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The Legend of Skyuka

July 7, 2013

Within the Boy Scouts of America, the Order of the Arrow is an organization for honor campers.  In the Palmetto Council, the Order of the Arrow lodge is named Skyuka.  In 1975 the Boy Scout camp in Saluda, North Carolina, reopened.  Previously known as Camp Palmetto, the new name was Camp Bob Hardin.  Having served as a volunteer in various capacities, I was asked by the Scout executive to become the advisor for Skyuka Lodge.

In the first season in the refurbished camp, the program director asked me to write the script for a pageant to be performed by the camp staff on Family Night each week.  After extensive research in the Polk County library, I wrote “The Legend of Skyuka.”  It is a mixture of fact and fiction.


Years ago, the Southern Appalachian Mountains were inhabited by a proud and peaceful people.  Relatives of the Iroquois, they were known for their imposing height and robust stature.  Claiming for their hunting grounds what is now part of eight states, these noble people became the mightiest empire of all the Southeastern tribes of Native Americans.  They called themselves Ani-yun-wi-ya, which means Principal People.  They were called by other tribes the people who speak another language – the Cherokee.

Though their nation was vast, the Cherokee had a unified government that was effective and efficient.  They were divided into seven clans:  the Wild Potato, the Bird, the Long Hair, the Blue, the Paint, the Deer, and the Wolf.  Each clan had a chief.  The seven clan chiefs served as counselors in the Cherokee government and were convened when important decisions had to be made.

The Cherokee were religious people.  They believed in one Supreme Creator, a unity of three beings referred to as The Elder Fires Above, who gave fire to bless humankind with smoke as a messenger.

The Cherokee had no concept of land as belonging to individuals.  The earth belonged to the Creator.  The forests were for hunting deer and bear, squirrel and rabbit.  The rivers were a means of transportation.    The arrival of the first white man, Hernando De Soto, into the land of the Cherokee in the 16th century marked the beginning of a long and painful march of white men into the Cherokee’s world.  The white man’s idea of land ownership was completely different from the Cherokee concept.  The influx of settlers pushed hard against the Cherokee.  A series of treaties from 1684 to 1835 were consistently broken.  The Cherokee lands shrank from an empire of enormous proportions to a small boundary in Western North Carolina.

It was in the Colonial period of American history that Governor William Tryon of North Carolina sent Captain Thomas Howard into the mountainous backcountry to explore the possibilities of settling useable land.  He settled at what is now Tigerville, South Carolina.  On one of his expeditions, Captain Howard came upon a Cherokee settlement on White Oak Mountain.  A young Cherokee boy, playing on the outskirts of the settlement, had been bitten by a timber rattler.  Captain Howard used his knife to open the boy’s wound.  He sucked the poison from the boy’s body and put tobacco juice on the wound as a kind of primitive first aid treatment.  The young boy’s life was saved, and Captain Howard and the young boy became steadfast friends.  The boy’s name was Skyuka, meaning Chipmunk.  He later became one of the seven Cherokee clan chiefs.

The Cherokee had been a peaceful people for centuries.  Now their hunting lands were threatened by white settlers. Cherokee chiefs like Atta Kula Kula of the Keowee Settlement and later Tsali of the Qualla Region took a warlike stance toward whites.

With the American Revolution, conflict intensified between the Indians and the settlers. British Redcoats and Tory sympathizers encouraged the Cherokee to raid and massacre the pioneer homesteaders.

Captain Thomas Howard was immediately dispatched by the Governor to put down the uprising.  Skyuka guided Captain Howard and his men to Round Mountain, where the Cherokee were celebrating their victory. Howard made camp at the base of Round Mountain. When darkness fell, several bonfires were lit. Three men were left there to create a distraction while Howard took the remainder of his men led by Skyuka on a secret twisting trail up Round Mountain. They approached the Cherokee from the rear killing most of the raiding party.

Because of his loyalty to Captain Howard, Skyuka was the only one of the seven Cherokee chiefs to side with the settlers at the time of the Indian Wars in the mid-1700s.  The Cherokee won victory after victory as they burned settlers’ homes in defense of their own territory.  Because of his devotion to Captain Howard, his own people considered Skyuka an enemy.

A monument now stands near the crest of the Saluda Grade on Round Mountain, marking the site of the battle.  The trail up Round Mountain became Howard Gap Road. The name of Skyuka is perpetuated in the Tryon area by Skyuka Creek, Skyuka Road, old Camp Skyuka, and Skyuka Lodge, Order of the Arrow.

In 1765, Governor Tryon signed a treaty with the Cherokee delineating the Indian territories.  The Indian boundary went from a point in Virginia to a point on the Reedy River in Greenville County.  The old Indian boundary line now divides Spartanburg and Greenville counties and is identified by a historic marker in Greer, South Carolina. The treaty was signed at a large granite outcropping known as Treaty Rock on White Oak Mountain. The treaty was short-lived.  Like many others, the white settlers violated it until finally the great Cherokee Nation was reduced to a small band in Western North Carolina.

The saddest winter in Cherokee history was that of 1838 and ’39 when most of the Cherokee were taken from their homes and herded like cattle to Oklahoma.  Over 4,000 Cherokee died on this journey.  To this day, the Cherokee call it The Trail of Tears.

The legend concludes with two traditions about Skyuka’s death. One is that he was captured by Loyalists during the Revolutionary War and hanged from a sycamore tree at the foot of Tryon Mountain on the bank of what later became known as Skyuka Creek. The other holds that because the Cherokee considered him a renegade, his tongue was cut out, and he was bound and stretched across the rock face on White Oak Mountain.  Those who witnessed the death of Skyuka said that in death he rejoined his Cherokee people.  As he died, a large eagle soared near the rock face of the mountain to receive the spirit of Skyuka and return it to his Creator.

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2013

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