a considerable collection of his own ... and gives talks and lectures on the subject.” I never imagined that anyone gave lectures on oil lamps. I hope Mr. Matthews was paid handsomely for his lamp lectures.

Most of “Discovering Oil Lamps” is devoted to illustrations and descriptions of lamp types and paraphernalia. Most are various types of table lamps, including lamps mounted on arm extensions for reading. The floor lamps are very elegant. Harp lamps hang from the ceiling on short metal supports, whereas suspension lamps hang on extended chains.  Bracket lamps are mounted on walls, some with swinging arms. One of the piano lamps is mounted on a gooseneck arm so that light could be reflected onto sheet music. Then there are various hand lamps used in the same manner as flashlights.  

Mr. Marshall also provides a brief history of oil lamps. (There is also an online history titled “Oil Lamps in Antiquity” that can be consulted at www.aworldmall.com/candles/history.html.) In brief, he notes that simple lamps were made by primitive man from a stone with a small depression on one side in which fuel rendered from animal fat was deposited along with a floating wick of bark or fiber. There were also lamps made from shells that used fish oil as fuel. Ancient Chinese lamps consisted of an open saucer, sometimes mounted on feet, with floating wicks. Light was provided in the Pacific region by coconuts with floating wicks. Even the early Greek, Egyptian, Roman and lamps were bowl shaped with floating wicks of some type.  

Indeed, a flat wick lamp that could be adjusted wasn’t invented until 1783.  Shortly thereafter the first glass chimney was produced. Paraffin (kerosene) had already been distilled from petroleum earlier in that century. Presto ... all of the ingredients were available for producing the common oil lamp. Incandescent and pressure lamps came later, of course, but Elizabeth and I consider them to be aberrations that make noise and cast an eerie light,

We much prefer the old-fashioned oil lamp consisting of a glass container, a wick that can be adjusted, and a glass chimney. Of these we have 10 or 12 that are fully assembled and in use. Most are of the table variety and are fashioned from clear or opaque glass. One of the table lamps I bought for Elizabeth as a gift some years ago is made from darkened glass with a white rose design.

Four of the smaller glass lamps are round at the base and fit into brackets that hang on walls. We do not fool with hanging lamps made from metals as they are likely to leak with use and become dangerous.              

Cleaning chimneys and trimming wicks isn’t a big chore, but it has to be done from time to time. We usually get around to it when we notice we can’t see well enough to read at night.

We have found that the tinted kerosene mandated by the state several years ago is hopeless. We could barely light and keep our lamps going with that crud. We always go to one of the local stations selling K-1 fuel oil.

I but have one hard and fast rule regarding oil lamps. It’s called The Ellison Rule For Lamp Placement & Adjustment. Always position a lamp so that the wick adjustment mechanism is on the right side if you’re right-handed or on the left side if you’re left-handed. Doesn’t that make perfect sense? You just reach out and adjust the wick without having to first rearrange the lamp. Both Elizabeth and I are right-handed. It follows that all of the lamps in our home should be placed with adjustment mechanisms on the right side, doesn’t it? Does Elizabeth follow this rule? No. She almost invariably places them reversed so as to bother me.  

Lamplight is a softly luminescent light. Our combined kitchen and sitting area comes to life once the lamps are lit. Many evenings at dusk I cross the bridge in front of our house and walk down into the pasture. Looking back across the creek, I can see blue woodsmoke spiraling upward from the chimney and the windows of our home glowing with lamplight.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

(Note: This is part one of a two-part series regarding the Cherokee Ghost Dance. Part two will present Michelene Ethe Pesantubbee’s conclusions and perspectives on the movement.)

 

The belief in the coming of a messiah, or deliverer, who shall restore his people to a condition of primitive simplicity and happiness, is probably as universal as the human race, and takes on special emphasis among peoples that have been long subjected to alien domination. In some cases the idea seems to have originated from a myth, but in general it play safely be assumed that it springs from a natural human longing.

— Handbook of American Indians (1906)

 

Few know there was a Ghost Dance movement among the Cherokees almost 80 years before the infamous epoch in the American west that culminated in the Indian massacre at Wounded Knee.

