Who haunts Lover’s Leap?
by Rob Neufeld
Her name, Mist-on-the-Mountain, suggests that the story has been manufactured.
Sally Royce Weir, staying at the Mountain Park Hotel at the springs around 1903—“hot, warm, tepid, and cold mineral baths!”—was a local color writer. She collected and embellished stereotyped tales, including one about an Indian love triangle, which, as it turns out, holds deeper truth.
On “a lovely, bright June night when the full moon was rising over Round Top, Mist-on-the-Mountain left the camp, and stealthily made her way to the foot of this towering rock,” Weir intones.
The girl had gone to elope with Magwa, a boy from a visiting tribe, and when she witnessed Tall Pine, the man to whom she was promised, kill Magwa upon his arrival by canoe, she fled up the mountain, with Tall Pine in pursuit.
“The step is close behind her now, a hand is stretched out to grab her” Weir writes breathlessly, “but with a glad call to her lover”—whose body and spirit are floating toward the Smokies—“she has sprung far out from the extreme point of the rock on which she stands.”
Tall Pine, accursed, stumbles down the path and is killed by a panther.
Weir says that Magwa’s tribe had walked for “three moons” to visit Mist-on-the-Mountain’s father, the local chief; that they had come from the Great Lakes; and that their gifts had included copper items.
In truth, Cherokee traded, allied, and intermarried with people as distant as the Ottawas.
“Gulf and Atlantic marine shell, Lake Superior copper, and Appalachian soapstone have been found distributed far from their source areas,” Jefferson Chapman writes in his book, “Tellico Archaeology.”
Alliances and meetings with other Indian nations took place throughout the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, as Cherokees were put in the position of picking sides. In June 1776, when American colonists, inflamed by propaganda, decided that the Cherokee were to be exterminated rather than courted, Dragging Canoe, the leading Cherokee war chief, hosted a delegation of Shawnee, Ottawa, Mohawk, Delaware, and Mingo warriors at Chota (present-day Vonore TN).
“The principal Deputy of the Ottowas produced a white Belt with some purple figures,” Henry Stuart, British Deputy Superintendent for Indian Affairs, reported at the time. Other chiefs did likewise, with the wish that “every Nation…drop all their former quarrels and…join in one common cause.”
Dragging Canoe received the belts and struck the war pole.
Nancy Ward, his cousin, according to many accounts, warned the white settlers and prevented massacres. Robert Conley, in “Cherokee Dragon,” his thoroughly researched novel about Dragging Canoe, pictures the moment, in 1756, when Dragging Canoe had first learned about Nanyehi’s marriage to the white trader, Bryan Ward.
As children, the cousins had competed against each other in woodland play. Recently, they’d fought side by side against the Creek when Nanyehi had taken up the charge of her first husband, Kingfisher, killed on the battlefield.
“So she’s following the ways of the white man,” Dragging Canoe says to his father, Ada-gal’kala, in Conley’s novel. “Will their children then be called Ward?”
“I’m sure they will be,” Ada-gal’kala replies. “It’s always that way when our women marry white men.”
Assimilation was proceeding on many fronts, and even Ada-gal’kala’s mentoring of his son was a displacement of the maternal uncle’s role in traditional Cherokee society.
Earlier on in “Cherokee Dragon,” Conley recalls the year of Nanyehi’s birth, when there had been a devastating smallpox epidemic.
“Some patients were then given sweat baths and taken immediately to the nearest river or stream and plunged into the cold water where they died at once,” Conley writes. People were at a loss for a cure. Some considered the affliction a punishment for errors in dealing with colonists—too much assimilation or too much violence.
Many survivors, “now horribly scarred by the terrible disease, looking into mirrors at their disfigured faces, threw themselves off mountainsides.”
Illustration of Lover’s Leap from the 1902 tourist book, “With Pen and Camera thro’ ‘The Land of the Sky,’” written by Holman T. Waldron.