Becky Johnson photo
Cherokee fish weir
Lamar Marshall, Cultural Heritage Director of Wild South, has mapped prehistoric fish weirs across Western North Carolina, which are detectable to the discerning eye particularly during low water, like this one along the Little Tennessee River in Macon County.
Fish weirs are structures built within a stream or river or at the edge of tidal lagoons designed to route fish either to a particular area, like shallows or into a trap where they can be captured. Paddlers, fishermen, or those who have enjoyed a cool swimming hole, have probably seen a fish weir—though they may not have recognized it.
Cultural Heritage Director for Wild South and a regular paddler Lamar Marshall said he had paddled the Little Tennessee numerous times and had never seen a fish weir until he took a trip with Brent Martin of the Wilderness Society in North Carolina. Martin pointed out a couple of weirs to him, and he was hooked. “We located thirteen weirs within a seven-mile stretch of the Little Tennessee,” Marshall said. He is in the process of plotting the coordinates onto a topographic map. “These are places where people can connect to their heritage, and they need to be documented.”
There is not a river in the region without weirs, says Mark Cantrell, a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and author of the booklet “Fishes Gathered in Cherokee Country.” Many larger creeks and/or streams in the area also contain weirs. Some of the rivers in the area with documented weirs include the Little Tennessee, Tuckasegee, Hiwassee, and Nantahala in Western North Carolina; the Etowah River in Georgia; and the Clinch and Holston rivers in Virginia and Tennessee.
The most common form of fish weir in the Southern Appalachians is a “V” shaped rock wall. The V-shape starts near the shore on either side, and the tip points downstream. Often in normal or high water the rocks or boulders are not readily evident—the observant may only notice watery ripples showing the weir’s pattern.
In the summer when the water ran low, the Cherokee would catch fish by herding them into the weir, where a trap made of baskets or cane would be waiting at the apex of the “V” headed downstream. Cherokee oral tradition notes that women and children—and likely anyone else wanting to get wet—would enter the weir and, splashing with hands or canes or sticks, scare fish towards the trap. Connaway noted in his book that settlers would drag ropes with stones tied to them through the weir to scare fish towards the trap. In Cherokee lore the predecessor to rope was grapevine.
“These weirs speak of a large population of fish in the streams of Western North Carolina,” Cantrell said. “Those weirs would not have been built unless the take was worth it.”
The advent of modern game laws made weirs and other traps illegal and led to the abandonment of fish weirs in North America. Despite the widespread and sustained use of fish weirs up until that time, they remain an archaeological and historical conundrum.
Weirs are built from different materials like wood, reeds, bamboo and stones—generally whatever material is convenient to the site. Fish weirs were prevalent around the world dating back to the Mesolithic Era in Europe and the Archaic Period in North America. One of the oldest weirs in North America is the Sebasticook fish weir in central Maine. It is estimated to be more than 7,000 years old. And fish weirs in North America were sustained and used well into the 20th Century. John Connaway, author of Fishweirs: A World Perspective with Emphasis on the Fish Weirs of Mississippi, noted that the Bear Creek fish weir in Mississippi was still in use commercially until 1925. Locally there are many reports of the Allman family using a fishweir near Webster, N.C., into the 1940s.
Allen Lutins addressed the scarcity of archaeological data regarding fish weirs in his master’s thesis in anthropology at the State University of New York. According to Lutins, “One can point to three basic deficiencies as the cause: A lack of archaeological data, a shortage of historical references, and a paucity of contemporary research on the subject of weirs.”
Where there has been research, evidence points to weirs as highly successful in terms of capturing fish. Middens, or trash heaps, in proximity to weirs tell stories of many successful harvests over a span of time. And when Europeans arrived in America their accounts corroborated the archaeological data. In a paper titled “Fish Weirs as part of the Cultural Landscape,” Anne Rogers, professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University, noted that when John Lawson visited North Carolina’s coast in 1700 he recorded the use of fish weirs. “I once took out of a Ware [weir] above three hundred of the Fish, at a time.” And according to author and columnist George Ellison, 18th century historian James Adair wrote about the results of huge Cherokee catches in his book History of the American Indians. Adair noted that when the harvest was particularly good, “…they make a town feast, or feast of love, of which everyone partakes in a most social manner, and afterwards they dance together.”
Cantrell can’t remember if he was first introduced to weirs recreationally, as an avid fisherman, or professionally, as a biologist dedicated to preserving and enhancing the aquatic fauna in the region. Cantrell says that there are likely hundreds of weirs (or at least what’s left of them) across the Southern Appalachians. “I have been able to detect them by sonar on Fontana Lake,” Cantrell said. He wonders how many have been flooded by other similar impoundments.
Cantrell and other fisheries biologists believe weirs were designed to catch fish in two directions, upstream and downstream. In addition to the V-shaped weir, another common shape, especially in wider coastal rivers where anadromous fishes (fishes that spend most of their lives in saltwater but return to fresh water to reproduce; like shad and herring in the East,) is the “W” with both downstream and upstream openings.
