Stretching from Vonore, Tenn. to Murphy, N.C., the history-laden passage through Unicoi Gap in the Southern Appalachians may have been used as early as the 16th century, according to historian/author Lowell Kirk. Kirk thinks Indian guides who led Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto through the pass to the interior of the continent used the route. It is known that Cherokee transported furs along the route for trading on the eastern seaboard in the early 1700s. The route was a military link between British headquarters in South Carolina and Fort Loudoun, the first British outpost in the Appalachians. During the American Revolution, the trail was used for raids between colonists and Cherokee. In the early 1800s, the trail was widened and became the Unicoi Turnpike, a route used by drovers transporting livestock to market and fortune-seekers on a quest for gold. The route was also the first leg of the tragic Trail of Tears, the forced Cherokee relocation. In modern times, highways took another route through the mountains and the original trail, of which more than 50 percent is located in the Cherokee National Forest and Nantahala National Forest, was forgotten. Today, this historic route is being rediscovered.
Follow the Tennessee portion of the trail beginning at Vonore, in Monroe County by accessing Tenn. 360 south. Fort Loudoun, originally built here in 1756, is now a state historic park. The fort helped the British make allies of the Cherokee as they blocked French encroachment to the west. A visitor’s center, museum, partially reconstructed fort and the ruins of the Tellico Blockhouse are park features. Outdoor recreation includes fishing, swimming and hiking. The 18th Century Trade Faire is held here each September (423/884-6217).
Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, also in Vonore, is a tribally owned and operated facility with exhibits of the life of Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee writing system. After acceptance of this syllabary by tribal council in 1821, most of the Cherokee nation became literate. The story of the lost 18th-century Overhill Cherokee towns is also told here. More than 5,000 Cherokee lived in the bottomlands of the Little Tennessee, Tellico and Hiwassee rivers in the 18th century, an area called “Overhill” because it was over the hills from the lower Cherokee settlements. These homelands were flooded when the Tellico River was dammed to create Tellico Lake. The museum stands on the lake banks; a Cherokee Memorial here is the common burial site for relocated remains of 18th-century Cherokee from the flooded towns (423/884-6246, Visit Sequoyah Museum Website.)
Nearby are the Chota and Tanasi Memorials, honoring Cherokee towns flooded by lake waters. Further south is Tellico Plains, which sat at the crossroads of the Unicoi and Great War Path trading routes. Before continuing on the route, spend a comfortable night at Tellico Inn Bed and Breakfast, a c. 1911 home with uniquely themed rooms (1-866-353-7600.)
In Tellico Plains take Tenn. 68 to Coker Creek, site of one of the country’s first big gold strikes. Along the way there are remnants of the original roadbed visible on the east side of 68. At the gold rush’s peak, there were more than 600 prospectors working mines along the valley’s streams. The area was recently recognized by USA Today as one of 10 great places to pan for gold today. In addition to panning, visitors can hike to Coker Creek Falls or enjoy the 18-mile John Muir Recreation Trail. A gold rush festival is held each October.
The remainder of Unicoi Turnpike lies in North Carolina. At Coker Creek use the Joe Brown Highway (a good dirt road) to cross the mountain through Unicoi Gap and into North Carolina.
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