Hiwassee River

The Hiwassee River has its headwaters on the north slope of Rocky Mountain in Towns County in the northern State of Georgia and flows northward into North Carolina before turning westward into Tennessee, flowing into the Tennessee River a few miles west of State Route 58 in Meigs County, Tennessee. The river is about 147 miles (237 km) long.[3]

Hiwassee River
Near the bridge of U.S. Highway 411 in Tennessee. Gee Knob and Chestnut Mountain are on the left.
The Hiwassee drainage basin
CountryUnited States
StateGeorgia, North Carolina, Tennessee
Physical characteristics
SourceNorth slope of Rocky Mountain in Towns County, Georgia[1][2]
  coordinates34°48′4″N 83°44′4″W[2]
  elevation3,640 ft (1,110 m)[1]
MouthTennessee River at Hiwassee Island in Meigs County, Tennessee
35°24′36″N 85°0′36″W[2]
682 ft (208 m)[2]
Length147 mi (237 km)[3][4]
Basin size2,700 sq mi (7,000 km2)[5]
  locationat the Apalachia Dam powerhouse, 53.2 miles (85.6 km) above the mouth(average for the years 1942-1979)[6]
  average2,431 cu ft/s (68.8 m3/s)(average for the years 1942-1979)[6]
  minimum30 cu ft/s (0.85 m3/s)
September 1955[6]
  maximum47,100 cu ft/s (1,330 m3/s)
May 1973[6]
Basin features
  leftNottely River, Ocoee River
  rightValley River


The river is dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in four locations, all in western North Carolina. Chatuge Dam, Mission Dam, Hiwassee Dam, and Apalachia Dam.[4] Water is diverted from the stream bed at Apalachia Dam and sent through a pipeline which is tunneled through the mountains for eight miles (13 km), then flows through the Apalachia Powerhouse to generate electricity. The stretch of the river that flows between Apalachia Dam and Apalachia Powerhouse features reduced flow and is followed by the John Muir Trail in Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest.

The 23-mile (37 km) stretch of river that flows from the North Carolina/Tennessee state line to U.S. Highway 411 near Delano is designated a State Scenic River (Class III Partially Developed River) and for recreational purposes is managed by the state Resource Management Division, in cooperation with TVA.[7]

The river features Class I through Class III rapids, depending on water levels.

After exiting the mountains through a gorge, the Hiwassee flows under US-411 and broadens, meandering through rural Polk and Bradley counties. The river crosses under U.S. Route 11 at Calhoun and Charleston, Tennessee, where local industries such as Bowater Newsprint Mill and Arch/Olin Chemical use river water in their operations. At this point the river interfaces with the impoundment of Chickamauga Dam (located in Chattanooga, Tennessee), and many marshes and wetlands surround the main channel, providing areas for hunting and fishing. The Hiwassee passes under Interstate 75 on the border of McMinn and Bradley counties. The Hiwassee continues westward to pass under TN-58's historic, and narrow, bridge (this bridge has been replaced with a wide and modern bridge) on its way to the confluence with the Tennessee River. This area of the river is enjoyed by boaters, fishermen, and water skiers.

Major tributaries include Valley River, Nottely River, Coker Creek, Big Lost Creek, Spring Creek, Conasauga Creek, and Toccoa/Ocoee River.


The Hiwassee River has been known by many variant spellings. The best-known of these is Hiawassee, which is also the name of the Georgia town through which the river flows. Other alternate spellings include Heia Wassea and Highwassee, and some less obvious related names include Eufasee, Eufassee, Euphasee and Quannessee. Some Cherokee say the name came from the Cherokee word Ayuhwasi, which means a meadow or savanna.[2] The Muskogee (Creek) say the river's name is the Koasati and Hitchiti, Creek language words for the copperhead snake. The river is known for its many copperheads, even today.


Various Muskogean-speaking ethnic groups occupied the region for many centuries before the arrival of the Cherokee. Tribes related to them include the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole (formed in the early 19th century).

