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Overhill Cherokee Heritage
We invite you to explore the land once known as the Overhill Cherokee Country. The term “overhill” referred to the historic Cherokee settlements that rested on the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains – Overhill from the Cherokee settlements in the Carolinas and Georgia. Much has changed here over time, but some things remain. You will see the same ridgetops and streams that were here in the 1700’s. You will notice place names that remind you of the Native People who gave them those names – Chestuee, Oostanaula, Tellico, Hiwassee, Ocoee, Chilhowee, and Citico. Yet, visiting here in the Overhill is not the complete story of the Cherokee people. To gain a deeper and fuller understanding of the history and contemporary culture of the Cherokee, it is important to explore beyond the borders of the Tennessee Overhill. A visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC is an excellent place to start.
Click here for more information about the Museum of the Cherokee Indian
The Tennessee Overhill region takes its name from the Overhill Cherokee towns that were located in East Tennessee in the 1700’s. The term “overhill” referred to the Cherokee settlements that rested on the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains – on the other side of the mountains from the Cherokee settlements in the Carolinas and Georgia. The Overhill towns were located primarily in the Little Tennessee, Tellico, and Hiwassee river valleys and tributaries.
By the mid-1700’s the Overhill Cherokee Country was a hotbed of political intrigue. France and Britain were vying for the right to trade with the Cherokees and also for control of the continent. During the American Revolution, and later into the 1790’s, the Overhill towns were damaged repeatedly by attacks from colonial and territorial militia. Eventually many of the old Overhill towns were abandoned altogether. In the Treaty of 1819 the Cherokee ceded their lands from the Little Tennessee River south to the Hiwassee River, ending Cherokee control of the Overhill Country. Unfortunately, this did not quell the United State’s desire for more land and in 1838 the remaining Cherokee people were moved west on what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee People Today
The Overhill Cherokee settlements faded into time but the Cherokee people did not. The Cherokee Nation, based in Oklahoma, is a thriving and sovereign nation of over 200,000 people. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, based in North Carolina, has over 12,000 enrolled members. Another 15,000 Cherokees are members of the United Keetoowah Band.
Cherokee Heritage Places to Visit
Following are suggestions for places to visit to learn about Cherokee heritage in and nearby to the Tennessee Overhill.
Sequoyah Birthplace Museum
576 Hwy 360
Vonore, TN 37885
Hours: Mon-Sat, 9:00-5:00; Sun, Noon-5:00
Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, was born around 1776 in what was then the Overhill town of Tuskeegee, located near the present site of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. He grew up in the midst of the American Revolution. Like many other Overhill Cherokees, Sequoyah and his family left to find refuge in the Chickamauga settlements in Alabama. Sequoyah recognized that his nation’s illiteracy was a legal obstacle in the struggle to preserve Cherokee lands so he developed a way to render the Cherokee language in written form. The Cherokee “alphabet” was introduced to the world with the publication of the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper that was produced in New Echota in Georgia. The museum exhibits focus on the lifeways of the Overhill Cherokees and Sequoyah’s accomplishments. Authentic Cherokee crafts can be purchased in the gift shop. The museum sponsors festivals and educational programs throughout the year.
Chota/Tanasi Memorials (managed by Sequoyah Birthplace Museum)
Located approximately 12 miles from the museum
Hours: Daily, sunrise –sunset
Throughout much of the 18th century the Overhill Towns of Tanasi and Chota were important Cherokee centers of government. At different periods they were recognized as capitals of the Cherokee Nation – beloved towns where Cherokees gathered for important councils and religious events. When Virginia militia invaded the Overhill Country in 1776 they spared Chota. During the expedition of 1789 Chota, Tanasi, and the other Overhill towns in the lower Little Tennessee River Valley were destroyed. The State of Tennessee takes its name from Tanasi. After the waters of Tellico Lake covered the sites of Chota and Tanasi in 1979, memorials to commemorate these important Overhill Cherokee towns were placed at the edge of the lake near the site of each town. The Chota Memorial is designed to resemble the layout of the old Chota Council House. Oconastota, the Great Warrior of Chota and Principle Chief, is buried at the entrance. Stop at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum for directions to the memorials.
Fort Loudoun State Historic Area
338 Fort Loudoun Road
Vonore, TN 37885
Hours: Open everyday, 8:00-sunset
Fort Loudoun was painstakingly built in the wilderness during the winter of 1756-57 at the request of pro-British factions at the Overhill Town of Chota. For a while the fort helped ally the powerful Cherokee Nation to the English cause, but relations soon soured. The Cherokees laid siege to the fort at the outset of the Anglo-Cherokee War of 1760-61. The garrison surrendered under terms that allowed their return to South Carolina. After one day’s travel, Cherokee warriors ambushed the garrison near Belltown, Tennessee, killing about 25 soldiers. The Cherokees sacked the fort, and a year later they burned it. The reconstructed fort sits on a hill overlooking Tellico Lake. Visitors can look inside reconstructed barracks, the blacksmith shop, and other support facilities. A reconstructed Cherokee Winter House sits just outside the fort’s palisade. Living history demonstrations and educational programs take place throughout the year. The visitor center presents information on the fort’s history and artifacts that were recovered prior to the fort’s reconstruction. A 15-minute film adds to the visitor’s understanding of the historical period in which the fort was built and ultimately destroyed.
