The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is dotted with well-preserved conclaves of cabins and barns. And the occasional mill or silo. Places like Cades Cove or Greenbrier or Roaring Fork serve as reminders of life in the mountains in the decades leading up to the formation of the park. And as we walk through these places, running our hands along the rough-hewn wood, feeling the planks creaking beneath our feet and feeling the crisp breath of a breeze blowing through, we try to imagine ourselves living in such a time and such a place.
But it is impossible for most of us. It was so long ago, we tell ourselves. But Ii wasn’t that long ago. We’ve been fooled by the acceleration of technology, by the quickened march of time over the last century and a half. We lie to ourselves and pretend the first European settler in the Cove is ancient history. But it’s not.
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The Olivers only arrived at the Cove in the early 1800s
John Oliver and his wife arrived in the Cove in 1818. In truth, they were half-tricked into traveling there by a partner who was driving a herd to the Cove that wouldn’t arrive until spring. As a result, Oliver and his wife were lucky enough to survive the winter. John Oliver passed away in 1864. His wife Lurena in 1888. Their youngest child lived until 1912.
Sokklkk we find ourselves in an era past the Civil War to the time of the Titanic. Their longest-living grandchild lived to 1960 – moving us through two World Wars and Korea into Vietnam. Therefore, John Oliver, born in the 1700s, had a grandchild who lived almost long enough to see the moon landing. Their great-grandchild – Rutha Mae Ramsey O’Daniel – lived until 2010. That’s four generations of a family that carries us from horse and wagon over the mountains to the iPhone.
We walk through the villages of our ancestors thinking we’re studying the great history of the mountains. However, in reality, we’ve only moved forward a couple of clicks on the great celestial clock of time. There is so much more to the history of the mountains. And we only brush the surface. The truth is, the great story of the true people of the mountains goes under-told, underrepresented and often misunderstood. It goes back eons and is truly ancient. It’s preserved in the stories of the people called the Cherokee by the settlers who arrived in the mountains not that long ago.
The Cherokee legend of Atagahi, the enchanted lake
The Cherokee – like the other peoples of the world – examined the world around them and over time developed traditions and folklore that explained the world and their people’s great place within it. One such story is that of Atagahi (Atagâ’hï), the secret lake. Atagahi, which means Gall Place, is a legendary hidden lake deep in the high mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee. It cannot be seen unless the proper preparations are made. Fish and fowl in this paradise teeming with wildlife are not to be hunted or disturbed in any way. Only a select few are allowed to see the lake.
How the Cherokee believed the lake would reveal itself
Those seeking Atagahi should fast and pray, heightening their spiritual development. A seeker can only be led there by the sound of the wings of the fowl and birds flying by. If someone finds the right spot but hasn’t followed the sound, they will find only a dry mudflat and not be blessed with seeing the sacred waters. One of the Cherokee stories involved a young brave who seeks the secret lake but not to hunt or fish. He is granted access and marks the spot with a pile of rocks. That winter things turn rough for his people who are starving. Reluctantly, he returns to Atagahi and shoots a bear with his arrow. The bear falls into the waters and emerges unharmed, telling the brave he has violated his sacred oath.
The legend of Utani, Netani and Atagahi Lake
Another story involves a young brave named Utani, who is admiring his new knife gleaming in the sun when his sister’s shadow gets in the way. He commands his older sister, Netani, to move, which she does but wants to know why. Utani, not wanting to admit he was enthralled with the glint of his knife, tells his sister the sun is sending him a message about the way to find Atagahi.
Netani is excited and wants to find the secret lake and – like George Constanza takes his ex-in-laws to visit a nonexistent house in the Hamptons. Utani refuses to admit his lie and leads his sister into the forest. After a long hike, the two are tired and hungry. The sister asks to go back and try again the next day. Utani happily agrees.
But as they turn on the trail, they knock a rock down the embankment and hear a splash. They’ve found the mystical lake after all. They saw the multitudes of waterfowl and birds. The lake was hidden by trees and bushes but ringed with crystal clear springs that bubbled up and fed the waters which were filled with fish and reptiles. Afterward, they returned home – after dark – to a worried village. Netani explained the sun had sent a message to her brother through glints on his knife and they’d found Atagahi. They were laughed at and not believed but they knew the secret location and could return. It is said that travelers who are near the secret lake may spot a young Cherokee brother and sister kicking pebbles down the bank along the trail.
Have you heard of the legend of Atagahi Lake? Let us know in the comments!