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De Soto’s fortified camp at Kusa never studied by archaeologists

De Soto’s fortified camp at Kusa never studied by archaeologists


In July 1540,  the 575 surviving members of the Hernando de Soto Expedition were greeted by a 32 member orchestra, the mikko (king) of Kusa being carried on a litter and several hundred nobles as it approached the northern edge of the great town of Kusa  . . . actually pronounced Kawsha.   After an initial conference the mikko invited De Soto to board his men in the homes of the elite precinct of the town, which contained the public buildings and approximately 250 homes of the nobility.  De Soto declined the offer and instead instructed his officers to establish a fortified camp on a hill  that was immediately south of and overlooked the elite precinct.  Here the conquistadors would live for the next few weeks.

The Spaniards counted over 3,000 houses in the Kusa conurbation.  They were so impressed by the beauty of its landscape and the cultural sophistication of its people that De Soto announced his intentions to build the capital of the Spanish province of La Florida here, when he returned.  He envisioned this capital becoming the next Mexico City.   That was not to happen.

During the 20th century several of the best known archaeologists in the United States worked at the Carters Bottom Archaeological Zone (9Mu2), where Kusa was located.  Generally, their attention was for brief periods of time, but the archaeological work became frantic in 1969, when the waters began rising at the lower reservoir of Carters Lake.  All the mounds in Carters Bottom were to be covered in water.  Enough work was done to know the layout of the cluster of public structures in the elite precinct, but residential areas were never studied.  The construction of Carters Lake inspired the book, “Deliverance.”   Carters Dam replaced a spectacular 40 feet waterfall on the Coosawattee River.

The hill, where De Soto’s men lived for several weeks,  remains in a pristine natural state.  Because of rock outcrops, it was never cultivated.  The land is owned by the federal government.  Yet inexplicably, what could be one of the most important 16th century European Contact sites in North America has remained untouched by archaeologists.

View of the Royal Compound and commoners’ villages of Kusa from the southwest toward the Coosawattee River waterfall . The De Soto Expedition camped on the right portion of this computer image.  Talking Rock Creek separated the Royal Compound from the Commoners.



Coosawattee is the Anglicization of a hybrid Cherokee-Creek word, which means “Living Place of Old Kusa.”   Kusa was the capital of a powerful Late Mississippian Period province that was visited by the De Soto Expedition in the summer of 1540 AD.

Kusa and Coosa are Anglicizations of the Panoan (Peruvian) word Kaushe, which means “strong” or “elite.”   Today, the Upper Creek Indians name for themselves is Kauche.  The name of the town in the De Soto Chronicles, Coça, was an attempt of Late Medieval Castilian speakers to approximate Kaushe, since at that time Castilian did not have a letter K or an “sh” syllable.  Coça is pronounced Kō : shă.

GPS Coordinates of archaeological zone: 34°33’10.4″N ~ 84°54’21.1″W eastward to 34°36’53.5″N ~ 84°39’51.6″W


December 16, 2005 –  Judge Patrick Moore, plus an attorney with the Muscogee-Creek Nation and the Assistant Director of the Creek Lighthorse Police were given a tour of the Carters Lake Archaeological Zone.  The primary purpose of the visit was to see where a crime ring, composed of local and state government employees,  had been excavating Creek mounds on federal property, managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers,  then selling their loot as “Cherokee” artifacts and skulls at flea markets in the Southeast.   The investigative team was not certain whether the artifact poaching or the false labeling of the artifacts was the most serious crime.  <joke> 

One of the members of the ring was a State Motor Vehicles Law Enforcement officer, while another was a Pickens County, GA sheriff’s deputy.  Thus, whenever Corps of Engineers rangers tried to sneak up on the grave robbers to film them, the law enforcement officers in the ring would warn the poachers away.  However, I was able to photograph the poachers with a camera, equipped with a telephoto lens. 

No historical designation

The Oklahoma Creeks were astounded that despite three decades of hype about the De Soto Expedition, neither the US Army Corps of Engineers nor the State of Georgia had placed any historical markers on this extremely important archaeological zone that covered over seven square miles.  Most local residents were even unaware that a large Upper Creek town had been formerly located in Carters Bottom.

Most of the archaeological zone is federally-owned property, but some isn’t.  Nevertheless, none of the archaeological zone has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is especially odd, since several 19th century Cherokee plantations and farms, immediately to the north of the archaeological zone are on the National Register.

I did some sleuthing and found out the reason.  Back in 1970, the Georgia General Assembly created a paper city, covering parts of four counties, called “Industrial City.”   Industrial City wrapped around the Lower Reservoir at Carters Lake.  The plan was to develop the downtown of this planned city around the Lower Reservoir, thus completely destroying its historical context.  The sponsors of the legislative bill assumed that the Corps of Engineers would give or sell them this land.

Industrial City is still on the maps, but has no government or any significant commercial properties.  Nevertheless, local real estate development interests have discouraged any historic preservation designation or protection for Native American sites, for fear that this status would interfere with any possible future large scale commercial development . . . even though none has happened in the 47 years since Industrial City was created.

Carters Dam viewed from my canoe in the middle of the Lower Reservoir

Preparing a base map for the archaeological zone

Judge Moore asked me to prepare a map from archeological reports of where the mounds and town sites had been located.  Incredibly, even the US Army Corps of Engineers had no clue where the mounds and archaeological were.   Their rangers had initially not noticed that pseudo-fishermen were actually robbing mounds, because the Corps didn’t know that there were burial mounds being exposed when the water level of the Lower Reservoir dropped each night.  

