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Ellijay, Georgia . . . the secrets in its soil could change the history books

Ellijay, Georgia . . . the secrets in its soil could change the history books


(Photo Above)  This ancient terrace complex in eastern Gilmer County includes both the most sophisticated stone masonry that we have seen among the known 16+ Itza-te (Itza Maya descendants) towns in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, plus the ruins of what appears to be a 17th century European house.


Gilmer County, where Ellijay is located, is in one of the most beautiful sections of the Southern Highlands. The Cohutta Mountains compose western half of the county, while the eastern half is occupied by the Rich Mountains.  Sparkling rivers and creeks cascade out of these mountains through verdant valleys with incredibly fertile bottomlands.  The region’s cool nights and regular rain storms keep the landscape vivid green throughout the summer, while much of the remainder of the Sunbelt fades to olive drab . . . or even brown.

If you have heard of Ellijay at all, it is probably in association with the apple industry in Gilmer County. Their apples are famous . . . but their peaches are probably the finest in the world.  There is little need for mass marketing these beauties to the rest of the nation, because peach connoisseurs gobble them up at the county’s dozen or so apple houses and farmers markets.

A little more historical sleuthing beyond what is in Wikipedia and you will find out that the Rich Mountains got their name from the gold, copper and gem deposits found there.  The gold and gems are still there.   The largest gold nuggets found in Georgia came from Cartacay River and Cherry Log Creek Valleys in Gilmer County.   Two centuries ago, you could also pick up pure copper nuggets from the northern slopes of the Rich Mountains.  There are also gemstones in the Cohutta Mountains in the western part of the county.

As an inspiration for literature, Gilmer County became world famous in the 1970s.  The Cherry Log Valley in Gilmer inspired James Dickey’s most famous poem . . . “Cherry Log Road.” This poem is featured in the video below.   Cherry Log Creek flows into the Ellijay River, which joins the Cartacay River in Downtown Ellijay to form the Coosawattee River.  James Dickey’s beloved canoe voyages down the Coosawattee River were the inspiration for the book and blockbuster movie, “Deliverance.”   When Dickey was my English professor at Georgia Tech, at least a third of the color slides, he showed us, were taken in Gilmer County.

There is much more to the early history of the Ellijay Area, however.  It is a history, largely forgotten or unknown, whose verification would radically change the history books.  Many 16th and 17th century European artifacts have been found in Gilmer County, yet in the late 20th century, some academicians attempted to erase that fact.  Well . . .  we say 16th or 17th century, but they may be older.  No one has ever attempted to calculate their age.


It’s all in the meaning of a word

The speculative explanations in reference books for the place name, Ellijay, are a metaphor for all that’s wrong with the disciplines of Southeastern anthropology and history these days.  In the late 20th century, many Dixie academicians became lazy.  Rather than questioning every detail of the past, they were content to replicate the ill-researched guesswork of perceived authority figures.  The results were at best . . . incomplete history . . . and far too often . . . false history.

Case in point . . . Ellijay . . . This is what you are told about the etymology of Ellijay:

Conventional wisdom holds that Ellijay is an Anglicized form of a Cherokee word, perhaps meaning “place of green things” or “many waters.  Other explanations state that Ellijay is the anglicized form of the Cherokee name Elatseyi, meaning “new ground”. Other sources say it means “green place.”

Well, actually “conventional wisdom” didn’t know diddlysquat about the subject.  If one traces back the chain of reference citations to their sources, you find that none of the authority figures knew anything about either the Cherokee or four Creek languages.  Most of these authors lived in other parts of the country.

You can always tell if an explanation of a Southern Native American place name is standing on quick sand. The author gives multiple explanations for the word.  That means that the author really does not have a clue. 

I first became aware that there was something amiss in the official explanation of the word, Ellijay, in 2007.   Some members of the Muscogee-Creek National Council ask me to compare the names of major Creek/Seminole tribal towns in the Southeast with names of Creek/Seminole settlements in Oklahoma that are now are cities and towns . . . such as Tulsa, Okmulgee and Muskogee.  

While scanning the names of Seminole villages in Florida, I came across the name, Ellijay.  It was in a cluster of Seminole villages in South Florida that spoke Spanish. The only other information that I could delve up was that Ellijay had formerly been a Creek town in Georgia.  Now why would a Spanish-speaking Seminole town in Florida, which formerly was in Georgia, have a Cherokee name?

At the time, I lived in the county immediately south of Ellijay and spent many weekend days, hiking and canoeing in Gilmer County.  So the question of Ellijay’s true origins stuck in my mind.  One has to know a little Cherokee and a lot of Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek to unravel the mystery.  You see, Itsate was spoken by more people in Georgia than any other language, including English, until the 1790s when white settlers poured into the state from the Carolinas and Virginia.  Muskogee was mainly the first language of Creeks living near present day Columbus and Carrollton, GA.

One only sees a few state historical markers, relating to the very brief occupation of Gilmer County by the Cherokees.  Northwest and North-Central Georgia was secretly stolen from the Creek Confederacy and given to the Cherokees in 1786 at the Treaty of Augusta.  

