The Tail of the Dragon, also known as Deals Gap or just the Dragon, is considered by many as one of the world's best motorcycling and sports car roads. It is known to locals as "that damn crooked road to Tennessee." But anyone looking for an exciting piece of asphalt will be amazed at this stretch of US 129 at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Route 66, which gained notoriety because of the popular 1960’s television show, is perhaps the most well known road in America. It stretched thousands of miles from Los Angeles to Chicago, but today only short segments remain. But the Dragon is only 11 miles long and someday might surpass the mystical legends of the older famed route.
The Dragon has a notorious past. Much of the route was originally just an animal track worn down by buffalo, deer, and bear taking a path of least resistance. These rough trails were then used by Native American Cherokee Indians for centuries as trading/war paths. The earliest white men to use the trail were soldiers, explorers, hunters, and trappers moving into dangerous territory in the 1700s. Many of the old Cherokee Trails actually had natural markers, trees that were bent over by the Indians to point the way. These were called "bent", "yoke", or "marker" trees. On some of the major trails the Cherokee reportedly covered as much as 100 miles a day.
Chesquah, a Cherokee Indian born circa 1773, recalled seeing large herds of Buffalo grazing in what is now Robbinsville circa 1789. He lived at the junction of East and West Buffalo Creeks and the Cheoah River, today on Lake Santeetlah. Chesquah, who died circa 1880 and was buried at Ground Squirrel Gap, is said to have followed the last herd of buffalo heading west across Hooper Bald. This photo at right of Chesquah is very similar to one said to be Nathan Kirkland. It was not unusual for Indians to also take a white man's name.
In later years settlers used a steer or "cow-brute" to find the easiest passage on lands where animal trails had not yet been established. Heading the steer in the general direction they would follow and place stakes along the future path.
A number of historical figures had explored close to the Appalachians if not actually crossing into present day Tennessee. The earliest was Hernando DeSoto (c1500-1542) who came searching for gold in 1540 and according to one expert crossed the mountains before heading westward to the Mississippi River. Spanish explorer Juan Pardo came 27 years later in 1567 also looking for gold. He established a fort near present day Morganton, North Carolina before heading west stopping near Asheville before making his way through the Great Smoky Mountains of today.
By the late 1500s England, seeing the French claims in the north and Spanish claims in the south, decided they should resurrect their interest in colonizing the Virginia/North Carolina coast. It was not until the 1640s that Governor William Berkeley heard rumors of "a huge mountaine within five days journey, and at the foot thereof great Rivers that run into a Great Seas, to which people come in ships". It was more than twenty years later before Berkeley took action in searching for this supposed passage to India. He sent German physician John Lederer westward to the slopes of the Blue Ridge. He did not cross the mountains when told that bearded white men were ahead, which he interpreted as enemy Spaniards. Lederer returned to Virginia.
The next to confront the rugged Appalachian Mountains were Gabriel Arthur and James Needham (?-1673), a young English physician who crossed at one of three locations to meet with the Cherokee at Chota on the Little Tennessee River to establish trade. The routes were from Boone to the Watauga River; from Canton crossing at Swannanoa Gap; or following the French Broad and Pigeon Rivers to the Over the Hill Towns. This more southerly route could have led to crossing into Tennessee somewhere near present day Deals Gap or possibly the Unicoi Gap farther to the south.
Arthur remained at Chota while Needham returned to Virginia. En route Needham and his guide "Indian John" had an argument that resulted in the death of Needham. Arthur was accepted by the Cherokee and in Indian dress accompanied them on a raiding party on Spanish settlements in Florida and Shawnee towns on the Ohio. He was captured by the Shawnee who discovered he was a white man and returned him to his Cherokee wife back in Chota. The Cherokee chief later escorted Arthur back to Virginia.