Closer Look

What’s in a name? Noquisiyi

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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. 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. This is part of a focus on Noquisiyi, also spelled Nikwasi.)

The recorded history of Noquisiyi was shaped by the geography, ecological landscape, and political events of an era that spans from 1670 to about 1820, when it was transformed into a frontier town and later into the county seat of Macon. Most folks are familiar with the transliterated spelling of Nikwasi for the proper Cherokee word Noquisiyi, translated “Star Place.”

FROM THE AIR, the Noquisiyi, or Nikwasi, ancient mound in Franklin is clearly visible. This area was once dense with Cherokee homes and crops. Today, the public can visit the mound and read about the historical significance on signage that is part of the Cherokee Cultural Corridor.

The town of Nikwasi is the ancient site of modern Franklin. Its houses and fields were scattered along the river bottoms in the vicinity of Depot Street of modern Franklin. During the Anglo-Cherokee War in 1761, British Captain Christopher French kept a journal of the Grant Expedition, which burned 15 Cherokee towns, including Noquisiyi. He recorded: “Nukassee (Nikwasi or Noquisiyi) is two miles from Tassee. (site of Macon Middle School) Plain, open road, both Tassee (Cullasaja), and Nukassee Rivers (Little Tennessee) are to be crossed. The banks are steep, but the Fords good. There is a direct road from Echoy to Nuckassee, but in it are two very narrow passes, between a steep hill and the river, one about a mile from the town, & the other within half mile of it Nukassee is say’d to contain about 120 Gun men, it is situated in a plain. The houses straggling & is not commanded by muskett shott.”

In this series, we will introduce the British traders who travelled back and forth from Charleston, S.C., with pack trains of horses laden with European trade goods to exchange with Cherokees, who lived in the remote, isolated valleys nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge. Over a dozen Cherokee towns were located from modern Clayton, Ga., to Bryson City. Nikwasi, or more properly Noquisiyi, was near the center of this cluster of towns the traders would designate as the “Middle Towns.” 

The recorded history and significance of Noquisiyi begins with the 1670 founding of the Eastern seaboard port city of Charles Town (Charleston) in South Carolina. By 1715, a lucrative deerskin and fur trade began with the Cherokees. The deerskin and fur trade brought valuable modern improvements into the lifestyle of Native Americans. Clay cookware was replaced with metal pots, pans, kettles, and eating utensils. Cloth and blankets were optional substitutes for leather clothes and bearskin bedding. Hunting rifles using black powder and lead balls replaced the sole option of bow and arrow for harvesting deer, elk, bear and until extirpated, buffalo or bison. With modern trade goods and improved lifestyles also came downsides: the curse of rum by which an element of crooked traders cheated Cherokees, over-extended credit accounts that eventually were settled by land cessions, and an arms race with traditional enemies who were now armed with European technology and weaponry.

After three wars and a century later, the Cherokee stronghold in the mountains of Western North Carolina appeared as an island surrounded by white settlements. The mountain Cherokees that would become the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians greatly opposed the Treaties of 1817-1819, which forced the cession of lands in Swain, Macon, and Jackson counties.

The Yamassee War of 1715 sparked 40 years of hostilities with the Creek Nation and saw several major towns between Franklin and Clayton burned and abandoned. Next, the French and Indian War drew the Cherokee Nation into conflict with Great Britain from 1759 to 1761. Noquisiyi was burned in 1761, along with 14 other towns and 5,000 acres of corn.

Only 15 years later, in 1776, during the Revolutionary War, two armies, one from North Carolina under General Griffith Rutherford with 2,800 men, and simultaneously the South Carolina army under Andrew Williamson with 1,800 men, destroyed about 52 Cherokee towns including Noquisiyi. During a fierce ambush and battle five miles west of modern Franklin, about 600 Cherokees attacked Williamson’s South Carolina army near where the Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps Center is currently located, on Wayah Road. Due to the dark, rhododendron thickets that surrounds the road up Nantahala Mountain, it was called the “Battle of the Black Hole.” Thirteen Revolutionary soldiers and Native American scouts are buried somewhere near or underneath Wayah Road near the Job Corps’ campus.

Throughout the 18th century, white traders lived all along the Little Tennessee River trading and intermarrying with the Cherokees.

A 1721 BARNWELL Map shows Noquisiyi or Nikwasi, which is spelled Nuquassee on this map. Also, note Watauga spelled as Watoga. The circular roads around Nuquassee are Wayah Road below and Burningtown Road via the Macon County Airport at the top.

Too often, people today are quick to judge the people of the past from their armchairs of the present with too little understanding of the worldviews of those historical figures. I am attempting to present facts without judgment. We can, however, preamble all history by recognizing that options were available and choices were made, whether good or bad. With that said, in my next installment I will delve into the history of Noquisiyi and Macon County, from 1670 to about 1900.

Lamar Marshall is a local historian.