Closer Look

What’s in a name? Cowee Town

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Lamar Marshall

While some of the names of churches, streams, schools, and even businesses in Macon County may seem like an alphabet soup of letters just strewn together, they all have meaning and important roots – primarily in American Indian culture. Historian Lamar Marshall dives into the history and meaning behind some of these distinct names to give readers of Macon Sense a better understanding of and connection to this area. His first offering focuses on Cowee.

By 1700, Cowee and Nikwasi were the two most important and centrally located of about 60 towns of the Cherokee Nation in and around what is now Macon County. In 1716, Cowee and Tennessee (an Overhill Town) were chosen by the British as the first two towns to host trading posts supplied from Charles Town, now called Charleston, S.C. By 1716, George Hill was the principal trader residing in Cowee. 

Cowee means Deer Clan Place, according to Tom Belt, of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Phonetically, Cherokee people pronounce Cowee: A Ni Ka Wi Yi. 

Cowee was located at the crossroads of two major trading routes. A northern fork of the Charles Town Trading Path left modern Clayton, Ga., and followed the Little Tennessee River through Nikwasi, Watauga, and Ayoree to Cowee.

From Cowee, a path called the Yona Canara Road led west across the Nantahala Mountains. This path name is believed to be a variant of the Cherokee name Yonah Ganela, or “where the bear lives.” This path passed through Burningtown Gap and descended the Nantahala Mountains at Junaluska Gap.

Nikwasi, or “Star Place,” was only seven miles upstream of Cowee on the Little Tennessee River, connected by a trading path that was later used in the 1838 Trail of Tears to transport Cherokees from Fort Lindsey to the site of ancient Nikwasi, located at modern-day Franklin.

Both Cowee and Nikwasi towns had sacred mounds on which council houses overlooked the surrounding houses and fields. Nikwasi was a “mother town” and a significant council place where chiefs or headmen from the Lower, Overhill, Out, Middle, and Lower Towns convened for important meetings. Both towns were located at crossroads of major travel ways.

COWEE MOUND was once an important site in a thriving Cherokee community along the Tennessee River. The mound can be viewed from a kiosk on Bryson City Road.

The 1761 John Stuart (Captain in the South Carolina Provincial Militia) map identified a trail connecting Cowee and Kituwha. The path crossed the Cowee Mountains, then Alarka Creek, and appears to follow Kirkland Creek to its mouth just west of Kituwah, or Governor’s Island. Stuart’s figures indicate that there were at least 830 Cherokee families living on the Little Tennessee River in a 17-mile stretch as the crow flies from near Franklin to the Needmore area. In 1775, naturalist William Bartram passed through Nikwasi to Cowee Town, where he stayed for several weeks.

Today, the Cowee area encompasses Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center, Rickman Store, Cowee Baptist Church, and homes and farmlands, many of which are along the Tennessee River. The Cowee Mound can be seen from a kiosk and platform on NC 28, Bryson City Road; on the mound was the Cowee council house, a landmark that served as the principal diplomatic and commercial center of mountain Cherokee in the 18th century. In 2007, more than 200 years later, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians returned to Cowee, purchasing 70 acres along the Little Tennessee River, including the historic Cowee Mound and town site. Then, in 2018, a cultural kiosk was erected – with signage in both English and Cherokee – that includes information on Cowee. The kiosk is part of Nikwasi Initiative to create and maintain a Cherokee Cultural Corridor in Western North Carolina.

Said Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed when the kiosk was completed: “When we travel to the Cowee Mound, I want everyone to envision homes stretching along the river. I want you to envision a council house where decisions were made for the Cherokee Nation, and I want you to think about how we have come full circle in terms of our self-governance as a people.”

Lamar Marshall is a local historian.