Footprints in the Gorge
Nestled within the Hickory Nut Gorge is the towering monolith known as Chimney Rock. This iconic feature is enjoyed by thousands of visitors yearly, leaving behind their footprints in one of Western North Carolina’s most picturesque settings. It peaks the imagination to ponder the original footprints in the Gorge, undoubtedly left by native Americans more than a century ago.
These native tribes, primarily the Catawba and Cherokee, relied on the resources of the Gorge for their livelihood. In turn, they honored the land and held it sacred, believing that it possessed many a magical power. The native folk called the land beyond the stone pillar of Chimney Rock, Suwainuna. This was part of their trading path that followed the river as it snaked through the Gorge to the lands of the Catawba eastward. They left their footprints on this path in their search for tsa’lu, or tobacco.
Were there other footprints left within the Gorge?
The natives thought so. They spoke in hushed and wary whispers of the Little People. History, Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees describe them thusly:
There is another race of spirits […] who live in rock caves on the mountain side. They are little fellows, hardly reaching up to a man’s knee, but well-shaped and handsome, with long hair falling to the ground. They are great wonder workers and are very fond of music, spending half their time drumming and dancing. They are helpful and kind-hearted, and often when people have been lost in the mountains, especially children who have strayed away from their parents, the Yun’wi Tsundsdi have found them and taken them back to their homes. […] the Little People do not like to be disturbed at home, and they throw a spell over the stranger so that he is bewildered and loses his way…In Suwali-nuna, however, these benevolent beings are not so forgiving. They were guardians of the sacred tsa’lu, or tobacco, which they kept there and took harsh action against anyone trespassing in the gorge in search of it. In the beginning of the world, there was a single tsa’lu plant for all creatures, but it had been used up. In one version of the story, the plant was stolen by geese and swiftly carried to a place in the south. Nonetheless, without the power of tsa’lu men grew weak and death was imminent. Swift warriors and powerful shamans sent into the gorge in search of the sacred medicine were crushed by boulders toppled by the Yun’wi Tsundsdi. The strong winds blowing through the stone hollow would sometimes throw these braves into the turbulent waters of the river and they would never be seen again. One young man, worried by the impending death of his father for lack of tsa’lu, traveled to Suwali-nuna in search of it. Reaching the mountains that border the gorge, the young man opened his medicine bag and brought out the skin of a hummingbird. Placing the skin over himself he transformed into the swift bird and flew, undetected into the heart of the gorge. Quickly, he gathered a few leaves of tsa’lu with some seeds and slipped, unseen, out of the gorge. Returning home, he found his father very weak but with one draw from the pipe, he regained strength. The Cherokee planted the seeds and have had tsa’lu ever since.
The Hickory Nut Gorge became part of Rutherford County,
named for General Griffith Rutherford, a military leader who led forces against Chief Dragging Canoe and the Cherokee during the Chickamauga Wars. As more and more settlers began to pour into the Gorge, they were awed by the region’s natural beauty and their interest peaked by the Cherokee’s mystical legend. Sadly, the native tribe were forced to migrate to the west, many of them leaving footprints along the trail of tears. Some members remained, however, and today reside in the Qualla Boundary, which is held as a land trust by the United States government. They are recognized as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
Their stories and legends remain along with pieces of Native American history. Arrowheads, tomahawks, and bits of pottery lay hidden among the soil and along the riverbank. Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to find one of these treasures from long ago. Better still, you might come across ancient footprints—as you leave yours behind.
Written by Andrea Stewart and Melva Dye