November 17, 2020

A Thread Through Time, by Courtney Goodheart

Editor’s note: The Cherokee have fairy tales? I should have known that!  Courtney really did her homework on this, and I’m so glad she did. Read on for a fascinating take on “fairy crosses.” (KW)

Context lurks behind every fairy tale. The story may lure us into other realms or introduce us to the supernatural, but, at its inception, the tale reflects the beliefs and customs of a real time, place, or people. This milieu can get lost as time rushes forward and stories morph to adapt to new cultural needs. But if you are observant enough, you can locate the filament of history hidden in a tale. Pulling on any such strand can reveal forgotten details or differing accounts. Such is the case with tale of the fairy stones.

 

History permeates Virginia. Each historical site boasts of its own tale. At Jamestown, Mount Vernon, Fort Monroe, Appomattox, or Arlington Cemetery, stories scream out to be heard. Amid this historical ruckus, a fairy tale whispers its existence. Nestled in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where folks still murmur about mining and moonshine, hides Fairy Stone State Park. The abundance of cross-shaped staurolite, known as fairy stones, makes this park renowned.   



The origin of these curious stones is unclear. More romantic thinkers believe that they are the byproduct of fallen meteorites. Most geologists, however, believe that a combination of iron, aluminum, silicone, and oxygen metamorphosed into these stones under great heat and pressure as the earth shifted and the nearby mountains formed.


No one knows for certain when or where the first stones were found, or how the accompanying fairy tale came to be. The opening of the park in 1936, however, did much to popularize the fable. The fact that the old mining town of Fayerdale was evacuated and flooded to create a lake for the park also added an additional layer of intrigue. While authors such as Kelly Anne White and Judy Ann Rose keep the fairy tale alive with their illustrated books, the state park maintains only a concise summarization on its blog:


“Many hundreds of years before Chief Powhatan’s reign, fairies were dancing around a spring of water, playing with naiads and wood nymphs, when an elfin messenger arrived from a city far away. He brought news of the death of Christ. When these creatures of the forest heard the story of the crucifixion, they wept. As their tears fell upon the earth, they crystallized to form beautiful crosses.”



The park pulls you into its tale with the historical reference to Chief Powhatan. Pocahontas, the chief's daughter, is said to have gifted John Smith a fairy stone for good luck. Famous though they were, the Algonquian-speaking people lived in the Tidewater region of Virginia. It was the Cherokee who occupied the mountain valleys of southwest Virginia until they were forced to surrender their land to the U.S. government in 1768. The Cherokee maintain a rich oral tradition, including fairy lore of their own. It is the Cherokee presence that reveals a strand to pull in the story.


Several descendants of those forced to walk to Oklahoma under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, still share the tribal lore of these stones. While the basics of the tale are similar, the details reflect Cherokee symbolism. 


Summary of the Chiltoskey Family tale (the family has helped keep this story alive): As the Cherokee said their morning prayers, an owl, a messenger of death, let them know cruel men had tortured and killed a man of peace, favored by the Great Spirit. The Cherokee, along with the Yunwi Tsunsdi, or Little People who lived deep in the forest and stood two feet tall with hair to the ground, sang a death song to honor him. Moved by their mourning, the Great Spirit transformed their fallen tears into cross-stones.


Folklorists in Appalachia contend that this Cherokee rendition is an adaptation of mythology brought to the Americas by Scotch-Irish settlers. David Vann, a member of the Cherokee Nation, however, maintains that the cross was an integral part of Cherokee culture long before the introduction of Christianity. The cross signified the cardinal directions, as well as earth, wind, fire, and water. Moreover, cross stones held an even more special significance. As Marci (Golden Hawk) and Jack (Grey Eagle) Dowdy share, as part of an evening ceremony held during the Vernal Equinox gathering of the Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee placed their personal cross rocks into a great fire. According to the Dowdys, once they grew hot enough to glow, tribesmen moved them to a mound or bolder where their incandescence could be seen. To ensure that the rocks gleamed continuously until sunrise, the Cherokee periodically returned them to the fire. The Cherokee performed this annual ritual to insure an abundant fall harvest. The cross-shaped stones, therefore held value for the Cherokee people independent of Christianity.


