For hundreds, if not thousands, of years indigenous people lived in the valley around Wit’s End, and made it their home. They called it Conasauga, meaning possibly “grass” or “grassy”. However, by the early 1800s Conasauga and current day Gilmer county, originally part of the Cherokee Nation territory, was being encroached on by white settlers looking for land and opportunity. This mountainous area was the last stronghold of the Cherokee people. As a result, it became the geographic center of the rapidly shrinking Cherokee Nation territory. The map below shows that the Cherokee land holdings had once stretched from Georgia to Ohio and Virginia to Missisippi.
(Cherokee Nation Territorial Limits map, by C.C. Royce, 1884 shows the original territory limits, and in order the shrinking of those land holdings 1-35, until their final territorial boundary (36) before their removal in 1838)
During the late 1700s and early 1800s the Cherokee people and the territories they occupied stood in the way of a growing number of white immigrant settlers from the east (many Scots-Irish) who were looking for land and opportunity in the west. The only thing that kept white settlers from settling in lands occupied by the Cherokee was the fact that the US government and the chiefs of the Cherokee nation had negotiated treaties that clearly delineated the lands that belonged to the Cherokee Nation and thus prohibited the white settlement of these lands. For more than 100 years the US government had negotiated a series of treaties with the Cherokee nation that provided access to lands for its citizens in the west essentially encircling the Cherokee nation. By the early 1800s the treaties had the effect of massively shrinking the eastern land holdings of the Cherokee and pushing them onto a fraction of their original land. The last treaty in 1820 provided the nation with a remnant territory made up of the mountainous areas of northwest Georgia, and contiguous parts of extreme east Tennessee, extreme southwest North Carolina, and northeast Alabama. At this time and under pressure, many Cherokees moved out of the area and headed west to present day Arkansas and Oklahoma, where land was more abundant. However, those Cherokees who wished to remain in the east moved into this last bastion of land, hoping against hope that the treaties with the U.S. government and the rugged terrain of the maintains would hold and protect them and their families and would allow them to peacefully remain in the area in perpetuity. Unfortunately, the discovery of gold in the north Georgia mountains near Dahlonega in 1830 brought prospectors to the region, who encroached on the Cherokee’s land rights and further added pressure to the remaining Cherokees and their way of life. As their territory shrank, New Echota was established as the new capital of the Cherokee Nation around 1800 near present day Calhoun, Georgia, a mere 37 miles away from Conasauga. For generations Cherokees (and Creeks too) lived in Conasauga and the surrounding mountains right up until 1838 when the government hunted them down, rounded them up and forcibly deported them to Oklahoma.
(Map of the 1838 Cherokee roundup and mass deportation)
The Cherokees were a bright, peaceful and civilized people who in the decades before removal had adopted many of the ways of white settlers, including developing their own written language, and adopting the modern farming techniques of the white settlers from the east. The clipping below describes Cherokee life.
It has been documented that the Cherokee settlement at Conasauga along with the one at nearby Mountaintown, were both located on the route of the “Old Ellijay Turnpike”. This turnpike was established by Georgia Governor Gilmer and the state legislature in 1834 to link Dahlonega with Dalton and ultimately, Chattanooga. The route most likely followed an early Indian path that connected Indian settlements like Conasauga along the way. One could speculate that this road was created to hasten the forced round up and removal of the remaining Cherokees in 1838. The Old Turnpike was a toll road and the western toll gate was established at Mulberry Gap just a mile and a half to the west of Conasauga (Loretta Coker).
When the time finally came in 1838, the US military forcibly removed the Cherokees from the Conasauga settlement (and surrounding Frog Mountain, now called Fort Mountain) and took them via the turnpike route 10 miles southeast to Fort Hetzel at present day Ellijay, the site of another former Cherokee settlement, where they were held until all the Cherokees were gathered from the immediately surrounding mountains. From there the Cherokees would have been force marched right back northwest up the turnpike past the remains of the Conasauga settlement through the toll gate at Mulberry Gap (I wonder who operated the toll gate), before they made their way to Chattanooga. Therefore, Conasauga was not only one of the very last Indian settlements in the east, it was likely one of the earliest stops along the route of the Trail of Tears. From Conasauga they made their way to Chattanooga, where they met up with other Cherokees from other parts of the nation, before being moved along to Oklahoma.
To be continued…