“So long as we think dugout canoes are the only possibility-all that is real or can be real-we will never see the ship, we will never feel the free wind blow.” Sonia Johnson
“Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” Henry David Thoreau
The keel of the canoe softly scraped the shallow stone making the only sound in the early morning darkness. The paddles were virtually silent as we oozed into the blackness of the Tennessee River. Light to the east was so hard to come by that the horizon above the river edge was only faintly visible.
Crossing the river in the dimness of predawn made stumps and blowdowns invisible while a multitude of splashes indicated a good sized school of fish feeding somewhere in the dense gloom. We had been a little too eager to get this hunt started. It was still too early for birds on their roost to be greeting the day with any distinct vocalization.
Feeding fish seem to offer a conflicting dilemma this time of year. Should we fish or chase gobbling birds? This particular morning we flipped the coin and fish won the toss. The fish making all this noise sounded rather large and active as we sailed quietly downriver looking for obstacles in the dim light that presented the potential for a cold boat wreck and swim.
Sailing slowly adrift I tried to imagine how the river must have looked in 1809. Virgin timber, uninhabited, and probably a great deal more shallow in spots. Virgin timber blow downs must have littered this path after raging winter floods. Towering and numerous limestone bluffs were hidden in a dark, primeval forest in the early years of 1800.
1809 was the year Sam Houston ran away from home. I imagined that Sam left Maryville in a canoe probably dug out of a big stately poplar. No modern boat or paddle needed when you run from your family to live with the Cherokee at age 16.
Something in the back of my mind told me that Sam probably was a little more than impetuous at age 16 to spend time digging in an old poplar for a boat suitable to make this trip. I wondered if he “borrowed” someone’s boat back in Maryville. The logic of many a 16-year-old of that day may have been, “Who’s going to come deep into Indian country to find the missing hollowed out log that was once theirs?”
I tried to calculate the distance of the trip and apply the nights Sam spent on the river bank alone with bears, cats and wolves lurking in the shadows. Time spent planning the arrival at Jolly’s Island where he would tell John Jolly, headman of the Cayuga town, that Sam needed to hang out for a while with the Cherokee while he was making a few changes in his life. I assumed Sam could speak the native language when he needed to empty out his heart.
We slipped under Garrison Bluff, a prominently large dome of limestone and scraggly cedars, named for the location of a Federal Army Garrison established a couple of years prior to1809. It wasn’t like Sam had gone completely off grid as it pertains to European interlopers that were slowly but surely infiltrating their way into the Cherokee’s homeland.
Col. Return J. Meigs established himself and the Federal Army as US Indian Agent on this tall prominence above Jolly’s big island town in 1807. The Garrison was erected to be highly prominent on the highest ground overlooking the big island at the confluence of the Hiwassee River where it meets the Tennessee.
Col. Meigs and his bilingual interpreter Charles Renatus (“Born Again”) Hicks served as agents for more than two decades to the Cherokee in southeastern Tennessee and North Carolina. Hicks also acted as Treasurer for the Cherokee Nation. Hicks went on to become the first Cherokee of European ancestry to be named Principal Chief in 1827 after Pathkiller died.
The island was surely larger in 1809, long before dams flooded some of the best river bottom forest and farm land in this part of the state.
According to the Cherokee Nation website, Jolly “was a wealthy merchant and planter. Jolly spoke no English, and dressed in buckskin with a hunting shirt, leggings and moccasins.”
I tried to imagine Sam pulling his dugout on the banks of the island in 1809 when Jolly adopted him and acted as his father. Jolly must have taken to the teen as he benevolently honored Sam Houston with the name of Ka’lanu, meaning ‘The Raven.’
I pondered the life for the next three years on that island and questioned if word was ever sent back up river of Sam’s whereabouts. As we paddled around the island edge into the Hiwassee River my minds eyes tried vainly to visualize the island inhabitants daily life during particularly those years.
What was the fishing like? What did a winter’s firewood chore look like back then? Were the turkeys silent then like they were on this morning? Were there more deer then? Was there any sense of impending future doom from the coming of The Treaty of New Echota in 1836, or the Trail of Tears that would follow?
Did Sam ride William Blythe’s ferry when he established it on “The Great Road” from Knoxville to Chattanooga in 1809? Was that the thrill ride of the day? Did Blythe imagine that ferry being used to force march thousands of Indians west twenty years later? Before the ferry, particularly how was the “The Great Road” routed?
Was it possible that Sam could paddle up the Hiwassee to the Womankiller Ford on the Ocoee where Nancy Ward had established an inn before she died? Did Sam know her son Fivekiller? Was the river too shallow for a canoe in those days? How long would it take to make that trip on foot or by horseback? How would one get a horse on or off of an Island?
In 1812, a good many Cherokee warriors and Sam left for the war and that seems to be the end of his time on this particular island. Did Sam realize that Jolly would move west early and become a Principle Chief in 1819 in the Arkansas Territory. Did Sam get word that his adopted father left years before the forced march as he abandoned Cayuga avoiding the theft of his island along with the rest of the Cherokee land east of the Mississippi?
By 1827 Sam was the sixth governor of Tennessee. By 1859 he had been elected the seventh governor of Texas. I wondered how he looked back on his days on the island and how those years with the Cherokee affected his rise to frontier fame?
After no encounters with birds, we paddled both down the Hiwassee and up the Tennessee in a steady headwind and I was reminded of a saying my old man used to say when we paddled our first home-built canoe into a stiff breeze; “You can sure get a lot of enjoyment out of this boat in a hurry!”
Battling the breeze up river we could see the knoll where Col. Return J. Meigs is buried. I must admit that I’ve visited his grave in Rhea County on more than one occasion. I’m not sure why. The first time I found Garrison Cemetery, I was scouting for a good place to goose hunt and this knoll provides the perfect panoramic view of the two rivers and the island and the ferry. The grave site is unusually prominent and I guess it caught my eye. I was mildly astounded as I read the inscription on the tomb. This cemetery seems to me to be a fitting final resting place for a decorated Revolutionary War hero and a benevolent Indian agent.
They say Col. Meigs died in 1832 of pneumonia after giving up his house for a cold night in North Carolina to a visiting, honored Indian chief, by sleeping outside in a tent, as a gesture of respect. I wonder if he rolled over in his grave as he viewed the people he thought so much of, travel across Blythe’s Ferry on their long and deadly walk west?
It’s an odd state of mind, shoulders and back that the canoe in a headwind inflicts. We paddled two rivers steeped in both dark and pristine history. Maybe that’s one of the many ancillary benefits of paddling a boat; it takes you back to a simpler time and makes you question where you are really paddling on a day like today. The canoe pulls at you and makes you look back at how we may have forgotten the past, or islands that we’ve motored around without even really taking notice.
Apparently it was a good day to fish.