The Creeks actually won the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War.  After seeing a third of their villages burned and 32 chiefs executed, the Cherokees surrendered and signed a peace treaty in December 1754. The so-called “Battle of Taliwa” in which the Cherokees won all of North Georgia in a 1754 battle near Ball Ground, GA is a myth created by a white man in Tennessee around 1828.  He was a distant cousin of Nancy Ward and made up a fairy tale about her life, four years after her death. Ward was a good friend to her white neighbors in Tennessee, but there is no evidence that she was ever even in the Province of Georgia.

 When the Creek leaders found out about this scam in 1790, they declared war on the State of Georgia, but simultaneously re-affirmed their loyalty to the United States. The Creeks backed off from this war, when informed by newly elected President Washington that war with Georgia meant war with the United States.

So which branch of the Creeks lived in the Ellijay area before 1786?  The actual Native American name for Ellijay answers the question.

Real Cherokee scholars have long known that the original place name was Ela-si, Ela-tsi or Ela-tsi-yi.   The “yi” suffix is Cherokee for “place of.”   The Real Cherokees knew the Cherokee language and honestly stated that the word had no meaning in modern Cherokee.  Unlike Creek scholars, though, it is very rare to find a Cherokee scholar, who attempts to learn other Native American languages.  They should though . . . approximately 85% of the Native American place names in the Southern Highlands are either Creek, Itza Maya or Arawak words.  They have no meaning in Cherokee, other than being proper nouns.

Ela-si is an Itsate Creek word and means “Descendants of the Foothill People.”   It is pronounced Ĕ : lä : jzhē.   The Elasi were a mixed heritage people, whose ancestors were Elate Creeks, Apalache Creeks, Uchees, Spanish, Spanish Sephardic Jews, French Protestants and Dutch-speaking Ashkenazi Jews.  Bet you didn’t know that there were Dutch place names in North Georgia, did you?

The Ela-te or Foothill People were the descendants of intermarriage between Itza Maya immigrants and Muskogeans.  The Elate were called Hontaweki or Hontaoase by the Muskogee Creeks, which means “People who irrigate plants.”

The tributary creeks that form the Cartacay River cascade down the mountain slopes.

The Spanish Connection

Many persons in North Georgia claim to be of Cherokee descent.  Very few outside the Towns County Indians and the descendants of a few wealthy Cherokee families in Northwest Georgia, who took state citizenship, actually have real Native American features.  The Towns County, GA Indians carry a mixture of Peruvian and Maya DNA.   Most have some Semitic features and when they get DNA tests turn out to have no Native American DNA and lots of Middle Eastern DNA.   In fact, no “Georgia Cherokee” has ever showed me their DNA test, with Asiatic (Native American) DNA on it.  Back during the Trail of Tears era, Georgia officials and US Army troops did a thorough job of ethnic cleansing.

In addition to the Towns County Indians, there is a residual population of persons to the north of Gilmer County in Fannin and Union Counties, who also carry substantial Native American heritage, but it is Upper Creek (Coosa) . . .  not Cherokee or Muskogee Creek.  They have strikingly different physical features than the Cherokees.  They are very tall, slim with deep set eyes and raptor like faces. It is not uncommon for Upper Creek women these days to be six feet tall.  This is why the Upper Creeks were called the “Eagle Warriors.”   There were 3,000 Upper Creeks living in the Cherokee Nation at the time of the Trail of Tears.  Most escaped capture because they were not on anybody’s “pick-up list.”

Since there was no Registered Architect in Gilmer County, I frequently had architecture projects there and actually had many more friends in Gilmer than in Pickens County, where I lived.   Several of my clients claimed to be descended from the original Cherokee inhabitants of Gilmer County.  They were indeed handsome families, often with jet black hair and tan skin . . . but they have no Native American physical features. What these leading families of the county look like is the Spanish aristocracy of Latin American countries.  I thought that was odd, but I was making a living as an Architect, not a Native American researcher . . . so I stored the info into my memory files and went on with life.

One client, who was a transplant from elsewhere, told me about the discovery of a large triangular stone fort in the Cohutta Mountains (western part of Gilmer County).  The man had picked up pieces of both Native American and European pottery on the surface within and near the stone ruins.  The man said that the Native American and European pottery were distinctly different.

He immediately took the potsherds, his photographs and a marked topographic map to the former US Forest Service Visitors Center in Blue Ridge, GA.  The response after a long wait . . . an archaeologist eventually came out from the back offices and raged him for disturbing “a Sacred Cherokee Heritage Site.”   About a week later, he received a certified letter from a USFS law enforcement officer in Atlanta, stating that “he would be arrested and charged with felony theft and destruction of federal cultural property, if he ever came near the ruins again.”

Several clients also told me about the frequent discovery of what appeared to be ancient European artifacts in the plowed fields of Gilmer County.   Renaissance period armor and weapons were found in both the Cartacay River and Cherry Log Creek Valleys.  European beads were common place. They also confirmed that there are many Indian mounds in the county.  I thought I seen some in the Cherry Log and Cartacay Valleys, but was no sure until locals confirmed my speculation.   These discoveries are sometimes mentioned in regional history books, but never investigated by archaeologists.  Most do not have official state archaeological site numbers.

