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When I started writing features for a newspaper in the late 1980s, I didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was doing. I was working as a “stringer” for a regional insert called “Smoky Mountain Neighbors,” which was published in the westernmost counties of the state by the Asheville Citizen-Times. Especially difficult, for me, was interviewing. People wanted to tell me their life stories. I didn’t want to hear them. But for about 10 years I did as many as four interviews a week.

“Just the facts, lady, just the facts,” was my mantra.

My editor, Jim Crawford, was terrific when it came to working with newcomers to the profession. Some of the more crusty veterans would have had a field day with me once they found out: (1) I had a semi-academic background; (2) most of my publishing experience to that point in time had been semi-academic in style and content; and (3) I didn’t know how to use a camera, even though I had claimed to be “pretty good” in order to obtain my initial assignment. This was back in the day when most journalists, especially stringers, took their own photos. So I borrowed a camera and went to work. None of this bothered Jim; so long as I produced copy “on time” ... that is, about three minutes before deadline.

One day, after I had been submitting copy to him for almost two years, I ventured something like: “You’ve been reading my stuff for a long time now and never have said if you liked it or not.”

He peered over the rims of his glasses, rolled his eyes, and sighed, but didn’t say anything.

“Well, do you?” I persisted.

Without looking up again from proofing the copy I had just submitted, he said something like, “You’ll be the first to know when I don’t.”

When asked for advice about interviewing, he tentatively offered several suggestions based on 30 years or so experience: “Look up from time to time and make eye contact even if you’re taking notes. Be in control of the beginning, middle, and end. But your main job is to listen. We’re not interested in your story. The most significant thing you learn probably won’t be what you anticipated. People will say the damndest things.” Or something like that. Those were the most words I ever heard Jim say at one sitting. He was a fine person.

I never became a very good interviewer and currently avoid doing them like the plague. But I did learn to listen a little better, especially if I liked someone or the subject matter or where we were. To a great extent, I was always more interested in how things were said than in what was said. I’ve rummaged around in my files and found my favorite interview … one of the few I wouldn’t mind doing all over again.

I have always envied firetower wardens. To a man (and woman) they have always presented themselves as down-to-earth sorts who do not romanticize their work in the least bit. I suspect, however, that more than one is, in reality, a closet romantic. When I heard about Pearly Kirkland, I called and asked if I could interview him at his home in the Skeenah community south of Franklin. How Pearly, a Swain County native, who was 88 when I visited him, came to live down in Skeenah is interwoven with his experiences as a longtime firetower dispatcher at three high-elevation sites in Western North Carolina. On that bright autumn day, the memories slowly flooded his mind, Pearly relaxed on his front porch, talking and laughing about the old days “up on the mountain at the top of the world”:

I was born on Chambers Creek in what now is the park. My father, Albert, was from Bear Creek and my mother, Dolly, was from Bone Valley on Hazel Creek, both places being in the Smokies. I went to he Chambers Creek School, which was a church house, but I was mainly interested in the outdoors in hunting and fishing and walking around. Jack, one of my brothers, became ranger at Forney Creek and that’s how I got into the firetower business.  I’d been a logger at $1.50 a day … 75 cents of which went for board, so I agreed to go up and be lookout from the tower at High Rocks on Welch Ridge between Hazel and Forney creeks.

You can see all the south end of the North Carolina side of the Smokies from there and into the Nantahalas. I walked up to the tower from Chambers Creek and lived in the thing. What did I eat? Why I just ate rough rations – whatever was easy to fix because I had to carry the food up with me on my back on a pretty steep trail. I’d stay there the fire season until it got wet enough to come down. That’s where I picked up the habit of talking to myself. No one else up there except the bears, or I just got to talking to myself about this and that. I still talk with myself about the same things. Never have broke that habit.  You get pretty much lonely in a tower during a long dry spell of nobody to talk to. …

I was at High Rocks for about three and a half years or so, beginning in the early 1940s, as I remember. The last time I was up at the tower was when they were flooding Lake Fontana. When I came down from the tower the lake was flooded and everybody had left Chambers Creek, which was along the north shore. My wife and family had up and moved and I didn’t even know where I lived!  It took me awhile to find out they were down here in Keenah, which is where we’ve been ever since. My wife, Hattie, was a Woody from Forney Creek. She died three years ago. We raised seven children.

Then I was several years at Albert Mountain here in Macon County between Bearpen Gap and the head of Hurricane Creek. That was where I got my biggest scare. A storm came up that was awful. Lightning was everywhere and constant. It was kindly eerie. O my gosh, I’m not exaggerating, the bolts would strike the tower and balls of fire just flowed down the wires that grounded the tower. They lit up everything like pure daylight.

From Albert Mountain the forest service moved me as dispatcher over to the tower at Cowee Bald, which is located in Macon County near where it corners with Jackson and Swain in the Big Laurel country. I was ten years at Cowee, which I liked best because it was easiest to get to. Did I like it up there in those towers?  Why no, I didn’t. It was lonely with no family and nobody to talk with.

