EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a publishing partnership between the Richmond Register and the Eastern Progress.
A group of historians have joined sociology students and faculty at Eastern Kentucky University to study and celebrate an ancient Appalachian trail called The Warrior's Path.
Stretching from the Gulf of Mexico through to the Great Lakes, The Warrior's Path is a 12,000-year-old commerce trail which touches several surrounding counties like Jackson, Clay, Estill, and Owsley Counties. The trail was first used long before Native Americans or Europeans settled on the land. It is believed to have been broken by the mastodon, an ancestor of the wooly mammoth.
Despite its fearsome name, the Warrior's Path was primarily used for commerce and hunting. The Adena and Hopewell tribes were the first groups of indigenous people in Kentucky. Seashells and minerals originating hundreds of miles away have been found on the trail in Kentucky.
"What fascinated me about The Warrior's Path was the type of artifacts that were being found, not only in our region, but artifacts that came from our region that were found as far as the Great Lakes, Florida, and Montana. There has always been that myth and fallacy that Native Americans never lived in Kentucky. In truth, they lived here for 12,000 years," Max Hammond, executive director of The Warrior's Path Project, said. "It connected this diverse group of people in, what was really, a trail of peace. The term 'Warrior's Path' is somewhat of a misnomer... We're going to tell the true history of the first Appalachians. The forgotten Appalachians - the Native Americans. Not only will we tell their story, we'll show the complete story of Appalachia from 12,000 years ago up through the present times."
In a more recent span of the last 300 years, The Warrior's Path got its name. It was originally called "Athiamiowee," which roughly translates to "path of the armed ones" due to both the Shawnee and Cherokee tribes making use of the trail. The two tribes would often battle each other on the trail. Hammond estimates the tribe was mostly used for commerce for the first 11,700 years of its history.
The Warrior's Path Project was created by Hammond and a group of other local historians, including Judy Schmitt of Jackson County. They hope to make The Warrior's Path a nationally recognized trail in Kentucky. As of now, the only marker recognizing the path is a single maker in Jackson County. Schmitt said a trip to Tennessee inspired her to begin doing some research.
"When I traveled through Tennessee I saw they had The Warrior's Path designated as a national city byway. That's when it started clicking in my head that I heard The Warrior's Path goes through Jackson County but I didn't know a lot about it," Schmitt said. "I started researching it and saw that there is some technical assistance through the National Parks Service that creates designated city byways and national heritage trails. I contacted them and they led me through the process to get that assistance and it took several years; but we got them on board. Through a mutual friend I met Max."
Schmitt said she and Hammond are not sure where all the path goes in Jackson County, but are working and researching to find out.
The collaboration between the folks behind The Warrior's Path Project and Eastern Kentucky University began based on a connection between Sociology Professor Dr. Stephanie McSpirit and Hammond on a documentary called "The Horse that Built Kentucky." They reunited to work on The Warrior's Path alongside sociology students Mora Rehm and Bryan Caldwell.
Rehm, Caldwell, and McSpirit have put together an interactive map of The Warrior's Path which documents Caldwell's time traveling on the path with several members of the The Warrior's Path Project. The map features pictures taken from their journey, as well as written and spoken posts from Caldwell talking about the experience. It is an ongoing project which will see more additions added as the group makes more stops on The Warrior's Path.
Their trip cut through several counties and sites like the Cumberland Gap, Flat Lick, and Red Bird.
"It was a great experience. It was just three days, there wasn't too much walking. It was mostly driving along the closest route we could find to The Warrior's Path. We visited some of the most important sites along the path," Caldwell said. "We visited Flat Lick, which is where the Warrior's Path, the Wilderness Trail, and Boone's Trace all meet on their way to the Cumberland Gap... Every location we went to had this immense sense of history on it because you can feel the thousands of years of people who had come before you walking along the path."
Twelve thousand years is a long time. For every stop they made on the new path, Caldwell discovered new stories that have grown over the course of The Warrior's Path's ancient history.
"There's lots of systems of knowledge that are undervalued or degraded, particularly when they come from indigenous communities or Appalachians. Part of this research project is to really intentionally center the people it intends to serve. This is community based -- of course the archaeological findings are very important to build a path, but connecting with the people and informing that story as a co-creator is immensely valuable to the work we do. And that's why we've partnered with the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commision," Rehm said.
That partnership with the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission comes to make sure that the story being unearthed by the group is accurate and properly represented. Rehm continued, noting that the people they would meet as they chronicled that very story would have a profound impact on it.
"As we form citizens as co-creators, particularly as we expand this map to chart the entire trail beyond what Bryan, Max, and others went across. This is something where citizens themselves produce points of interest for us to highlight along the path and build a curriculum of education," Rehm said. "Having all of these points of historical and cultural data assembled together to have our own people as well as people from outside the state realize the richness of our own culture. It's really beautiful and humbling to be a part of something like this."
According to the people involved with The Warrior's Path Project, getting the path designated as a national heritage trail would have a tremendous impact on Appalachia as a whole.
"It's an opportunity for us to tell our story," Hammond said. "And just as it has done for the last 10,000 or 12,000 years, it will once again create a path of commerce into the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. It will tie together so many small and isolated mountain towns like McKee, Manchester, Irvine, Morehead, or Olive Hill into a route of trade once again. We won't just be trading in tourism, we'll be trading in the value of our story."