Sicklefin redhorse and the Cherokee

An article by Jon Ostendorff headed “Rare fish released into Oconaluftee River” appeared in this past Monday’s edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times. It caught my eye because of an ongoing general interest in the fish found in Western North Carolina waters as well as a particular interest in the methods utilized by the ancient Cherokees to capture and process them as a food source.

“Biologists are trying a new experiment in Cherokee with a rare fish that science is just now starting to study,” Ostendorff noted. “Wildlife and environmental officials with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the federal government have released 800 young sicklefin redhorse fish into the Oconaluftee River on the Qualla Boundary with the hopes that they will grow and spawn in the river’s rocky bottom.

“The fish was once a mainstay in the diet of the Cherokee. They caught the fish with stone weirs and baskets. It was typically smoked and dried and used in soups.

“The fish is named for its sickle-shaped dorsal fin and because it was once believed to be a redhorse sucker. It grows to about three feet long and can weight up to seven pounds.

“The sicklefin lives only in the Little Tennessee and Hiawasse river basins. Robert Jenkins, professor of biology at Roanoke College in Virginia, discovered the fish in 1992. He is in the process of formally describing it.

“Historically and culturally, it is a very significant species for us,’ said Forrest Parker, manager of the tribe’s environmental program. ‘For years and years and years, the sucker, especially the white sucker and all the three redhorse species were all very significant to the mainstay and subsistence of the Cherokee people.’

Mark Cantrell is a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stationed in Asheville. He is the author of a very interesting manual titled “The Fishes Gathered in Cherokee Country” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005), which was published as a “Report prepared for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”

Cantrell advised me that while there is a small “vestigal” population of sicklefin redhorse (Moxostoma sp.) in the lower Ocanuluftee River they are unable to migrate upstream into reservation waters because of the dam at Ela. In his manual, Cantrell delineates “Some of the many diverse species of redhorses found in Cherokee Country: river redhorse, black redhorse, white sucker, silver redhorse, shorthead redhorse, golden redhorse, northern hogsucker, and sicklefin redhorse.”

As noted in one of the essays published in my collection Mountain Passages (Charleston SC: History Press, 2005), the Cherokees routinely employed toxins from several native plants when fishing. The drugging of fish was practiced during the dry months of late summer and early fall when water flow in mountain streams is often low, thereby creating a series of small pools with high concentrations of fish.

The two plants commonly used to stupefy fish were yellow buckeye (Aesculus octandra) and goat’s-rue (Tephrosia virginica), also known as devil’s shoestring or catgut. The toxins in these plants temporarily destabilized a fish’s nervous system, causing it to float to the surface of the water, where it was easily collected in a long-handled basket made for that purpose. I do not know if these toxins posed a health risk to the humans eating the fish.

The Cherokees and other Indian tribes in the southeastern United States collected buckeye nuts or entire goat’s-rue plants and ground them up on the tops of posts resting on the bottom of a pool. The poison released into the water by the nuts was aesculin, a glucoside used in skin-protection lotions. The toxic substance in goat’s-rue is rotenone, a principal ingredient in various modern insecticides and fish poisons. Goat’s-rue is less well known than buckeye. It is, however, common in open or waste areas throughout WNC. A silky-haired plant standing about one to two feet high, it can be recognized by its highly dissected leaves (seventeen to twenty-nine small leaflets per leaf) and its bicolored, irregularly shaped flowers (yellow base, pink wings), which blossom throughout the summer months.

The Cherokees also speared fish, caught them with lines and bone hooks, shot them with bows and arrows and grabbed them with their bare hands. But their most productive strategy involved the use of giant rock weirs (fish traps) contrived from boulders and smaller rocks. Located throughout the southern mountain region, wherever the Cherokees situated their large villages in large bottomlands alongside major streams, these structures allowed for huge quantities of fish to be taken at one time.

They were constructed from bank to bank where the water was swift. Two converging, waist-high, wall-like alignments formed a V-shape, with an opening at the apex of the V. Facing downstream, the V-shaped structure funneled fish into a wicker or log trap situated at the opening. Harvesting the fish swept into the traps was a piece of cake.

Until reading this recent account regarding the use of sicklefin redhorse and related species as a food source, I’d always supposed that the Cherokees prime targets were freshwater catfish, which were cleaned but not skinned and then smoked over an open fire. But it’s obvious that smoked-and-dried sicklefin redhorse also provided a valuable source of protein for use during the winter months.

When the catch was heavy, “they make a town feast, or feast of love, of which everyone partakes in a most social manner, and afterwards they dance together,” recorded the eighteenth-century Cherokee trader and historian James Adair in his History of the American Indians, which was published in London in 1775.

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..

Go to top