Once you have spent some time in and around Fannin County you will start to notice the many reminders that pay homage to the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee are a noble people whose territory once encompassed nearly 20,000 acres throughout parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama until they were driven out by settlers and prospectors looking for gold.
The Cherokee were self-sufficient and agrarian (relating to fields, farms, or land ownership) in nature, so they were drawn to the fertile land and plentiful waters the Blue Ridge area of Fannin County offered them. At the time, it was very common to see thriving Cherokee settlements all along the Toccoa River, where they lived for hundreds of years before the Western European settlers arrived. While the Cherokee coexisted with the new settlers and took to many of their customs and practices, they still stayed true to their core beliefs, traditions, and way of life along the Toccoa River.
How the Cherokee caught fish from the Toccoa River
With the proximity to the river, it only made sense that the clever Cherokee would utilize the waters as a food source to help their culture and tribe prosper. Today, we are fortunate to still have access to some of their ingenious ideas and cultural treasures, including the remnants of an old “fish trap” north of Blue Ridge near McCaysville. Technically called a fish weir, the Cherokee used this contraption for their ancient form of fishing and were very successful.
A fish weir, by definition, is a low dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow; an enclosure of stakes set in a stream as a trap for fish. The old fish trap in Toccoa is a low wall made from river rocks instead of stakes, that forms a “V” shape that points downstream and traps the fish when they attempt to swim through it. Once the fish were caught up in the “V”, they were easily collected in baskets, nets or other clever traps by the Cherokee.
According to Dr. Dan Perlmutter, a retired aquatic ecologist from Western Carolina University, “Rivers have been an important form of transportation, but these fish weirs were a wise use of rivers for food. These fish weirs obviously played an important role in supplying food for American Indian communities and it is believed that the women would go out to the fish weirs and harvest the fish that were trapped.”
A profitable enterprise
Evidence shows that the fish weirs were controlled by the villages that constructed them and records even show that the Cherokee would lease the use of the weirs to early European settlers for a profit. The fish traps were so valuable, that after the land was taken from the Cherokee in 1838, the U.S. government actually assigned dollar values to each fish weir, which were considered when calculating what compensation was due to the Cherokee. Though the Cherokee were no longer present in Fannin County, the tradition of using weirs for fishing continued until 1877, when a law made it illegal to block waterways meant for commercial trade, and most fishing weirs were abandoned.
Today, the Cherokee live on in the North Georgia mountains through the locals who have Cherokee ancestors, the artisans who make beautiful artwork for local galleries and sell jewelry at mountain stores, and those who carry on treasured Cherokee customs.
Preserving history for future generations
When visiting McCaysville, be sure to check out the remains of the historic Cherokee fish weir and admire the ingenious ideas these early Blue Ridge inhabitants used to sustain their people and culture.
Please also help us protect this precious ancient treasure left behind by the Cherokee and respect the weir while boating or fishing in the area. The weir can be damaged if any of the rocks are moved to find bait or to allow access while kayaking or canoeing in the Toccoa River. It is our hope that we can help educate the public about the historical significance of these amazing Cherokee weirs and have the location of this and all Cherokee fish weirs added to local planning maps so steps can be taken to include their protection when adjacent property is developed in the future.