Flash back to January 1889 … a Paiute Indian named Wavoka (aka Jack Wilson), while suffering from high fever, had a vision during a total eclipse of the sun. This revelation became the genesis of the religious movement known as the Ghost Dance. At first the Indians believed the dance would simply unite them with friends and relatives in the ghost world. As the movement spread from tribe to tribe, however, the dancers began to imagine that the dance would make them invincible.

It consisted of slow shuffling movements following the course of the sun. It would be performed for four or five days and was accompanied by singing and chanting. It would, they imagined, cause the world to open up and swallow all other people, while the Indians and their friends would remain on this land, which would return to its beautiful and natural state. In addition, a ghost shirt made of buckskin cloth was said to render the wearer immune to bullets.

The unity and fervor that the Ghost Dance movement inspired, however, only fear and hysteria among white settlers and contributed to the events ending in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. When the smoke cleared and the gunfire ceased, more than 300 Sioux, some wearing ghost shirts, lay dead.

Flash back another 78 years. The story of the much earlier Cherokee version of the Ghost Dance is related in an essay titled “The Cherokee Ghost Dance Movement of 1811-1813” by William G. McLoughlin in the book The Cherokee Ghost Dance: Essays on the Southeastern Indians, 1789-1861 (Mercer University Press, 1984).  McLoughlin’s essay is presented as an overview of the extant 19th century accounts of the movement: as told by two Cherokees, Major Ridge and James Wafford; as published in the “Cherokee (Oklahoma) Advocate” in 1844; as recorded in the official mission diaries, 1811-1812, of the Moravians; and as observed by two U.S. Indian agents.

It was James Mooney, author of Myths of the Cherokees (1900), who first characterized the events as a Ghost Dance movement. Mooney, who lived among the Cherokees during the late 1880s, was also the author of The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, the definitive study of the western events.

McLoughlin summarizes the eastern Ghost Dance events as follows, with this writer’s additions in brackets:

“In the troubled years 1811-1812 . . . a prophet named Charlie [i.e., Tsali, but not the individual involved in the Removal events of 1838] appeared among the Cherokee and described a dream or vision in which the Great Spirit spoke to him. [Some accounts speak of there being several prophets rather than just one.] The Great Spirit said he was angry with the Cherokees because they had departed from the customs and religious practices of their ancestors and were adopting the ways of the white man. To regain the favor of the Great Spirit and overcome their troubles, the Cherokees were told by their prophet to give up everything they had acquired from the whites (clothing, cattle, plows, spinning wheels, featherbeds, fiddles, cats, books) and return to the old ways: they must dance their old dances…. The prophet also said that those who did not heed this message would be punished and some would die. [`Now I have told you the will of the Great Spirit, and you must pass on it,’ he is reported to have said in one account, `But if you don’t believe my words, look up into the sky.’] Though Charlie met some opposition, he found many ready to accept his revelations, and he went on to say that it had been revealed to him that on a specific date, three months hence, a terrific wind and hailstorm would take place that would annihilate al the white men, all the cattle, and all the works of the white man. [Some accounts predicted a three-day eclipse rather than a hailstorm.] The hailstones would be ‘as large as hominy blocks’ and would crush all those who did not retreat to a special, charmed spot high in the Great Smoky Mountains where they would be safe. [The charmed spot was perhaps Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies, which the Cherokees know as Yonah.] After the storm, these true believers would be able to return to their towns where they would find all of the deer, elk, buffalo, and the other game that had disappeared. Then they would live again as their ancestors did in the golden era before the white man came.”

There was no storm or eclipse. The Ghost Dance fervor withered and died without a return to a golden era. In the end, as was inevitable, superior numbers won out. Four thousand Cherokees died during the 1838 forced removal. But for a while the Cherokees danced and returned to the old ways in an attempt to stem the tide.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

If you don’t like dogs, come back next week. Dogs have been an integral part of my life since I was a boy. My first dog -– part something, part something else –- was named Rascal. He was my boyhood buddy. I was a sophomore in college when Rascal had to be put to sleep after a long and happy life. I still remember that day.

Other dogs have followed: cocker spaniels; a long line of beagles, several named Toby; and more recently German shorthaired pointers. German shorthairs are the best breed of dog in the world. They can be somewhat uppity when need be, but for the most part they are companionable, curious, bright-eyed, humorous, and generally reliable dogs.     

