Submitted by:Joe Irons
Coker Creek has always been a timber center for
East Tennessee. This early photo of a logging scene is typical of
how the industry begun in the resource-rich hills.
. . . . . When the first Scotch-Irish
settlers pushed into what is now Tennessee in the late l7th and early l8th centuries, they were
searching for land which would provide them with the freedom and space to stretch out their lives
across the generations. Unafraid of toil and hardship, they were intent on finding good land to
farm, land rich with the smell of fertility and promise and rich in timber. Their log cabins often
were adaptations of the stone houses of Scottish forebears and just as often were inspired by the
wise counsel of the Cherokee Indians who had been living in log cabins for centuries.
. . . . . More than anything else, the
immigrants were in search of virgin land that presented them with charms as well as dangers,
unspoiled land that offered them the opportunity for spiritual renewal as well as physical
. . . . . Part of the famed Blue Ridge,
which humpbacks its way from Georgia to Maryland, the Unicoi Mountains of Monroe County,
are home to a way of life that has all but passed from existence in the United States. Fortunately
and despite the erosion of the 20th Century, the
mountains and foothills around Coker Creek have acted like a preserve, providing us now with
some missing links and harboring still many of those ancient ways, tales and lore.
. . . . . Tucked into the southeast corner
of Monroe County and nestled between the massive Unicoi Mountains on the east and Cataska
Mountain on the west, the Coker Creek area thrived for hundreds of years, first as Indian land,
and later as a settlement for white men and their
. . . . . Long before Anglo-Saxon,
Scotch-Irish settlers from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina migrated into the new
frontier, Indians (mainly Cherokees) foraged these hills for as far as the eye can see and for miles
beyond the imagination. Indeed, their first known center had been in the Southern
Alleghenies. Masters and rulers of Eastern Tennessee, they claimed land even to what is now the
central portion of the state.
. . . . . The Cherokees were a great tribe
and many of our hills, valleys and rivers bear their names. The name "Chera" is translated to mean
fire. Chera-tage has been found to mean men possessed of divine fire.
. . . . . Early settlers into this region
discovered the fire and wrath of the Cherokee, one of the few Indian nations to farm. Later, with
the invention of Sequoyah's sylabary, the Cherokee people learned to read and to write from their
own phonetic alphabet.
. . . . . In the beginning this was a wild
unforgiving land, a region called Appalachia. As this terrain was shaped, so were the fortunes of
the people who would arrive eons later, hoping to
tame the mountains, control their mighty waters and take sustenance from rich lands.
. . . . . The settlers did not find - nor did
they expect to find - an easy or carefree existence. This was a land where they could either eat or
be eaten. Staying alive took great cunning, guile, wisdom and courage. The first white men and
women to trod this ground and survive
possessed all of those traits and more.
. . . . . Thousands of years before, their
forefathers had been shaggy, stumpy warriors, who had foraged about, carrying spears, bow and
arrows and rock knives for weapons, possessing an ingenuity and creativity for existence in harsh
surroundings - survivors in a savage land.
. . . . . When in the 1700's the first
Scotch-Irish settlers came over the mountains from North Carolina (the seat of British power in
this part of America), they encountered the short, dark-skinned people of another race, fierce
both in outward appearance and in their desire to keep their land free of intruders. The Cherokees
stood in a face-to-face confrontation with the descendants of that shaggy warrior of the
lowlands of Scotland, equally brave, undaunted, unafraid, adaptable, unstoppable, the first
whites most Cherokees had ever seen. At first, the flow of people with their wagons, oxen,
tools and children were but a trickle, creeping in on the
edge of night.
. . . . . Then the trickle became a
mainstream of white-skinned immigrants looking for the Promised Land, Scotch-Irish, English,
French, Swiss and Germans, people with new cultures and values, arriving in an ever-widening
tributary of people flowing west and south from the ports of Pennsylvania, New York and
Virginia and from Charleston, South Carolina, upward to North Carolina and finally over the
high mountains into Tennessee where heretofore the Cherokee, Creek and Iroquois had hunted
abundant game and farmed the land with impunity and without serious interruption.
. . . . . Mere fingers of the mighty
Appalachians that run from northern Alabama to southern Quebec, the Unicoi Mountains were
not an easy destination. In addition, the Cherokees, who had been generous and tolerant in
allowing other Indian tribes to hunt their lands, weren't always so hospitable to white outsiders
wishing to put down roots there. In fact, they proved to be formidable and ferocious in protecting
. . . . . However, the Scotch-Irish
immigrant was up to the battle. Their historical background was as tough as Damascus steel, for
they came to "Tanasi" (the original Cherokee spelling of Tennessee) with generations of
battle-hardened history coursing through their veins. Such
a man was part warrior, part gypsy, creator of his own future, pushing into the unknown, blessed
with God-given talents of survival and a remarkable ability to adapt to his changing
environment - a combination which would create a fearsome foe for the brave and equally skilled
Cherokee. Here was an enemy who hunted with gunpowder or flint arrow, who could survive in
the woods and who, above all, learned very well from his adversaries how to live with and on the
land. In essence, this hearty immigrant was an almost matchless machine, equipped with the finest
attributes required to survive in the wilderness he confronted, here to stay and to spread his
generations into the hills and valleys.