To me it was just a job. It was hard times and firetower work was a way to make some money and support your family. That’s all. No sir, I don’t recollect anything romantic about it whatsoever.

As indicated in recent Back Then columns, I've been of late walking some of the old trails along creeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that were as recently as the early 1940s populated to a considerable extent. Occasionally, I'll detect an old home site by a chimney left standing. Flattened areas above creeks or old roadbeds are also likely spots for a dwelling or outbuilding of some sort.

Some of the best indicators are certain plants not native to the region that were propagated by the earliest settlers and their descendents. There are three plants that are a dead giveaway in spring. Vinca major (large-leaved) and Vinca minor (small-leaved), also called periwinkle, were planted in yards, on banks, and in cemeteries as a groundcover.

Forsythia — still called "yaller-bells" by some old-time mountain women — has prospered without human care along creek banks or other damp areas. Different species and varieties have interbred to such an extent through the years that it's virtually impossible, for me at least, to tell one from the other. This, however, doesn't bother me in the least as I can thoroughly enjoy stands of forsythia without knowing the exact species or subspecies.

Mountain folks were — and still are — inordinately fond of daffodils. Not only were they planted in gardens and around home sites, borders of them were sometimes planted along steams or woodland edges. Don't you agree with me that nothing is prettier in early spring than a stand of daffodils waving in a gentle breeze?

A daffodil is, of course, also called narcissus, jonquil, or buttercup. As with forsythia, distinguishing the species and subspecies is tricky. It seems that every plant book has a different "formula" for determining which is which. To my way of thinking, all of them can be correctly called daffodils. Those with dark, rounded leaves I designate as jonquils. Those with flattened leaves I think of as narcissi (the plural of narcissus). But if it's a great big butter-yellow daffodil with flattened leaves, I also think of that as a buttercup. If these categories don't suit you, feel free to devise your own.

The genus Narcissus — to which all of the above belong — is a member of the Amaryllis family. The word narcissus is derived from the Greek word "narke," meaning numbness or stupor. Some attribute the naming of the flower to its narcotic fragrance while others debate that it is associated with the poisonous nature of the leave's bulbs, a defense against grazing animals and underground rodents.

Those of you with children, grandchildren, or herbage-devouring pets need to be reminded of just how potent these poisons can be. According to the volume Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America (Timber Press, 1991) by Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski, "The entire plant, particularly the bulbs, contain toxic alkaloids ... and a glycoside. These cause dizziness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes diarrhea. Trembling, convulsions, and death may occur if large quantities are consumed, but usually recovery occurs within a few hours."

Whenever I encounter a stand of daffodils in full bloom above a pool of water in some remote watershed, I'm reminded of Narcissus. In classical mythology he was the lad so enamored with himself that he stared at his reflection in a pool of water for so long that he forgot to eat or drink and passed away of sheer weakness. When the nymphs came to remove his body to the funeral pyre, they found no corpse. In its stead was a single narcissus in full bloom.

Most Narcissus species are natives of southern France, Spain, northern Africa and the surrounding Mediterranean areas. But various species of Narcissus have been cultivated for hundreds, even thousands, of years, so that they reached the northern European mainland and the British Isles early on. The Scotch-Irish and other nationalities that peopled the southern mountains brought these lovely flowers with them as reminders of their homelands and their relatives left so far behind. Along with periwinkle, forsythia, and numerous other plants, daffodils now serve as mute reminders of home sites occupied not so long ago.

Editor's note: This column first appeared in a February 2004 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

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 conduct workshops on Southeastern Indian history and culture at the John C. Campbell Folk School for two full weeks a year and for various Elderhostels throughout the year. One topic that surfaces quite often is the manner in which these Indians treated enemies captured in warfare or by chance. The answer is, “It all depends.”

Not infrequently, other Indians were adopted and treated as kinsmen. Some were enslaved in the sense that he belonged to the man who captured him in war. He became part of that person’s household and performed menial duties. In The Southeastern Indians (University of Tennessee Press, 1976), University of Georgia anthropologist Charles Hudson describes captives of this sort as “a sort of living scalp;” that is, he enhanced the prestige of the captor. Still other captives were executed brutally or tortured to death.

A common method of torture was used throughout North America — the ritual burning of the captive at a stake in the middle of the village. The Natchez tribe, situated in what is now southeastern Mississippi, elevated torture to another level, as described by Dr. Hudson:

“When the Natchez decided to torture a captive to death, they first constructed a framework made of two poles about 10 feet long, set into the earth about five feet apart. A crosspiece was then tied between the poles about two feet above the ground and another crosspiece was tied about five feet above this, forming a square frame. The victim was tied to the foot of the frame and was fed his last meal. Everyone then assembled and the man who captured the victim uttered a death cry and struck him at the base of his neck with a war club, knocking him unconscious. He was then scalped and tied to the frame, with his wrists and ankles at the four corners of the frame, forming an X. His scalp was taken to relatives of slain Natchez, and they used it to ‘wipe tears from their eyes.’ (The now-conscious captive) was then tortured with torches of burning cane applied to various parts of his body, all this being done in the spirit of revenge. Throughout it the victim was expected to sing a death song. Sometimes the torture lasted for several days.”

