Late at night I take long walks down Cherokee Boulevard. Sometimes I walk a mile and don't encounter anybody at all. No walkers or joggers, and only an occasional car, usually going a little too fast, sometimes ejecting a spent beer can from a window. Most, I've noticed, are some variety of light beer. I'm not sure why young vandals, as a class, would be especially worried about their figures, but that does seem to be the case. There's something touching about that.
It's not the human poignancy that draws me to Cherokee Boulevard at midnight, but, this time of year, the songs of the frogs in the trees and the weird cries of herons or owls or foxes or whatever it is that makes noises now and then from somewhere down in the darkness of the river. This is what separates me from a true naturalist: finding out exactly what makes those weird cries down there would make my skin crawl a little less, would spoil some of the mystery of it.
For all that, I think one of the reasons I walk this same stretch over and over is the fact that my path takes me over one odd lump of earth. After all these years, nobody knows for sure what it is.
It's the low hill in the median near the southernmost of the boulevard's two intersections with Kenesaw Avenue, with about half a dozen oak trees growing out of it. It overlooks the old floodplain, the grassy field where college kids play volleyball and throw frisbees on sunny afternoons.
Today, the famous Indian mound on Cherokee Boulevard is in an embarrassing predicament. For many years it was unmarked, and there were various rumors about it: one, that it was the tomb of Sequoyah himself. It's not, of course. The genius who invented the Cherokee alphabet may or may not have visited Knoxville during his lifetime, but he's definitely not buried here. He died out West in the 1820s, centuries after the mound builders had finished their work.
The other rumor was that it wasn't an Indian mound at all, and that it was a circa 1925 conceit of a romantic developer who was laying out an Indian-themed neighborhood. But that rumor's not true, either. Researchers have found much-earlier references to this mound, when this was mainly farmland and the mound was mainly an impediment to a plow.
Now we can put an end to all the wild rumors about the Cherokee Boulevard mound. We have a plaque to tell us exactly what it was. In fact, we have two. Each of them tells us exactly what it was.
Approach it from the east, and you'll come across a handsome plaque mounted on two posts. INDIAN MOUND, it says. "This earthen mound marks the location of an Indian village. Such mounds were built between 1300 and 1500 A.D. They served as a base upon which a structure was placed overlooking the village plaza." That plaque was put up several years ago by the Daughters of the American Colonists.
That sounds plausible. But if you approach the same mound from the west, you'll encounter another, more recent plaque, mounted on a boulder. BURIAL MOUND, it says. "This mound was constructed by Native Americans between A.D. 900-1100 and contains the remains of individuals who lived in nearby settlements. The mound is reduced in height due to agriculture and excavations in the early 19th century." It was installed just last year by the Sequoyah Hills Preservation Society.
The new plaque says the mound is 400 years older than the other one does. And that first plaque says it was a platform mound, an architectural feature, while the new one calls it a burial mound.
Those who placed the second plaque must have noticed their explanation disagreed with the first plaque, but they installed theirs in open defiance. Today the plaques are legible from either side, mounted with their backs to each other.
I thought it might be a great opportunity to make me look smart or well-connected if I were to make a few phone calls and nail down the truth. Exalt one of the plaques as the true, correct one, and expose the other as a fraud. I know a few archaeologists, and figured I could get an educated opinion that would embarrass either the Colonial Dames or the Preservation Society.
But I never made those calls. I realized that whatever answer I got about this little knoll by the river would be just an opinion, and not enough to embarrass earnest people who collected money to erect a plaque. The pre-Columbian "Indians"—what they called themselves, we'll never know—didn't leave any real-estate documents with the Register of Deeds, any licenses for burials or construction projects. What they did leave were some fanciful clay sculptures, some bones, and some heaps of earth.
They were mysterious to the Cherokee, and they're mysterious to us. If this one has already been looted—perhaps sometime in the Jacksonian era, as the latter plaque suggests—there may not be much more that can be learned about it.
Maybe neither one of the plaques is even close. Or maybe both the plaques are true. Maybe it was first built as a burial mound in 900, and 400 years later another, irreverent tribe used it as an architectural platform. Just as, 700 years after that, another irreverent tribe would use it as a jogging trail.
Science isn't an exact science. I'll keep taking my late-night walks, and I'll often pause and reread both these plaques. And if someday there's a third one that offers a whole new idea about what this old mound was, I'll read it, too, with gratitude.