The Spirit of Appalachia
By Katherine Hegemann
I believe the Appalachian Mountains are full of spirits, and that included Johnson County, TN. While spirits includes ghosts, there is also the heritage left to us by those who settled here. Those settlers imbued a certain spirit that has lasted even to the present. When you look at the original inhabitants and those who followed, you find the culture, myth, stories, and legends of Appalachia.
The original inhabitants were mostly Shawnee and Cherokee. We owe much to the two main tribes. The legendary Shawnee leader Tecumseh worked to bring about tribal unity so the Appalachian Native Americans could prevent the encroachment of the white man. His brother jumped the gun when Tecumseh was traveling to urge unity and fought the U. S. Army. The tribes lost and ended up either killed or expelled from their native lands. Perhaps the most revered Cherokee is Sequoyah who developed their written language.
For those of you not from the south, there is a long-time favorite called johnnycake, hoe cake, Shawnee cake, or journey cake. It’s a flatbread made from corn meal. Legend has it that this bread originated from the Shawnee tribe, and the term johnnycake is a derivative of Shawnee. It’s fried cornbread and a favorite in many households. Part of the legend of the Shawnee cake is that as a young man, Tecumseh traveled through the white settlements and made some friends. One household was so poor that there was no food to speak of to survive the winter. Tecumseh had a little cornmeal, and the woman of the house had a little lard and buttermilk. Tecumseh made up some fried corn cakes for the family and saved them from starvation.
On a visit to the Cherokee Reservation located in North Carolina, visiting the museum is a must. Many visitors are sobbing by the end of the tour at the injustices done to these people. Because the U. S. coveted their lands, the U.S. Army forcibly moved the Cherokee tribe to a reservation in Oklahoma. This forced march of the Cherokee nation is called the Trail of Tears. The march was during the peak of winter, and many thousands died from starvation, exposure and disease. A few members of the tribe hid out in the mountains, and their descendants still live on native lands near Maggie Valley, NC.
Have you ever heard of the Cherokee little people? According to legend, these are little humans who stand about two feet tall and live in these mountains. Some sources call them spirits, but the Cherokee swear they are real people. Nevertheless, you’ll never see them. They live in mountain hollows near creeks, ponds or glades. If you try to find them, they hide out in caves, trees or large rhododendron patches. There are some old drawings done by the Cherokee of these little people. Part of the legend is that the Little People exist to teach humans how to live in harmony with nature.
Almost everyone in our area has heard of Trade Days. This festival of Appalachian heritage normally fell on the last full weekend of June. The original concept came from the summer Pow Wow with Native Americans and pioneers gathered in Trade to trade goods. What is now highway 421 was originally the main travel route through this part of the Appalachian Mountains for anyone heading to the frontier. It was nothing more than a path wide enough for humans, animals and wagons. Probably the most famous book (1986) and movie (1995) about this area is Follow the River by James Alexander Thom. The story is about a pioneer woman kidnapped by the Shawnee. She and another woman escape and make their way back to their homes. Although the story begins in Virginia, it does give a good account of life of the early pioneers in the Appalachian Mountains.
The Europeans came to these mountains early in American history. The main settlers were from Scotland and Ireland. They brought with them their culture and temperament. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), he devotes a chapter to the legacy of the settlers in Harlan, KY. Those settlers were originally from northern Scotland and were sheepherders who lived solitary lives in the mountains there. According to Gladwell, the temperament of Scot descendents still living in Appalachia is unchanging. There are many factors, but it appears that the desire to live in the harsh environment of our mountains is the major factor that allows many cultural traits to continue. Those traits include self-reliance, tenacity, desire to own property, and independence. Most of these settlers were called Scots-Irish. In the old world, the two peoples migrated back and forth between the islands of Ireland and Britain. Intermarriage between the people resulted in the term Scots-Irish. They are all Celts. There was an ongoing war in the British Isles between who would rule the land, the Catholics or Protestants. Many of those who ended up settling in our mountains were fleeing the conflict.
The cultural heritage of the Celts has had a deep impact on the U. S. If you listen to a little Celtic music, you will probably think it sounds familiar. Bluegrass is nothing but the Americanization of Celtic music. From bluegrass came country and from country came rock and roll. That’s quite an influence.
Spirits in the mountains
But what about spirits? Many locals believe spirits still roam the Appalachian Mountains. There are many legends and stories about these ghosts. Author Sharyn McCrumb has written several books featuring ghosts, one of which is She Walks These Hills. I’ve asked around the county, and many folks believe there are specific ghosts in such places as Laurel Bloomery, Mountain City, Butler, and Trade. Although I haven’t seen any Native American ghosts, I do get the feeling there are a few who keep watch over my homestead.
Finally, there is the spirit of the mountains, long believed to be a source of spiritual power. Author Page Bryant of Waynesville, NC has written extensively about the subject in her book The Spiritual Reawakening of the Great Smoky Mountains. She does discuss our area as part of the spiritual web of the mountains. This area is in the Unaka Range and not part of the Smokey Mountains. However, both are part of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. According to Page, the whole Blue Ridge in NC and TN are part of the spiritual web.
Cherokee legend of creation
To celebrate the spirit of our home, here is the Cherokee legend of creation:
When the Earth began, there was just water. All the animals lived above it and the sky was beginning to become crowded. They were all curious about what was beneath the water and one day Dayuni'si, the water beetle, volunteered to explore it.He went everywhere across the surface but he couldn't find any solid ground. He then dived below the surface to the bottom and all he found was mud.This began to enlarge in size and spread outwards until it became the Earth as we know it.After all this had happened, one of the animals attached this new land to the sky with four strings.Just after the Earth was formed, it was flat and soft so the animals decided to send a bird down to see if it had dried. They eventually returned to the animals with a result.The land was still to wet so they sent the great Buzzard from Galun'lati to prepare it for them.The buzzard flew down and by the time that he reached the Cherokee land he was so tired that his wings began to hit the ground. Wherever they hit the ground a mountain or valley formed. The Cherokee land still remains the same today with all the land forms that the Buzzard formed.The animals then decided that it was too dark, so they made the sun and put it on the path in which it still runs today.The animals could then admire the newly created Earth around them.