. . . . . For the Cherokee Indian,
descendant of the earliest forest dwellers, this was an unfortunate turn of historical and cultural
events. How could the Cherokees have anticipated that they were facing one of the greatest
human migrations ever?
. . . . . Indeed, the tribes of the mountains
stood before a human wave, advancing boldly against the borders of an untamed frontier, a wave
which eventually washed over the Indians in a tidal fury, endangering their very existence.
. . . . . Out of this generational and
geologic turmoil, this tiny community on the Tennessee-North Carolina border took root, a
product of that ocean of culture lapping across the land. Coker Creek, as we know it today,
comes with sparkling historical bloodlines that are the essence of this entire region. They are
descended from the earliest Scotch-Irish settlers, from Unicoi tribes themselves, as well as from
the English, French, Germans, Welch and Swiss. Of these varied groups, however, the
Scotch-Irish of Ulster, Northern Ireland, dominated most indelibly.
. . . . . As the settlers adapted more and
more successfully to their new environment, their respect for their Indian neighbors grew, as it
should have. The Cherokees had much wisdom to share and the settler, were happy to learn from
. . . . . As time passed, the two cultures
became more tolerant of each other and intermingling became more and more common. Thus,
many of today's residents are the proud descendants of both cultures and the lore and
knowledge is certainly enriched by this duality.
. . . . . One favorite tale involves Coqua,
an Indian princess who did her best to settle periodic armed battles between the whites and
Indians. She is also known as Coco Bell, Coyuu Bell, Cocoa Bell and Coker Bess. Later, she
eventually married John Coker and supposedly became
known as Betsy Coker. Princess Coqua was revered in this community and is said to have been
buried in a special grave site, underneath a mound of stones and that she left instructions that
anyone who wished to enjoy good luck should toss a rock onto her grave - but should anyone
remove a stone from her grave, he or she would suffer a lifetime curse.
. . . . . Beyond the mountains themselves
and the Cherokees, gold was the next most important feature of this area. In the 1800's, the white
man's lust for this rich mineral would drive the Cherokees deeper into isolation and far away from
their proud and rightful ancestral land for gold would become the standard by which our
nation measured its currency and eventually itself. With the discovery of gold came a collective
and unconscionable greed that did as much to change the way we live as did those first shiploads
of Scotch-Irish immigrants.
. . . . . Much of the gold that was mined
in this nation during the early 1800's came from Coker Creek, the second area in the US in which
the mineral was discovered - almost 25 years before the California Gold Rush of I849.
. . . . . Gold in Coker Creek proved to be
both beauty and beast. Veins of gold lay armored in quartz beneath the forest floors. Nuggets said
to have been the size of chestnuts were found in her streams.
. . . . . And always - even still today -
there are the ever-present deposits of gold which take keen eyes to spot in the creek-beds and
white quartz that cover the countryside of the Unicoi Mountains.
. . . . . The Cherokee were aware of
gold's allure. They understood its inherent qualities and what it would bring, that it was a sleeping
giant which would eventually awaken and usher forth huge and swift changes. And it did.
. . . . . With the discovery of gold in the
hills around Coker Creek, a story lodged in fact, myth and magic, the Cherokees would be
systematically forced off of their land so that the precious mineral could be mined by the white
man, whose "yellow fever" honored few boundaries or
paid little regard to decent moral behavior. Immediately the surrounding hills and mountains
succumbed to the particular rough and tumble sounds generated by mining camps. Meanwhile,
other more forceful events were taking shape in Washington, DC With the election of Andrew
Jackson as president in l828, a certain manifestation of the new government's philosophy had
been forged. The country's bounty and resources were to be used and processed by those with the
financial wherewithal to do so. In such an atmosphere, it was but a matter of time before gold
mining would develop full bore in the mountains of East Tennessee and North Georgia, only to
seal the fate of the Cherokees, now doomed to be pushed aside for the sake of the white man's
version of progress and profits.
. . . . . By 1832, official Jacksonian
policy toward land use was entrenched. Four years later, in his second term, President Jackson
ordered the removal of the Cherokee and other tribes in order for the land to be more easily
exploited and on a grander scale.
. . . . . During their forced winter march
of 1838-39 to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, of 17,000, Indians who had been rounded up from
the many stockades and held until the departure date, more than 4,000, or one in four, died en
route. About 1,000 Cherokee Indians refused to leave their ancient homeland and were
helped by some whites, appalled at this treatment of their Indian neighbors. They aided and
abetted those Cherokee who were able to avoid the federal troops, led by Gen. Winfield Scott
under orders from the White House to carry out the Treaty of New Echota, which ceded the
remaining Cherokee territory east off the Mississippi River. The treaty was ratified by Congress
and the Cherokee were given two years to leave their ancestral lands, a promise President Jackson
made in his campaign and a promise he kept.
. . . . . Not all white people listened to
conscience; the smell of gold was stronger and with the bothersome Cherokee nation disposed of
for all practical purposes, gold-hungry speculators were free to rip and tear the countryside apart
in their lust for the mineral. According to the politicians, the serious business of advancing the
frontier was on track.