After European contact, French, British, and Spanish captives were subject to the same possibilities. One of the more interesting “captive stories” in Cherokee history is that of a certain Antoine Bonnefoy, about whom little or nothing is known except what is revealed in the so-called “Journal of Bonnefoy.” This account was recorded in 1742 by a French Captain, Monsieur Derneville, at a French outpost where Bonnefoy found refuge after escaping from the Cherokees at Tellico on the lower Little Tennesse River in present-day Tennessee. The manuscript eventually found its way to the Archives Nationales in Paris, where it was translated by Dr. J. Franklin Jameson into English and published in 1916 in David Mereness’ collection titled Travels in the American Colonies. Jameson’s translation was subsequently annotated by Samuel Cole Williams and published again in Early Travels in the Tennessee Country: 1540-1800 (Watauga Press, 1928). The Williams edition is quoted here. Material in parentheses is added by this writer for clarity:  

“The savages directed so heavy a fire upon our boat that we were obliged to lie down flat, to escape certain death. Immediately, 20 of these savages got into their boats to hasten after the pirogue of Sieur Marin, who escaped from them. A moment afterward, these same pirogues came and surrounded us. The shore was lined with other savages, who were aiming at us. The surprise, and the death of our skipper and two of our oarsmen, having put us out of condition to defend ourselves, we surrendered .... The savages who had taken possession of us proved to be Cherakis (Cherokees), instead of Chicachas (Chickasaws) as we had thought at the time of firing ....  They passed the day in packing their (stolen) merchandise, till night, when they embarked in 22 boats, with two, three, four, or five men in each according to its size.”

The incredibly long journey from the Mississippi back up the Ohio and the Tennessee rivers to Cherokee lands in present-day eastern Tennessee was not completed until late January. The last overland leg was completed on Feb. 3, when the Cherokees warriors and their captives arrived in “Talekoa” (Tellico).

“(Having) left us nothing but breeches, (we) made the entry into their village in the order of a troop of infantry, marching four in each rank, half of them in front of us, who were placed two and two after being tied together, and having our collars dragging ....   They made us march in this order, singing, and having ... a white stick and a rattle in our hands, to the chief square of the village and march three or four times around a great tree which is in the middle of that place. Then they buried at the foot of the tree a parcel of hair from each one of us, which the savages had preserved for that purpose from the time when they cut our hair off. After this march was finished they brought us into the council-house, where we were each obliged to sing four songs. Then the savages who had adopted us came and took away our collars. I followed my adopted brother who, on entering into his cabin, washed me, then after he told me that the way was free before me, I ate with him, and there I remained two months, dressed and treated like himself ...  The 29th of April, a day on which the savages had given themselves up for a debauch, was that we chose for our escape.”

Eventually separated from his companions for good during the escape, Bonnefoy made his way overland in a harrowing journey, during which he fasted for five days and was captured yet again (apparently by Creek Indians in present-day Alabama). He eventually make his way back to French-controlled lands, apparently at present-day Mobile.  

Such were the uncertainties of life on the Southeastern Indian frontier during the 18th century.

Editor’s note: This column by George Ellison first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in 2002.

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..

The tapping of pileateds ... means attachment to a nest site

and attachment of the members of a pair to each other . . .

When one pair of pileateds is especially excited about

meeting its mate, it bends its head and bill far back,

waving them back and forth in an arc of 45-degrees

as it jerks its whole body in what I call a ‘bill-waving dance.’

Thus, they keep their pair bonds strong with small ceremonies.

— Lawrence Kilham, “On Watching Birds” (1988)


Here in the Smokies region there are six woodpecker species one can anticipate encountering on a regular basis. Red-headed woodpeckers are sometimes reported, but I have only seen a few in the years that I’ve resided here. My favorite among this tribe is the pileated woodpecker. The common name can be correctly pronounced as either “pi-lee-a-tid” or “pill-ee-a-tid.” “Pileated” indicates the bird has a crest on its head. The word derives from a skullcap (a “pileaus”) worn in ancient Rome. Male and female pileateds can be easily distinguished: males sport red mustaches and full-red crests on their heads, while females display black mustaches and half-red, half-black crests.

Unlike the larger 21-inch-long ivory-billed woodpecker, the pileated proved adaptable to environmental changes wrought by man so that it has — after a period of setbacks — become a commonplace feature of both our backcountry and community woodlands. Spotting one of these 19-inch-long crow-sized birds isn’t at all uncommon. When you do flush one, it will sound loud “yucca, yucca, yucca” calls and flash its vivid white under-wing markings.

The mainstays of the big bird’s diet are ants and other wood-boring insects. Matchbook-size chips of bark and wood chiseled from a feeding tree or log are sure signs of its presence. Using its tail for support, the bird can back down a tree as easily as it can climbup a tree.