Blockhouse Road (just off Hwy 411)
Vonore, TN 37885
Hours: Open everyday, 8:00-sunset
The remains of the Tellico Blockhouse, built in 1794, are located across Tellico Lake from Fort Loudoun. There, federal and territorial officials implemented the “Factory Act of 1795,” which was a U.S. government plan to “civilize” Indians by maintaining federal “factories,” or trading posts where Indians would receive fair exchange for their furs as well as learn farming and mechanical skills. Interpretive exhibits situated among the ruins tell the story of the Tellico Blockhouse and its role in maintaining order along the Cherokee frontier. Visitors to the site can wander among the foundations and look across the river toward the old Cherokee Nation.
Charles Hall Museum
Hwy 165/Cherohala Skyway – Tellico Plains, TN 37385
Hours: Everyday, 9:00-5:00
Tellico Plains sits at the crossroads where travelers have passed for hundreds of years. The Overhill Cherokee Town of Great Tellico was located near here. The Unicoi Path, used for a thousand years for trade and war, passed through here. The Charles Hall Museum collection includes an exhibit of Native American artifacts that were recovered from the area.
Unicoi Turnpike Trail
Travel the path that Overhill Cherokees, European explorers, traders, soldiers, and settlers used for hundreds of years. Known in early times as the Unicoi Path, the trail was used for trade and warfare even before written history. A portion of the trail, from Vonore, TN to Murphy, NC was declared a National Millennium Flagship Trail in 2000. Named the Unicoi Turnpike Trail, the route has been interpreted and promoted as a driving tour. A restored section of the original trail is open for hiking in the Cherokee National Forest at Coker Creek. The Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association provides free trail guides by calling 877-510-5765. Visitors can also pick up maps for the hiking section and additional information at the Coker Creek Welcome Center.
McMinn County Living Heritage Museum
522 West Madison Avenue
Athens, TN 37303
Hours: Mon-Fri, 10:00-5:00
Museum exhibits include a display that interprets American Indian pre-history and Cherokee history in McMinn County and the surrounding area. An emphasis is placed on the Mouse Creek archeological culture. The museum is located in Athens, where a significant court case took place that led to the Trail of Tears. In 1834 Cherokees James Foreman and Addison Springston were tried for the murder of Cherokee leader Jack Walker. The trial, ultimately heard by the Tennessee Supreme Court, held that Cherokees were subject to the laws of the State of Tennessee rather than the Cherokee Nation. This established a precedent that propelled the forced removal forward.
Cherokee Removal Memorial Park
6800 Blythe Ferry Road
Birchwood, TN 37308
Hours: Thurs, Fri, & Sat, 10:00-4:00. Sun 1:00-5:00
The Cherokee Memorial Park is located at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers in Meigs County. Around 10,000 Cherokee people gathered at this site to cross the river on the Trail of Tears. A park has been created at the site to honor the Cherokee people who were deported during that time. There is a winding interpretive wall of granite that details the story of the Trail of Tears and the people who were affected. A small amphitheater with a floor that depicts the Trail of Tears routes is located on the grounds and a log house contains exhibits and information. A boardwalk leads to an overlook and shelter on top of a bluff that overlooks the river and Jolly’s Island.
Red Clay State Park
1140 Red Clay Park
Cleveland, TN 37311
Hours: Visitor Center: Tues-Sat, 8:00-4:30; Sun & Mon, 1:00-4:30
Park Grounds: Daily, sunrise – sunset
The last capital of the Cherokee Nation in the eastern U.S. After the State of Georgia banned assemblies of Cherokees in groups of three or more, the Cherokee Nation moved its national assembly from New Echota in Georgia to Red Clay in Tennessee. The Red Clay Council Grounds became the center of the Cherokee Nation’s diplomatic efforts to avoid removal. The State of Tennessee manages the site today as state park. The grounds include a museum and outdoor replicas of an 1830’s Cherokee Council House, sleeping huts, and a farmstead. An eternal flame was placed at the site in 1984. A blue spring is also located on the grounds as well.
Nancy Ward Grave
Hwy 411-Benton, TN
Hours: Daily, sunrise-sunset
Nancy Ward was born in 1738 in the Cherokee town of Chota. When her first husband, Kingfisher, was killed in the Battle of Taliwa against the Creeks in 1755, she took up his rifle and led the Cherokee to victory. This was the action which, at the age of 18, gave her the title of Ghigau, or Beloved Woman. This was a powerful legal and diplomatic distinction which meant she had the power to sit in councils, and, along with other Beloved Women, to issue pardons. She married a second time to Bryant Ward, a South Carolina colonist and Indian trader. At some point Nancy Ward moved to Womankiller Ford on the Ocoee River. She opened an inn there, on the Old Federal Road. One of Ward’s great-grandchildren, Jack Hildebrand, was four when Ward died. He told of being present when “a light rose like a bird, left through an open door, and disappeared toward Chota.” Nancy Ward’s grave sits on a hill beside Hwy 411 south of Benton, TN overlooking the Ocoee River. Her son, Five Killer, and her brother, Longfellow, are buried there also. The site is managed by Tennessee State Parks.
Hiwassee/Ocoee State Parks
Gee Creek Ranger Station
Hours: sunrise – sunset
The last surviving blockhouse of Fort Morrow (known as Fort Marr), the original military post was built in 1814 on the Old Federal Road near the Conasauga River. Initially designated Camp Lindsay, the post was renamed Fort Morrow after the addition of three blockhouses and a palisade enclosure in preparation for the Cherokee Removal. By May of 1838 the fort housed one mounted company and two infantry companies of Tennessee militia under the command of Captain John Morrow. These troops were assigned to collect Cherokee people and transport them to Fort Cass to await deportation on the Trail of Tears. The one remaining blockhouse has recently been relocated to the grounds of the Hiwassee/Ocoee State Park Ranger Station at Gee Creek Campground at Delano where it is undergoing restoration.