A southern mountain county, Macon was named in honor of Senator and Speaker of the House, Nathaniel Macon. Macon County was formed in 1828 from Haywood, and communities within the region include Franklin, Highlands, Norton, Rainbow Springs, Nantahala, Ellijay, Cowee, and Scaly Mountain. Franklin has remained the county seat since 1855.
The Cherokee inhabited the early region of what is now present-day Macon County. However, with the rush of North Carolinians to the western section of the state, the Cherokee eventually relinquished their land to white settlers in 1819. Cowee, capital of the Middle Cherokees, is located in the county along with the Nikwasi Indian Mound in Franklin. William Bartram, an eighteenth-century explorer, referred to Cowee as “one of the most charming natural mountainous landscapes perhaps anywhere to be seen.”
Meaning the “center of gravity” in Cherokee, Nikwasi was once an important Indian town, serving as a spiritual center for tribe members. However, the European settlers unfairly treated the Cherokee. In 1776, after years of bickering and riots in the western United States, General Griffith Rutherford led a North Carolina militia that decimated Nikwasi. The town of Franklin was established on what was the town of Nikwasi, and the Nikwasi Indian Mound, constructed around 1000 A.D., remains testament to the Cherokee who once lived in Macon County.
In May of 1776, Philadelphia-born William Bartram (1739-1823) traveled through Macon County and met the Cherokee chief Atakullakulla. Owner of the largest botanical garden in Great Britain, John Fothergill assigned Bartram, considered by many as the first American naturalist, in 1773 to traverse southeastern North Carolina in search of flora and fauna. In his recollection of his journey, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, Bartram recalled his meeting with Chief Atakullakulla, along with a detailed description of over forty Cherokee towns in the region. In the 1700s, the naturalist’s Travels book proved a vital piece on the southeastern United States.
Macon County’s greatest natural asset is possibly the Nantahala National Forest. The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, Nantahala encompasses nearly half the surface area of Macon County. Fishermen, whitewater rafters, and other outdoor enthusiasts visit the forest regularly to take advantage of the Nantahala River and the Nantahala Lake. Hikers frequent the hiking attraction of the Appalachian Trail. Substantial amounts of mineral and other precious stones have been discovered and mined in Macon County. Precious gems such as amethyst, rubies, garnets, sapphires, and moonstones continue to be found in Macon. Annual gem shows attract various mineralogists and gem enthusiasts to the region.
Some important naturalists and residents of Macon County include Silas McDowell (1795-1879) and Thomas Harbison (1862-1936). McDowell, although born in South Carolina, left for the western mountains of North Carolina when he was only twenty-one. A true jack-of-all-trades, McDowell studied botany, history, and horticulture while living in Macon County, and his most important contribution was his theory about the “thermal belt,” an area of land between mountains and flatland that was very suitable for crop production. Thomas Harbison was born in Philadelphia, but he established his center for flora research and collection in Highlands, Macon County. Harbison organized the herbarium for George Vanderbilt at his Biltmore estate, promoted the a national park on the Smoky Mountains, and he established the herbarium at the University of North Carolina in 1933.
“Macon County.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Nikwasi; Cowee; William Bartram; Silas McDowell; Thomas Harbison.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed December 1, 2011).