American Indian towns and villages thrived for thousands of years along the rivers and within the valleys of Southeast Tennessee.
Archaeologists estimate that Tennessee was first occupied approximately 15,000 years ago. One of the tribes that inhabited the region was the Cherokee, who by 1700 claimed land that included parts of Southeast Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Much of the evidence of Cherokee life in Southeast Tennessee was virtually erased during the forced removals conducted by the U.S. government throughout the 1800s. In addition to wreaking havoc on the lives of the Cherokee and other tribes, the removals eradicated a cultural landscape that had existed for untold centuries. Homes and farms were pillaged and burned and household items sold, leaving little behind to tell the ancient story of American Indian life along the rivers and valleys of their homeland.
Despite this tragic chapter in American history, the legacy of the region’s native people continues through the natural, historical and cultural landscape of Southeast Tennessee. Historically significant sites throughout the region continue to emerge, offering a deeper understanding of the cultural heritage of the people who lived here prior to European settlement.
One such cultural treasure is the fish weir, a visible remnant of an ancient form of fishing practiced by the Cherokee and earlier inhabitants in the region.
A fish weir is a low wall of river cobbles built across the bed of a river, a V-shaped funnel that points downstream. Fish weirs were designed to obstruct the passage of fish. The flow of water would push the fish into the point of the V, where they could be captured with baskets, nets or traps.
"Rivers have been an important form of transportation, but these fish weirs were a wise use of rivers for food," said Dr. Dan Perlmutter, an aquatic ecologist and longtime fish weir enthusiast who is retired from Western Carolina University.
Perlmutter has canoed and kayaked a 7-mile section of the Little Tennessee River and discovered a dozen fish weirs within that stretch of river near historic Cowee Mound in North Carolina. Cowee Mound was the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the mountain Cherokee in the 18th century.
"These fish weirs obviously played an important role in supplying food for American Indian communities," Perlmutter said. "It is believed that the women would go out to the fish weirs and harvest the fish that were trapped."
Researchers think that fish weirs were controlled by the clans or villages that constructed them. Records indicate that the Cherokee would even lease the use of the weirs to early settlers. After land was taken from the Cherokee, government appraisers assigned dollar values to the fish weirs when calculating compensation due to the Cherokee.
At Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park in Delano, Tenn., an interpretive marker describes an ancient fish weir that is located in the Hiwassee River, just off the boat dock at the Gee Creek Campground. When the water is low, the V-shaped stone formation is easily seen in the riverbed. However, the Hiwassee River fish weir is missing a section that extended to the riverbank, most likely the result of boaters and swimmers who did not recognize the arrangement of stones as an archaeological feature.
The use of fish weirs was widespread throughout the Southeast, and many still exist in riverbeds today. Researchers have identified them in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia—and throughout the world. However, fish weirs in the Southeast have not been heavily researched or mapped.
Water enthusiasts are encouraged to keep an eye out for them but are asked not to disturb them because they are important archaeological features offering a rare link to the history of America’s native people.
"You can see fish weirs in low water, but not really in high water," Perlmutter said. "Look for a downstream-pointing V that stretches from one side of the river to the other."
Perlmutter is interested in hearing from anyone who has seen a fish weir in Southeast Tennessee.
"These features should be recorded in some fashion so we know how many of these things exist," he said.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see photos of various fish weirs in Georgia, click here.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor adventures and history in the Southeast. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.