The species usually mates in February and then spends most of March digging a nest cavity. The rectangular entrance hole (other woodpeckers excavate entrance holes that are more or less round) will be located anywhere from 10 to 75 feet above ground. After the three to five eggs are laid in mid-April, incubation requires about 18 days.

Pileateds will often return to the same nest tree year after year, but a new nesting cavity is usually excavated each season. If you attempt to climb the nest tree and look through the entrance hole at the baby birds, it’s not unlikely that the parents will attack you with their formidable beaks.

A mother pileated has been photographed retrieving her eggs from a nest tree that was blown down. Shortly after the tree fell, she transferred the clutch of three to a new site.

One of the advantages of being a permanent resident rather than a migratory species is that individual birds can keep up with their mates from season to season. A lot of the ritual activity associated with pileateds, especially during the fall season, has to do with maintaining ongoing relationships. The online “Birds of North America” (available by subscription) provides additional background:

“When a mate dies, the surviving bird remains in the territory and seeks a new mate from adjacent areas. Once established, the pair defends the territory by drumming, calling, and chasing off intruders. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers evicted young bluebirds from a nest cavity used by the woodpeckers the previous year and then enlarged the cavity and nested in it.

“Reactions to climbing snakes vary from concern to possible nest abandonment. Based on video camera data at 32 Pileated Woodpecker nests in Arkansas, black rat snakes entered 14 nest cavities. Adults ejected snakes at eight cavities, though the snake returned to 5 cavities. Nestlings fledged from only three of the 14 cavities with rat snake attacks. Adults appeared able to eject snakes that were smaller than 60 inches in length from nest cavities.”

Let’s close with this little poem by Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr., that I happened upon on the I-net:


Pileated Woodpecker …

dressed for his coronation

in ebony cape,

ermine trim,

scarlet-crested crown.

But would royalty be caught

backing down a dead hickory.


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..

Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of  From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical stories set in Swain County, originally published as Highland Annals in 1925. But she is also one of the finest poets the Smokies region has as yet produced.                                                                                                       

Dargan was born in Kentucky in 1869. The family moved to the Missouri Ozarks, where her parents founded a school, with Dargan serving as their assistant. While attending Radcliffe College on a scholarship, she met Pegram Dargan, a South Carolina poet then at Harvard. When she moved to Blue Ridge, Ga., to write, he followed her. They subsequently married and settled  in New York City.

While in college, she had gone on a camping trip to the mountains of Western North Carolina and had dreamed ever since of living here some day. The dream was realized in 1906 when the Dargans bought a farm at Round Hill in the Almond community above the Nantahala River in Swain County. They traveled widely but after her husband drowned off the coast of Cuba in 1915, she returned to the farm in Swain County. When the farmhouse burned in 1923, she moved to Asheville, where she wrote novels under the pseudonym of Fielding Burke. Two of them depict  mountain migrants in the Gastonia Mill strike. She died in 1968, eleven days after her 99th birthday.

Dargan published several collections of poetry, including The Cycle’s Rim (1916), sonnets dedicated to her late husband; as well as Lute and Furrow (1922) and The Spotted Hawk (1958), both of which contain verse inspired by her infatuation with the transcendental qualities she intuited in mountain landscapes.

These lines excerpted from “Sall’s Gap” describe her discovery of a springhead: a place of  renewal. The “lin” referred to is a basswoood tree with a double trunk. The “forest lillies” are turk’s-caps. Her description in the opening lines of “the sound so near” and the effect it has upon her is uncanny.

And there’s a sound so near it seems to bubble

Out of your heart and tingle through your skin.

You creep around the lin that rises double

And where a clump of forest lillies thin

Themselves to to three that rise with little trouble

To a graceful score of feet before they droop

Their spotted heads, you catch your breath and stoop;

For you have found it; found the mossy parting

Where a mountain rillet breaks into the light;

An infant on its seaward way outstarting.

In the concluding lines of “Vain Rescue” she imagines those moments just before death:   

But rising now no inner fires outflow,

No gleam around me save a pale moon’s haze.

I know a wood of beech and birch and snow

That waits my step.  And come the June-warm days,

Where two brooks wed I’ll find a lulling seat,

And stir white pebbles with my slow, bare feet.

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..

The names Geronimo and Gen. George Cook are interwoven in the lore of northern Mexico, southeastern Arizona, western New Mexico and the Indian territories in Oklahoma. An association with the Smokies region and the remnant Eastern Band of Cherokees in Western North Carolina is less well known. An essay I included in Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains (Charleston SC: History Press, 2005) described Geronimo’s role in that episode. This time around, I want to take a little closer look at Gen.Crook.

My renewed interest in him was rekindled by an appearance “he” (played in gruff yet regal fashion by actor Peter Coyote) makes in the HBO-DVD 36-episode docudrama titled Deadwood, which takes place in 1876 in the Black Hills of South Dakota during the gold-rush era. In a previous film incarnation, Gen. Cook was played by Gene Hackman, which gives you some idea of the real life general’s disposition. Be forewarned, if you decide to take a peek at Deadwood for the first time, it would be a serious understatement to describe the language employed throughout as “potty-mouthed.” The four-letter word for intercourse, for instance, is said to occur 2,980 times, which averages out to 1.56 utterances per minute of footage ... and other obscenities abound. Nevertheless, there are redeeming features, including some fine acting, excellent scenery, and structured language that is Shakespearian, biblical, and Wild Wild West.   

