Franklin, North Carolina
Throughout the South and across the country, Native Americans have left a legacy, though one that has been obscured. This legacy delves deeply into our geography, language, culture and into the heart of our national identity. Certainly, the geographic legacy is the most evident with places throughout the nation bearing names derived from Native American names or descriptions. While some place names have been translated into English, often the names in their native forms (or a version thereof) have been stripped of their meanings and roots; so to most people it’s just a funny sounding name devoid of meaning.
Besides names, there are some Native American landmarks remaining, though very few. Mostly these are earthworks such as mounds that have survived the elements and the destructive nature of modern man. Franklin, North Carolina has one of these landmarks: the Nikwasi Mound, the former centerpiece for a major town of the same name. The meaning of that name has been lost to history, though the mound remains; now sandwiched between commercial buildings and the business route of busy US 441. When I visited last week, I had to drive past the landmark a few times before even picking it out amongst the urban sprawl.
There is controversy as to who actually constructed the mound. Wikipedia credits the Mississippean culture peoples as having originally constructed the mound around the year 1000 CE. Though, in speaking to local Cherokee, they take credit for it themselves. Members of the Cherokee tribe, who later used the mound up until most of them were removed from the area in the early 19th century, will often describe their origins by saying they have always been here (in the Southern Appalachians). The more academic answer is that their origins are disputed. Some believe that the Cherokee have existed in the area for much of the first millennia, while others believe that the Cherokee arrived as late as the 15th century CE. Despite these arguments, however, the mound is quite ancient.
James Mooney, the late 19th and early 20th century ethnographer who preserved much of the Cherokee’s knowledge, history and legends in his seminal work, History, Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee states that some believe the mound was built as a townhouse mound to protect the townhouse (which served as a the center of village life) from flooding. According to Mooney, these mounds were constructed by piling earth atop the grave of a prominent chief or priest or possibly the remains of chiefs or priests from each of the seven clans. Along with these burials were included other sacred objects including an eagle feather (the eagle was one of the more sacred creatures to the Cherokee). The earth would be lain over these things and a hollow cedar log placed in the center of the mound to protect the sacred fire that will burn in the townhouse.
The townhouse served as the focal point of village life. Within this seven-sided building (seven being a sacred number to the Cherokee) business was conducted: legal, social, governmental and religious business and it was here that all the members of the village could sit. In the center of the building, under a small hole in the center of the roof acting as a chimney, burned the sacred fire from which all of the fires in the village were kindled. These fires at the hearths of local homes were kept burning throughout the year but were extinguished before the ceremony of the Green Corn. At that time, all the fires were extinguished and hearths swept clean. Embers from the eternal fire in the council house were taken to create new home fires. During this ceremony of renewal all debts and sins were erased and all started anew with a clean slate, so to speak. Mooney states that it is possible that the truly everlasting flames were only found in the larger towns like Nikwasi and nearby Kituhwa (near Bryson City, NC and considered by the Cherokee to be the “center of the earth”).
It was here in 1730 that Sir Alexander Cumming, a Scottish trade envoy, crowned Chief Moytoy of Tellico as “Emperor of the Cherokee.” The town, and likely the townhouse with it, was destroyed in 1761 in hostilities that included the massacre of peace chiefs at Fort Prince George (in the Province of South Carolina) and the siege of Fort Loudon (in what is now Tennessee) all leading up to the expedition of Henry Timberlake (which included Sgt. Thomas Sumter and trader John McCormack) to the Cherokee to sue for peace in 1762. The town was again destroyed during the in 1776 by American General Griffith Rutherford as part of the Chickamauga Wars. Nikwasi was rebuilt but then ceded to the white man in treaties signed in 1817 and 1819. While some Cherokee in the area escaped in the mountains, they were later resettled on the nearby Qualla Boundry.
The city of Franklin was created in 1819, following one of the Cherokee treaties and the Nikwasi Mound remained outside the city as a curiosity. The old mound was part of farmland and in discussion with a local Cherokee historian I was told that a man with a plow and a team of horsemen took a week to plow the mound down in the early 20th century. So much for preserving history!
When the mound was threatened by a developer just after World War II, a prominent local attorney, Gilmer Jones, raised $1500 in pennies from local school children to purchase the mound. The mound was deeded to the Town of Franklin to be preserved for posterity, though the property only consists of the mound and the adjoining properties have been developed commercially. The mound has been sitting quietly under a historical marker until recent years. Or has it?
