Newly discovered legacy of Cherokees: honey locusts

Robert Warren, an ecologist at Buffalo State University who lived for years in North Carolina, [noticed] something peculiar about a tree species sprinkled through the southern Appalachians. Honey locusts are covered with enormous, glossy thorns, some as long as your hand, and they bear long brown seed pods. They prefer poor, salty soil. But Warren was seeing them scattered in the lush river valleys….  ‘One day I was out in the field,’ he recalls, ‘and it dawned on me that every time I saw a honey locust, I could throw a rock and hit an archaeological site.’

“It took years to develop and verify the insight that he published in a PLOS One paper: The honey locust’s distribution seems to be more closely linked to the existence of centuries-old Cherokee settlements than to its ecological niche. The signature of people forced off this land by Andrew Jackson more than 150 years ago still remains in the form of these trees.

“With the permission of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Warren surveyed their land, as well as national forests and other private land, for trees. He also investigated whether the trees could have been borne to their destinations by cattle or deer or on rivers….

“[But] the explanation that fits best is that people brought them along for food and other purposes…. He once thought he had found a honey locust with no tie to an archaeological site, in North Carolina. But this one, too, turned out to have a human connection. The friend who brought Warren there explained that a Cherokee man used to live nearby. The night before he was forced to leave for Oklahoma, Chief Rabbit had signed the property over to a new owner, and a tree from that time is still standing….”