Some historians originally thought that because the Europeans had encountered the Cherokee in the Hiwassee Valley in the 18th century, the latter people had occupied the territory for a much longer period, but this is not the case. Their language is Iroquoian and they are believed to have migrated at an earlier time from south of the Great Lakes region, where several other Iroquoian tribes have been based, including the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy).

Early Spanish contact

Spanish explorers visited the region in the 16th century. Hernando de Soto probably crossed the Hiwassee River near its confluence with the Tennessee River at Hiwassee Island, in the spring of 1541 AD. Juan Pardo probably followed a trail that paralleled the river in 1567 AD. All town names and indigenous words that were recorded by de Soto's chroniclers in present-day Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, can be easily translated by contemporary Muskogean dictionaries. Most of the words are of the Koasati and Hitchiti languages, but a few are Muskogean and Alabama words. None of the words are Cherokee.

The earliest European maps from the 17th century vaguely show the Hiwassee River Basin occupied by a mountain branch of the Apalachee and the Kusa. The Kusa (or Coosa in English) were one of the ancestral branches of the "Upper Creek" (or Muscogee). The Tama-tli of the Altamaha River Basin in southeastern Georgia are known to have had a colony in the valley between Andrews, North Carolina and the Hiwassee River at Murphy, North Carolina.

British colonial influences

The initial contacts by English explorers and traders in the 1690s found most of the river valley occupied by Muskogean and Yuchi towns. Cherokee villages were east and north of the river at this time. In 1714, two traders in South Carolina supplied the Cherokee with firearms and directed them to attack the Yuchi villages on the Hiwassee River. Most of the men in one Yuchi town were gone when the Cherokee attacked. Not having firearms, the remaining Yuchi were massacred.

In 1715, the Cherokee invited the leaders of the many Muskogean provinces that would eventually comprise the Creek Confederacy to a diplomatic conference at Tugaloo at the headwaters of the Savannah River. They murdered the Muskogean leaders in their sleep. This precipitated a 40-year-long war between the Creek and the Cherokee. Due to disunity among the Creek, the Cherokee were able to occupy the northeastern tip of what is now Georgia, but then was part of South Carolina. They drove the Muskogee and Yuchi from most of North Carolina west and south of the Hiwassee. Most of the branches of the Creek lost interest in this war after a few years.

18th century Cherokee homeland

The Hiwassee River and its tributaries were part of Cherokee territory in the early 18th century. A town known as "Hiwassee" (Ayuhwasi) was located near the mouth of Peachtree Creek near Murphy, North Carolina. The Valley River contained many Cherokee towns, sometimes collectively called the "Valley Towns", from today's Andrews, North Carolina, near the headwaters of Valley River to its mouth at Murphy. The Cherokee town known as Great Hiwassee (Ayuhwasi Egwahi) was located in today's Polk County, Tennessee, where the Hiwassee River emerges from the mountains.

The Indians had several "highways" which passed through the area. The Great Trading Path, the Overhill Trading Path, and the Unicoi Turnpike ran along much of the Hiwassee River. Another old path known as the Warrior Path ran from southern lands to Great Hiwassee and then up the Conasauga Creek to the Cherokee town known as Great Tellico.

The Kowita Creek (Muscogee), whose homeland was in the North Carolina mountains (east of present-day Franklin and south of Asheville), continued to fight the Cherokee by themselves. By the 1750s, the Kowita had developed such a powerful military machine that they could consistently defeat any branch of the Cherokee that they encountered. By 1755, they had destroyed all of the Cherokee towns in Georgia and in the Hiwassee Valley. The Kowita Taskimikko, or general, bragged to some English traders that he sent women and children in the front line against the Cherokee town of Quanesee, and that its people ran from the village without fighting. The archives of colonial Georgia, where this boast is recorded, hold a 1755 map created by John Mitchell and commissioned by the Colony of North Carolina. Over the entire southern half of western North Carolina and all of northeastern Georgia are the words, "Deserted Cherokee Towns."