Cherokee legend speaks of the mound as being inhabited by the Nunne’hi, the race of “immortals” whose name translates, according to James Mooney, as “people who live anywhere.” The Nunne’hi (pronounced nun-eh-HEE) are similar to the Yunwi Tsunsdi, or the “Little People,” in that they are also spiritual defenders of the Cherokee, though the Little People are small as their name indicates while the Nunne’hi appear as regular humans when they wish to be seen. The Nikwasi mound is believed to be one of their homes. This became known many moons ago during a pitched battle when the Cherokee found themselves losing against a fierce enemy. This invader had fought their way through many villages and was now moving into the mountains. As their numbers waned in the heat of battle, the Cherokee defending Nikwasi had begun to fall back. I’ll allow Mooney to take it from here:
…suddenly a stranger stood among them and shouted to the chief to call off his men and he himself would drive back the enemy. From the dress and language of the stranger the Nikwasi people thought him a chief who had come with reinforcements from the Overhill settlements in Tennessee. They fell back along the trail, and as they came near the townhouse they saw a great company of warriors coming out from the side of the mound as through as open doorway. Then they knew that their friends were the Nunne’hi, the Immortals, although no one had ever heard before that they lived under Nikwasi mound.
The Nunne’hi poured out by hundreds, armed and painted for the fight, and the most curious thing about it all was that they became invisible as soon as they were fairly outside of the settlements, so that although the enemy saw the glancing arrow or the rushing tomahawk, and felt the stroke, he could not see who sent it.
The invaders were sent fleeing with the Nunne’hi in full pursuit. When the attackers attempted to take cover behind rocks and trees, the arrows followed and found their targets. Only half a dozen were left to return to their villages with the awful news of their comrades’ deaths. These survivors sat down some distance from the battlefield and cried. As they wept, the Nunne’hi chief approached and explained that they deserved this terrible defeat for attacking a peaceful tribe. The attackers fled and the Nunne’hi returned to their mound unscathed.
Legend holds that the Nunne’hi may have also appeared during the Civil War when a contingent of Federal troops were supposed to make a surprise raid against the town of Franklin. The town was supposed to be guarded by only a small force of Confederate troops. When the Federals arrived, they spied a large group of defenders and did not attack. Perhaps the Nunne’hi had taken to wearing butternut grey?
While the Nunne’hi are rarely visible, they are heard quite often. As they are fond of drumming and dancing, their music and merrymaking is sometimes heard near their townhouses. Though when the curious attempt to trace the source of the sounds, the sound travels. At least one source states that these sounds sometimes issue from the mounds, but I can find no specific reports of these sounds. Such sounds, however, are heard throughout Cherokee country. In conversation with a Cherokee friend, I was told that one of the Nunne’hi townhouses may be located on one of the mountains that forms the Oconaluftee River valley in downtown Cherokee, NC. He stated that people often heard the sounds of a party from this mountain which is opposite the mountain where the Mountainside Theatre is located. Incidentally, I have personally heard the sounds of a party coming from that direction while sitting at the Mountainside Theatre late at night. My friend went on to state that the sounds are rarely heard any longer as the sounds of modern life now drown them out.
Just today I spoke with some friends who had been swimming last night along the Oconaluftee River just north of Cherokee. They reported that they had heard the sounds of drumming and laughter nearby, but were unable to trace the source. They presumed that it was the Yunwi Tsunsdi and left them alone. Both spirit races are known for their music and merrymaking, though I wonder if the music they heard was issuing from an unknown Nunne’hi townhouse.
Nikwasi mound still stands, only a fraction of what it once was and now denuded of grass. Recently, the town of Franklin sprayed herbicide on the mound angering the Eastern Band of Cherokee and raising questions as to how to better care for this precious landmark. While the anger lingers, there is renewed hope that a good preservation solution can be put into place that will preserve this sacred place. If you happen by the mound late at night, roll down your windows and perhaps, over the noise of modern life, you’ll hear the ancient ruckus of a Nunne’hi party.
- Cherokee. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 June 2012.
- Dalrymple, Maria. “Nikwasi Mound deed could be transferred to create park.” Macon County News. 3 September 2009.
- McKie, Scott. “Herbicide put on Nikwasi mound.” Cherokee One Feather. 9 May 2012.
- Mooney, James. History, Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Asheville, NC: Bright Mountain Books, 1992.
- Moytoy of Tellico. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 June 2012.
- Nikwasi. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 14 June 2012.
- Pruett, Kimberly. “Nikwasi Mound debate continues.” Macon County News. 30 June 2011.