Our current shorthairs are Uly (a brown-ticked dog named for the Greek wanderer, not the Civil War general); Salley (a brown-ticked patrician sort of dog); Hera (a whitish black-ticked dog named for the Greek trouble-maker); Woodrow (a black-and-white spotted dog named after Capt. Woodrow Call, a character in Lonesome Dove); and Zeke (named after Ezekiel in the Bible).  

Born in a kennel in northwest Georgia, Zeke is going on 16 now. He doesn’t care much for any of the other dogs. His friend Maggie (a dark brown naturally regal dog) died several years ago and is buried across the creek. Zeke hasn’t gotten over her departure and apparently doesn’t plan on getting over it.

Maggie and Zeke were our constant companions for years, spending the day with us at work in town. When we went bird watching along the Texas, Gulf and Atlantic coasts, they traveled along in the back of the truck, their heads stuck through the camper top window into the cab. As a last resort, I would sometimes turn them loose when a particular bird wouldn’t come out of the brush. That tactic generally produced almost instant results. Zeke was stronger but Maggie was always in charge. I haven’t hunted for years; so, I threw red rubber balls for them to chase. They caught the balls on the bounce or tracked them down in the woods or plunged into the creek after them.             

Frumpy-looking with brown and white cow-like markings — front legs splayed clumsily and slow afoot — Zeke doesn’t look the part, but in his prime he was a natural born hunting and fighting dog. There were several bear squabbles I know about. Two of them he picked and didn’t quit but dragged himself home on his shield … as it were… head bashed lop-sided, ear torn, ribs busted in so bad all he could do was lie down and think things over.

Add in years of ongoing skirmishes. The battle with the weasel in the creek ford was hilarious … from my perspective. Every time Zeke’d shake him off the critter would come back and grab him by the nose. Went on that way back and forth for maybe five minutes. I called it a draw but (truth be told) the weasel looked better off at the end. Bobcats … coyotes … mink … wild hogs …coons … copperheads … feral cats … other critters … maybe even a big cat  … Zeke was born convinced that the universe is full of troubles it is his assigned task to combat.

He’s been a good friend. Born into a world of smells and subtle frequencies, Zeke has studied expressions and listened closely to intonations so as to comprehend human intentions in an uncanny manner. These days he’s mellowed. He enjoys eating snow cream my wife concocts from fresh snow, vanilla extract, sugar, and canned milk. And has taken to writing sonnets. The one he’s working on these days is titled: “Gone to Hell in a Handbasket: A Country Music Sonnet in Blank Verse (14 Lines, 140 Syllables with Rhymes).” The first draft has been completed. It goes like this:

 

Winter was dryly bitter & bone cold.

‘Cept when I went out in the yard to pee

I’d sit in the house by the fireside bright

and work on my next sonnet about me.

My ex-girlfriend Polly wasn’t so bad

but her babies had grown up to be hounds.

Long after I asked them nicely to “Shut Up!”

they still moped around singing Merle Haggard:

‘If we can just make it thru De-cem-ber

ev-ry-thing is go-in’ to be o-kay.’

Well spring’s dun sprung and noth-in is o-kay.

Polly left town with the beagle next door.

If en-ee-one asks ‘bout me you just say:

‘Ole Zeke’s gone to hell in a handbasket.’

 

After reading it, I told Zeke “I don’t know what to say.”

“Then don’t say anything,” he said.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Are there boardinghouses still operating here in the Smokies region? There are, of course, hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and motels galore. But I’m wondering about the true, old-fashioned boardinghouse, which flourished throughout the region until the middle of the 20th century.  

Unlike any of the establishments mentioned above, a real boardinghouse had several distinctive features. It would often come into existence as an expansion of the proprietor’s original home site; or, it was sometimes established in a renovated commercial structure of some sort.  

Rooms would sometimes be let out for overnight guests. For the most part, however, a boardinghouse catered to those staying for at least a week. And it wasn’t unusual for them to stay either for an entire season or even on a permanent basis. Working-class guests were as common as vacationers. Long-term boarders were often adopted into the proprietor’s extended family. Concern for his or her general welfare became a part of the socio-economic relationship.

