When tourists and hikers flock to the trails of the Appalachians and soak up the beauty and culture of the area they walk by evidence, sometimes hidden or forgotten, of the early life in Appalachia -- the times prior to European contact.
Often when one thinks of Appalachia, the thought of the mountains create a beautiful and majestic image in the mind. This system of the North American mountain ranges stretch from Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada and run south and westward down to central Alabama in the United States, creating foothills in northeastern Mississippi. The range varies from 90 to 300 miles wide and 1,500 miles long.
Within this vast range lie 420 counties in 13 states. This is the current definition made by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The region defined by the ARC currently includes all of West Virginia and 14 counties in New York, 52 in Pennsylvania, 32 in Ohio, 3 in Maryland, 54 in Kentucky, 25 counties and 8 cities in Virginia, 29 in North Carolina, 52 in Tennessee, 6 in South Carolina, 37 in Georgia, 37 in Alabama, and 24 in Mississippi.
Let us imagine that we are far above this vast area, seeing a bird's eye view of it all. Now let us soar down like an Eagle to get a closer look and go back, far back, in time to the days of the original inhabitants.
We come upon a group of people foraging in the mountains. These were members of tribes who lived there so long ago. Evidence of Native American peoples, all hunter-gatherers, places the tribes in the Appalachian over 12,000 years ago. In the 16Th century, the de Soto and Juan Pardo expeditions explored the mountains of South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, and encountered complex agrarian societies populated by Muskogean-speaking inhabitants.
By the time English explorers arrived in Appalachia in the late 17th century, the central part of the region was controlled by Algonquian tribes (namely the Shawnee) and the southern part of the region was controlled by the Cherokee.
Prior to 1700, peoples of the Shawnee and Mingo tribes lived in the eastern panhandle of what is now West Virginia. They gathered berries, nuts, plant parts and roots, even the inner bark of black birch or slipper elm to supplement their diet of fish and wild game.
The Cherokee peoples settled further south in Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. There is an old Cherokee legend that the Great Smoky Mountains were formed centuries ago when a giant buzzard, wearily circling the earth after a great flood, plummeted to the ground in exhaustion. Where his vast wings hit the earth, the mountain valleys appeared. The People were intrigued with the bluish mist that lingered over the mountains and called this land "Sha-cona-ge" (Land of the Blue Mist).
The Cherokee relied heavily on their agricultural plantings to supplement their diets of gathering and hunting.
Early life in Appalachia is steeped in history and legends.