The Unicoi Turnpike

By Lowell Kirk

Just above Unicoi Gap, Peals High Top in the background.

View From above Unicoi Gap In Coker Creek

   The Unicoi Turnpike has recently been designated one of the 16 National Millennium Flagship Trails by the U.S. Government. On September 9, 2000, Bret Riggs, one of the archeologists who worked on marking the trail, spoke at the dedication ceremony at the Sequoyah Museum Pow Wow. Riggs and Russel Townsend, former director of the Sequoyah Museum, led a tour along part of the trail, which offers both hiking and driving routes. An U.S. government representative attended the dedication service. The officially designated part of the trail covers 68 miles from Vonore, Tennessee through Tellico Plains and Coker Creek to Murphy, N.C. However, this part of the trail is only a small section of what was once the Native American's "Interstate Highway" system. This trail had been in use for more than a thousand years before the white European invaders arrived in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Unicoi trail was the only trail across the Great Smoky Mountains between northwestern Georgia and the French Broad River gorge.

Bret Riggs

Archeologist Bret Riggs at the Unicoi Trail Dedication.

   The first Europeans to cross over this part of the mountains into Tennessee were English traders who came from Charleston, South Carolina into the Cherokee Overhill towns such as Tellico, Chota and Tenasi. Robert Bunning, Cornelius Dogherty, Alexander Long and James Douglas were the first white men known to have crossed the trail on foot and with pack animals loaded with trade goods beginning in the year 1690. Shortly afterward, several other Charleston, South Carolina traders were using the trail to tap the profitable trade of the Overhill Cherokee towns located along the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers. By 1700 French Traders from the Gulf of Mexico were visiting the Overhill settlements by the Great Warpath.

   By 1730 an Englishman named Alexander Cumming made the journey from Charleston through Coker Creek to Tellico and Tenasi. Cumming designated Chief Moytoy of Great Tellico to be Emperor of the Cherokee and took seven young Cherokee warriors, including Attaculla, or the Little Carpenter, back to England. This story is told in William Steele's book, The Cherokee Crown of Tannassy which is based on Cumming's journal. Cumming reported that it took ten days to cross the mountains on foot at about ten miles a day. He listed the names of the Cherokee villages through which he passed.

   In 1736, Christian Gottlieb Priber came over the trail and attempted to establish an independent, communistic utopian nation at Tellico in the overhill country with Motoy as its leader and Priber as the secretary of state. This ended after five years when the English arrested Priber, claiming that he was a French spy and took him back to the coast where he died in prison at Frederika, Georgia.

   When the French and Indian war began the British began construction of Fort Loudoun. All construction tools and supplies for the fort were brought over the Unicoi trail by pack animals. British soldiers who occupied the garrison also came over the trail. One of the amazing feats of that period was when a trader brought 12 cannon over the steep, narrow and dangerous trail. Few of the British believed that the three hundred-pound cannon could be brought over such a rough and primitive trail. However, the feat was accomplished, with only the loss of one horse, whose back was broken when the horse slipped and fell on the trail. After the surrender of the British garrison of Fort Loudoun and massacre of some of the British soldiers and capture of the rest, most of the cannon were returned to South Carolina over the trail.

   At the outbreak of the American Revolution, John Sevier, with troops from upper East Tennessee invaded the Overhill Cherokee villages several times, burning the houses and destroying the crops. However, Sevier and his army only crossed over and back on the Unicoi trail once on an invasion of the Middle settlements along the Valley Towns between Murphy and Andrews, North Carolina. Sevier and his army of 140 men burned three towns and killed about 15 Cherokee. Then faced with about 1000 Cherokee warriors, Sevier and his men quickly retreated back to the Unicoi trail. The following account is taken from page 423 of J.G.M. Ramsey's book, Annals of Tennessee.

   "The army drove before it three head of neat cattle, and proceeded with so much haste that one of the cattle tired and would go no further. Captain Evans marched in the rear, and having passed the summit of the mountain [Unicoi Gap] and proceeded about two hundred yards down the other side of it, one of his men said that he had left his knife just before he crossed the top of the mountain, and he ran back for it; when he got to the mountain top, he heard the Indians ascending on the side of the mountain up which the whites had just before come. Intelligence of their vicinity was immediately given to the Colonel; it was between sunset and dark, and the army, before it could encamp safely, was obliged to travel ten miles to Big Tellico, where, on the plains, it encamped. Five hundred Indians followed until they came in view of the camp, and there, their courage failing, they retired. The next day the troops crossed Tennessee, and returned home"

   In 1799 Benjamin Hawkins, then US. Indian Agent to the Cherokee and Creek tribes made a journey across the Unicoi turnpike and left one of the best descriptions of the trail. He described the Unicoi Gap as being 6 feet wide with a 300-foot descent on one side and rocks on the other. Hawkins even kept an account of how many minutes it took him to travel from landmark to landmark. Hawkins' detailed account of the trail is in The Letters of Benjamin Hawkins, Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Volume IX pages 110113. Charles Baker of Bell Town has used this account to retrace the precise trail from the Tellico River past Harlan Mountain to Fort Loudoun and the Tellico Blockhouse.