Family style meals were the mainstay of a boardinghouse. Sometimes all three meals were served each day. Serving times for each meal were posted and the proprietor expected boarders to be on time. Most guests honored this system as a matter of courtesy. They also realized that those arriving late had less — or sometimes very little — to eat.

Some of the rooms had bath facilities. These cost more. Most guests shared a bath, which always seemed to be located “Just down there at the end of the hall.” A guest taking too much time or using up all of the hot water would hear about it from his fellow guests. If the habit persisted, the proprietor would weigh in.

There was always a common sitting, reading, and TV room used primarily during the winter or just before meals were served. When the weather was fine, there was also a front porch with rocking chairs.  

In my experience, the last true boardinghouse in this region was the Swain Hotel located on Everett Street in Bryson City. From 1967 until 1996, it was owned and operated by Mildred and V.L. Cope. Swain County native Luke Hyde, an attorney, purchased and renovated the establishment, opening in 1997 as the Historic Calhoun Country Inn. Family style meals are still served, but the current operation is not a true boardinghouse in most regards. Although many of the guests return from season to season, none are of the long-term or permanent variety.  Most are vacationers.

“Until 1966, the business was known as the Calhoun Hotel,” said Hyde. “It was operated by Granville Calhoun and his family. My mother, Alice Hyde, worked at the Calhoun Hotel for 30 years. That’s why I converted to the old name.

“As far as I know the Swain Hotel as operated by the Copes was the last true boardinghouse west of Morganton. I stayed in a lot of places when I was looking for a suitable location of my own, and it was the only one I encountered.

“I remember when mother was working at the Calhoun Hotel that the Simonds family would come and stay for the summer. He operated a real estate business and had a sign right there in the front yard. She operated a clothing store.”

I stayed in the Swain Hotel on two occasions in the early 1970s shortly before deciding to move to Bryson City. For some reason, memories of those visits — once by myself and once with my wife and three children — remain vivid.               

Mrs. Cope, who orchestrated the meals, had jet-black hair, powder-white skin, and was something of a character. Her specialties were fried eggs and biscuits and gravy for breakfast; sliced cured ham, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce for dinner; and pork tenderloin or chops, baked sweet potatoes, and blackberry pie for supper. Fried chicken was reserved for Sunday dinners. Mr. Cope was one-armed but could perform any maintenance task with great dexterity.   

All of our fellow guests were exceedingly cordial but not intrusive. Most were working-class and dressed accordingly for meals. One elderly couple dressed up for meals. They were permanent residents. He was the only man in the dining room with a coat and tie. Everyone got along. Everyone was exceedingly courteous about passing food and not taking too much.  Personal matters, politics, and religion were not discussed. Weather was the primary topic at each meal, but hunting and fishing were well within bounds. Children were made over. The black-and-white TV in the sitting room was always turned off right after the evening news.  All in all, the boardinghouse provided the context for a functional and agreeable lifestyle.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Editor’s note: George Ellison is snowed in without an Internet connection. This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in January 2003.

Tuckaseigee, Oconaluftee, Heintooga, Wayah, Cullasaja, Hiwassee, Coweeta, Stecoah, Steestachee, Skeenah, Nantahala, Aquone, Katuwah, and on and on. Our place names here in the Smokies region are graced throughout with evidence of the Cherokee culture that prevailed for over 700 years. Wouldn’t it be nice if Clingmans Dome was correctly designated as Mount Yonah (high place of the bears)?

Still, we’re fortunate that all of the original place names weren’t obliterated. The same can be said for the Native American words that persist in what we now know as the American language. They add a poetic, almost musical touch to our everyday lives that would otherwise be sorely missed.

It’s interesting to keep track of the ways we find books that we enjoy via reviews, blurbs, word of mouth, etc. Before Christmas my friend Lee Knight, the folklorist and musician, came by for a visit and presented me with a little book titled Tracks That Speak: The Legacy of Native American Words in North American Culture (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002) by Charles L. Cutler.

“There,” he said, “You’ll be able to get several columns out of that one.”

