Suwalinunnahi: Beautiful River

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Elly Withers

Mrs. Hollifield

AP English IV

9 September 2010

Suwalinunnahi: Beautiful River

“Swannanoa, nymph of beauty, / I would woo thee in my rhyme, / Wildest, brightest, loveliest river / Of our sunny Southern clime (Wiley 49).” This poem about Swannanoa was written by Calvin H. Wiley who was North Carolina’s first school superintendent. It’s fitting since the name “Swannanoa” was derived from the Cherokee name “Suwalinunnahi” meaning beautiful river. Swannanoa is a valuable, lush, and fertile area that has been inhabited by people for thousands of years. The valley has been a haven to the early Pisgah civilizations, the Cherokee Indians, and the white settlers; its history is rife with exploration and travelers seeking sanctuary.

The Appalachian Mountains are older than any other mountain range in North America, and they have been home to hunter-gatherers dating back 5,000 years. On the campus of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa are artifacts of these hunter gatherers and how they lived. Excavations started in 1966 at Warren Wilson College, and since then Pisgah pottery, tools, and eating utensils have been found and preserved at the college. The Pisgah Civilization has been identified as an early Cherokee culture that probably traveled through the Swannanoa Valley because of its flood plains that produce fertile soil (A Pictorial History 5).

Lou Harshaw, a native of Western North Carolina and author about Asheville’s history, states that the Cherokee didn’t actually settle in Swannanoa until around 1,000 A.D., after being forced to move south by the Iroquois Indians. By the time they settled in the Swannanoa valley, they were worn with war and fighting and saw the Swannanoa Valley as a kind of haven; deer were plentiful, and the plant life was abundant (29). The Cherokee tribe saw their environment not only as a means of survival, but also a spiritual sanctuary. Barbara Duncan, the Education Director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, explains that the Cherokee people had several ceremonies that venerated nature including the going-to-water ceremony that began each day in Cherokee tribes. During this ceremony, each member of the tribe migrated to the river, faced east, and prayed to the seven directions in thanksgiving and for a good harvest. They would also cleanse themselves this way in order to better connect themselves with the haven of land they lived on and to wash themselves physically mentally and spiritually. Stories about the “little people” living in the forests were told by Cherokee tribe leaders to stress the importance of reciprocity when it comes to nature. While gathering, Cherokees would leave gifts for the ‘little people” in accordance with each plant they picked. Swannanoa was a sanctuary for the early Cherokee Native Americans and they took care of the valley because it took care of them (11).

The Cherokee Nation made up a population of 36,000 and at one time covered more than 140,000 square miles and stretched through five different states including Western North Carolina, Northern Georgia, North Western South Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, and West Virginia (Harshaw 29). In 1540 Hernando de Soto came into contact with the Cherokee Indians and from 1650 through 1700 there was sporadic trade between the Native Americans and the English, but the Cherokee people lived primarily untainted by white settlers in the Swannanoa Valley up until the American Revolution. The 1700s were a time of massive change and cultural influx between the Cherokee and white colonists who began seeking out Western North Carolina and other eastern parts of the United States for their own sanctuary (A Pictorial History 6).

The Cherokee signed treaties with the British throughout the 1760s. The Proclamation Line of 1763 forbade colonists from moving out west and settling in the Cherokee territory. These treaties were abhorred by colonists who were greedy for more land and unsatisfied with their allowance. The pacts worked partially until 1776 when the colonists decided to retaliate against their king and declare all British treaties, including the treaties with the Cherokee Indians, null and void. The self declared “independent” colonists then decided that in order to win the Revolution they needed to scare the Cherokee Indians into not taking sides with the British. In 1776 they began marching into Indian Territory and pillaging all the villages exploration itching in their bones (A Pictorial History 7).

General Rutherford Hayes was the first American General to lead one of these marches through the Appalachian Mountains. He marched with around 2,400 soldiers who destroyed Cherokee crops, burned down their long cabins, and killed freely. Despite their violent means for traveling there, Rutherford’s exploring soldiers took note of the beauty of Swannanoa and many decided to come back after the Revolution and settle the land (A Pictorial History 8). The Cherokee’s Swannanoa sanctuary was seized by the colonists after they won the American Revolution and the Cherokee people were pushed further back into the Appalachian Mountains.

The newly won Swannanoa Valley became free reign among exploring colonists. According to Lou Harshaw, Samuel Davidson was one of the first of the retired soldiers to hike up from Old Fort with his wife, child, and slave and attempt to settle the valley. Davidson had moved west from Pittsboro County after fighting in the American Revolution. He was the first white settler to cross the Swannanoa Gap and build a cabin nestled below Jones Mountain in 1784 and he is seen as the founding father of Swannanoa. A group of Cherokee Indians, unhappy with the treaties made with the colonists, remained in the Swannanoa Valley and lured Davidson away from his cabin into the untamed forests of Western North Carolina. Because the Indians stole one of his horse’s bells and rang it, Davidson assumed one of his horses was lost and followed. He was shot and scalped by the Cherokees somewhere on Jones Mountain (present day Warren Wilson College property).

