Growing up in the southeastern US, we see so many place names that pay homage to indigenous people.
Chattanooga, for example, derives its name from the Cherokee phrase “Tsatanugi,” which roughly means “rock that comes to a point” or “mountain’s end,” most likely referring to Lookout Mountain.
Climbing in our region, I have often looked at the rocks and their markings and wondered about the people who once built a home in these areas.
Legends abound within these ancient places. Here are two of my favorite tales related to nearby climbing spots.
the welsh caves
Alabama’s Desoto State Park is home to what locals call Welsh Caves, located on a bluff near Desoto Falls. While no one is sure what these caves were used for, some believe that Welsh settlers may have used these caves in an attempt to make a home in the Appalachian Mountains. According to encyclopediaofalabama.org, the most popular legend states that the Welsh Prince Madoc sailed into what is now Mobile Bay, eventually making his way north to establish a colony, some 300 years before Columbus’ voyage. Some believe that the early settlers and natives intermarried, while others believe that neighboring tribes banded together to drive out the Welsh.
But others don’t think the Welsh were there at all. As Alabama professor and historian Dr. Ronald Fritze writes on his website, corndancer.com, most archaeologists believe the evidence of human habitation is related to the Hopewell or Mississippian mound-building cultures rather than of the Welsh settlers.
About three hours east of Welsh Caves is Yonah Mountain in Cleveland, Georgia. We used to call it our climbing school, as we learned the basics of traditional and sport climbing along the routes that dot the dome.
Yonah gets its name from the Cherokee word for “bear” and is home to one of the Southeast’s most famous legends, a sort of Romeo and Juliet of the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations. According to folklore, Sautee, a Chickasaw warrior, fell in love with Nacoochee, the daughter of a nearby Cherokee chief. But his tribes were enemies, so the two would secretly meet in a hidden cave inside Yonah Mountain.
Although their romance was secret for a time, the star-crossed lovers eventually decided to share their love in an effort to unite the two tribes. But when Nacoochee’s father found out, he was so angry that he ordered Sautee thrown off the granite cliff while his daughter watched.
Devastated, the story goes, Nacoochee threw herself off the cliff as well. Those who believe the legend point to the burial mound located beneath the mountain, which is listed in Roadside America’s guide to tourist attractions as the “Indian Mound Site of the Tragedy of Love.”
However, according to wandernorthgeorgia.com, excavations of the mound have shown that it is a burial ground for the entire community, rather than just two lovers, and most likely for Native Americans of the southern Appalachian culture of Mississippi, who know they inhabit that area. .
Why do we tell these stories?
I grew up about two miles as the crow flies from the top of Northeast Georgia’s Blood Mountain, which was named, my mom told me, after a battle there between the Creek and Cherokee peoples. The war allegedly began near Slaughter Creek, and so much blood was spilled that the creek and mountain were stained red.
This story scared me growing up, but now I recognize these tales for what they are: legends that keep native tribes alive, to ensure we don’t forget those who were here first. As we enter these sacred places, I hope we remember the stories that gave them their names and the hands that touched rock long before we were here.