The V-shaped weir also is functional for catching fish headed upstream to spawn. In the areas of Western North Carolina where redhorse (genus Moxostoma) are still common, spring migration upriver to spawning grounds is impressive. “They are large fish and they move in large numbers,” Cantrell said. “The walls of the “V” force them in, closer to the shore where they can be caught, with spears, baskets or even by hand.”
Aquatic biologist, Daniel Perlmutter and some of his students from Southwestern Community College recently studied a Cherokee weir in the Tuckasegee River and found no difference in the number or condition of benthic organisms (those that live in the water column or at the bottom of streams, etc.) before the weir, in the weir or after the weir, suggesting that the ancient Cherokee had already mastered the art of sustainability.
There is a little “chicken or egg” dilemma involving prehistorical fish weirs. Charles M. Hubbert and Richard A. Wright wrote in the Journal of Alabama Archaeology back in the 1990s about weirs in the Harris Reservoir. They documented a series of weirs and noted significant take of fishes. However there were no permanent camps or villages near the weirs. They deduced that the indigenous peoples would send groups to the weirs during known “run” times and fish would be collected and smoked there on the banks and then transported back to more prominent sites.
However in the Southern Appalachians there appear to be a lot of town or village sites in the proximity of rivers and weirs. Weirs were common all across North America by the end of the Archaic Period. It seems hunters-gatherers built and attended them. “The fish regularly occurred in abundance, and often a family or community would take a large catch and then not have to return to the weir for months,” said Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Russell Townsend. By the Woodland Period native peoples were becoming more settled and it comes as no surprise that many villages were associated with rivers and streams.
The traditional Cherokee “V” weir funnels a lot of things downstream. For the ancient Cherokee at Kituwah or Nikwasi or Coweeta Creek or Birdtown, the funnel points to the past. It points to a time before the “Trail of Tears” when native peoples were forced to either hide in the mountains or “march” to Oklahoma. It points to a time when native people lived on the land and lived from the land in a sustainable pattern.
“I believe the weirs are a postcard from Cherokee ancients showing a pristine environment abundant with fishes,” said Roger Clapp, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River (WATR).
WATR has partnered with the ECBI Extension Service, EBCI Tribal Departments, Southwestern NC RC&D Council, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the Cherokee Youth Council to connect people and cultures, in part through an annual “Traditional Cherokee Fish Harvest.” Such events aim to provide a hands-on lesson in traditional Cherokee community life; enhance deeper understanding by the Cherokee Youth Council leadership; provide conservation lessons about the historical abundance of fishes; and hopefully provide a stone bridge connecting past, present and future communities of Western North Carolina.
Cantrell sees the weirs as a blueprint depicting the past rich and abundant aquatic fauna of Western North Carolina with the promise of what could be. “To me those weirs speak of a different environment—before dams, before pollution—a time when fishes, large fishes like sicklefin redhorse were abundant. It presents a goal, from a restoration perspective, to try and find ways to repopulate regional watersheds.”
Seeing Cherokee fish weirs
Getting good looks at weirs in Cherokee country generally means getting in the water but there are a few places in Western North Carolina that weirs are pretty evident from land.
There is a well-defined weir (Allman weir) in the Tuckasegee near Webster in Jackson County, N.C. There is another prominent weir on the Little Tennessee in Macon County, N.C., along Hwy. 28 about .8 of a mile north of the junction of Sanderstown Rd. and Hwy. 28. There is a pull-off at a vegetable stand, at the intersection Mason Mountain Drive. One can view the weir from the roadside. Remember that these weirs are most easily seen during periods of low water.
Actually getting in the river is probably the easiest way to see some of these ancient fishweirs. Floating the Little Tennessee below the Lake Emory Dam is a good way to spot weirs. Thirteen weirs have been documented within a seven-mile stretch of the Little Tennessee here.
Weirs are common throughout Cherokee country. A thirteen-mile float down the Etowah River in Cherokee County, Ga., offers good looks at Cherokee weirs. The put-in for this float is along East Cherokee Drive and the take-out is in downtown Canton, Ga. at Boling Park.
There are also at least three weirs along the Lower Holston River in Tennessee. Put-ins for the Lower Holston can be found at Cherokee Dam, Indian Cave and Nance’s Ferry.
From Fishes Gathered in Cherokee Country
by Mark Cantrell.
a-tsu-di – Brook trout: Loves cold headwater streams like Snowbird Creek
u-no-ga - Smallmouth bass: Cool and warmwater streams like the Little Tennessee
oliga – Redhorse: The name seems to apply to all the redhorse (Moxostoma) – river redhorse, sicklefin redhorse, black redhorse, golden redhorse, shorthead redhorse, white sucker, silver redhorse and northern hogsucker. Redhorses are large fish of larger streams and lakes and often migrate in large numbers during spawning season.
usgwohli egwa – Flathead catfish: found in sluggish pools of larger rivers like the Tuckasegee. Cherokee elders call them “big belly.” They are good to eat and are often cleaned and smoked with the skin on.