Numerous improbable episodes dot Western North Carolina’s historical landscape, none more so than when the federal government came very close to moving the Indian warrior Geronimo and other captive members of his renegade Apache band from a prison in Alabama onto Eastern Band of Cherokee lands. The story unfolds in articles that appeared in the Swain County Herald from mid-1889 through late 1890. (These bound issues were at one time in my keeping, but perhaps 20 years ago I donated them to Hunter Library at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee)

In 1889, Geronimo’s band was being held at the Mount Vernon Barracks about 40 miles north of Mobile.  Geronimo, then 60 years old, was a tribal leader … not a chief. As a young man, he had exhibited courage and skill in successive raids of vengeance upon Mexicans, who killed his mother, wife, and children in 1858. After the Civil War, an effort was made to limit the territory of the Apaches. Savage retaliatory raids by the Indians brought action by the U.S. Army under the command of General Cook. Apaches implicated in the raids were impounded on reservations, but Geronimo’s band fled to Mexico. From 1876 until 1886, he led raids against settlers in the United States, gaining recognition as “the most cunning” of all the Indian warriors faced by the American military. During the final 18 months of this campaign, the U.S. Army employed 5,000 troops and 500 Indian auxiliaries. Operating in two countries from hidden supply bases in some of the most desolate and/or rugged terrain in North America, the Apache opposition was comprised of 35 men, 8 boys, and 101 women. When the Chiricahua finally surrendered in 1886, they were promised reunion with their families on “a large, well-stocked reservation.” Instead, they — along with 17 Indian scouts who had assisted the U.S. Army in their capture — were shipped in boxcars to Florida and incarcerated. The men were sent to Fort Pickens, the women to Fort Marion.

In April 1887, President Grover Cleveland, responding to reports that malaria was rampant among the Apache prisoners in Florida, agreed to have them moved to Alabama. The Indians requested that they “be allowed a fresh start somewhere near a river and in a place where it snowed (and) where they could see long distances.” Capt. John G. Bourke of the 3rd Calvary and James C. Painter, a Congregationalist minister, were appointed by the War Department to look after Apache interests. They determined that Eastern Band lands in WNC suited Apache needs. WNC residents learned of this plan in July 1889 when the Swain County Herald reprinted an article from a newspaper in Charleston. This article reported that a tract of about 10,000 acres had been located “in Swain County, N.C., which is at present occupied by about 2,000 Cherokees. The Cherokees are willing to sell (and) Geronimo is delighted with the prospect of removal, but is disappointed at not getting back to Arizona.”

Swain County Herald editor H.A. Hodge stated that he had questioned Eastern Band agent James Blythe, who confirmed that lands in Big Cove or along the Oconaluftee or in the Cowee Mountains between Bryson City and Whittier (the 3,200-acre tract which is still a part of Indian lands) “might be sold.” In his next editorial, Hodge concluded that there “seems to be a pretty good foundation for the talk, but what do the citizens of Swain County say? We have as yet no expression from them.” Even in the remote mountains of WNC, Geronimo was not an obscure name. One response headed “Geronimo Again!” and signed “Victim” noted that “Geronimo almost drank my blood” and that in New Mexico “a monument of stones marks the place where my comrades lie buried.” His concluding sentiments indicate the fervor the matter was arousing locally: “Incumber not, I say, the fertile valley of the Tuckaseigee with Geronimo and his band of outlaws, but as military prisoners give them their dues while they live and when they are removed give them all that has been left their victims, a fit resting place for their souls and six feet of earth for their bodies, but not even that in quiet old North Carolina.” A poll made by editor Hodge of 69 “citizens of prominence” (no women, no Cherokees) tallied 37 for bringing the Apaches to WNC, 25 against, and 7 neutral.

The country was not exactly what Crook had in mind. He decided he wanted the Apaches removed to a land which more closely approximated conditions as the Chiricahuas had known them before their captivity. In September 1894, the War Department ordered their removal from Alabama to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. By orders from President Cleveland that ran counter to the terms agreed upon by the Apaches, Geronimo and 14 other male members of the Chiricahua band were placed under military confinement until his death in 1909.

Contact George Ellison 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 am the summer …

I am the firefly and the moon …

the rain on the leaves

the swamp orchids

and the blackberries.         

