I have always wanted to know more about the area I grew up in, but never knew where to look until my project of “Rediscovering My Hometown.” The Hiwassee River Heritage Center does a great job of taking all of the history of the Charleston area and condensing it into a chronological order that is easy to understand.

Present-day Charleston used to be part of the Cherokee Nation and by 1819 looking across the Hiwassee River to Calhoun, Tennessee, one would be looking at the United States. After a small band of Cherokee illegally signed a treaty to sell Cherokee Nation land to the United State, the Cherokee Council tried to reverse the treaty saying it was invalid. The U.S. Senate ratified it, now owning all of the Cherokee land.

In order for the Trail of Tears to take place the U.S. government had to gather all of the Cherokee people together, and they chose the location of the federal Indian Agency on the banks of the Hiwassee River, to establish Fort Cass, the military operational headquarters for the entire Cherokee Removal. From the border Hiwassee River spreading over about 40 square miles, small groups of Cherokee people were kept together waiting to be moved west. In total, over 9000 Cherokee people were forcibly moved west just from the Fort Cass emigration depot.

Afterward many merchants would come into present-day Charleston and start to build up the town with a booming economy. During the Civil War, Charleston and the Hiwassee River Bridge would play a big part in the war. Because of its location, being between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Charleston was a key location for both union and confederate troop movement. In fact, Charleston citizens themselves were conflicted on the war with just as many being for the Confederacy as they were for the Union. The Henagar house is believed to be unharmed during the war because Mrs. Henagar, a union loyalist, would allow the Union generals to stay at the house and when the Confederacy was in the area, Mr. Henagar would allow for the Confederate generals to stay at their house.

In the late 1950s Hollywood came to Charleston to film Wild River. The movie was the first to be filmed entirely in Tennessee and it was said that color was used because Elia Kazan, the director, thought the area was so beautiful that it must be captured in color. While all of the main characters were from Hollywood, many of the supporting actors were locals. For many this was the first time they had ever had a job, and in order to be paid they had to have social security cards. So now we have a group Tennesseans with Californian social security cards!

Charleston has a rich history and one thing I never knew was at one point they were the Cowpea Capital of the United States. Cowpeas include black-eye peas, crowder peas, field peas, southern peas and many more. Because of this the Hiwassee River Heritage Center decided to have a Cowpea Festival each year on the second Saturday in September. The Cowpea Festival features a cook-off with professional chefs creating dishes incorporating cowpeas, live music, many local vendors, and a heritage area to share important history. The purpose of the festival is to bring a community together while also honoring the agri-heritage the area has to offer.

The Hiwassee River Heritage Center is run by the Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society. A large expansion opened in March 2019, allowing for a beautiful exhibit of panels telling the local history and artifacts illustrating the past. The Center also holds a library with information regarding Cherokee history and the history of Charleston. The most recent addition is a trail leading from the back of the center that leads toward Charleston Park. The trail has interpretation and is laid out in a point-counterpoint fashion, so the reader can see how the U.S. government viewed the situation and how the Cherokee viewed the situation. Personally, this is my favorite part of the Center as there are always two sides of history and I feel as though it’s important to know both. I am so happy that I got to discover the Heritage Center during my journey to “Rediscover my Hometown.” I definitely feel more connected the area now.