Old Fort: the name says it. It is indeed one of the oldest towns in western North Carolina, and it was originally a fort, built by the colonial militia before the Declaration of Independence. Once called “Gateway to the West,” the settlement served as the westernmost outpost of the early Thirteen Colonies.
Frequent skirmishes between the Scots-Irish settlers and the Cherokee and Catawba tribes took place along the banks of Mill Creek, which runs through the center of town. There is an old law still on the books that requires any traveler between Marion and Old Fort to notify the Constable of their intended trip and expected arrival time.
If a traveler was late, it was assumed that they had run into trouble, and a search party would be dispatched from the fort to rescue them.
The Native Americans, for their part, were so alarmed by the incursion of pioneers into their lands that they allied themselves with their old enemies the British in 1776.
Reacting to particularly heavy attacks on Old Fort that year, in late July American General Griffith Rutherford led 2,400 men out of Asheville to invade Cherokee country. Rutherford was joined by Colonel Andrew Williamson, supplying South Carolina troops, and Colonel William Christian with Virginia troops. The army slashed and burned all the way to what is now Murphy, destroying 32 Indian towns and villages. This expedition broke the power of the Cherokee and forced them to sue for peace.
Rather than raise a victory monument commemorating these early battles, the early twentieth century town fathers of Old Fort, perhaps in awareness of the lingering pall cast by the Trail of Tears episode, saw fit to instead create a monument to honor the ‘peace’ between the pioneers and the Native Americans.
And so in 1930, on the same date General Rutherford had originally set out on his march, the Arrowhead Monument on Highway 70 near the Southern Railway Depot was presented, with appropriate ceremonies. Nine year old Margaret Marie Nesbitt, who unveiled the marker, was the great-great granddaughter of Mrs. Martha Burgin, the only white child born in the fort.
Twenty Indians, representing the Cherokee and Catawba tribes, were seated on the speakers’ platform. The two tribes, at one time bitter enemies, formally smoked the pipe of peace while 6,000 persons looked on.
The arrowhead, which was chiseled out of a slab of pink granite at nearby Salisbury Quarries, stands 14-1/2 feet in height on a river rock and cement base of slightly more than fifteen feet. One face of the arrow is adorned by crossed tomahawks, crossed muzzle-loading rifles, and a powder horn. The other side carries a profile of Chief Sequoia.
A brass tablet attached to the arrowhead bears the inscription: “This marks the site of the Old Indian Fort built A. D. 1756, the western outpost of the United States and North Carolina until 1776.”
Actually the arrowhead is not on the site of the original fort, which was located approximately where the Mountain Gateway Museum stands today.
A Popular History of Western North Carolina, by Rob Neufeld, The History Press, 2007