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Chiaha . . . its probable location found in Great Smoky Mountains

Chiaha . . . its probable location found in Great Smoky Mountains

A 1904 US Geological Survey Map shows an island that exactly matches the description of Chiaha in the De Soto Chronicles!

PART TWO of “The Search for Juan Pardo’s Routes through the Appalachian Mountains”

To read PART ONE . . . go to Juan Pardo in the Appalachian Mountains


Chiaha was one of the few Native American towns visited both by Hernando de Soto in 1540 and twice by Captain Juan Pardo in 1567 and 1568.  In 1701,  French cartographer,  Guillaume de L’Isle, placed Chiaha at Tugaloo Island in the Tugaloo River between South Carolina and Georgia.  The 1939 De Soto Trail Commission agreed with Monsieur De L’Isle.   In the 1980s, a committee of academicians in Southeastern universities selected Zimmerman Island, Tennessee in the French Broad River.  Let just say that the good professors had “incentives” for placing the village of Guaxule in Asheville, NC.  Zimmerman Island was the only island downstream from Asheville. 

University of North Carolina graduate, Charles Hudson, was on the  “De Soto Chronicles” Committee.  However, his 1998 book, Knights of the Cross, Warriors of the Sun, took De Soto on a grand tour of northwestern North Carolina and then down the Nolichucky  River in extreme northeastern Tennessee.  He placed Chiaha vaguely on “some” island in the Nolichucky Gorge.

The Zimmerman Island location became orthodoxy and that’s what you will read today in all references. These references are zealously guarded by minions of the profession to make sure that orthodoxy, no matter how faulty, is maintained.  There is a problem though.  The ONLY characteristic that any of the above islands have in common with the actual descriptions of Chiaha by the chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition is that they are islands.

Check out the Wikipedia Article that lists villages visited by De Soto in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.  It describes villages visited by Juan Pardo as being visited by Hernando de Soto, when he did not go there . . . and vice versa.  The article leaves out several important towns in the Southern Highlands, which either de Soto or Pardo visited.  It also lists villages that are not even mentioned in either set of chronicles.   It labels villages and towns with Muskogean names as being Cherokee.  Try to get these articles back into the realm of objectivity . . .  like the actual list of towns and villages visited by de Soto . . . and the correction is quickly changed back to fiction.

To refresh the reader, here are the criteria that the chroniclers of the De Soto and Pardo expeditions told us about Chiaha . . .  (1)  The province of Chiaha was surrounded on all sides by high mountains. Both explorers reported frigid temperatures at high mountain gaps during the late spring. (2) The capital of Chiaha was on an approximately 2.75 mile long island in a broad, fast-running mountain river that was shallow enough for horses to cross.  However, the current ran so fast that horses and burros often stumbled. (3) Three smaller fast-running rivers joined the main river upstream from the capital.  (4) There was a deep mountain gorge downstream from Chiaha, which was about 40 miles long. De Soto’s expedition followed this gorge in order to reach the town of Coste, which was also on an island. (5) When Juan Pardo departed Ichiaha, he traveled southwestward through another deep gorge, which had silver ore deposits on its slopes. (6) In some chronicles, the capital of Chicha is called Ichiaha or Ychiaha. (7) The inhabitants of Chiaha grew large fields of salvia (Chia in Itza Maya) along the rivers. (8) The inhabitants of Chiaha were the only indigenous people in the Southeast, encountered by De Soto’s conquistadors, who raised domesticated honey bees and regularly ate honey.

Actual  itineraries of De Soto and Pardo through the Appalachians

Online references such as Wikipedia try to make readers think that De Soto and Pardo took the same routes.  Obviously, they didn’t.  An I or E in front or behind a word, is Itza Maya grammar.  This prefix and suffix means “principal” and was applied to provincial capitals.  Town names ending with the Itza “te” suffix spoke either Itza Maya or Itsate-Creek.  Town names ending in “ke” spoke Muskogee-Creek.  Towns with “O” at the end are Southern Arawak words.  “O” means the same thing in Southern Arawak as “I” does in Itza.