In 1763, the Cherokee lost all of their lands in present-day North Carolina east of the 80th longitude line, which runs through Murphy and crosses the Hiwassee River there. This was punishment by the British for the Cherokee support of the French during the French and Indian War (known worldwide as the Seven Years' War). The line runs roughly 45 miles west of Cherokee, North Carolina.

The Creek agreed to give up their recently reconquered lands in North Carolina and Georgia in return for most of Alabama, which the French ceded to Great Britain after the war. The Cherokee were given lands in northwestern Georgia, which had been occupied by the Apalachicola, allies of the French.

American Revolutionary War effects

Some Cherokee families continued to live east of the Appalachians after 1763. But, at any time an Anglo-European settler could arrive on a Cherokee farmstead, and evict the Cherokee. In 1776 during the American Revolution, the Cherokee became allies of the British and massacred residents of frontier farmsteads across a broad swath of the Carolinas.

The counterattack by the Euro-American patriot militia left most of the remaining Cherokee towns in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia in ruins. The survivors initially fled into the Tennessee River valley in the vicinity of Chickamauga Creek in southeast Tennessee (present-day Chattanooga), and settled upriver of an old Muskogee/Kusa town, Citico on Chickamauga Creek, but within a decade had also settled in northwestern Georgia and northeastern Alabama. Some Chickamauga Cherokee returned to the Hiwassee Valley after the Revolution, but the center of the Cherokee culture by then had moved further south and west.

Later the Cherokee were divided over the government's proposal for removal to Indian Territory, with most opposing it. Following passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, US soldiers forced the Cherokee west on the Trail of Tears. They built internment camps along the Hiwassee River as government forces rounded up the people. One of the largest such camps was Fort Cass near present-day Charleston, Tennessee, on the south bank of the Hiwassee River.


The Hiwassee River passes through downtown Murphy, North Carolina, where it flows past a site famous in Cherokee Indian mythology. The legend tells of a house-sized leech that could command the waters and use them to sweep hapless people to the bottom of the river and consume them. It was known as Tlanusi-yi, "The Leech Place."

The river then flows west from North Carolina into Tennessee, and along the way, the river is popular for whitewater rafting, whitewater canoeing, and whitewater kayaking. Recreational fishing is popular with several outfitters located near the river, and there is also industrial activity along the river, such as paper mills.

The Hiwassee River flows under the large Interstate 75 bridge between McMinn and Bradley counties in Tennessee, which was the site of a fatal 99-vehicle accident in December 1990, during extremely foggy weather in the area of a paper mill in the valley.[8] During the years since then, a huge system of warning signs and lights has been built on that stretch of Interstate 75 to warn automobiles and trucks against incidents of foul weather, with heavy rains and clouds. Many serious collisions had occurred in this area.

See also


  • Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee (1900, repr. 1995)
  • Duncan, Barbara R. and Riggs, Brett H. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill (2003). ISBN 0-8078-5457-3


  1. U.S. Geological Survey. Tray Mountain quadrangle, Georgia. 1:24,000. 7.5 Minute Series. Washington D.C.: USGS, 1985.
  2. U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Hiwassee River
  3. "U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data". Viewer.nationalmap.gov. Archived from the original on April 5, 2012. Retrieved April 27, 2011.
  4. Hiwassee History
  5. U.S. Geological Survey, "Introduction to the Upper Tennessee River Basin," 11 January 2013. Accessed: 31 May 2015.
  6. United States Geological Survey, Water Resources Data Tennessee: Water Year 1979, Water Data Report TN-79-1, p. 199. Gaging station 03556500.
  7. "Scenic Rivers Program". Resource Management Division. Retrieved July 11, 2011.
  8. Note: Reduced visibility from naturally occurring fog contributed to the accident, which killed 12 people and injured 51.
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