In the Cherokee National Forest, Coker Creek winds its way through a beautiful landscape in Monroe County. The meandering stream eventually ends with a series of spectacular cascades known as Coker Creek Falls before joining the Hiwassee River.
This area in the shadow of the Unicoi Mountains primarily attracts tourists who enjoy its natural beauty. The region was a major junction for several significant historical events in Tennessee.
"This entire area was Cherokee. There was a fort here that was a stop on the Trail of Tears," said Mary Jane Reece with the Coker Creek Welcome Center. "The main trail here was also used by the Bushwhackers during the Civil War and we are an official stop on the Civil War Trails."
Coker Creek's main claim to fame came in the 19th Century was as the site of Tennessee's only gold rush. The rush began in 1826 and its most productive years came between 1831 and 1860. Some history books say the gold rush began after a white settler noticed a Cherokee woman wearing a gold nugget around her neck. People still pan for gold in the creek's flowing waters today.
"At Bill's Pit Stop beside the Welcome Center, for a price he will take you out for several hours and show you how to pan for gold. It is a very popular thing these days, especially with the price of gold being so high," said Reece. "Most of what you will find are flakes of gold, especially after a rain where it stays in the crevasses along the creek. There is still what they call 'picker' gold where you can pick it up with your hand. They never found the mother lode, but the gold is often with a lot of quartz and someone recently found a chunk of quartz that had $2,500 worth of gold in it."
As for the creek's name, there are several versions of various legends that explain the moniker. Most of the stories have some link to the Cherokee.
"One story said there was a chief named Coqua. What they say is the white man distorted the name so that it was pronounced Coker," said Reece.
Vicki Rozema's book Footsteps of the Cherokee
recites the local legend of Coqua and the Cherokee warrior's wish for a long life with his princess. The book said Coqua would shout wishes at Coker Creek Falls and have it returned to him by the echo. The legend said the wish for a happy marriage was returned by rain-swollen waters that swept them away to a tragic death.
Several books also reference a Cherokee princess named Coqua Bell (also spelled "Coco" Bell), a woman who attempted to make peace between the Cherokee and the white settlers.
"Some say Coco Bell was the woman who was wearing the gold nugget around her neck that attracted the white man to this area. The legend says she is buried nearby under a mound of stones. If you want good luck, you will add a stone to the pile." Reece added, "But if you take a stone away from her grave, the legend says you will be cursed with bad luck."
Another prominent explanation for the name Coker involves a different type of gold found along the creek. Rozema's book references an ethnologist named James Mooney, who suggests the name Coker comes from the Cherokee word Kuku'. Kuku' was the Cherokee term for the golden flowers that grow in the area that is now called butterfly weed, jigger weed, or pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa).
The book Tennessee Place Names by Larry Miller suggests Kuku' is the Cherokee word for the vegetable squash. However, employees at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum told 10News their Cherokee dictionaries did not include a term for squash that was pronounced similar to Kuku' or Coker.
Whatever the source of the name, the natural beauty of this pristine area makes it worth its weight in gold for residents of Coker Creek.
"I was from a military family that moved all over the place and am not originally from here, but this is home," said Reece. "The only way you're going to get me out of here is feet first. The people here are wonderful. They are not pushy or invasive, but they always seem to know if you are in need and are there to lend a helping hand. The history of this region is phenomenal and it is the people who made it so."
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Note: Namesake is the renamed title of the series formerly known as 'Why do they call it that?'
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