Luckily, Davidson’s wife, Mary, and slave girl, Liza, heard the shot, realized it couldn’t have been Sam’s since his gun was still in its case above the mantel, and quickly fled down Old Fort Mountain towards a large fort on the Catawba River where several of the Davidson family members and other friends were staying (30, 31). A group of Davidson’s fellow explorers decided to travel back up the mountain and avenge his death shortly after receiving the news and they buried his body on Jones Mountain where it still lies today (Beaver xiii, xvi). Davidson’s gravestone can be found by climbing the Davidson trail at Warren Wilson College which is located on “College View Drive”.

Davidson opened up the valley for white settlers and explorers through his death and he is seen as the founding father of the Swannanoa Valley. Samuel’s twin brother William Davidson and his sister Rachel Davidson continued to settle and explore Swannanoa. Bee Tree was founded by the Davidson family and the name “Davidson” went on to become a wealthy and distinct name in the Valley (Harshaw 31). As seen in figure 1, many famous names at Owen High School today like Alexander, Reese, Wilson, Smith, McConnel and Ragsdale originated from the Davidson family. Henry Davidson was a Civil War general and nephew of Samuel Davidson (“Samuel Davidson”).

Figure 1

In the latter part of the 1780s, other families began to settle and explore the Swannanoa Valley including the Patton, Bartlett, and Renfroe families. They had to apply for warrants and were granted land as early as 1786. The Patton family made a name for themselves in the valley and donated land for the first Presbyterian meeting house located on the west side of Patton cemetery in 1794 (A Pictorial History 11). Elisabeth Patton from Swannanoa actually stole the heart of the famous American frontiersman and explorer Davy Crockett. A monument is dedicated to her outside of the Buncombe Community School in Swannanoa (“Some History”).

The families living on Swannanoa farms remained primarily isolated, though, throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s. Reading was taught strictly from the Bible and often children had to travel miles to get to school. Many children didn’t have time for school and were needed at home to work the farms. Although Buncombe County was formed in 1792, Swannanoa remained almost inaccessible up until the introduction of the railroad in the mid 1800s when the old fashioned buggy and wagon became outdated and a new kind of way of travel changed the face of Swannanoa. People saw Swannanoa as a haven up in the mountains away from city life and the Swannanoa Depot hosted all sorts of summer people and tourists. The Swannanoa Valley prospered into a thriving downtown. At one time North Fork boasted more inhabitants than Asheville (A Pictorial History 13).

What does the future of Swannanoa hold? No one knows. But with a past as varied and rich as Swannanoa and with people as dedicated to preserving its past by ensuring its future, the future of Swannanoa looks very promising indeed. The people who settled the Swannanoa Valley still have influence in her river as quoted by Wilma Dykeman: “In the beauty of its water and the splendor of its mountains, like flashes of lightning across the sky, their stores break briefly across the river’s landscape” (6). People have been drawn to Swannanoa and its natural beauty since the Pisgah Indians first travelled through 5,000 years ago. Daniel Boone also travelled through Swannanoa and described it as being the “Switzerland of America” (qtd. in Henderson 139). Other people describe Swannanoa as the “land of the sky”, which is coined from a novel of the same name to Asheville, because even today it is preserved and its landscape is undeveloped (Ready 35).

Works Cited

A Pictorial History of Black Mountain & the Swannanoa Valley. Vancouver, Washington: Pediment Publishers, 2003. Print.

Beaver, Patricia. “Women in Appalachia and the South: Gender, Race, Region, and Agency.” NWSA Journal 11.3 (1999): ix-xxix. JSTOR. Web. 23 Sept.2010.

Duncan, Barbara R., and Brett H. Riggs. Cherokee heritage trails guidebook. Chapel Hill: Published in Association with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian by the University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print.

Dykeman, Wilma. The French Broad. Newport TN: Wakestone Books, 1992. Print.

Harshaw, Lou. Asheville: places of discovery. Asheville: Bright Mountain Books, 1980. Print.

Henderson, Archibald. The Conquest of the Old Southwest: the romantic story of the early pioneers into Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740-1790. West Stockbridge, CT: Hard Press, 2006. Print.

Ready, Milton. Asheville: land of the sky : an illustrated history. Northridge, Calif.: Windsor Publications, 1986. Print.

"Samuel Davidson 1736-1781." GenForum - Home. Web. 22 Sept. 2010.

"Some History on the Patton Name in Asheville." Patton Property Group. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.

Styles, Harriett, and Dave Alexander. "A Brief History of Swannanoa." Swannanoa Pride Community Coalition. SPCC. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

Wiley, Calvin. “Nymph of Beauty.” A Pictorial History of Black Mountain and the Swannanoa Valley. Vancouver, Washington: Pediment Publishers, 2003. Print.

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