Cowee/Watauga Gap

Twenty Men Challenge a Battalion


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Coordinates: 35.2687, -83.2943.

Type: Stop
Tour: Cherokee
County: Jackson, Macon

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The coordinates place you on Victory Church Road off US 23/441. Drive past the church and its school to the kudzu-covered dead end.

The owner at the second stop, Gold City Gold Mine, has kindly agreed to let tour visitors use his parking lot. For some old-fashioned mining fun, souvenir stones, or beautiful jewelry, stop in.[1]


Man in a white tee shirt that says, "Just a Regulator Guy"

Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 1781"



Original Road

In retaliation for a series of attacks on settlements along the frontier by a faction of Cherokees, Patriot militia commanders from the Carolinas and Virginia launched coordinated campaigns to destroy native villages. You are standing in the footsteps of the Cherokees who took warnings to the Middle Towns about the North Carolina army of Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford, seeing the forested peaks they would have seen. The road you are on was built on top of the ancient trading path over what now is called both Cowee and Watauga Gap.

Photo of a narrow road leading toward a gap barely visible between two mountains
(AmRevNC photograph)

A detachment of about 1,000 of Rutherford’s part-time soldiers, an advance force under Col. Francis Locke, passed this spot around 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 7, 1776. They were trying to reach the villages on the Little Tennessee River before residents could evacuate. Locke’s militia, riding or perhaps leading horses, made their way up the narrow trail here. They had spotted some native men walking ahead of them, so they probably were alert to danger.

Defiance at the Gap

Drive back to US 23/441 and turn left. Climb to the top and on the other side of the gap, park at Gold City Gem Mine on the right.

Look uphill at the gap. The cut for the modern highway dropped the gap below where this action took place, which was at the ground level toward the top of the “V” shape in the picture below.

About 20 warriors, likely retreating from the valley of the Tuckaseegee River (near modern Webster), awaited the approaching militia on this side of the gap. When they got within 50 yards or less, the Cherokees rose up and fired a single musket volley at the column.

Photo of a deep V-shaped gap in a forested moutain ridge, with a four-lane highway running through it
(AmRevNC photograph)

One man, Private Billy Alexander, fell to the ground with a cry of pain, clutching his foot.[2] The rest of the militia at the front spread out as best they could, preparing their guns. However, the natives wisely disappeared into the woods to the right and down a smaller trail across Watauga Creek, in the ravine on the far side of the modern highway. The first of the militia soldiers clambered up to the gap, but arrived too late.

Photo of apparent trail cleared through kudzu on old road looking downhill
(AmRevNC photograph)

The militia paused long enough to bandage Alexander and put him on a litter; they had no wagons, so he may have made the rest of the trip that way.[3] They confiscated a few kettles from the Cherokees’ campsite and marched past you on the main trail.[4]

A day later the rest of Rutherford’s army, another 1,400 men, crosses the gap with hundreds of slow-moving packhorses and cattle wending up the steep, narrow trail.

After destroying dozens of villages, the army passed back in the other direction on Monday, September 30, riding between today’s Franklin and Webster.

More Information

[1] Curt Rhoades, In-person interview, 8/25/2020.

[2] Lamar 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In addition to the other footnoted sources, “Stop” information comes from one of two guidebooks; NCpedia; the online essay for the relevant North Carolina Highway Marker; and related Sight pages (see “About Sources“).

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