— Emma Bell Miles


In chronological order, ten of the most informative and/or entertaining books (excluding fiction, poetry and plays) devoted to southern mountain life (excluding the Cherokees) published prior to 1925 are Henry E. Colton, The Scenery of the Mountains of Western North Carolina and Northwestern South Carolina (1859); Zeigler and Grosscup The Heart of the Alleghanies (1883); Charles Dudley Warner On Horseback: A Tour of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (1889); Emma Bell Miles The Spirit of the Mountains (1905); Margaret Morley The Carolina Mountains (1913); Horace Kephart Our Southern Highlanders (1913); Fess Whitaker, History of Corporal Fess Whitaker (1918); John C. Campbell, The Southern Highlander and His Homeland (1921); James Watt Raine The Land of Saddlebags (1924); and Olive Tilford Dargan, Highland Annals (1925; subsequently reissued as From My Highest Hill: Carolina Mountain Folks in 1941). Aside from Kephart’s book, for which I have editorial obligations, Miles’s The Spirit of the Mountains is the one I return to most often.    

Kay Baker Gaston’s Emma Bell Miles (Signal Mountain, Tennessee: Walden Ridge Historical Association, 1985) is based on Emma’s extensive journals and letters as well as communication with her family and friends.

When Emma was born in 1879, her family resided in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. They moved in 1890 to the Walden Ridge area of Tennessee, where it was supposed that “a milder climate would improve her health.”

Walden Ridge is a prong of the Cumberland Plateau that extends to a point just north and west of Chattanooga. Rising above the valley of the Tennessee River, the eastern rim of the ridge overlooks the town and the river, while its western rim overlooks the bucolic Sequatchie Valley. After the Civil War the scenic ridge become a vacation get-away place similar in many regards to Highlands in North Carolina and Mentone in Alabama.  

Emma explored the woods on her pony. She began to draw and paint with great aptitude, making detailed studies of wildflowers, birds, and the wild landscape. Nature and the few magazines that made their way to the ridge top were her classrooms. Her life was mostly solitary. As an adult, she recalled how utterly lonely she had been at times as a child.

In 1901 Emma married Frank Miles, the son of a local family, as distinguished from the summertime families who used Walden Ridge as a get-away. Gaston notes that while the mountain people “maintained a cordial working relationship on the surface (they) resented the patronizing attitudes of their summer employers, while the summer visitors looked down on the natives as ignorant, primitive folk.”

Their life together was a mixed bag. On the one hand their love for one another and their children was genuine. Emma taught Frank to enjoy literature and they often read to one another. But there was also a dark side to marrying Frank. He was a man with good intentions that never quite seemed to pan out. His aspirations almost never squared with reality. Their lifestyle was not only simple … it was, on too many occasions, simply squalid. Emma’s health, never solid, was in constant decline. She died on the morning of March 19, 1919, from pulmonary tuberculosis in a hastily rented house far below the ridge top that she loved so well.  

Her biographer concluded: “Through all her trials, Emma was sustained by the belief that nothing real is ever lost. To look for her, you must go to the woods, the only place she was ever truly at home. There her voice is echoed in the pure song of the woodthrush. Her spirit lingers among the delicate blossoms of mountain laurel growing thick along Marshall Creek, and in the pink perfection of a moccasin flower beside a woodland path.” She can be found everywhere in nature, in the woods all over the world:    

The Spirit of the Mountain was published by James Pott & Co. of New York in an edition of 500 copies. Few of these sold and the publisher donated the unsold copies to Emma. Copies of the first edition are now, of course, exceedingly rare; however, the book was reissued in 1975 in a facsimile edition by the University of Tennessee Press that is still in print.  

I recommend The Spirit of the Mountains to you. By way of closing here are a few lines from the conclusion to Chapter III (“Cabin Homes”) that I re-read from time to time:

“Dear common things. Memories of hours of spiritual exaltation do not cling to the heart like the mere smells of hot meadows, of rain-wet plowed land, of barn lofts and kitchen corners. No mental awakening of adolescence weaves so close a raiment for the spirit in the after-years as the musk of mother’s hair, the softness of her worn old apron and shawl. No literature can knit itself into our real being like the drowsy afternoons at home when nothing could have happened at all — the ceaseless blinking of the poplar leaves, the croon of chickens in the hot dust under the honeysuckles. For to those who are true home-lovers, home lies mostly in the kitchen and back yard. Oh, the poignant sweetness, the infinite pathos of common things.”

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..

A new book has been published that will be of particular interest to area hunters, outdoorsmen, and dog lovers. It will also be of considerable value to those concerned with the region’s human history.

The Story of the Plott Hound: Strike & Stay (Charleston SC: History Press, 2007; soft cover; 189 pages; $22.99) by Bob Plott is many things. It is above all the story of the evolution of a truly great America breed of dog that commenced when two youthful brothers, Johannes and Enoch Plott, brought five of their family’s hounds with them from Germany to America in 1750 and eventually migrated to Western North Carolina, where the breed was perfected and continues to flourish.

It is also a family saga — one played out against the background of this country’s history from before the American Revolution through the settlement of the southern Appalachian frontier and on down to the present day.

Wonderfully illustrated with hundreds of vintage photographs, it is a story chock full of noble dogs and the men and women who bred, hunted, and cared for them with ingenuity, courage, and love.

