This Sacred River Land

Oneida, Tennessee, photo by Connie Hensley

In his book, Upper Cumberland Country, William Lynwood Montel talks about a culture that permeates Northern Tennessee and parts of Kentucky that stretches from Adair County at the edge of the Pennyroyal Region across Russell, Casey, Pulaski, Wayne, Clinton, Cumberland and eastward to the Cumberland Gap and on down into Tennessee. He calls this region the Upper Cumberland and says that in this region people are “wed to the land.” I suppose one could say that for those of us who’s ancestors arrived during the 1700 and 1800s , the land is sacred. There is a “spirit” in this place that has been here since long before the first European settlers arrived and once you fall in love with this land, it remains with you forever, no matter how far you travel. It calls you back. In that sense, those of us who understand the richness and the history of this place and what it meant to our ancestors, truly are wed to the land. The land which now forms the border between Kentucky and Tennessee was once the southwestern border of North Carolina and Virginia.  Eventually, Tennessee and Kentucky were carved out of Virginia and North Carolina. If Virginia is Kentucky’s mother, then North Carolina is her father and Tennessee is her sister.

This region is known as the Cumberland Plateau which technically encompasses areas of West Virginia, and Alabama, as well. The river that flows through this land is now called the Cumberland, but that was not always the case. Once it was called Wasioto by the Shawnee men, women, and children who LIVED there (not just hunted or camped but LIVED). Wasioto was home to Mound Builders before the Shawnee. The river was sacred to all tribes in the area. One legend has it that there was a terrible massacre there when an encampment of Cherokee women and children were slaughtered at Yahoo Falls near what is now the Kentucky/Tennessee border.

In the late 1700 and early to mid1800s people settled along the Cumberland River in such places as Hawkins, Hancock, Scott, Fentress and Campbell counties in Tennessee and of course, there were no state lines drawn, so some of these families also settled in what is now Leslie, Harlan, Pulaski, Wayne, Clinton, Cumberland, Adair, Russell, Johnson, McGoffin, Whitley, McQueary, Bell, Knox, Laurel, Floyd, Johnson, Perry, Knott, and Casey counties in Kentucky. They came from the New River area of Virginia and North Carolina, many of which were descendants of the White Top Band of Sizemore Indians, some of which are documented as old “Cheraw” or remnants of the Saura people who had been decimated by smallpox. Other were documented as having been born at Fort Christana and a place called Catawba Town. They were a mixture of Tutelo, Saponi, Catawba, Saura and other tribes of the area which had come together due to being decimated by diseases brought over from Europe (mainly Smallpox) for which they had no immunity. Some had Algonquian ties, as well. In time, many of them referred to themselves as “Cherokee” because Cherokee became synonymous with “Indians from the Southeastern U.S.” And, in fact, many of these families did have people of mixed Cherokee, Shawnee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Algonquian tribes marry into their lines.

As their freedoms and rights dwindled in Virginia and the Carolinas, as their lands were stolen, they pushed westward into the mountains, cliffs, caves, valleys, swamps, and gorges of the Cumberland Plateau. They were seeking a place just “to be.”

Thanks to the Racial Integrity Act in Virginia that affected all the surrounding areas, census takers labeled these people based on their own impressions of them. There was a deliberate effort to eradicate the “Indians” by making them either White citizens or designating them as “Mulattos” or “Free People of Color.” It was a time period where being White meant you got to keep your family together, own land and vote. Being mulatto meant you got to live “free,” but you had no legal rights and being Indian meant you didn’t exists unless you agreed to go to a concentration camp (well, they were called Reservations but they were the equivalent of concentration camps.) So, it came to be that Kentucky, once a part of Virginia and North Carolina, had “NO INDIANS.” Of course not, they were politically ripped asunder, buried, ignored, and forgotten.

Due to their inability to point to themselves on Cherokee rolls, they were often denied tribal membership, not because they were not Native American but because they were not documented Cherokee. The descendants of these people make up much of the Upper Cumberland area today. They handed down legends, year after year, generation after generation, of a great-grandmother or great-grandfather who was “Indian.” Some of them remembered they were not Cherokee and used terms like Blackfeet, but many genuinely believed they were Cherokee because it was the only name they had heard repeated. They were made fun of and accused of being wannabe Indians, but the truth is that their heritage was stolen through genocide, sometimes accidental, sometimes on purpose, and in time, they assimilated and became “White” or “Black” just like the government had always wanted them to do.

Sizemore Indians and their kinfolk and neighbors—they often traveled in groups from the same areas, being a mixture of multiple Native branches and Scotch-Irish, Quakers, French and German–and their neighbors settled along the Cumberland River in what is now southern Kentucky and Northern Tennessee. Family names included Riddles, Starnes/Stearns, Bowman, Bolin/Bowling/Bollin, Cox, Wallen, Leach, Harris, Choate, Turner, Gipson, Sizemore, Greene, Smith, Marsh, Moore, Collins, Mullins, Phelps, Phipps, Tallant, Ramsey, Cooper, Harmon, Neal/Neil, Denny, Downey, Wells, Brown, Graham, Blevins, Fields, Fugate, White, Adams, and more.

