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Citizen volunteers donate their free time to preserve the Etowah River Valley’s extraordinary heritage

Citizen volunteers donate their free time to preserve the Etowah River Valley’s extraordinary heritage


In the mid-1880s and then again between 1925 and 1956, many nationally known archaeologists toiled in the flood plains of the Etowah River Valley in Northwest Georgia.  Their intensive work played a major role in the understanding of Southeast’s past . . . giving names to several cultural periods and pottery styles.  In the 1980s, an archaeological survey resulted in the nation’s largest national historic district in the Etowah Valley near Cartersville. 

Adam King did the field work for his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania at Etowah Mounds in the mid-1990s.  He discovered that the base of Mound A was 15 feet below where it now is visible.  There was another spurt of archaeological activity at Etowah Mounds and near Ball Ground, GA between 2006 and 2008.  Since then the Etowah Valley has been largely off the radar of archaeologists.  The current generation of archaeologists seem to think that they know all there is to know about this valley . . . when they actually have forgotten many of the discoveries made in the past.

Residents of the Etowah Valley are filling the gap left by disinterested archaeologists and government agencies.  They are spending their free time and their weekends staffing museums,  keeping historic churches alive and going on jaunts to re-discover town sites first identified by archaeologists Margaret Elizabeth Ashley-Towle in the mid-1920s and Robert Wauchope in 1939.  In fact, they are also discovering town sites that the archaeologists missed.


The northern half of the Etowah River and its tributary, the Amicalola, are white water mountain streams.

The two main tributaries of the Etowah River begin on the Blue Ridge Escarpment near Amicalola Falls and the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. The upper half of the Etowah is a rushing whitewater river.  In particular, the Amicalola River, which joins the Etowah, contains some of the most difficult white water for kayaks in the United States.  It is no accident that the white water section of the Amicalola is called the “End of the World Rapids.”

Each of the counties along the Etowah River have active historical societies that are concerned with their local history, which, of course, includes Native American history.  These counties are Lumpkin, Dawson, Cherokee, Pickens, Forsyth, Bartow and Floyd.

Lumpkin and Dawson Counties are more focused on the Gold Rush era, but have begun to appreciate their earliest residents because of articles in the People of One Fire.  Lumpkin has numerous village and mound sites along the Etowah and Chestatee Rivers, plus Cane and Yahoola Creeks. Lumpkin residents were particularly astonished to see a water color painting made in 1565 by Jacques Le Moyne, which portrayed Apalache Indians in present day Lumpkin County mining gold.  Dawson County residents do not seem to be aware that their county contains several mounds, a terrace complex and numerous Native American village sites.

Cherokee and Forsyth Counties are much more involved with their Native American history, because of several sites in the county associated with famous archaeologists.  Despite its name, there were really only a couple of hundred Native Americans in Cherokee County during its brief time in the Cherokee Nation, and they apparently were not ethnic Cherokees, but remnant bands, who were allowed to settle on the fringe of Cherokee territory between 1785 and 1838. Although on the fringe of the Cherokee Nation, Forsyth County was almost entirely occupied by Shawnee (Saunee) People. Cherokee and Forsyth County preservationists are now seeking out more Native American town sites, so that they can be designated and preserved.

The Funk Heritage Center at Reinhardt University uses many volunteers in its activities.

The Funk Heritage Center at Reinhardt University in Cherokee County, GA uses many volunteers in its activities.

In the northwestern corner of Cherokee is the village of Waleska, where Reinhardt University is located.  On the campus is the Funk Heritage Center , which is Georgia’s official Native American and Appalachian Frontier history museum.  The museum has recently installed an exhibit of artifacts discovered 20 years ago during the construction of a Walmart Superstore.  Archeologists uncovered an intact Woodstock Culture village, plus a frontier homestead.   Although Waleska was traditionally remembered as a “Cherokee Chief,” it turns out that he apparently avoided deportation to Oklahoma because he was not Cherokee.  His actual tribal affinity remains unknown.