Lee knows me pretty well, so I just nodded agreement. And he was, of course, quite right. It’s my kind of book and touched upon the sort of material that I like to share via this column. I’m going to provide some of Cutler’s research to whet your appetite. Many will then no doubt want to obtain their own copies.

The author’s wife, Katherine, indicates that her husband passed away before the book’s publication. An Internet search indicates that he wrote various titles related to American history and Native American language. Tracks That Talk bears evidence to the obvious fact that he knew what he was writing about and enjoyed doing so.

The book is divided into various sections having to do with topics like shelter, clothing, plants, animals, and artifacts. Other sections are dedicated to miscellaneous words and, lastly, words having to do with “Spirit.”

In his introduction Cutler tells us that “This bountiful harvest of words springs from the more than one thousand native languages currently and formerly spoken in the Western Hemisphere ... many as different from one another as English is from Japanese. At the dawn of European settlement, probably sixty separate [word] families graced North America alone. Sadly only about half of the continent’s original stock of indigenous languages that existed [then] are still alive today, many of them spoken by no more than a handful of elderly tribes people ... This book examines the most prominent of English words that were borrowed from North American Indian languages and explains their background and the significance of the things they refer to, both in Native American and in general American cultural practices, each with its own tradition, extending into and influencing the present. When we follow their trail, we are reminded of words a storyteller of the Slavery tribe in Canada once used to describe the wolverine: ‘His tracks go on and on.’”

Here are some very brief excerpts from various entries within Tracks That Speak. These are misleading in that entries for individual words often go on for a page or more, creating mini-essays.

MOCCASIN: “The first appearance of the word in English occurs in 1609 [as] ‘mekezin’ ... A Crow warrior flaunted wolf tails at the heels of his moccasins after he accomplished that most daring of plains Indian feats — scoring a ‘coup,’ or touching and enemy’s body without injuring him.”

SUCCOTASH: “Combining the two main vegetables [corn and beans] was natural, since they were grown together (often with squash). According to the Iroquois, the spirits of the two ‘sisters’ wanted to remain together even when cooked and served.”

POKEWEED: “Settlers learned [from Indians] that pokeweed yielded still another bonus [other than as a cooked green] — a long-lasting red or purple ink [made by] boiling together pokeberries, vinegar, and sugar ... The great Sequoya would use pokeberry juice and a quill pen to transcribe the Cherokee language for the first time ... In the twentieth century rural people sometimes used the concoction for special writing purposes.”  

PERSIMMON: “The Indians customarily dried persimmons on mats spread over frames. This led to the Algonquian term ‘pasemenan,’ meaning ‘fruit dried artificially.’”

TERRAPIN: Indians respected the turtle as deliberate, calm, steadfast, and long-lived. Many revered it. A widespread belief in the Northeast ... was that Earth is Turtle Island — an island resting on the back of a giant turtle.”

CHIPMONK: “The outsized power of the small chipmonk is described in Iroquois legend. In early days, an animal council debated whether Earth should always remain in day or in night. Bear argued for perpetual night, but Chipmonk kept chattering for alternate night and day until dawn broke and resolved the argument. Bear angrily raked Chipmonk’s back with his claws, leaving indelible stripes on the animal ... [The Cherokee disagreed] saying that the animals once held a council in which it was proposed that each wish a disease on men for hunting them. Chipmonk refused to join in because it wasn’t among the hunted. The other animals attacked the little SQUAW: “some Indians claimed that ‘squaw’ arose from a Mohawk word meaning vagina. The word was worse than demeaning, they said — it was obscene. But Ives Goddard, the authority on American languages at the Smithsonian Institution, explains that this interpretation is not correct: ‘It is certain as any historical fact can be that the word squaw that the English settlers in Massachusetts used for Indian woman in the early 1600s was adopted by them from the word ‘squa’ that their Massachusett-speaking neighbors used in their own language to mean ‘female, younger woman’ and not from Mohawk.’”

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Winter is the season for thinking about pines. For the ancient Orientals, pines signified dignity and vitality, especially in old age. In art, a wand tipped with a pine cone was often carried by the god or his supplicants.

At the great spring festival in Rome, on the twenty-second day of March, a pine tree was cut and brought into the sanctuary by a guild of tree bearers, where it was treated as a divinity. The trunk was swathed like a corpse.  