Now back to the Cumberland River itself, Wasioto is almost 700 miles long and drains from a whopping 18,000 square miles! Multiple rivers and streams flow into the Cumberland River including the Red River, Big South Fork and others. At one point there is only about 2.8 miles of land between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers (which is fed by the Holston River, flowing out of what is now North Carolina and the French Broad River.)

The Cumberland Plateau, the world’s longest hardwood forested plateau, is home to many plants and animals found nowhere else.

The Cumberland Plateau rises more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee River Valley to a vast tableland of sandstone and shale dating as far back as 500 million years. The rivers of this region, have eroded away the softer rock beneath, leaving rock houses (natural bridges), caverns, cliffs and caves along the river and stream beds. “From Williamsburg, Ky., above the falls, to the Kentucky–Tennessee state line, the Cumberland crosses a highland bench in the Cumberland Plateau and flows in a gorge between cliffs 300–400 feet (90–120 m) high.” (encyclopedia Britannica)

In 1952, Wolf Creek Dam was built to create Lake Cumberland, caves with petroglyphs (according to older local residents that I’ve interviewed) were flooded, never to be explored again. The community of Rowena as evacuated and flooded. The graves were dug up and moved to the nearby Watauga community and the community’s official records were sent to Burnside, Kentucky, a few miles upstream.  Wolf Creek Dam is the 25th largest of its kind in the United States and Lake Cumberland is over 100 miles long and over a mile wide. It is the 9th largest lake in the U.S. and the larges man-made. It has a capacity of 6,100,000 acre-feet of water, enough to cover all of Kentucky in 3” of water.

Over the years the dam has had a multitude of problems and issues, including that fact that 19 years after it was built, sinkholes developed around the electrical grid near the base of the dam and caused a near failure of the dam. In the late 1960s, liquid concrete was pumped into the dam but that didn’t stop the leaks, so in the 1970s a concrete wall was inserted in the earthen part of the dam, but that didn’t work, either. Uncontrollable seepage continued all the way up until 2005 when the dam was on the verge of collapsing and obliterating the town of Burkesville, Kentucky. In 2007, the lake was lowered to 40 feet and a seven-year, $309,000,000 rehabilitation of the dam included a longer, deeper wall built into the dam’s earthen section.  This wall, completed in 2014, is two feet thick and extends 300 feet into the limestone base. The dam is now considered safe by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. However, they say if the dam were being built today, it would not be built in its current area due to the nature of limestone and karst formations. 

Not far from Wolf Creek Dam is the Dale Hollow Dam which forms Dale Hollow Lake. Clinton County, Kentucky, sits between the two lakes with Dale Hollow to the south and Lake Cumberland to the North.

Rich in history, beautiful beyond belief, wild and rugged, a tremendous area for trout fishing, home to abundant wildlife and trees found nowhere else in the world, the Cumberland River and surrounding plateau have their enemies, TRASH, DEBRIS, and GRAFFITI. The trash is a result of human carelessness, laziness, and ignorance. The debris is a result of homes too close to the riverbanks and the graffiti is a result of stupidity and ignorance. There’s just no other way to phrase that one.  I end this little essay with a plea, if you swim the waters, or fish, or kayak or go white water rafting, if you live on the banks, or go on a picnic or a hike or do anything at all, please, please and PLEASE pick up your trash and don’t leave a mess behind you. It is a karst landscape which means everything finds its ways into the streams, caves, earth and waterways.

Original Photos:

Rowena, Kentucky, photo by Darlene Campbell

Cumberland Falls, first three photos by Scott Harris, fourth photo by Darlene Campbell

Big South Fork, photos by Darlene Campbell

Wolf Creek Dam, Photo by Scott Harris

Rock House Bottom/aka: Creelsboro Arch and Cumberland River, photos by Darlene Campbell

Left: Adair County, Kentucky, photo by Darlene Campbell. Left Paintsville, Kentucky in Johnson County, photo by Darlene Campbell and above: Old PennsStore in Casey County (part of the store and surrounding property are in Boyle and Marion Counties, as well.)


Explore Lake Cumberland [dc1]

Explore Cumberland Plateau [dc2]

Upper Cumberland Country by William Lynwood Montell–1993 University of Mississippi Press, Mississippi

Life in These River Hills by Mary Etta Neal–2006, Old Seventy Creek Press, Albany, Kentucky

A Wandering Tribe: Dispersal of the Catawba Nation 1800 to 1900 by Steven “Pony” Hill | 2016–Backntyme Publishing, Crofton, Kentucky

Cherokee by Blood, Volume 1, Applications 1-1550 Paperback – December 30, 2019; Jerry S. Wright

History of the Cherokee Indians by Emmett Starr, originally published 1929. Now available here:

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