And it is the story that family member Bob Plott, the great-great-great grandson of Johannes Plott, is uniquely qualified to tell. Here is the way the account opens:

Elias Isaac Plott was tired and worried. Working in the Black Forest as a gamekeeper in all seasons, for years on end, had drained his stamina and weakened his spirit. … Plott perhaps felt that he and his wife were too old to start a new life in a new world and that the boys were young enough to acclimate themselves quickly there ... Were there relatives or friends who Elias had already arranged to welcome the boys, offering safe refuge for these young strangers in a strange land? Or were they considering working as either indentured servants or craftsmen apprentices to bankroll their start in the new world? … No one knows for sure, but as a Plott who grew up hearing the family story of my great-great-great-grandfather Johannes, I always believed that it happened the following way. I think that Elias Plott was simply hoping for a better future for his sons … Since he had little or no money, I think that he gave them a generous parting gift of the only thing of real value that he had access to — his dogs. Whether or not that is true, we do know that Johannes and Enoch Plott took some of the family’s most valued possessions – five hunting dogs – with them to America in the summer of 1750. And oh, what dogs they were! Even as special as Elias Plott knew those dogs were then, neither he nor his sons could have imagined that they would ultimately, over the next two hundred years, become one of the best, if not the best, breed of big game hunting dogs the world had ever seen – the Plott bear hound.

The book’s sub-title, “Strike & Stay,” is a reference to the innate instinct of a Plott hound to hunt in a certain manner. One observer described the trait as follows: “It would strike a bear trail and stay on it. And stay and stay and stay. There was just no quit.” Another observed that, “He had to stay and fight, he had to stay with the bear at the tree. This breed of dog won’t quit … The man who isn’t game isn’t fit to have him.”

Much of the book carefully describes how, through the centuries, those very qualities were instilled into their Plott hounds in sundry ways by various legendary hunters. For those of us who aren’t particularly interested in dog breeding, the author has made past methods and ongoing controversies a readable and integrated part of the whole.

On board the ship from Europe to America (perhaps Philadelphia), one of the brothers, Enoch, became sick, died, and was buried at sea. Now alone, except for the dogs his father had given them, Johannes eventually made his way to the eastern portion of North Carolina. By the end of the eighteenth century, his descendents and their Plott-bred hounds had made their way into the mountains of North Carolina.

By 1801, “Henry Plott and his dogs were firmly established in [what is now] Haywood County [where] the beautiful surrounding area later became known as Plott Valley. The towering mountains overlooking the valley would eventually come to be called the Plott Balsams. Henry Plott later extended his holdings to about 1,700 acres in the vicinity that now includes most of the Waynesville, Pigeon and Hazelwood, North Carolina area townships. This is the area where the Plott hound would gain legendary status as one of the premier big game hunting dogs in the world.”

This is where “The Story of the Plott Hound” starts to unfold, illuminating, via the medium of one family and their dogs, facets of this region’s history and culture in a way that breaks new ground. There are, of course, the fearful hunting stories involving the dogs and the men (and sometimes the women) who followed them. But there are also the stories of families and friends and the joys and hardships they shared. And there are tales — both true and tall — involving characters like Quill Rose, Von Plott, Mark Cathey, Horace Kephart, Taylor Crockett, Alphonzo “Fonz” Cable, Mrs. Montraville Plott (who, when faced with the necessity, killed a marauding wolf with her frying pan), and countless others.            

By way of disclosure, I need to note in closing that Bob Plott is a close friend of mine and that I helped him with some preliminary editing. Furthermore, my wife, Elizabeth, prepared the illustration of a Plott hound that graces the book’s cover. Nevertheless, despite these vested interests, I can recommend “The Story of the Plott Hound: Strike & Stay” to you without reservation.

Editor’s note: This article, a review of Bob Plott’s first book, was first published in The Smoky Mountain News in 2007.

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..

A concept among biologists is that of “keystone species:” plants or animals with a pervasive influence on community composition and inter-reactions. In the eastern United States — especially here in the southern highlands — the beech tree is such an item. Enter a stand of beech and you immediately sense you’ve penetrated a special zone: a world of lover’s initials, dangling wind chimes, dense leaf-litter, and smooth silvery-gray or blue-gray trunks.

In Western North Carolina the beech appears as a dominant species in hardwood coves and hemlock forests up to 6,000 feet, being conspicuously absent in situations where oaks and pines prevail. At higher elevations pure stands called “beech gaps” appear in the regions just below spruce-fir forests, along ridge tops, and in gaps. In the high Smokies they can be readily observed on the main divide between Newfound Gap and Indian Gap adjacent to the Clingmans Dome road and along the Flat Creek Trail near Balsam Mountain Campground. But they are not difficult to locate throughout the region.

The origin of these “beech gaps” has been attributed to the fact that beeches have “the ability to withstand great wind damage,” to the browsing effects of cattle that “cropped them a few feet from the ground causing them to be quite thick,” and other causes such as the fact that the species — like hemlock — is quite shade tolerant while at the same time sending up shoots from older roots, which take over when the parent tree dies. It’s a complex phenomenon still being pondered by the scientific community.

The beech tree is easily identified in winter because of its tendency to retain dried leaves instead of immediately dropping them in the fall. Unlike most deciduous trees, beeches don’t fully form the corky “abscission” layer between the leaf stems and twigs that separates when activated by cold weather; so many of them hang on until pushed off by next year’s leaves.

