Roads passing through Clayton—Highways 441/23 and 76 and Warwoman Road—are daily reminders of a distant past when the Appalachians in northeastern Georgia were known as the Cherokee Mountains. And in the land that became Rabun County, the major Cherokee trails, which are now our highways and byways, converged at The Dividings in present-day Clayton.
Early explorers and settlers classified the Cherokee into three groupings, depending on their location and dialect: Lower, Middle, and Over-the-Hill. Rabun County was home to at least four Cherokee settlements. A Middle settlement was located on Stekoa Creek, southeast of Clayton. An Over-the-Hill settlement called Tallulah was situated on the upper portion of the Tallulah River to the west. Two other Cherokee settlements are of unknown grouping: Chicherohe (Chechero), located along Warwoman Creek east of Clayton and destroyed during the Revolutionary War, and Eastertoy (Estatowee) several miles to the north near Dillard.
There is no evidence that The Dividings was a Cherokee settlement. Instead, it was a key intersection of five major Indian trails that linked the Cherokee in and around Rabun County to such points south as Charleston, Augusta and Savannah and areas to the north in western North Carolina and Virginia.
Clayton’s Warwoman Road follows one of these trails. (Route marked A on accompanying map). Running eastward out of The Dividings, the trail passed through the Cherokee settlement of Chicherohe and followed Warwoman Creek to a ford across the Chattooga River into South Carolina. It then proceeded over the Oconnee Mountains and branched into trails leading to Charleston and Virginia. Warwoman was an honored title among the Cherokee. It was their custom to take a woman along on war parties to cook and sew. When one proved her mettle on multiple expeditions, she was given the honorific “Warwoman.”
A second major Cherokee trail out of The Dividings led to the southeast toward South Carolina. Highway 76 East from Clayton follows this trail today. (Route B on map).
Highway 441/23 heading north from present-day Clayton was built upon a third Cherokee trail out of The Dividings. (Route C on map). The trail, which connected Cherokee settlements around Franklin, North Carolina, passed through Mountain City, originally known as Pass Over since it was located in the valley passing through the Blue Ridge. The trail then proceeded through Rabun Gap and on to Franklin. In 1827 the Georgia legislature appropriated money for the construction of a north-south road through Rabun County. Following Cherokee trails, this road was known as the Locust Stake Road since a locust stake marked the end of the road at the North Carolina state line. The legislature mandated that all people living within five miles of the road were liable to help with its construction.
Highway 441/23 South follows a fourth Cherokee trail out of The Dividings. (Route D on map). After about one and one-half miles south of The Dividings, the trail branched into two paths. One branch led to the southwest, following the course of the old Tallulah Falls Railroad to Tallulah Falls and then to South Carolina. The second branch led south to Toccoa and then to Augusta and Savannah.
Highway 76 West follows the fifth Cherokee Trail out of The Dividings. (Route E on map). Known as the Hiawassee Trail, it led westward through the valley along Timpson Creek, crossed the Tallulah River at a point that is now the northernmost arm of Lake Burton, and proceeded to northwest Georgia. There is some evidence to suggest that Timpson Creek was named for John Timson, a Cherokee who allegedly was the first convert of Baptist missionaries in this area.
Although not technically a part of The Dividings, a sixth major Cherokee trail in Rabun County connected present-day Rabun Gap on the trail headed north from The Dividings with the Hiawassee Trail to the southwest. (Route F on map).This is thought to have been a short-cut from Cherokee settlements around Franklin, N.C. to points west.
Fast-forward several hundred years. The land that became Rabun County was ceded (a polite term for a forced transaction) by the Cherokee to the state of Georgia in 1819. The county, named after Governor William Rabun, was organized later that year. Claytonsville, named after a prominent jurist and congressman, Judge Augustin S. Clayton, was founded 1821 as the county seat. The town was incorporated in 1823 and renamed Clayton.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the federal government the power to exchange Native-held land east of the Mississippi for land to the west in the Indian Territory, now present-day Oklahoma. By 1838, only about 2,000 Cherokee had left their Georgia homeland for Indian Territory. President Martin Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott and 7,000 soldiers to expedite the removal process. They marched the Indians more than 1,200 miles to Indian Territory. Whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation were epidemic along the way, and historians estimate that more than 5,000 Cherokee died on the infamous Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee are gone from northeast Georgia. The Dividings became Clayton. But a visible part of Rabun County’s Indian heritage lives on. We drive on Cherokee trails every day.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in February 2020.