The Funk Heritage Center also contains the famous Reinhardt Petroglyphic Boulder.  About 11 feet long, it is identical to Bronze Age petroglyphic boulders found on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.  You go figure!

Pickens County abounds with pre-European Period mounds, village sites, stone cairn cemeteries and petroglyphs along Long Swamp, Talking Rock and Talona Creeks, plus the Amicalola River.  In the summer of 1540, an exploration party from the De Soto Expedition ventured up Talking Rock Creek in search of gold, but turned around quickly when they encountered “witches” living in the vicinity of the famous Big Canoe Resort Community. In recent decades, local historians have focused mostly on the Cherokee and Frontier Period.  A very large mission was established for the Cherokees in the village of Talking Rock.

Bartow County is the home of Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark, Leake Mounds and the Ladds Mountain Observatory, but the county is literally filled with Native American town, village and shrine sites.  In fact, it is very difficult to find a locale in Bartow County that does not contain Native American artifacts or ruins.

In recent decades, Bartow has focused on its “turn of the century” history, however. Some nationally famous people lived in Bartow during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  These include the Rev. Sam Jones (Methodist ministerfirst nationally famous evangelist), Rebecca Latimer Felton (first woman to serve in US Senate and the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara), Corra Harris (first female Southern writer of national prominence), Lottie Moon (Southern Baptist missionary, who died of starvation in China, because of the denomination’s opposition to female missionaries) and John P. Rogan (supervising archaeologist at Etowah Mounds during the 1880s Smithsonian Institute dig).

The famous Cherokee scholar, Sequoyah, was living in the village of Pine Log in northern Bartow County, when he first began developing the Cherokee Syllabary.  Nearby were the original homes of the famous Cherokee leaders, Charles Hicks and Major Ridge.  

The home of Cherokee Principal Chief Charles Hicks later became the stage on which the characters of "Gone With the Wind" evolved.

Cherokee Principal Chief Charles Hicks’ log home later became home of Corra Harris and the weekend retreat of progressive Southerners, who inspired the characters in “Gone With the Wind.”  The window of the “Berry-Ford Bedroom” can be seen in the attic of the log cabin on the left.

Author Corra Harris restored and expanded the log home of Cherokee Principal Chief Charles Hicks. The Corra Harris farm is now a historic site, owned by Kennesaw State University. During the 1920s, a young Atlanta newspaper reporter named Margaret Mitchell was one of the frequent guests in Hicks’ log house along with several other Southern intellectuals, such as Rebecca Felton.  They were the leaders of the movement to get women into professions and government leadership.   Martha Berry (founder of Berry College) and Henry Ford (THE Henry Ford) would secretly rendezvous there also . . . in an upstairs bedroom. Ford donated many millions of dollars to Berry College to create the largest college campus in the Americas.  Now you know why!  Their secret “friends with benefits” relationship continued throughout their lives, completely missed by the media.

While the “public” Henry Ford was a staunch Conservative Republican, who officially opposed women having the right to vote and hold political office, plus be professionals in the work place, he was secretly the principal financier of the efforts by Martha and her friends to obtain the women’s right to vote and hold office, plus enter into professions. 

The interesting personalities that Margaret Mitchell encountered on those weekend retreats became the characters in “Gone With the Wind.”  Martha Berry was the inspiration for Melanie Hamilton. Corra Harris was the inspiration for Belle Watling, the pushy, but kind-hearted owner of a bawdy house. Rebecca Felton’s husband became both Ashley Wilkes and Dr.  In real life Dr. William Felton had tended to the masses of Confederate wounded, who were dropped off beside the railroad track, north of Cartersville.  The real Scarlett married the love of her life. Henry Ford was probably the inspiration for Rhett Butler.

The Pine Log Campground dates back to 1818.

The Pine Log Methodist Campground dates back to 1817.

Also in Pine Log is Pine Log United Methodist Church and campground.  The Pine Log Church Campground is the oldest in the United States.  In began in 1817, when Charles Hicks invited Methodist missionaries to preach in the open air to Cherokee families beside a spring, where Cherokee conjurers liked to summon demons. The location was no accident.  Hicks thought that the conjuring religion had brought the Cherokees many sorrows.  Hicks also directed the planning and development of New Echota, the Cherokee Capital.  This early 19th century church and campground is still very active and open to the public.  To learn more, go to PINE LOG CHURCH.

