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An ancient cluster of villages in Roswell and Sandy Springs, Georgia

An ancient cluster of villages in Roswell and Sandy Springs, Georgia

Many of you probably define your Native American ancestry by focusing on the lifestyles of some people living in the 1800s with English names.  However, in regard to the Uchees, Chickasaws and Creeks, this was just a blip in time, compared to the many, many centuries that our ancestors lived in the Southeast in permanent towns and villages.   The world that most of your Native American ancestors lived in was entirely different than the 1700s and 1800s.

In 1500 AD, one could have paddled down the Chattahoochee River for over 35 miles in what is now Metro Atlanta and not lost site of  villages and cultivated bottom lands.  There would have been only one large town with multiple mounds . . .  at Peachtree Creek. 

(Image Above)  Over a three mile length of the Chattahoochee River in North Metro Atlanta,  an archaeologist found a dozen permanent village sites.  They were occupied most of the time from around 1200 BC to at least 1700 AD, yet none had mounds.  Several village sites were established on much older Archaic Period camp sites, where stone weapons and tools were crafted from imported rocks.


The Chattahoochee River flowing through the Upper Piedmont of Georgia

The year of 1939 that archaeologist Robert Wauchope spent in North Georgia clearly identified a dense pattern of settlement that seemingly has been forgotten by the current generation of anthropologists.  Go to most online references and books, and you will be presented a distorted image of how most the ancestors of the Uchees, Chickasaws and Creeks lived during the so-called “Mississippian Cultural Period.”   You will be shown images of a few big centers such as Cahokia, Moundville or Etowah Mounds and told that all people lived in “chiefdoms” in which the elite of a single large town dominated a ring of satellite villages, clustered immediately around the big town.  You will also be told that these chiefdoms rarely lasted more than 200-250 years.

That is not what Robert Wauchope found.   Instead, he discovered one small village after another from the Chattahoochee’s source near Helen, GA to present day Columbus, GA.   The village clusters in the mountains and  region around Atlanta began thousands of years ago as camp sites and seasonal hamlets for hunters and gatherers.  They fished and gathered mussels in the river shoals. By around 1000 BC or earlier, they were settling down and making refined pottery.    Their descendants continued to live in these same locations for many centuries.

Human occupation of the village cluster on the river between Roswell and Sandy Springs was not completely continuous.  Wauchope did not find any Swift Creek (Middle Woodland)  pottery here, although it is abundant at some village clusters upstream and downstream along the river.   Wauchope theorized that this section of the river was therefore unoccupied between around 200 AD and 600 AD.

In our series on the Chattahoochee River,  the People of One Fire has mentioned several clusters of ancient villages along this beautiful river.  However, there is one important difference for this cluster near Roswell and Sandy Springs.   Most sites are in the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area and open to the public.  They are in a natural or semi-natural state and protected by National Park Service Rangers.   There are no mounds to see, but at least one can better appreciate the beauty of the Chattahoochee’s environs that was enjoyed by its Native American inhabitants.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Do you have any thoughts on conventional archaeologists theory that the Itsate and Muscove are descendants of Mississippian mound builders?


      Don’t mind me taking my time to get up to speed. The articles about diffusion and migrations from South America and Central America to the southeast got my attention, but even I catch up eventually….


    When I was a kid growing up in Chamblee ga
    afriend and I would bike out to the corner of Holcomb bribge and Spalding dr at the time there was a county store there and thats all
    we would go to the river and dig we found potery chards and were thrilled .This was part of the ocupation of the Hooch .I wish I was in touch with my friend now but have lost touch with him .That was 45 years ago.

    • Yes! There must have been a lot of indigenous people living along the Hooch . . . and yet the Atlanta Area’s Native American heritage is not even discussed by the media anymore.


        I’ve long suspected there were substantial numbers of people living along the (now metro area) ‘Hooch, as several fishing weirs are still visible and functioning, to a degree. The Horseshoe Bend area hosts some of the deepest holes, and largest fish to be found. It’s easy to imagine young bucks would dive from the high cliffs at Huntcliff as a right of passage, just as we did in the early 70’s. When the water is clear, one of the weirs just above the Johnson Ferry bridge is easy to see, and the north shore had very large old fields, later used for polo matches. Though I never found any artifacts, my brother found pottery sherds and arrowheads at the bend called Indian Trail.


          Do you have any maps showing other village sites on the hooch in gwinett I would to look at them .as ateen in chamblee we spent alot of time on the river.


    As indications of cultural diffusion from Central and South America arise, many questions arise.

    How far into continental N. America did Maya elites establish themselves?

    Do we even attribute the monumental earthworks of Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin to a migration of Maya elites deep into continental N. America?


      On a slightly different note, the Natchez were part of the Mississippian culture. Their highly stratified society might seem to have some parallels in Central America. Meanwhile, they spoke a unique “language isolate,” which had little in common with any other native language. Is the unique nature of the ancient Natchez language just an exception to what we would typically expect if Mississippian civilization was the result of cultural diffusion from Central to North America?

      Otherwise, was there something peculiar about Mississippian culture tended to facilitate the development of language and culture in unique ways?


      A model in which Maya elites attempting to build a Maya civilization in continental N. America founded the Mississippian civilization would tend to indicated a tendency toward uniformity throughout Mississippian civilization. If we opt for this as a prevailing hypothesis, then I suspect the case of the Natchez would demand some alternative explanation, inasmuch as their language was an unique isolate.


    I thought Jeff would like to know that a photo shot in the 70’s from a helicopter of the polo field near Johnson Ferry Road, that he mentioned, showed the outline of Native American dwellings.


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