This week we’re wrapping season 3 of About South with a conversation about the legend of Trahlyta, a pice of folklore that says a “Cherokee princess” is buried under a pile of rocks in Dahlonega, GA. Gina and Allison Yost discuss the tale’s origins, why people are so connected to it, and the ways it mirrors many troubling ideas about Native identity in the South.
A historical marker at the intersection of two highways in Dahlonega, in the mountains of North Georgia, recounts the legend of Tralyta. Legend has it that Trahlyta’s tribe knew the secrets eternal youth in the springs of Cedar Mountain. A man she rejected kidnapped Trahlyta, and once she was away from home, Trahlyta lost her beauty and died. Her body was buried back home at the springs, and a custom of passersbys marking her with a stone for good fortune began.
Allison came across the legend of Trahlyta when she was a student at the University of North Georgia. While in undergrad, Allison became fascinated by places like Dahlonega that have Cherokee namesakes. Allison read about the stones and researched the phenomenon in her graduate studies.
The pile of rocks is massive, taller than a person, and people often decorate and paint the stones that they leave. Over time, the magical elements of the story have changed, Allison notes. In the beginning, people left stones on Trahlyta’s grave out of respect; now they do it out of fear — the grave is said to be cursed. The legend’s most common origin story is that a guy heard it from “his Cherokee friend.”
“Is any of this real,” Gina asks? “Well, real is such a complicated word,” Allison replies.
The stones are real, the historical marker is real, and the connection people feel to the story is real … but there’s not exactly a body buried under there, and there’s a very, very slim chance the story actually originated in Cherokee oral tradition. Elements of the story are seen throughout white ideations of Native peoples: the vanishing Indian and the romanticization of and oneness with nature.
It’s a story that many non-Native people connect with easily, and the physical space associated with it draws people in more than an oral tradition alone, Allison says. People make pilgrimages to connect with the land, tugged by the idea that to be connected with nature is akin to being Native. The site also works to alleviate white guilt. People want a place to mourn and to distance themselves from the white people who came before them. Placing a stone on Trahlyta’s grave is like acknowledging the suffering of all Native people. Of course, Gina notes, the compassion for the fake sacred site in Dahlonega doesn’t extend to actual sacred sites throughout the South that are destroyed to make way for development.