De Soto:  Xuale (Suale) – Guaxule – Canasagua – Chiaha – Tali – I-Coste – Kusa

Pardo:  Joara – Tokah-e – Enoke – Enxunte – Xenaca – Atoke – Cauche – Nikuse – Esta-te  – Takuro – Utika – Quintoa – Olameko –  Tanaske – Chiaha – Chalohuma –  Satipo – Chiaha – Cauche – Tokah-e  –  Joara


Etymology of Chiaha, Satipo, Tali and Tokoh-e

(1) Chiaha – In the 1700s, Chiaha was the name of an important, Hitchiti-speaking branch of the Creek Confederacy.  At the time Georgia was founded in 1733, there were Chiaha villages in east central Alabama, but most Chiaha were in southwestern Georgia.  In the early 20th century, Smithsonian ethnologist, John Swanton, erroneously translated the word to mean “Highlanders.”   Hiwalsi is the Creek word for “Highlanders.”

Meaning of Chiaha:  It is an Itza Maya word meaning, Salvia River.  Chia is a domesticated variety of salvia, which produces a highly nutritious seed . . . as in “Chia Pet.”   The Mexican State of Chiapas (home of the Itza Mayas) means “Place of the Salvia.”  “Ha” in Itza and Creek is pronounced like “haw.”

Anglicized derivations of Chiaha:  Chehaw, Cheaha, Cheoah


(2)  Satipo – This was the name of a powerful Native province in Southeast Georgia in the region around the Satilla River, Little Satilla River and St. Andrews Bay.  If one actually reads the original Spanish archives rather than “modified history” produced by Florida academicians, one discovers that between late September 1565 and March 1567,  St. Augustine was located on St. Andrews Bay, GA.   That is why one no longer hears about Satipo after St. Augustine moved.   The Sati people drove the Spanish out, but after the Spanish amphibious expeditions devastated their villages, they moved to the Chattahoochee River near Eufaula, Alabama.

As was typical of many Native American provinces in Georgia, Satipo established a colony in the Great Smoky Mountains, where Citigo Creek joins the Little Tennessee River.  The location is very close to the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. By the 1690s, it had been captured or absorbed by the Proto-Cherokees, speaking a southern Arawak dialect, and re-named Sati-koa. 

Meaning of Satipo:  Satipo means “Colonists – Place of” in the Panoan languages of Satipo Province, Peru.  Academicians call this province Satiuriwa, but that is another Panoan word, which means, “Colonists – King of.” 

Meaning of Satikoa:  Satikoa means “Colonists – People” in the Southern Arawak languages of Satipo Province, Peru and in the Southern Highlands of the United States.

Anglicized derivations of Sati and Satipo:  Satilo, Santee, Santeetlah (as in the creek & lake of that same name in Graham County, NC.)

Anglicized derivations of Satikoa:  Seticoa, Siticoa, Stecoah, Citico, Sitico, Citigo

(3) Tali – This town was at the confluence of the Little Tennessee and Tennessee Rivers.  It later would become the first Cherokee town in the North Carolina Mountains, according to a letter written by Cherokee Principal Chief, Charles Hicks in 1826.

Meaning of Tali –  It probably is the Southern Arawak version of the Itsate Creek/ Itza Maya word for town, Tula . . . however, this is not known for certain.  It has no current meaning in any of the other common languages, spoken in the Southern  Highlands.

Arawak form of word –  Talikoa, which means “Tali People.”

Anglicized derivations of Talikoa –  Talico, Tellico, Taliqua, Tahlequah


(4) Tokoh-e or Tokahle –  This was a Muskogean tribe in the North Carolina Mountains in the vicinity of Sapphire Valley, Highlands and Tuckasegee, North Carolina. The word is also written as Toque by Spanish archives and Tokee in early British archives.

Meaning of Tokoh-e –   It is a Creek word that means “spotted or freckled people.”

Anglicized derivations of Tokoh-e and Tokahle –  Toccoa, Tugaloo, Tocasee, Tuckasegee, Tuckabachee, Tuckahee


Note:  Wikipedia and tourist brochures tell readers that Nantahala means “river of the noonday sun” in Cherokee.  The word has no meaning in Cherokee, but means essentially “white water rapids” in the Southern Arawak languages of Peru.   In 1658, French ethnologist and naturalist, Charles de Rochefort, wrote that western North Carolina had at one time been densely populated by Arawaks, but they had been mostly replaced by “Apalachetes” . . .  Itsate Creek Indians.



