The Laurel Magazine

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  • Laurel Contributor

Layers of Sugartown

by Donna Rhodes

The history of the region unspools with the languid grace of the Cullasaja River.

When I moved to Franklin in 2005, I learned my way around by the waterways.

The Little Tennessee led me to the Cullasaja, which led me up the mountain, which led me to work in Highlands.

I didn’t know it then, but I was traveling layered trails of history.

Native Americans followed deer paths and streams. European pioneers adopted Cherokee trails. More recent residents paved those passageways. In the process, each culture left a telling footprint.

Every workday I’d pass the junction of the Cullasaja River and Ellijay Creek.

There, Silas McDowell, a native South Carolinian who lived most of his life in Macon County, built a house for his mother in 1820 on the then-named Sugartown River. There were several Cherokee Sugartowns, including one at Lake Toxaway. Sugartown was extracted from the Cherokee word, Kulsetsiyi,which meant “Honey-Locust Place.” It described a community where the Cherokee cultivated their honey locust trees.The nearest English word to “honey” was “sugar,” thus the name Sugartown.

Over time, however, the Sugartown River reverted to a mispronunciation of Kulsetsiyi, and became the Cullasaja. Before McDowell settled in the area, the Sugartown South of Franklin was decimated by General Griffith Rutherford during the Revolutionary War. He punished Cherokee who sided with the British. According to historian Wilma Dykeman, his tactic was “a scorched earth policy such as even General Sherman of Civil War fame could not equal almost a hundred years later.”

Ran Shaffner, in his book “Heart of the Blue Ridge,” recounts, “Rutherford’s campaign was the beginning of the end of Cherokee stewardship over the land they had farmed, fished, and hunted for centuries. The very next year witnessed the first of the eight treaties that surrendered it all to the various states.”

Next time you visit Franklin and pass the juncture of Sugartown’s creek and river, think of the trail you travel, its rugged past, and the ways in which we can preserve its beauty, its footprints, and the tales it tells. For more information about the region, read “Heart of the Blue Ridge,” borrowable at local libraries or purchase-able through the Highlands Historical Society – online at highlandshistory.com, by email at highlandshistory@nctv.com, or at the HighlandsHistorical Museum, open for visits on weekends from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.