Centuries of Travel Through the Rabun Gap: From Mississippians and Explorers to a Turnpike and Railroad

Geography is a key factor shaping the development of a country or region. As an island nation, England turned to the ocean and became the world’s greatest maritime power by the eighteenth century. American pioneers saw the endless flat expanses of the Great Plains and turned it into the country’s breadbasket. On a still smaller scale, Rabun County’s history has been shaped by the only natural gap in the southern Appalachians, the Rabun Gap.

Not to be confused with the unincorporated town of Rabun Gap, this passageway through the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Rabun County provided a relatively easy way for Native Americans, European explorers, settlers and soldiers to travel between Georgia and North Carolina and Tennessee. The gap also facilitated construction of Rabun County’s first north-south road as well as a railway that ran from Cornelia to Franklin, North Carolina. For these reasons, the Rabun Gap has been likened to a centuries-old transit corridor.

Mississippians and Cherokee

The Mississippians, a Native American mounding building culture, are the first documented people to have traveled through the Rabun Gap, although earlier Eastern Woodland tribes preceded the Mississippians in this area by thousands of years. An archeological survey was conducted in 1998 in preparation for the widening of Highway 23/441 to four lanes. Shards of pottery uncovered at a site between Clayton and Tallulah Falls were identified as late Mississippian from A.D. 1300 to 1500. A small mound in Dillard also attests to the Mississippian presence in Rabun County. Given this evidence, the Mississippians likely traveled the length of this county through the Rabun Gap.

The Cherokee, who had four settlements in Rabun County, traveled on a network of trails that converged at The Dividings in present-day Clayton. A trail leading north from The Dividings passed through the Rabun Gap, taking Cherokee travelers to North Carolina and Virginia.

Explorers and Settlers

Legend has it that the Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto and his army marched from Florida through the Rabun Gap into North Carolina in search of gold in the 1500s.

However, the first fully documented account of a European passing through the Rabun Gap came from Sir Alexander Cuming in the 1730s. He was on a mission to form an alliance between the Cherokee and the British for trading and military purposes. He traveled from Charleston to Cherokee villages around what is now Lake Keowee in South Carolina. From there he journeyed to the northwest corner of the state, crossed the Chattooga River and came to the area around Clayton. Cuming then passed through the Rabun Gap on his way to Cherokee settlements in Franklin, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The Rabun Gap also funneled the earliest white settlers into Rabun County and adjacent areas in the early nineteenth century. Scots-Irish in Pennsylvania initially migrated south to Virginia and North Carolina. Many continued moving farther south into Georgia through the Rabun Gap.

French and Indian War

The Cherokee allied themselves with the British during the French and Indian War of 1754-1763. Cherokee war parties from Georgia traveled through the Rabun Gap on their way north to the Ohio Territory to battle the French and their Native American allies. Around 1760, a combined British-American army of 1,600 soldiers from Charleston marched on a Cherokee trail along Warwoman Creek and proceeded north through the Rabun Gap to forts in North Carolina and Tennessee. Starting in 1776, the Cherokee, again allied with the British during the Revolutionary War, used the same route through the gap to raid villages in North and South Carolina.

Turnpike Road

The Georgia legislature appropriated funds in 1827 to improve a north-south route through Rabun County that was formed by the junction of two existing wagon trails at Clayton. One originating in Walhalla, South Carolina crossed the Chattooga River, followed Warwoman Road to Clayton and then turned north, passing through the Rabun Gap on its way to North Carolina. A second road ran south from Clayton, crossed the Tallulah River at Crane’s Ford near Lakemont and headed to Clarkesville. The north end of the improved road was a point on the North Carolina state line marked by a locust stake, causing the road to be known as the Locust Stake Road.

By the early 1840s, people from neighboring counties accounted for much of the traffic on this north-south route. However, they contributed nothing to the road’s maintenance. To make all users pay for upkeep, the Georgia legislature in 1845 chartered the Rabun Turnpike Road Company, which converted the Locust Stake Road into a toll road. Private parties that owned the turnpike were responsible for collecting tolls and maintaining the road. One tollgate was located at Crane’s Ford, the other at the North Carolina state line. Tolls varied from one dollar for a wagon team of six horses, mules or oxen to two cents for each head of hogs and sheep. The toll road company was disbanded in 1887.

Blue Ridge and Tallulah Falls Railroads

Railroad builders also sought to capitalize upon the Rabun Gap. Former U.S. Vice President and South Carolina firebrand John C. Calhoun was a promoter of the Blue Ridge Railroad in the 1830s. His idea was to build a major freight route connecting the port city of Charleston with Cincinnati on the Ohio River. The proposed route was to pass through Clayton and proceed north through the Rabun Gap to North Carolina. Work began on the railroad in 1854, but, as a result of the Civil War, the Blue Ridge Railroad was abandoned and never completed.

Unlike the Blue Ridge, the Tallulah Falls Railroad was built and used the Rabun Gap as its route through the Appalachians in Rabun County. Established in 1887, the 58-mile short line ran from Cornelia, Georgia north through the Rabun Gap and then to the line’s northern terminus in Franklin, North Carolina.

The Rabun Gap has afforded travelers—from Native Americans and European explorers to soldiers and railroad passengers—a passageway through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Rabun County for thousands of years. In so doing, this natural mountain gap has had a significant impact on the history of northeast Georgia.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in July 2021.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.