“Why has beech developed smooth bark when all of its northern deciduous associates have developed rough back?” Tom Wessels asks in Reading the Forested Landscape (Countryman Press, 1997). And then he provides the answer:

“Deciduous trees [that evolved] in the northern forests have developed adaptations in their bark to guard against frost cracking. One of these adaptations is rough bark texture in the form of scales, ridges, or plates … American beech is a member of the Fagaceae – a family of trees that evolved in the tropics [where] trees must contend with epiphytes – plants that grow on trees … An adaptation to thwart an epiphyte’s ability to find a ‘roothold’ is smooth bark. Although beech grows into Quebec, it retains its tropical adaptation of smooth bark, compensating it with light coloration to reflect winter sunlight.”

Oak trees, which are in the same family (Fagacae), also retain leaves. But whereas oaks have thick brown leaves that rustle dully in the wind, beech leaves form thin papery — almost translucent — tan curls. When these catch a breeze it might seem as if the woods are hung with tiny wind chimes.

Even after the leaves do fall, they persist on the forest floor. This results from the fact that the carbon to nitrogen ration in the leaves is over 50 to 1. Leaves of trees like sugar maples and elms, with a ratio of about 20 to 1, decompose in about a year. Beech, pine, and oak leaves and needles require over three years.  So, when you enter the “beech community” you find it has wall-to-wall carpeting.

Such a setting invariably attracts gaffiti lovers who, alas, somehow know that beech bark is nature’s best for carving hearts and arrows, initials signifying eternal attachments, and other sublime messages.  The bark looks like skin because it’s very thin. With the living tissue so close to the surface it scars easily when the tree is carved and swells into puckered humps that accentuate bear claw marks and love-struck hieroglyphics alike.

Daniel Boone inscribed an east Tennessee beech: “D. Boone Cilled A Bar/On Tree/In Year 1760.”  The scars, if not the exact wording, were still visible in 1916 when the tree — 28 feet in girth, 70 feet tall, with an estimated age of 365 years — fell to earth.

Year round it seems we are drawn irresistibly to the complex forest communities in which the beech tree is the major player. From spring into summer, the stands become cool glades. In late fall, sunlight filters through the lingering yellow leaves and envelopes a visitor in the golden light of Indian summer. In winter, direct light reflects off the smooth ghostly-gray bark and catches the eye from afar.

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..

Where do the poisonous snakes go in winter?

In the Smokies region we have two poisonous species: timber rattlesnakes and copperheads. Cottonmouth moccasins are often reported, but that species is found no farther inland than about the fall line, which demarcates the outer piedmont from the inner coastal plain. I suspect those reporting and killing what they think are cottonmouths are actually encountering northern watersnakes, a species that is aggressive in and around water, but not poisonous.

The northern copperhead is the most common by far of our poisonous snakes, being found in a variety of habitats from the lowest elevations to over 4,000 feet. But they’re not as frequent above 2,500 feet. Copperheads are stout-bodied, averaging about 24 to 30 inches in length. One more than four feet is rare. The national record is just over 53 inches. Immature copperheads have a bright greenish-yellow tail. Adults have brown or chestnut, hourglass-shaped crossbands over a brown, tan, or pinkish body color. The top of the head has large symmetrical coppery-red to yellowish-brown plates. Under most circumstances, this natural camouflage makes the serpent virtually invisible.

Timber rattlesnakes are not nearly so common as copperheads in settled areas. They’re found from the lowest elevations up to 6,000 feet, but are rare in the spruce-fir country. Like the copperhead, they generally prefer rocky habitats.  In summer, however, rattlers seek prey throughout the forests, meadows, and farmlands of the Blue Ridge, frequently “holing up” in old stumps. Rattlers are heavy-bodied, averaging 36 to 54 inches in length. A five-foot specimen is unusual. The national record is about 75 inches. There are two color phases: a yellow phase with wavy crossbands down the back over a body color of yellow, brown, or gray; and a black phase with a dark, olive-brown cast that conceals most if not all of the body color.

In winter, serpents in cold climates find shelter in holes or burrows or hollow logs or caves or basements and spend the winter in an inactive state similar to hibernation. As many as 100 mixed species individuals have been reported from a single site. In early spring, they emerge and begin sunning. When temperatures stay above freezing, they move into summer ranges and birthing areas as far away from the hibernaculum as five miles. As winter approaches, they return, when possible, to the previous year’s den. If a sudden cold snap catches them, they may either die or be fortunate and find a suitable secondary den. A number of species sometimes share the same den, especially black rat snakes, timber rattlesnakes and copperheads. The black rat snake is often referred to as the “pilot’s nake because it is supposed it “pilots” the way for the others to the den in winter and away from the den in spring. Baby timber rattlesnakes are often birthed at some distance from their “parental” hibernaculum, requiring fall migration to a previously unvisited  location. Studies have suggested that scent trails laid down by related species guide them “home.”

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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