Biochar agriculture at a massive scale on the Savannah River
No, this is not an architectural rendering of an ancient town in the Upper Amazon Basin!
After the end of the First Anglo-Cherokee War in 1762, my Apalache-Creek and Uchee ancestors felt it safe to move up the Savannah River and reoccupy tribal lands in the vicinity of where the Sawakehachee (Broad River) joined the Savannah River. They were astounded to see many ancient mounds and massive agricultural platforms composed of “black clay,” which produced unimaginable crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes and tobacco. No one really knew, who had built these man-made Gardens of Eden, which were as large as four football fields in area and up to 12 feet tall. Before the Creek-Cherokee War began in 1716, the region had been populated by the Sawate (Raccoon People) Creeks and Raccoon Clan Uchee, but their descendants only had vague stories of master farmers coming up the river from a land across the ocean far, far to the south and establishing a great town, which dominated the region for many centuries. This semi-mythical tribe was called the Wahasi or “Descendants of People from the South”.
In 1773, William Bartram became the first and last person with a scientific background to see this great mound complex in anything resembling its original appearance. He immediately noticed that all the ceremonial mounds were conical in shape, not rectangular truncated pyramids as was typical elsewhere in Georgia. He estimated the largest mound to be 40-50 feet tall and around 270 feet in diameter. There were dozens of massive agricultural mounds. Each one was typically 200 yards in length and between 100 yards and 200 yards wide. They varied from 4 to 12 feet tall. Some of the ceremonial mounds seemed to be constructed from the “black clay” also. No where else could be seen the strange “black clay.” He could not figure out where it came from. Of course, today we know that this was man-made soil, created with biochar techniques. The people of the Amazon Basin call these man-made islands . . . terra preta.
Bartram stated that when the snow cover on the Georgia Mountains melted in the early spring, all of the Savannah River Basin near the Broad River would be filled with water. Only the area immediately around the ceremonial mounds would be visible. Some years, even most of these mounds would be covered in water. Afterward the natural and man-made landscape of the Savannah Bottoms would be altered by the torrential waters.
In 1784, the new State of Georgia began giving away land to Revolutionary War veterans along the Upper Savannah as a means of satisfying past due wages and solidifying its claim to the region. Until 1790, all maps, except those published in Georgia, showed the region from Augusta northward, belonging to South Carolina. By populating this region, with ex-soldiers, who had been issued deeds by the State of Georgia, the state’s leaders made South Carolina’s claims impossible to enforce.
During the 1780s, immigrants, primarily from Virginia, established the town of Petersburg on a natural terrace overlooking the Savannah River Bottoms. They found that the strange “black clay” in the old Indian platforms would grow an exceptional quality tobacco in abundance. The black clay was hauled away constantly to spread on tobacco gardens. Almost overnight Petersburg became one of the major tobacco growing centers in the nation and thrived mightily.
By the time that pioneer archaeologist, Charles C. Jones, Jr. was shown the “Rembert Mounds” in 1873 by the owner of the land, a Mr. Tate, they were barely recognizable. Most of the black clay had been hauled off. The clearing of forests and cultivation of natural grass prairies in Northeast Georgia and Northwest South Carolina had caused catastrophic floods, which had cut channels parallel to and across the ancient town site. However, Jones was still able to the see the skeleton of the massive conical mound, described by Bartram.
In 1885, the Rembert Mounds Site was visited by Cyrus Thomas, head archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institute. They had been eroded further by the catastrophic floods on the Savannah River, but were still somewhat recognizable. Very little was left of the strange “black clay” mounds. However, Mr. Tate said that where plots of the black clay remained, he could grow 100-120 bushels of corn an acre without fertilization.
In 1886, John P. Rogan, a cousin of Cyrus Thomas , briefly excavated exploratory ditches in some of the largest mounds at the Rembert Site. Later that year, a tropical storm caused the worst flooding in North Georgia since the region was settled by Anglo-Americans. Part of the Etowah Mounds site was ripped away, while 15 feet of alluvial soil was deposited over the rest of the town site, covering several smaller mounds. Steamboats rescued stranded people on Broad Street in Rome, GA, while the landscape of the Savannah River Bottoms near Elberton were made unrecognizable. There was another catastrophic flood in 1908 than raised creeks in Elbert County, which normally could be waded across, to up to 25 feet of water. Many more Native American mounds were obliterated.