   In 1815 a company was formed to widen the trail into a toll road for freight wagons. This Unaka Turnpike Road was opened by 1819. The Turnpike provided transportation for many products to be brought into the Tennessee valley settlements, including Knoxville from Augusta, Georgia. It also allowed Tennessee farmers to sell their products to southern markets. The toll road continued to operate until after the Civil war. Sheriff of Monroe county and Confederate General John Crawford Vaughn once held a financial interest in this road.

   When gold was discovered in Coker Creek by 1827, many gold seekers flooded into the area. Coker Creek was still part of the Cherokee Nation. By treaty, the U.S. government was obligated to keep the unwanted whites out and as a result, Fort Armistead was constructed on the Unico Turnpike at Coker Creek with a small garrison. However, this seemed to have little impact on the gold seekers. When the Cherokee were forced to give up all claim to their traditional homeland by the Treaty of New Echota of 1836, Fort Armistead was one of the more than 25 forts throughout the nation that was used as a temporary stockade to hold the local Cherokee before they were marched to Fort Cass and Rattlesnake springs for transport to Oklahoma over the Trail of Tears. On June 19, 1838 Captain L.B. Webster was ordered to move eight hundred Cherokee from Murphy, North Carolina over the Unicoi Turnpike through Coker Creek and Tellico to Fort Cass at Calhoun, Tennessee. Although the road had been "improved" for almost 30 years, he described the road as the "worst I ever saw." The 80 mile trek took eight days and Webster reported that " it was pitiful to behold the women and children who suffered exceedingly as they were obliged to walk with the exception of the sick."

   During the Civil War, Confederate General John Crawford Vaughn with 100 men tracked Captain Goldman Bryson's newly enlisted Union Company through Tellico and Coker Creek on the Unicoi Turnpike. Vaughn had orders from Union General Braxton Bragg to track down and destroy Bryson's Company. On Oct. 27, 1863 Vaughn caught and attacked Bryson's unit at Evan's Mill on Beaver Dam Creek, about 10 miles from Murphy. Two of Bryson's men were killed there and 17 were captured. On the way back to Tellico some of the 17 were murdered in cold blood and their bodies were left along the trail. Most of the rest were shot near the base of the mountain on Tellico River, near the house of Dr. Hall. Bryson escaped back to Six Mile on Coker Creek but was trailed and killed there. Bryson's muster roll of his union men was taken from his body. The list of names was later used after the war by Thomas Boyd, Vaughn's brother-in-law and Regimental Adjutant from Mount Vernon, and Vaughn to defraud the Federal government out of more than $100,000 on fraudulent claims in the name of the men that Vaughn had killed.

   In 1871 both Vaughn and Boyd were arrested for the fraudulent claims. Isaac Lenoir, founder of Sweetwater, put up most of the $40,000 bond for Boyd's release. Boyd hired Justice of the Peace, B. P. Reagan and his son-in-law, Perry Hensley, to help him in his defense. On September 6, 1872 these three were on the Unicoi Turnpike heading toward Murphy to find evidence for Boyd's defense. About dark, they began to make camp at Laurel Branch on the Unicoi Turnpike between Tellico Plains and Coker Creek. Five men dressed as Ku Klux Klansmen bearing guns descended upon the group from the trees by the road. The "Klansmen" tied up Reagan and Hensley, and took Boyd up into the woods. There they made a lot of noise and pretended to kill Boyd. The "Klansmen" then left what appeared to be Boyd's body burning in a fire. The charred remains of what appeared to be Thomas Boyd were immediately taken to Eleazar cemetery and buried. As it turned out the charred body was the body of Samuel Bowles, a 17 year old Negro who had lived with the Boyd Household. Boyd had faked his death and escaped to Canada. However, Boyd was eventually brought back to stand trial in Knoxville, where he was found guilty and sent to jail for four years. When Boyd was released from jail, he returned to Sweetwater and was elected Mayor of the town. A few years later, Boyd was killed on the street at Sweetwater by one of his own relatives, whom Boyd had cheated. When one of Boyd's friends was asked if he was going to Boyd's funeral, the answer was, "No, I went to the first one!"

   Now that the Unicoi Turnpike is a National Millennium Flagship Trail, there are many folks, including Bret Riggs, Russel Townshend and myself, who are interested in getting the Great Warpath Trail from Georgia to Bristol, Tennessee also nationally, recognized. Monroe County, Tennessee has a wealth of history well worth knowing.


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