Fishing weirs are obstructions created in aquatic environments in order to trap or guide fish to a desired location. The weirs are usually formed from stone or wood but can be created from soil and other plant materials. Baskets or nets are often placed at the end of weirs to contain the fish. Weirs vary in shape and structure depending on where they are located.
The Cherokee are one of many groups that used fishing weirs or traps, uga’yatun’i, to catch fish. The presence of fish remains is often limited in the archaeological record because of the fragile nature of the material; however, there is archaeological evidence that pre-contact Cherokees were fishing. The Cherokee are known to have used weirs, poison, spears, and gigs to catch fish. They may have also shot fish or used nets.
Historic accounts, interviews, and remaining structures help recreate how the Cherokee utilized fishing weir technology. Cherokee fishing weirs were usually placed in streams near large villages. They were constructed through the strategic placement of stones across the river. The stones formed a v-shaped barrier with the wide mouth facing upstream. Downstream, the weir narrowed into the point of the v-shape, which had a small opening.
Community members would stand upstream from the weir and kick, splash, and yell to stir up the fish and guide them toward the weir. As the fish followed the natural current downstream, they would be funneled through the stone weir into a waiting trap or basket. Though any basket could be used, the Cherokee created special baskets for capturing fish. These baskets had wide mouths that narrowed, allowing a fish to swim in easily but making it difficult to escape. The baskets were woven loosely so that water could drain through.
In 1775, Irish trader James Adair wrote the following description:
“The Indians have the art of catching fish in long crails, made with canes and hiccory splinters tapering to a point. They lay these at a fall of water, where stones are placed in two sloping lines from each bank, till they meet together in the middle of the rapid stream, where the intangled fish are soon drowned.”
This tradition continued for years; however, by 1877, it was illegal to block waterways meant for commercial trade, and most fishing weirs were abandoned.
Today, fishing weirs can still be found across Southern Appalachia. They are more noticeable when the water levels are low. The weirs may not be actively used, but they are not forgotten.
Over the past few years, various individuals and organizations have joined efforts to map out the locations of remaining fishing weirs. Additionally, educational programs have been created to teach local youth about the weirs, aquatic ecology, and cultural heritage. These programs get the kids in the water and allow them to experience fishing with weirs firsthand, creating a sense of solidarity while preserving an ancient tradition.
Essay by Paige A. Tester
Western Carolina University 2014
- “Cherokee Fish Weirs” by Don Hendershot
- “Cherokee Traditions: From the Hands of Our Elders” Hunter Library Digital Collection at Western Carolina University
- Eastern Cherokee Fishing by Heidi Maryanna Altman
- “Expedition Maps Prehistoric Cherokee Fishing Weirs” by Becky Johnson
- “The Fishes Gathered in Cherokee County” by Mark A. Cantrell
- “Reviving Community Spirit: Furthering the Sustainable, Historical and Economic Role of Fish Weirs and Traps” by Bill Jeffery