Floyd County is where the Etowah joins the Oostanaula River to form the great Coosa River.  A large town with multiple mounds, named Itaba, once stood where Downtown Rome sits today. The De Soto Expedition spent several nights there in August of 1540. Across the Etowah River from downtown is the site of the Battle of Etowah Cliffs . . . last major battle of the Chickamauga War, where about 800 Cherokees, Upper Creeks and Chickasaws died.  However, just like Bartow County, Native American artifacts and village sites can be found throughout the county.

Floyd County historians tend to focus on the brief period when the Cherokees occupied their region.  The plantation homes of Major Ridge and his son, John Ridge have been beautifully restored.  Major Ridge’s home is now the Chieftain’s Museum.  This institution is the center for teaching the Cherokee language in Georgia.

This oval shaped earthen structure, found by Ed Reily, is either a mound or a sculptured hill.

This oval shaped earthen structure, found by Ed Reilly, is either a mound or a sculptured hill.

A volunteer, who is working up a storm

One of the most active citizen preservationists these days in the Etowah Valley is Ed Reilly.   If he has Native American ancestry, he is not aware of it, but he is doing more than all the Creek tribes combined to document Creek heritage sites along the Etowah and its tributaries.  If you recall, Ed was the People of One Fire member, who discovered in early 2016 that Douglas County, GA government officials had allowed complete destruction of a  Creek town ruins with an archaeological site number and burial mounds on the Chattahoochee River . . . without bringing in archaeologists as required by law for burials.

Ed lives in Cherokee County, GA in the vicinity of the Etowah River.   He is spending a great deal of his free time these days walking the bottom lands of the Etowah to identify Creek town and village sites that were briefly noted by archaeologist Robert Wauchope in 1939, but apparently have been completely forgotten by the current generations of historic preservationists and archaeologists.  He is also finding amazing sites and structures that Wauchope missed.   The hilltop shrine pictured above is one of them. 

Ed is also an avid researcher into old newspapers and archeological reports that our current generation has forgotten.  He is constantly forwarding to POOF’s editor, newspaper articles or old reports about Native American sites that are completely “off the radar screen” today.  I strongly suspect that the Grandfather Spirit guiding his discoveries is an Irishman named Shamus O’Reilly, because Ed, without looking hard, has also found many articles and archaeological sites that link Bronze Age Ireland to the Lower Southeast. 

What is needed in the Etowah River Valley, Ed believes, is a group of people with his interests to explore the region and identify important Native American and historical sites that time has forgotten.  These sites should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so that they can be protected from destruction by development, such as what happened earlier this year at the Buzzard Roost site on the Chattahoochee River.  If you are interested in volunteering with Ed, please send us an email at

Ed was asked to provide POOF leaders his bio, so we could understand why someone out of the blue, like himself, would suddenly become an explorer extraordinaire.  His response was not what I expected.   I assumed he would say that he got an anthropology degree in college, but never used it.  Not at all.  He is a middle-aged prodigy.

I recently become interested in Native American history while following my other hobbies.  I am not Native American, but have always been fascinated by history.  I work in sales and cover some of the same territory that POOF mentions.  It is great to read the site and then visit the actual places discussed, it really makes history come alive. ” 

“I wanted to support POOF with a small monthly donation.  Although the site is free there are administrative costs with running it.  It’s a highlight of my day when I see POOF in my inbox. They are informative, entertaining and I would hate to see them go away.  Who else could have recovered the lost Creek legend given to Oglethorpe, priceless!  There is so much more and POOF is not afraid to look under the rocks of history and report what’s underneath.  Help keep a great thing going with a single donation or monthly contribution.”


Okay . . . Ed still wouldn’t divulge the magic by which he finds archaeological sites that professionals have missed.  Maybe if you work along side him, you will find out his tricks of the trade.

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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.

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