Defining specific town sites, near Chiaha, visited by De Soto and Pardo

European maps do not show either the French Broad River nor the Nolichucky River having any villages with names like those mentioned in the De Soto and Pardo Chronicles.  In fact, by 1725 this region was labeled “Deserted Settlements.”

(1) Coste  (Cusatee) –  The 1715 John Beresford Map still shows Coste on Bussell Island.  Bussell Island is at the confluence of the Tennessee and Little Tennessee Rivers.

(2) Archaeological record and Cherokee archives – Since the 1970s, it has been the orthodoxy of archaeologists that all of the Muskogean towns were abandoned in western North Carolina around 1600 AD and that there is no archaeological record appearing again until the early 1700s . . . and that these new occupants were Cherokees.  However, simultaneously, North Carolina archaeologists are labeling all of the Late Mississippian towns as “Proto-Cherokee Pisgah Culture.”   They do not explain how the Proto-Cherokees would be living in planned towns with large rectangular houses in 1600, but less than a century later would be living in round huts with unplanned settlements.

Principal Chief Charles Hicks had a very different description of the past.  He said that the Cherokees established their first town in the mountains at Big Tellico around the time that Charleston was founded, next to the confluence of what is now called the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers.  They found that the populations of the “mound builders,” living in the interior of western North Carolina was greatly diminished by plagues.  The Cherokees killed or drove off the “mound builders” then burned their temples on top of the mounds.   This would explain why Cherokee names for many towns are similar to their original Muskogean form.

(3) The 1725 John Hunter Map of  South Carolina shows  Tellico, Satilo, Taskegee, Conasagua, Niguse, Senaca, Tokoe, Tacura and Enoke on the Little Tennessee River.  With so many villages in 1725 approximating the names of villages mentioned in the De Soto and Pardo Chronicles, we can be fairly certain that Chiaha was on the Little Tennessee River.


Defining the location of Chiaha

There is only two locations in the Southern Highlands where there is a place name like Chiaha. These locations are in Graham County,  North Carolina, whose county seat is Robbinsville.     In the eastern part of this mountainous county, three mountain rivers come together and downstream there is a deep 40 mile long gorge.  Towering Cheoah Mountain overlooks the confluence of these rivers.   Three ancient trade routes lead southward, southeastward and eastward from the flood plain around this confluence.  One follows the Tuckasegee River eastward.  Another follows the Little Tennessee River to Itsate Gap in Northeast Georgia.  The third passes through Nantahala Gorge and ends up on the Hiwassee River in present day Murphy, NC.   This perfectly matches the description of the geography around Chiaha.

As can be seen in the satellite images below,  the problem is that Fontana Lake covers up all of the narrow flood plain of the Little Tennessee River for most of the width of Graham County.  Below Fontana Dam,  a series of dams cover the river’s flood plain all the way to the Tennessee River. No major islands appear in the waters of Fontana Lake.

Fontana Dam was hurriedly built at the eve of World War II.   Prior to that time the region was very isolated.  It had not received any attention from archaeologists and no archaeological studies were done in advance of Fontana Lake filling up.  However, Southeastern archaeology was at its infancy anyway.   In 1939, the blue ribbon membership of the De Soto Trail Commission had put its stamp of approval on Tugaloo Island as the location of Chiaha.  It probably would not have dawned on the archaeologists that the Anglicized, Cherokee-nized word, Cheoah, was really the same as Chiaha.


Satellite image of Graham County, North Carolina and environs


The Little Tennessee River meets all the criteria for Chiaha’s location, but it’s original channel is under several lakes.  No islands are visible.


The Stecoah Valley and Stecoah Community . . . in the background is the Little Tennessee River Gorge and the Great Smoky Mountains.



Talasee Island immediately below the Cheoah Dam

There is a long island below the Cheoah Dam in the western end of Graham County, NC that meets most of the criteria for Chiaha, except only two rivers meet here . . . The Little Tennessee and the Chiaha.  Also,  Juan Pardo and his men departed in a southward direction from Chiaha.  Very soon thereafter they entered a deep gorge with a fast moving river running through it.   Some of his men, who were experienced metallurgists, climbed the mountain and found silver ore.  There is in fact silver ore on the sides of Nantahala Gorges.

