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Green River Preserve: Battle at the Headwaters
Sandy Schenck, and his wife, Missy, permanently protected more than 2,600 acres of their Green River Preserve (GRP), a summer camp in southwest Henderson County, with a conservation easement held by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy in 2006.
The Preserve is more than worthy of permanent conservation. But the Schencks protected GRP for more than its abundant natural resources. For them, it was also about preserving the history so deeply ingrained in its mountains, the heritage that lingers in its hollows, and the past generations that haunt the valley.
“We’re protecting the land but we’re losing the stories,” Schenck admitted. So for nearly two decades, it has been his mission to preserve the past at GRP by collecting its timeless lore. He enthusiastically shares these tales with the children who attend his camp. Like he has for the land itself, Schenck is ensuring that the history at GRP is passed on to the next generation. He hopes that they can learn from it, too.
The Green River Valley is steeped in heritage bestowed by both Native Americans and European settlers. One of the valley’s most fascinating stories involves a conflict between them. And while it is not a happy tale, it is one that should remind us that this land was cherished by many—enough to fight for it with tragic results.
The story involves one of the last Cherokee encampments in the Green River Valley. The tale was personified in Robert Morgan’s fictional anthology The Mountain’s Won’t Remember Us. His story, Headwaters, is a harrowing first-hand account of a young white boy’s role in the struggle against the valley’s few remaining Native Americans.
To best convey its history, I will reference both Schenck’s and Morgan’s stories. While Morgan’s version is a work of fiction, its basis was a very real event. It was Clyde Morgan, Robert’s father, who first told Schenck the story—the same one told to Robert.
According to Schenck, the event took place between 1812 an 1815. It was a period when white settlers were steadily moving into the valley and was a time of dramatic change. Many Native Americans had left upon the settlers’ arrival, but several still remained on the land that they had called home for generations.
Today we can only speculate on the reasons that newly arrived white residents decided they no longer wished to co-exist with remaining natives of the valley. Schenck suggested it was to drive off non-Christians, while Morgan’s story implied that the settlers believed Native Americans were stealing from and harassing them.
What we do know is that one day they decided to act and a group of men convened in the lower valley—near where the Cedar Springs Church stands today. “As the story goes, everybody got their rifles,” explained Schenck. “The idea was to scare the Cherokee out of the valley. It wasn’t to kill them.”
Morgan’s story details the party traveling up the valley at night by lantern light. Their intent was to surprise the Cherokee at their camp at the very head of the river. The road—today Green River Road—was “only a track” back then. Their journey was six miles to the headwaters. About halfway they stopped at a conspicuously large boulder. There, they prayed for safety and guidance. The rock, which still stands adjacent to Green River Road inside the Preserve, is known as “Prayer Rock” among locals today.
The settlers’ militia finally reached what Morgan refers to as “Old Fields”. At the time, the field was full of corn farmed by the Native Americans and it hosted a Cherokee lodge. A rustic structure “propped up by poles and covered with bark”, the Native Americans were inside, fast asleep. “The word was passed down from rifleman to rifleman–many of which were young boys–to shoot into the lodge,” said Schenck. A bloody battle ensued—perhaps one more violent than the settlers had intended.
Morgan’s description of the skirmish is haunting. “In the still of the morning it sounded like a thousand cannons started firing as the echoes bounced off the mountains and rattled around,” he wrote. While fictionalized, the imagery in his story cannot be far from what the participants actually experienced during the battle. Morgan depicts the experience as felt by the young boy mustered into combat, “[There] was firing and screams all around…and so much smoke it was hard to see.” Many Cherokee were killed. Presumably, most of the Native Americans that remained were driven off of the land in fear as the settlers intended.
While evidence of Europeans settlers in the Green River Valley is now more visible, Native Americans left an equally lasting presence on the land. The field where the battle took place still exists in the center of Green River Preserve’s base camp. “To this day, there are artifacts all over the ground,” said Schenck. “This field was used for thousands of years. We have found spear points on the site dated to 7000BC—that means there have been 9,000 years of human occupation right here at the camp.”
Perhaps that’s why the field arouses such positive emotions to visitors today, despite the tragedy that once occurred there. He feels its strong energy frequently, as do many of the campers. I have unquestionably felt it among my visits to Green River Preserve—a feeling of warmness and content that came over me. It is a feeling of not wanting to leave. Above all, it is a feeling of peace.
Maybe the generations that called this land home for so long are pleased that it has been protected—both physically and spiritually. Maybe they are happy with the appreciation for nature and the preservation of heritage that is instilled among so many young minds every summer, year after year, at GRP. Or maybe they are content to know that people have not forgotten them, and never will.
While the struggle at GRP two centuries ago was tragic, Schenck continues to tell its story so that the presence of the Native American people among the headwaters of the Green River will never be forgotten—and will continue to live on like it always should have. Schenck is achieving his goal: he has saved more than the land.
Visit the Green River Preserve website to learn more about the camp and opportunities for children.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator