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The Lost Colony Research Group

Genealogy ~ DNA ~ Archaeology


July  2012



The Indian Path in Buncombe County

by Dr. Gail [Gaillard] Tennent


The following short booklet was privately printed sometime around 1950. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, specifically the D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections division has attempted to contact the people who would hold the copyright, with no success. The digitized the booklet and it is available on their website.

We have reprinted it here.  Not only is it extremely interesting for its historic value, being the first "superhighway" it seems, but because of what was found on the path. I have to ask myself....where did English china come from? 

Buncombe County lies on the western end of North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before Haywood County was formed, it bordered Tennessee. The City of Asheville lies within Buncombe County.  Swannanoa Gap located on the Buncombe- McDowell County line is one of the few gaps through the Blue Ridge.


The article begins with the map that follows, with the following description of the map:


 "A low ridge connecting two small elevations or hillocks once sent Hominy Creek meandering for more than a mile before returning to its present course. It was across this ridge that Col. Henry cut the new channel and a hundred feet below Bear Creek road bridge remains of the foundation of his mill still may be seen on the north bank of the creek. 

Approaching the bridge from the south, 30 or 40 feet to the west of and paralleling Bear Creek road, is a well marked depression marking the road's original track for more than a thousand feet."



A band of white men, maybe two or three, maybe a half dozen or more, young, intrepid and fired with the urge to see what lay beyond the far "horizons, stood at the point where our present highway crosses the divide at Swannanoa Gap. It was early in the seventeenth century and a century had passed three generations— since the Spanish gold seekers had penetrated some parts of the wilderness that lay before them, leaving only a mine shaft or two and vague descriptions of their wanderings. These young men were the first of our Nordic race to glimpse the soft-loveliness of the hazy mountains and taste the sprightly tang in the air of the highlands.


This is only fantasy and yet among the restless youth of the early Virginia settlements, many of them restive under the bond of indenture to labor and most of them itching for adventure, reason indicates that some should slip away and press forward into the unknown.


To do this was far easier than it seems. We are accustomed to think of bands of early explorers hacking their way through a trackless wilderness. It was by no means thus that they traveled, for the Bureau of American Ethnology Reports state that apparently from remote times what is now North Carolina was traversed by an east and west highway. A highway as adequate to the needs of the time as the broad band of concrete that now passes through the gap is to our needs It must be remembered that even in the England they had left most of the travel was on foot or on horseback over roads little if any better than this highway.


What did this band see as they rested there in the gap and what manner of land did they enter upon?


 In answering this question we leave the realm of fancy and enter that of real facts, substituting for our band of thrill seekers a small party of of authentic   



Dr. F. A. Sondley in his history of Buncombe County states that in 1673 General Abraham Wood in command of Port Henry, now Petersburg, in the Virginia settlements, sent two white men, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur with some Cherokee Indians, who had visited at the fort, to explore the mountain country. From the description of the country given after their return it was his (Sondley's) opinion that the crossing was made, at Hickory Nut Gap rather than at the Swannanoa. in any event these were the first white men of record to look upon our county of Buncombe. The fact that a party of

Cherokee Indians had traveled upward of 400 miles to the Virginia settlements indicates a route by which men were accustomed to travel. During his stay with the Indians Gabriel Arthur traveled with his hosts once to Fort Royal, S. C.. and once to the mouth of the Kanawa River and down to Portsmouth, Ohio, making 1600 miles in five months. The highways must have been well known and good.


 The nature of the landscape that met their eyes was not a dense virgin forest: it was rather that of the "Oak Openings" of the Fenimore Cooper period. Where  

 the bottom lands were extensive as along the Swannanoa, lower Cane Creek, Mills River and especially along the upper French Broad, there were prairies,  

 large for a mountain country and, wherever the terrain was low, rolling hills as in West Asheville and most of the Hominy Valley. It resembled the Kentucky 

 scene: open pasture - nice stretches with only the steeper and rougher hills supporting heavy stands of oak. Chestnuts, black walnuts and butternuts formed a 

 substantial part of the Indians' food and it was only in the openings that these trees bore heavy crops.


 The writer well remembers the woods of Hominy Valley where the stumps, only then beginning to decay after the first onslaugh [sic] of the sawmills, marked 

 the nature of the original forest. Only in small areas the stumps of centenarian trees denoted the venerable age of ancestral oaks with here and there standing a 

 veteran of two or three hundred years too rugged and heavy for the appetite of the one-horse sawmills.


The "Indian Path" that is the object of this study crossed from the east into the present Buncombe County at Swannanoa Gap. According to an article by 

 Myer in the 42nd annual Report of the American Bureau of Ethnology, it was the western end of the only ancient route that crossed the state from east to 

 west beginning at the coast.


In his introduction to the report he gives only a single paragraph to the origin of this and other paths, stating that all over America these paths had existed from prehistoric times, having been made and kept open by the larger animals in their passage from one feeding ground to another. John Arthur in his "History of Western North Carolina" quotes Bishop Spangenburg's diary that in early settlement days the only roads were buffalo trails. To cite only one of the numerous references to the presence of buffalo in our state, Audubon, in his Quadrupeds of North America, states that they had been killed as far to the east as the Cape Fear River, indeed, a buffalo bull was killed at Bull Gap only nine miles northeast of Asheville in 1815. In former times, in herds small in comparison with those of their kin on the western plains, they roamed from one to another of the larger pastures where they could hide themselves in the cane-brakes and thickets; thus keeping open the paths. The main part of our present city was within the edge of the region of rough forested hills and mountains that extended with few small openings to the East Tennessee Valley, so the path of our study by-passed it





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