Quest for a lost landscape: Mapping database reconstructs Cherokee world on grand scale
Most people who call up Google Earth are hunting a hard-to-find address or scoping out satellite images of their next vacation destination, but the ubiquitous online mapping tool is also proving useful in navigating years of bygone Cherokee civilization.
A repository of ancient Cherokee trails and historic sites has been created in Google Earth, with the help of a $20,000 grant from Google itself. The environmental nonprofit Wild South had been amassing a landscape scale database of Cherokee settlements, agrarian lands, hunting grounds and trade routes for a few years but had nowhere to put it all. With the help of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and a local web developer WHO, the project went live this summer with a website: Cherokee Journeys.
“The goal is to try to reconstruct a picture of Western North Carolina as it would have been,” said Lamar Marshall, the lead mapmaker for the project and cultural heritage director for Wild South.
Now, visitors can fly through 3D representations of Cherokee history, across the Appalachian landscape, along old trading and war trails, spiritual mounds, abandoned towns — even the hand built communal fishing weirs whose remnants linger in mountains rivers. The interactive maps and digital tours place towns, invasions, demographics and the story of the Cherokee people at the fingertips of users. It’s sort of a cultural geography, as Marshall calls it.
“That’s the goal through Google Earth; they can get in there and get it in 3D,” Marshall said. “It’s becoming more like virtual geography.”
Along with the Google Earth maps and tours, the website also provides historical maps, a narrative history and cultural context surrounding about 150 years of Cherokee history — from the early 1700s when the European settlers began interacting with the tribe until the brutal, forced removal of the Cherokee people in the 1830s.
The Cherokee Journey webpage allows users to seamlessly click their way through years of history and soar above a dynamic digital landscape.
But that interactive feature also has its sober moments, highlighting the tragic chapters of Cherokee history. Clicking through the decades on a map of Cherokee civilization, one can’t help but notice the plight of the tribe as the years pass and the maps change.
“It’s a pretty rough story as far as the wars,” Marshall said. “It shows a continual loss of their traditional lands as the (European) colony spread.”
The polished project is the result of years of work Marshall has done locating, plotting and researching the ancient Cherokee settlements and travel routes. Marshall has mapped more than 1,000 miles of Cherokee trails himself with Wild South. The nonprofit is more commonly known for its environmental advocacy, like saving stands of old-growth forest from logging or protecting endangered species in the path of proposed highway projects. But Cherokee historical landscapes are part of the land’s story.
“Wild South is dedicated to preserving the natural legacy of Western North Carolina and beyond,” said Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South.
“The history and culture of the Cherokee people are a part of this region’s natural landscape, and educating others through this collaborative project will inspire them to respect and appreciate the region’s historical and natural heritage.”
Many of the trails have been paved over — since the historic routes were the easiest and quickest way through the mountains, the trails were later followed by modern-day roads trying to get between the same to places. So, Marshall’s work can be as straightforward as driving a road and plotting GPS coordinates, like what he did for the primary Cherokee trading route between Charleston and WNC.
But for some, the narrow tread of the overgrown foot and horse paths can still be found, especially if the route passes through rural farms or public lands.
“There are some that were totally abandon in the forest that were never made into a wagon road,” Marshall said. “I have found premier remnants of trails that are like they were when the last Cherokee rode their horse across it.”
Marshall has to rely on historical data from journal entries of soldiers, court testimonies of Cherokee who had their lands stolen, surveyor notes and the work of war scouts to tip him off on where the trails are. But then it’s up to his fieldwork to find them.
Last week, Marshall pulled his truck onto the shoulder of U.S. 441 in search of the old Cherokee trade and travel route between Franklin and Webster. Later, the route became a wagon road.
Marshall scampered down the side of the hill, GPS unit in hand. When he reached the creek bed, he could make out a flattened section, probably the old roadway. He quickly began logging the waypoints into his handheld unit. Though finding the original Cherokee trail would be a long shot, he was quite confident that was the route they would have used — at the lowest point in the gap and next to a water supply.
“This is where it would have been,” he said, surveying the wooded landscape.
Given the amount of data Marshall has accumulated, he says the website is only partially complete. In the coming six months, he’s planning on adding an even more extensive database of interactive maps and cultural sites, with Cherokee towns in Tennessee and North Carolina.
“I’ve got so much stuff and so much work to do,” he said. “Right now, the preliminary things are up.”
The next step, he said, are 3D Cherokee villages the user can fly into and get a glimpse of the traditional Cherokee life. He’s hoping the work will catch on with teachers, historians and even tourists who have an interest in visiting the area.
“It was a way to showcase this work to the world,” he said.