Our love affair with coffee and wine started long before our town changed its name from Morristown – the county seat of Buncombe County in 1794 – to Asheville. Coffee was introduced to Western North Carolina long after a number of sophisticated Native American nations – including the civilization of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee who had been consuming natively grown roasted chicory root as a tonic.
Its speculated that the Spanish conquistadors were the first ones to bring coffee into Western North Carolina. The Spanish had just finished a protracted “reconquista” reclaiming Spain from an occupation that lasted 700 years. Much of Spain and Southern France was finally won back by its own European natives in the late 1400’s. A gift of coffee and the secrets of its preparation was left behind by the Moorish conquerers.
After the war the Spanish maintained trade with their former conquerors and coffee beans came direct from Ethiopia and Yemen. This coffee habit was one of the few happy thing the Arabs, Turks and North Africans left behind in Spain after fomenting – to this date – the world’s longest war of religious occupation. This war reached all parts of the world in the form of Spanish combat officers and soldiers sent out across the world in the name of the Spanish Crown to stake claim to the “New World”.
The Reconquista lasted between 718-1492 and the end of the occupation facilitated the Spanish Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile sending Christopher Columbus to find the route to India by sailing Easterly over the Atlantic Ocean.
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Commissioned by the Spanish crown, veterans of the Reconquista followed Columbus, to colonize and conquer America’s Southeast. Their hold of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America lasted until the 1800’s. They successfully established coffee inn Mexico in the late 18th century. We suspect that a finite amount of coffee was consumed by all expeditionary forces most likely by the officers first given how precious it would be. At least two military expeditions of Spanish soldiers, translators, prisoners, priests and slaves would traverse what would become Asheville, North Carolina. The first coffee in Asheville might have been roasted, brewed and served around the mid 1500’s along with the last of their Spanish wine.
In 1541, Hernando de Soto and his expedition are said to have traversed the banks at the confluence of the Swannanoa River and South French Broad Rivers – an ancient road crossing of Native American foot paths. They were looking for both gold, the fountain of youth (Muscadine Grapes) and a route through the mountains and southward to their colonial cities in Mexico. De Soto expeditionary force traveled westward over the Saluda Mountains and into the Asheville Valley looking for three things that evaded them. They found little gold, no path to Mexico and no fountain of youth. In vain and with a perfect all that they sought was beneath their noses. The Spanish were not able to extrapolate that part of the healthy lifestyle of Native Americans in Western North Carolina Asheville and their good health and long age might be due to the consumption of muscadine grapes which hold valuable anti-aging anti-oxidants. They probably consumed the Muscadine and even attempted to make wine from it. The Spanish were only 80 miles for a massive Charlotte gold field. For all the massacres, wars, disease and depredations the Spanish wreaked on Native Americans in North Carolina in search for gold. – it’s especially ironic to consider that the Charlotte gold field had ingots of pure gold occur above the surface – ready to simply be picked up. Just a few hours from Fort San Juan – they missed the secret Native American foot pass to the Mississippi Valley via the Catawba Trail to the Cumberland Gap – a route to pivot Southward and to their colonial capital Mexico City.
The confluence is located where Biltmore Avenue, Asheville’s historic Vanderbilt family home – The Biltmore Estate, Asheville’s Biltmore Village, French Broad River Park and Asheville’s River Arts District. Lamentably, the Spanish soldiers and missionaries left disease and untold wreckage behind them. They did trade and negotiate with the stronger Native American nations leaving a taste for Spanish roasted coffee, Spanish grape wine and Spanish jewelry in their wake.
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Another Conquistador, Captain Juan Pardo followed in de Soto’s trail. Pardo and his men were victorious war veterans in the war against Umayyad Caliphate that had ejected Islam from Spain in the world’s longest war to date. Turkish roasted coffee was as much a part of their cuisine as Spanish wine. The Spanish brought their coffee with them in their attempted conquest of North America. After destroying several French coastal settlements, arrived in Western North Carolina with more than coffee beans. He brought 120 steel clad armed soldiers, 30 mastiff war dogs and fifty matchlocks (large muskets).
They traveled 231 miles from Fort Santa Elena (located on present-day Parris Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina) across Asheville’s future location and built Fort San Juan outside of Morrisville, NC just 49 miles from Asheville, NC.
Coffee, wine and steel is what that peaked the interests of the stronger American tribes that were not overcome by the Spaniards. Yet, the depredations of de Soto and Pardo’s men sealed the fate the Fort San Juan. The garrison was burnt to the ground by Catawba Nation and only Juan de Badejoz Rodriguez, escaped – it is said with the last bag of coffee and cask of wine. The site had been archaeologically excavated and named the Berry Site after the Berry family who had settled Morristown since before the Revolutionary War. No evidence of coffee, chocolate or wine remained at the Fort as it was burned to the ground and a ceremonial Catawban mound was erected in its place. It would be quite some time before coffee arrived back in Asheville.
Before the Spanish, the Native American civilizations known as the Ani-Yvwiya, or the “Real People,” are today known as the Cherokee. They shared the two river valley of the Swannanoa and South French Broad with other tribes. The Cherokee called the South French Broad river “Long Man,” Described as “Tahkeyostee,” or “Where They Race,” and the purple flowering chicory plant (Cichorium intybus) is found along its banks and paths. This is the pre colonial precursor to the coffee flavor for Native America. The chicory flower can be eaten raw in a salad. The roots can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable or roasted and pulverized to make a medicinal calming tonic tea or coffee substitute. Chicory is still used medicinally along the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee reservation) as the Eastern Band of Cherokee just 51 miles from downtown Asheville in Cherokee, NC.
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Continuing today through Native American oral traditions and continuous wild harvesting, chicory was the Native American version of coffee. Chickory gained a worldwide audience of fans who enjoy its non-caffeinated coffee-like flavor and its calming effect on the nerves.
After 1585 when Sir Richard Greenville brought one hundred sailors, soldiers, and colonists to Roanoke Island with a bag of coffee the Cherokee and Europeans would have limited contact in Western North Carolina until the late 1600s. A thriving trade developed between the Cherokee and White settlers sprung-up in the early 1700s and coffee, tea, sweets and even chocolate were traded continuously between the groups in exchange for smoked trout, tomato, corn and squash seeds and pelts. The early settlers of Morrisville (later Asheville) and later on during the American Revolutionary War to establish coffee drinking and cafe’s as a cultural habit for post-colonial North Carolina. The War for American Independence brought its own action against the British tradition of tea drinking. Coffee replaced tea as Scott-Irish settlers demonstrated their patriotism by switching beverages.
Settling into what would become early Asheville 1784 these early settlers were the Davidsons, Alexander’s, Gudgers, and Pattons. Wealthier families in Western North CArolina uld showed off their privileged status by serving coffee since it took more time to prepare than tea. Since the 1650s, English Coffeehouses had become fashionable in the America allowing the colonists to talk politics between men of mixed backgrounds, The gathering placed allowed travelers and locals to enjoy a drink and discuss the news of the day, exchange ideas, or read aloud papers and pamphlets. The Boston Tea Party of 1773, helped America make the switch from tea to coffee.
By 1784, Colonel Samuel Davidson and his family settled in the Swannanoa Valley, on the basis of a soldier’s land grant from the state of North Carolina.
The United States Census of 1790 counted 1,000 residents of the area, excluding the Cherokee Native Americans. Buncombe County was officially formed in 1792. The county seat, named “Morristown” in 1793, was established on a plateau where two old Indian trails crossed. In 1797, Morristown was incorporated and renamed “Asheville” after North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe. A reported 100% of Ashevillans where coffee or tea drinkers according to one report.
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