Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Monday, February 15, 2010

Track Rock Gap – “Datsu’nalsagun’ylu” – Cherokee for “Where there are tracks”

I first saw the rocks with etched figures at Track Rock Gap when I was a child. My father took my younger brother and me there one Sunday afternoon. It was a long trip from our home at Choestoe, some five or more miles away. That adventure of exploration began a sense of curiosity about things prehistoric that has not waned. Since then, I’ve read whatever I could find about the tracks in rocks, and still the answers as to their origins are buried in antiquity.

The Georgia Historical marker placed at the site in 1998 gives ideas about the petroglyph on the large soapstone rocks. Dr. Matthew F. Stephenson who was an assayer of the U.S. Government and served as Director of the Branch Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia. visited the site and wrote about it in 1834. This was before all the Cherokee had been moved out of the area. He admitted to his own vandalism of chiseling off some of the soapstone petroglyph to take with him. In his journal, he tells the experience of visiting Track Rock Gap.

“As we approached it (the mountain), the heavens, which for several days and nights had worn a brightened countenance, began to scowl and threaten…We advanced with quickened pace to the foot of the rock…then commenced the lifting out of one of the tracks. Notwithstanding, I believe I possess as little superstition as anyone. Yet I could not suppress a strange sensation that pervaded me…The first strokes of the hammer were responded to by a large peal of thunder…and the most vivid lightning…soon a deluge of rain was precipitated upon our offending heads.

“I continued, however, to labor until I succeeded in disintegrating the impression of a youth’s foot, which I carefully wrapped up, and prepared to leave…looking backward in momentary expectation to take vengeance…As I passed the confines of the mountains, the rain ceased, the sun broke out, and all nature resumed her cheerful aspect.” [Reprinted in Souther Family History by Watson B. Dyer, 1988, p. 419).

In 1867, John Muir, conservationist and naturalist, took an unprecedented journey by foot which he called his “1,000-Mile Walk to the Gulf.” On that trip, he was told by a sort of self-appointed guide, a mountaineer in the area, of the petroglyph on rocks in a Gap in the North Georgia mountains.

Muir wrote this in his diary: “September 19. Received another solemn warning of dangers on my way through the mountains. Was told by my worthy entertainer of a wondrous gap in the mountains which he advised me to see. ‘It is called Track Gap,’ said he, ‘from the great number of tracks in the rocks. Bird tracks, bar tracks, hoss tracks, men tracks, all in solid rock as it it had been mud.’ “

Archaeologists disagree about the dating of the stones. The historical marker placed by the Georgia Department of natural Resources states that speculation as to the origin of the carved figures is anywhere from 8,000 to 1,000 B. C., the Archaic Period, or even younger, the Woodland Period, (1,000 B. C. to 900 A. D.), or the Mississippian Period (900 – 1500 A. D.) or even the Cherokee who were the last Native Americans to inhabit the Gap.

James Mooney in his history and legends of the Cherokee, gives several explanations relative to the Cherokee period. One is that the rocks were etched by Cherokee hunters as they rested in the gap, leaving behind etchings that are a sort of graffiti.

Other myths about the soapstone markings are that the tracks were made by animals as they were driven through the gap. And even farther back, when the earth was young, that the great canoe that carried two of everything during the earth’s destructive flood came to rest on the rocks while they were soft, and the animals alighted, thus to leave the imprints.

If, indeed, the etchings are a part of Native Americans’ belief systems, those symbols can be found. Their meanings are given:

Human Figure – etched in a trance-like position – worship, submission

Tracks of animals and birds- spiritual helpers of mankind, indication of spiritual flight

Circle and Cross- four directions (N, S, E, W) on earth, or the winds

Dual cup and oval – fertility

Oval and bar – fertility

Feet-travel – travel to the spirit world

Cup holes – place where corn, other hard food, medicine or paint were ground; fertility rituals

Concentric circles – Sun Symbols, entrance to the spirit world.

Time, the elements and vandals to the site have all combined to remove portions of six large boulders on which were once prominently displayed these mysterious petroglyph. But a visit along the old Cherokee Indian Trail at Track rock Gap should still excite the curiosity of anyone who sees the markings.

An old tradition holds that it always rains when anyone visits the spot. The Cherokee believe that the Great Spirit dwelt in the hills above Track Rock Gap, and when anyone intending harm to the sacred grounds intruded, his displeasure was demonstrated by a violent and frightful storm.

According to Matthew F. Stephenson, that indeed did happen in 1834 when he removed a portion of the stone.

Another myth recounts how the Great Canoe came to rest on the soapstone rocks following earth’s great flood. It says, too, that on moonlit nights, ghosts of those who were not saved from the flood can be seen dancing on the rocks, forever lamenting their failure to take safety when warned that a flood would destroy them.

As a young child, I was fascinated by the Track Rock and the stories Dad told me of the place. Today, as I revisit it and take friends to see the petroglyph, I am still awed at the “Datsu’nalsagun’ylu”—where there are tracks; and “Degayeelun’ha” (printed, branded place).

Walk carefully there. It is sacred ground.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Sept. 4, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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