During the Revolutionary War, South Carolina militiamen targeted Cherokee outposts aligned with the British. Pushing through Rabun Gap, they attacked and destroyed a Cherokee settlement near present day Franklin, NC. Marching onward, they went to Quo-neashee (Hiawassee Town) and overcame the Cherokees there. They faced southward, and going on the Unicoi Trail across the Gap, they were wary of possible ambush from the enemy hiding in the laurel thickets. In a journal of the militia’s expedition, they told of sixteen stream crossings from the foot of the mountain on the north side to the Chota settlement in the Nacoochee Valley.
With the Revolution won, America began to make treaties with the Indians to claim the area of the mountains that formerly held Cherokee settlements aligned with the British. A peace settlement was made with the Cherokee nation about 1795. Through various treaties after that, portions of land were opened up for white settlement.
Negotiations began for a permanent road or turnpike following rather closely the Old Unicoi Trail from Augusta to Maryville, Tennessee. In 1812 Georgia’s General Assembly requested approval from the federal government for establishing the road. In March, 1813, the US Cherokee Agency in Tennessee signed a treaty for work on the road to begin. The Unicoi Turnpike Company had charge of both construction and management and the Cherokees were to be paid $160.00 per year for a period of twenty years for use of the land that comprised the road.
In 1816, Georgia officially chartered the road and set tolls for its use. It is interesting to read the tolls compiled in Lucius Q. C. Lamar’s Compilation of the Laws of the State of Georgia, 1810-1819, Act # 489, pages 774-776: ‘For every man and horse, 12 and 1/2 cents; for every led horse not in a drove, 6 and 1/4 cents; for every loose horse in a drove, 4 cents; for every foot man, 6 and 1/4 cents; for every waggon (sic) and team, one dollar; for every coach, chariot, other four-wheel carriage, chaise, chair or other carriage of pleasure, one dollar and twenty-five cents; for every two-wheel carriage (etc.) for pleasure, seventy-five cents; for every cart and team, fifty cents; for each head of cattle, two cents; for each head of sheep, goats, or lambs, one cent; and for each head of hogs, one cent.”
Where feasible, the roadbed was dug out following the ancient trail. It was required to be twenty feet wide, twelve feet wide where bridges or stream crossings occurred. Only hand tools were used to grade the route. It was tedious, back-breaking work, and required much longer than anticipated. The work started on the road in March, 1814. The Georgia Legislature had asked for completion in 1817, but had to renegotiate for the road to open in November 1818. The Tennessee crews were having the same delays. The road finally opened for full operation in 1819, and was advertised as “a safe route and with as much convenience as any other road through Cherokee Country” (from a brochure by Robert Bouwman, Traveler’s Rest and Tugaloo Crossroads by Georgia Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites, 1980). There was irony in this advertisement about the Unicoi Turnpike, because there was no ‘other road’ offering competition at that time.
Financial troubles beset the Unicoi Turnpike Company. The Georgia Legislature “loaned” the company $3,000 in 1821. The Cherokees complained that the promised $160 per year had not been paid their agency. In its early years, the Unicoi Turnpike was 150 miles in length. Road houses and accommodations sprang up about every twelve miles along the road, as that was about the distance that could be made in one day with droves of animals for market, or a covered wagon loaded with goods.
Our earliest ancestors came over the Unicoi Turnpike, settling first in areas of Habersham County in the late 1820s. In 1828, gold was found on Duke’s Creek. Then the busiest period of the Unicoi Turnpike opened with prospectors, miners, land-lot and gold-lot claimers going to Nacoochee Valley to settle. A virtual stampede of travelers traversed the Unicoi Turnpike to what they considered a land of promise. It was a vital route for Georgia’s economy in the mountain area and a “shining white road” to new lands and fulfilled aspirations for our ancestors.
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published October 6, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.