In 1939, archaeologist Robert Wauchope briefly visited Elbert County as part of his Archaeological Survey of North Georgia. A local guide took him to the Elbert Mounds near the confluence of the Broad and Savannah Rivers . . . instead of the Rembert Mounds, which were four miles to the north. The Elbert Mounds had been badly eroded by floods, so Wauchope was disappointed and didn’t remain at site long.
In 1948, archaeologist Joseph Caldwell followed Wauchopes brief notes on what he thought was the Rembert Mounds, and carried out excavations of what remained of the Elbert Mounds. It was a contemporary satellite town of Rembert Mounds, so he probably found the same types of artifacts, but no information on the semi-mythical people, who actually started the Wahasi Conurbation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, several teams of archaeology professors and students again visited the Elbert Mounds Site and added a little more information by studying more carefully the artifacts found by Caldwell. Between 1974 and 1985, Richard B Russell Dam was under construction. There was still time to visit the Rembert Site, but since the archaeology profession in the Southeast is so inclined to follow authority figures, no one figured out the mistake. So what you read today in the Wikipedia article on the Rembert Mounds is actually about the Elbert Mounds.
My Uncle Hal took us cousins on outings to several Native American archaeological sites that were to be covered by Lake Richard B. Russell, but being a youth at the time I really didn’t remember the names he gave them. Nevertheless, when I began reading archaeological reports on that area of the Savannah River Basin in 2016 as part of research for a private client, I quickly realized that something was terribly amiss. I distinctly remembered the pathetic remnants of a small mound being below the planned site of Richard B. Russell Dam that the archaeologists were calling Rembert Mounds. However, I also remembered the footprints of much larger mounds being immediately north of the dam construction site under what is now the deepest part of the lake. However, I was young and many decades had passed since those weekend outings. I didn’t remember exactly where.
There was powerful evidence in the reports by Charles C. Jones and Cyrus Thomas. At that time, Rembert Mounds was owned by a Mr. Tate. Sure enough, a section of Lake Russell near the dam is still named Tate Lake. A historic map of Elbert County from the 1870s showed the section of the Savannah River Bottoms near the confluence of Beaverdam Creek and the Savannah River being called the Tate Plantation. Where contemporary archaeologists place the Rembert Mounds was not owned by the Tate Family.
Further support for a location near Beaverdam Creek came from other historic maps. Originally, in the 1700s and early 1800s, Paris Island near Beaverdam Creek was NOT an island. It was a vast expanse of bottomlands. The Savannah River and the GA-SC state line was to the east of this bend in the river. A series of floods turned a highwater slough cutting through this bottom land into the main channel of the river. However, the 1894 USGS map of the Savannah River clearly shows the higher elevations of where the ancient town Wahasi was located on what is now Paris Island. The bottomland at the official site of Rembert Mounds is relatively narrow. Charles Jones described the flood plain near Rembert Mounds as being over a half mile wide. That is certainly not the case for the official location.
Even between 1894, when the first USGS map was created and 1974, when construction was begun on the Russell Dam, there were radical changes in the appearance of the Savannah Bottoms. Repeated floods cut up Paris Island into a cluster of islands, while the eastern channel of the Savannah River steadily shrank in size and depth. Yet still today, the 1785 location of the Savannah River is the official state line between South Carolina and Georgia.
Today, it would be virtually impossible to study the probable site of the great town of Wahasi with its many massive biochar islands. The archaeological zone is under 200 feet of water! We will probably never know for sure, who built these biochar mounds and when they arrived at the Broad River.
A great adventure down the Savannah River in 2018
Beginning in January 2018, the People of One Fire newsletter and Youtube site will run a series on the incredible history of the Savannah River Basin. It is the location of the oldest mound in North America (Bilbo-3545 BC), the oldest known pottery in North America (c. 2500 BC) and the Mother Town of the Creek People (Aparasikora – Downtown Savannah).
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