The lower island could well have been another Chiaha, but not the capital.   Some of the versions of the De Soto and Pardo Chronicles suggest that De Soto’s expedition visited one town named Ichiaha (the provincial capital) and another just named Chiaha.

The dramatic scene in the movie, “The Fugitive,” where Harrison Ford jumped off a dam, was filmed at Cheoah Dam.



Finding islands under the water

Many reservoirs occasionally drop their water level for maintenance of the dam.  If one is lucky, a photo-taking satellite is overhead at the time.   Such has not been the case for Fontana Lake.  As can be seen on left, the TVA does drop the water level in the winter, but nobody has flown their satellites over at that time.

It has always been common practice for the TVA and later the US Army Corps of Engineers to hire surveyors to prepare topographic surveys of a reservoir basin, so the civil engineers will know in advance what the lake will look like . . . and also where structures should be demolished.   That was not the case at Fontana Lake.

Fontana Dam was being built to furnish power for Alcoa Aluminum in Maryville, TN and the top secret “Clinton Engineering Works”  where 75,000 workers were involved with processing uranium ore, utilizing vast amounts of electricity.  It would be renamed Oak Ridge National Laboratories in 1949, when the public was finally told what had gone on there.    The surveyors ran a line around the planned elevation of the lake and timber companies were rushed in to clear the trees and ship them to mills to make lumber for housing those 75,000 workers.   The fast pace of dam construction created outparcels that isolated homes, schools and cemeteries.

I thought it was going to be impossible to get a peek at what was under the waters of the lake.  Then I read a comment in a blog, which mentioned that while Theodore Roosevelt had played a major role in saving the natural wonders of the West, he had repaid contributions form Northeastern electricity, timber and mining barons by directing the US Geological Survey to carry out detailed surveys of the Western North Carolina and Georgia Mountains.  These surveys were initially utilized by the timber companies to build narrow gauge railways and dirt roads, which enabled them to strip the mountains bare of trees. However, engineering design also began immediately for the creation of the first wave of hydroelectric dam projects in the Southern Highlands. 

By golly, those maps made in 1903 and 1904 have been digitized and now are available online.   I now know where all the gold mines were in Northeast Georgia, but . . . also, was able to see the original appearance of the Little Tennessee River Valley.

Section of 1904 USGS topographic survey of extreme western North Carolina

The island just down stream from the confluence of the Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee Rivers is approximately the same length as was estimated by Juan Pardo.  It aligns with the Stecoah Valley, through which the main trail to the Tennessee River Valley passed.  Makes sense!  Unfortunately, I could find no record of any archaeologists working in the area.  This long island is the best candidate, by far, for Ichaha . . . the capital of the province of Chiaha.

The island next to the Proto-Creek town of Taskeke and the Cherokee village of Tasgigi is a different matter.  Locals now call the community Tuskeegee.  I lived in a cabin on a small mountain overlooking Tuskeegee Mounds in March and part of April of 2010.  I was told from several reliable sources in the community that Olympic Games bomber, Eric Rudolf, had lived in that same cabin during the late 1990s, while hiding out from the largest and most expensive FBI man hunt in history.

Do you remember the 1994 film, “Nell” . . . starring Jodie Foster,  Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson?  It was filmed at Tuskeegee.  Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson fell in love, while walking on an ancient Native American town.

At least one of the mounds here, an old Woodland Period burial mound, is above the water level.  Several years ago, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians declared the location a Cherokee Sacred Site and then paid archaeologists to survey the site.  It is an official archaeological zone, dating back at least to the Woodland Period, but containing evidence of occupation during the 1500s, early 1600s and 1700s.  It is protected by being designated a historic site and archaeological zone.  If academia can be convinced that De Soto and Pardo came down the Little Tennessee River Valley, no one will refute that they came through this town.

The Tuskeegee Mounds were probably the location of the town that some versions of the Spanish chronicles call just plain Chiaha.  Undoubtedly, there were many villages along the rivers leading to the capital of Ichiaha.


Seven years ago today!








And now you know!


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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.



    Wow, great detective work Richard. Congrats on your discovery.


    great work!


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