This is yet another case of the paranoid secrecy of Southeastern archaeologists directly causing the destruction of Creek mounds.  If public officials do not know that archaeological sites exist, they cannot enforce the laws, which protect those archaeological sites. Much to my dismay,  I discovered that after 50 years of archaeological work in Carters Bottoms, archaeologists STILL had not prepared a map showing where the archaeological sites and mounds were!  In fact, the only site with a published report was the 1969 University of Georgia emergency project.  The relative small section of the Elite Precinct of the town of Kusa where the ceremonial mounds had been constructed had been surveyed in 1969, but that was it.

Carters Dam is one of the largest earthen dams in the world.  The lake is approximately 547 feet deep.  Throughout the 1960s, the proposed construction of Carters Dam was bitterly opposed by many Georgians, since the cost of the dam was not justified by the benefits . . . even according to the Corps of Engineers own figures.   However, local economic interests thought they would become rich from real estate sales near the proposed reservoir and continued to press for construction of the dam in Washington, DC.  Eventually, the Corps came up with the idea of building a Lower Reservoir.  This would enable the manager of the hydroelectric plant to pump water back up into the upper reservoir and use that water to generate electricity during peak demand periods.

When the proposal for the lower reservoir was announced, no archaeologist spoke up about the multiple, very important, archaeological sites, that would be destroyed.  Carters Dam would probably not been built, if that information had been made available to the public.   As it was, the archaeologists only spoke up after the dam was a done deal.   They spoke up to demand that they be given emergency funds from the federal government to study these archaeological sites.    However,  the Vietnam War was in its worst phase and so the archaeologists only were allocated a relatively small amount of funding to study a portion of one archaeological site. 

Thus, it appears that the archaeological community was primarily interested in getting funds to play in the dirt, not preserve an archaeological zone that should have been a National Historic Landmark.  This has been the major conflict between Southeastern Native Americans and archaeologists for several decades.  We believe that Native American historical sites should be given equal treatment as Colonial Period historical sites.  Of course, places like Jamestown and Fort Frederica are excavated by archaeologists, but they are also maintained by the National Park Service so the entire nation can visit these sacred sites.  Far too many archaeologists merely view Native American heritage sites as their private playgrounds.

Why was De Soto’s camp site ignored?

In 1969, no one was certain where De Soto’s conquistadors traveled in the Southeast. David Halley’s announcement that he had discovered the site of Kusa was initially controversial and not fully accepted until the late 1980s.   When The De Soto Chronicles were published in  1993,  apparently all academicians assumed that the entire archaeological zone was covered with water.  Archaeologists have show little interest in Carters Bottom area since 1970.  They assume that they know all there is to know about the Native American occupation of that region.

In contrast, for nine years, I lived only about 15 minutes drive from the archaeological zone.  By frequently hiking the Corps of Engineers-owned land, I was able to become intimately familiar with the terrain.  I discovered many man-made stacked stone structures that the archaeologists had missed, since they were only focused on digging up key mounds.  It quickly became obvious that there were still important sites above water that had not been professionally studied.

Architectural and Urban Design study of Carters Bottom

When Judge Moore learned that there was no map of Creek heritage sites in Carters Bottom, which could be used by rangers to prevent looting, he authorized further funds for me to create a three dimensional computer model of the archaeological zone and the site plan above. The US Army Corps of Engineers was very supportive of my efforts.  Their staff was able to find the original topographic survey, which was created about a decade before the dam was built.   This was digitized and loaded into my computer then processed by terrain modeling software.   A three dimensional computer model of all of the Corps of Engineers property around Carters Lake was then created.

The next step was to integrate whatever information was available from archaeological reports onto the terrain model in order to create an urban design model.   This proved difficult because the only site plan published by archaeologists was a relatively small area of the Elite Neighborhood.  All satellite images of the lake covered up the other archaeological sites and most of the Elite Neighborhood.  I was at a standstill.

Then in June 2006,  the staff at Carters Dam, notified me that they had been authorized to briefly drop the Lower Reservoir’s water level to its lowest point since 1970.  At this time, cranes would remove a log jam from the mouth of the lower dam.  All of the major archaeological sites would be above water for the first time in 36 years. 

On August 22, 2006 I drove my canoe down to Carters Lake early in the morning.  The mounds of Kusa soon appeared above the water.  It was hazy all morning while the water was low, but I was still able to photograph the mounds and plazas from several angles then take field measurements to get the correct distances from the plazas to normal water level lines.  The Corps of Engineers later furnished with an aerial photographs using near visible infrared film.  These showed the exact locations of other village sites in Carters Bottom.  With that information, I was able to precisely denote the locations of the precincts, neighborhoods and satellite villages, which were visited by Hernando de Soto’s conquistadors in the summer of 1540.

I created a series of virtual reality architectural renderings, which could be used to create signs along a walking path around the enormous archaeological zone.    The Muscogee-Creek Nation offered to give the artwork to the US Army Corps of Engineers for this purpose. Unfortunately,  the self-guided hiking trail has never been created, although sections of the trail do exist without signage. 

Below are photos from when the water was low, plus some more of the virtual reality architectural renderings created from the completed computer model. gee-Creek Nation offered to give the artwork to the US Army Corps of Engineers for this purpose. Below are photos from when the water was low, plus some more of the virtual reality architectural renderings created from the completed computer model.

Kusa, looking down from the edge of the mountain where the dam is now




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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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