Learning to distinguish the pine species of the southern mountains is a do-able project. There are just five native species, and they are easy to distinguish.

• White pine (Pinus strobus) is a common species from low to middle elevations with 5 needles per bundle.

• Shortleaf pine (P. echinata) is an occasional species from low to middle elevations with 2 to 3 dark blue-green, slender, flexible needles per bundle.

• “Pitch pine” (P. rigida), which is a common species in middle elevations with 3 yellowish-green needles per bundle that are less slender and flexible than those of shortleaf pine. (Look for bristly needle-cluster outgrowths along the main trunk.)

• Virginia or scrub pine (P. virginiana) is a common species from low to middle elevations with 2 needles per bundle and a “scrubby” appearance due to the fact that many side branches persist for years after dying.

• Table-mountain pine (P. pungens) is an occasional species at middle elevations with 2 rigid, twisted needles per bundle and cones that are persistent with a stout, hooked spine at the top of each scale.

The white pine has needles with white accents in their polished surfaces and white lines of stomata (breathing holes) on their undersides. An annual growth of limbs presents a “wagon spoke” appearance near the trunk.

The best kindling is fat pine, which is created when resin has collected in the stumps and butt cuts of pine trees. The resinous stubs of old pine limbs are the second best kindling. Pitch pine is so-named because of its high resin content.

Short-leaf pine is sometimes called “southern yellow pine.”

Virginia or scrub pine is common in old fields as pioneer plants that form thickets.    

And that brings us to my favorite pine. Have you ever been walking one of the wind-swept, sun-bitten, high-elevation rock outcrops in the Smokies region when you suddenly encountered a grove of strange, almost stunted looking pines with outlandish cones? As described by Donald C. Peattie in A Natural History of Trees (1950), each such pine will bear “huge cones that encircle the limbs in dense clusters, each knob of the cone armed with a horrendous hooked prickle, as if to guard the harsh fruit.” You will have happened upon Table Mountain pine (Pinus pungens).

It is the only pine species that is essentially restricted (i.e., endemic) to the southern Appalachians.

Some sources state that the species is known as Table Mountain pine because it thrives on gravelly tablelands, ridges and slopes. Others assert that the name arose because the species was first collected around 1794 near Table Rock Mountain in Burke County, North Carolina.

It is also known as bur or prickly pine (because of the cones), mountain pine, hickory pine (because of limbs that are, as Peattie phrases it, “elastic but unbreakable by human muscle”), and squirrel pine (because the seeds are favored by red squirrels, locally known as “boomers”).

Table Mountain pine flourish where there is site disturbance, light, and heat. In closed stands on western and northern exposures, the cones are distinctly serotinous; that is, they require heat from a fire before opening to release seed. On southerly and easterly exposures, however, many cones open soon after maturing. A large number of closed cones remain on the trees from five to 25 years, with the retained seeds remaining viable for 10 or more years.

It is a wonderful tree that, in my opinion, should be the arboreal emblem of the southern Appalachians. 

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Editor’s note: This George Ellison column was first published in December 2004.

Most everyone agrees that marriage is a noble institution. But even in the best of situations it can be, at times, a demanding proposition. Some folks seem to be especially star-crossed when it comes to matrimony. Have you ever noticed that extraordinary marital situations seem to run in certain families? Don’t ask me why.

Behold, for instance, the example of the Calloway sisters, who resided in the North Carolina mountains during the early 19th century. Fanny and Betsy Calloway were the daughters of Ben Calloway, one of the first settlers on the Watauga River in the northwestern corner of the state. Both sisters were celebrated for their grace and beauty. Both, alas, had complicated spousal issues.  

Fanny married John Holtsclaw, a Baptist preacher. They had seven children. Around 1825 Holtsclaw encountered Delilah Baird, the 18-year-old daughter of Col. Bedent Baird of Valle Crucis. Delilah was willing to elope with Holtsclaw so long as they went somewhere far away like, say, Kentucky.