Tugging further on the fray of Cherokee history leads us to another rendition of this fairy tale. This narrative originates not in Virginia, but in Georgia. There, prospectors drove the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in 1829 during the Georgia Gold Rush. In subsequent years the U.S. government stripped the Cherokee of property, rights and dignity and eventually, in 1838, forced them to trudge on foot to Oklahoma. The exodus of the Cherokee birthed a new tale.


Here’s a summary of investigator David Farris’s retelling: The Cherokee wailed and screamed when members of the U.S. Army compelled them to leave their ancestral lands. As they egressed, the Yunwi Tsunsdi accompanied and protected them. They kept the everlasting fire burning so that the Cherokee could remain connected to the Great Spirit as they journeyed. They comforted the Cherokee and memorialized their tears of agony and despondency by turning them to stone crosses. When they reached Oklahoma they chose to stay and remain the guardians of the Cherokee. This is why no one has seen the Yunwi Tsunsdi in the Appalachian Mountains since the Cherokee departed and why there are fairy stones to be found along the Trail of Tears. 


These are the regional stories of the fairy stones. If we continued to tug on strands in these stories, perhaps we would find more versions or, at least, greater insights. Curiosity rewards us with a broader understanding of tales and gives us more threads to pull. If we accept the challenge to pluck these filaments in the stories we love, we may be taken on adventures far more interesting than the tales themselves.


References:

Shellie Anne. (June 11, 2013). Fabulous Fairy Stones. Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Accessed 15 August 2020. https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/blog/fabulous-fairy-stones-4417.


For Chiltoskey Family tale see: Tabler, Dave. (8 December 2016). How Cherokee Stone Crosses Came to Be. Accessed 15 August 2020. https://www.appalachianhistory.net/2016/12/legend-of-stone-crosses.html.


For information on the Yunwi Tsunsdi as well as the Cherokee journey to Georgia see:  Farris, David. (29 January 15). The Cherokee Legend of the Little People. Accessed 15 August 2020. http://edmondlifeandleisure.com/the-cherokee-legend-of-the-little-people-p10901-76.htm


Vann, David. Cherokee By Blood. Accessed 20 August 2020. http://www.cherokeebyblood.com/Cherokee_by_blood/Welcome.html


Dowdy, Marci & Jack. Straurolite Crystals: “Faith Crosses,” “Fairy Crosses,” “Cross Rocks.” Accessed 20 August 2020.

http://www.gemfoundation.com/About-Stalking-Eagle.html?entry=stone-carving-2015


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Bio: Courtney Goodheart is a new author living in Tidewater Virginia. She enjoys being out in her garden with her children. Together they search for signs that fairies have visited or gnomes have fallen asleep on the job.


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Images: First image from Virginia State Parks. Second by Courtney Goodheart. Third from Strange Carolinas.


13 comments:

Kelly Jarvis said...

This is a fascinating article! It feels like a real life fairy tale! I would love to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains and find a fairy stone!

AMOffenwanger said...

That is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing these stories.

Unknown said...

Very interesting! This peaked my curiosity and makes me want to tug on the strands of these stories and learn more!

Katew said...

Me too!

Katew said...

I knew nothing about this, and really enjoyed publishing this piece.

Katew said...

The Blue Ridge Mountains are magical.

Cynthia Davis said...

Cynthia Davis
Reading this piece made me run to my closet and pull out a nearly forgotten jar--full of fairy stones. Thank you for rekindling wonderful memories searching for these special rocks on camping trips with my family. The ending to this piece is tantalizing: plucking the filaments of well loved stores for the chance of further (greater?) adventure. I love that idea

Katew said...

There’s a lot to think about in this piece.

Lynden Wade said...

As a Brit I was fascinated to learn about a culture I had no knowledge of before. What beautiful and sad accounts.

Victoria Dixon said...

As someone who grew up knowing about the Trail of Tears, I'd NEVER heard this story in connection with it! It's so moving. I read the headline of the article yesterday and it gave me a story idea and now you've given me so much more to think about. Thank you!

Julie Dill said...

I love how this tale transcends and blurs the lines between cultures, religions, and time periods. Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Great read as we approach Native American Heritage Day! Well done, Courtney.
- Eileen

Anonymous said...

Interesting! Very well written!
- Liz

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