Skitt Mountain straddles the Hall and White counties line between Cleveland and Clermont.
It is exceptionally scenic this time of year, its dense hardwood slopes lighting up the landscape with seemingly every color of the rainbow.
It’s as often called “Skitts” Mountain, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the origin of the name because it comes from a Skitt family who were Cherokee Indians and among the first settlers of the land around the mountain.
The Skitts were among a few hundred Cherokee that escaped the Trail of Tears, the removal to Oklahoma of thousands of Indians after the white man discovered gold in North Georgia. They hid behind the namesake 2,000-foot mountain and survived perhaps because they were small in number and unknown to federal troops rounding up fellow Cherokees from the gold country. Too, though picturesque, much of the land in the area is rough and hilly, and the government might not have considered it valuable enough, thus letting the small Indian settlement alone.
Kenneth Savage is a descendant of the Skitts and is on a mission to tell their story and thereby uncover the history of the mountain and the area around it. He and his wife Jane, also of Indian heritage, last week were on another research trip to Oklahoma, where most of the Cherokee tribe ended up and established their own nation after the Trail of Tears.
Savage says his last name actually derives from Skitt as people nicknamed the Indians living in the area. Savages populate much of the area, especially between Clermont and Lula. Holly Springs cemetery is filled with Savage graves.
There is another cemetery, too, off Skitt Mountain Road that contains 25-30 graves of the Indian family and descendants. It is fenced on private property, but Savage descendants are allowed to visit it. There are no tombstones with names on them marking the graves. Only stones once designated the graves, but descendants placed metal markers on them in recent times.
Savage estimates the cemetery was started in the 1830s or ’40s, but certainly before the Civil War.
Nobody was seriously gathering the Indian history until Kenneth Savage got involved. He has talked to other descendants of the Skitts as well as longtime residents of the area. His home overlooking a peaceful pond off U.S. 129 near Quillians Corner is almost a museum in itself. Family members bring him artifacts dating to pioneer days. An 1820s cabin is stored on his property, and an 1860s-era barn will join it soon.
A dugout canoe made by Indians in the Skitt Mountain area was retrieved from the Chattahoochee River nearby and is now on exhibit in the Indian museum in Cherokee, N.C.
Savage believes his Indian genes surfaced years ago unbeknown to him when he developed a skill making knives of all sorts. He didn’t realize his heritage at the time, but after learning some of the history of his family he began to notice his tendencies and those of his own immediate family. Most have remained in the area around Skitt Mountain, some of them drawn to the ways of their forefathers.
History of the Indians is hard to come by, though, Kenneth Savage says. He learned a lot from a cousin, Vallie Irvin, who lived to be 106 and heard stories from her parents and grandparents.
One of the reasons research is so difficult, Savage says, is because the Skitts kept quiet. They stayed to themselves mostly because they didn’t want to be discovered and run off their land, or perhaps even killed. Family members didn’t pass on much history. Some stories or legends that had been handed down didn’t pan out, Savage’s research showed.
Skitts did assimilate gradually into the white community, even intermarrying. That perhaps is how the Savage name succeeded the Skitt name. They became half-breeds, but there was a period of time in which they didn’t want people to know they had Indian blood.
“It was a shame factor,” Savage said. “They never talked about it.” First, the Indians and their descendants were afraid and didn’t broadcast their identities. As time went on, some weren’t proud of their heritage and might have hidden it.
More people today are proud of their Indian blood, and Savage is among them. He intends to document the Skitt/Savage history, all the while telling the story of the mountain and the rolling lands around it.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.