“Why certainly, Delilah, we shall go to Kentucky,” Holtsclaw said, or something like that. He then proceeded to take her via horseback on such a roundabout and circuitous journey through the mountains in the immediate vicinity that the poor girl thought she had arrived in Kentucky. In reality, she was on the Big Bottoms of the Elk River, a mile from Banner Elk and only several miles from her childhood home.

Holtsclaw owned land along the river bottom and, with foresight, had already constructed their “love nest.” This was a camp, consisting of a bark structure built against the trunk of a large fallen tree. “For a long time this was their home. Their bed consisted of a heap of dry leaves and grass upon the ground; their stove was a crude furnace outside the door. Chairs? They were large stones. When Delilah wished to primp, her mirror was the placid waters of Elk River. Or so the story goes. We know that something like this took place, but just where fact leaves off and fable begins is difficult to discern.    

It was here that Delilah’s first child, Alf Baird, was born. Alf is said to have been the first white child born in what is today Banner Elk. Later on the family moved into a rude cabin lower down the river, “where they settled in apparent harmony.”

Delilah liked to dig ‘sang in the fall of the year. One day when she had wandered far afield hunting roots she heard a cowbell jingle, the first cowbell she had ever heard in Kentucky. As she listened, it sounded more and more like the bell on “Old Jers,” her father’s cow far away in North Carolina. Several days later she returned and followed the cow down a hollow and across a ridge, where, lo and behold, she found herself in her father’s backyard at Valle Crucis!

(Despite now being aware of her long deception, Delilah not only renewed her ties with her own family but continued to live with Holtsclaw, not in “Kentucky,” but just over the ridge. In time he built her a fine white house overlooking the Big Bottoms of the Elk.  

Fanny (Calloway) Holtsclaw, whose place Delilah had usurped, one day came to their door, asking to be allowed to spin, weave, wash, hoe or do anything that would provide John Holtsclaw’s children with bread. No one knows how Delilah reacted. Holtsclaw’s response was to deed all 480 acres of his Elk River land to Delilah and her descendants.  

But what goes around comes around. Among Fanny’s children was a girl named Raney. One of her sons, James Whitehead, bought up all of the acreage Holtsclaw had deeded to Delilah.

Now we return to Betsy Calloway, Fanny’s sister. She was living at home in 1819 when a handsome fiddler and hunter named James Aldridge arrived in the community. (That he was fiddler should have been a warning sign to the girl, but she was young and didn’t know about wayfaring fiddlers.) He was attractive and appeared to be single. Soon, of course, they married and settled in a large cabin.

Everything went fine for about 15 years. They had seven children. Then a fur trader named Price happened into the region. Price instantly recognized Aldridge as “Fiddling Jimmy.” And he knew Mrs. Aldridge number 1, who, with their five children, was still living on the Big Sandy River on what was then the Kentucky-Virginia border (now West Virginia). When he went north again, he promptly shared news of his discovery with the original Mrs. Aldridge.

She soon appeared on the North Carolina scene. Details of what transpired between the two Mrs. Aldridges are scant. It is recorded, however, that “Fiddling Jimmy” came by the local millhouse the day his first wife appeared and told the boys: “Well, the cat is out of the bag.” Of Mrs. Aldridge number 2, he said: “She is sulky, but since I’m treating both women exactly alike [there’s] no doubt she will get over it.”

At some point after Mrs. Aldridge number 1 returned to the Big Sandy, several of her children by “Fiddling Jimmy” appeared on the scene in the Banner Elk area further complicating matters. When relations between Mrs. Aldridge number 2 and “Fiddling Jimmy” cooled, he headed up to the Big Sandy to try and patch things up with Mrs. Aldridge number 1. This didn’t work out either. When Mrs. Aldridge number 2 came north to check one last time on “Fiddling Jimmy” (her first “real” visit to Kentucky), she found him living with a young girl in a hut.

Back home on the Elk River, Betsy managed to raise her own children and, occasionally, the children from her husband’s first marriage. It is recorded: “She died in 1900 a well-respected woman.”    

(Note: The primary sources for this account are John P. Arthur, A History of Watauga County (1915); Horton Cooper, The History of Avery County, North Carolina (1967); Carolyn Sakwoski, Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads (1990); and an anonymous, online article published by the Watauga News at www.mountaintimes.com/summer/lore_calloway.php3.)

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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