In February 2015, a resident of Gilmer County, who is an ordained minister, discovered the extensive ruins of an Itsate terrace complex in the Rich Mountains. The ruins are in excellent condition, considering their age and display far more sophisticated architecture than was generally constructed at Itza Maya terrace complexes in Mexico and Guatemala.

What immediately caught my eye was that there were also the ruins of what appeared to be a late 16th , 17th or 18th century European house on the premises.  Stone chimneys are very rare on Cherokee houses.  All known stone chimneys belonged to wealthy families with white husbands or else large plantations of mixed-blood Cherokees, such as John Ross. We have seen that phenomenon before in other Georgia terrace complexes, including the famous one at Track Rock Gap.  This is strong evidence that many of the terrace complexes were still occupied when the first Europeans arrived in the Southern Highlands. 

You can read this article at:   Rich Mountain Terrace Complex   


Why are archaeologists silent?

I have long wondered why Georgia archaeologists have ignored the many mysteries of Gilmer County.  My assumption was that since no archaeologist had ever worked there, the profession was unaware of its many ancient sites. That presumption was proved wrong this past weekend.

I stumbled upon a single paragraph in a book, written in 1966, by an archaeology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.  It stated that in 1925, the world famous archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead had moved his team to the Coosawattee River after finishing work at Mound C in Etowah Mounds near Cartersville, GA.  Moorehead had identified at least seven large mounds, where two mountain rivers joined to form the Coosawattee River. 

That location is obviously Ellijay, but late 20th century Georgia archaeologists thought that Moorehead was “confused” and REALLY meant that he was at Carters Bottom in Murray County, GA . . . about 21 miles downstream on the Coosawattee River.  They didn’t actually see his archaeological report, but always referred to a brief passage, written about the report by an archaeologist in another part of the United States.   When they didn’t see the mounds and terrain that Moorehead described in Carters Bottom, the Georgia archaeologists discounted his entire report as being unreliable.

In 1939, archaeologist, Robert Wauchope, briefly visited Ellijay one morning as part of his survey of North Georgia.  He didn’t realize that he was at the same location, where Moorehead worked.  However, he did see some mounds and Lamar Culture (Late Mississippian) potsherds on the edge of the Cartacay, Ellijay and Coosawattee Rivers.  So he designated three archaeological sites without excavating them . . . 9GI111, 9GI112 and 9GI113.

Moorehead’s actual report is brief and vague, but has a big surprise in it.  He unearthed at least 20 burials with accompanying grave offerings. Most of the skeletons were flexed.  There was nothing unusual about all but one of the burials, other than the most recent ones contained European beads.  However, he unearthed one burial that was intrusive.  It contained beads, but also contained several heavily oxidized iron tools or weapons.  Moorehead stated that the iron artifacts were far too old to date from the 1700s or 1800s, and that he could not with certainty classify them as Spanish.  

Some of the areas, where Moorehead dug a few random test pits in 1925, have been commercially developed, but typically have gravel paving.  However, much of the area is still in an natural state and has never been excavated since 1925.   Such a location for a modern archaeological dig could be a major tourist attraction for Ellijay. The archaeological zones are literally in Downtown Ellijay.


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.



    Hi Richard,
    The pictures didn’t seem to come with the newsletter this time?

    • I can see all the photos on my screen. I don’t know what the problem is. Could be with your internet provider.


    Great article, Richard! Any ideas on who the pre-colonial Europeans might have been or when they came?

  3. I don’t know. The archaeologist stated that the iron artifacts were far too old be from the 1700s. Most likely they were Spanish Jewish miners from the late 1500s, but with so little “hard” facts, who knows?


    Does this tie into the mysteries of the moon eyed people of fort mountain?

    • No . . . the Cherokees did not even settle in Northwest Georgia until the latter stages of the American Revolution. They are not mentioned on any map until 1715 and a 1701 French map of western North Carolina shows it occupied by Shawnee, Creeks and Uchee. In other words, all the Cherokee stories that people have obsessed on for the past century were tall tales by a people, who was nowhere around when these structures were built. There are no Cherokee words mentioned in the De Soto Chronicles.


    Richard can you send me your email I’m working on something called Small Town American and Ellijay a place I want to highlight. Thanks Hank


    Do you know anything about the Seminole Indians in South FLorida,Big Cypress? I have two masks one signed by Tommy Osceola and was looking for information on when they might have been made.
    Also, I love your article on the Cherry Log area. I find it to be a very special place.
    Thank you .

    • Oh yes! The Seminoles in Florida are my closest tribal relatives. When our family vacationed in Florida, we were often asked if we were Seminoles. As far as I know, neither my maternal nor paternal sides have any Muskogee-Creek heritage . . . just Itstate-Creek, Apalache-Creek and Uchee. The core tribes of the Seminole Alliance came from Northeast Georgia, western North Carolina and western South Carolina. They are the remnants of the mound builders, who suffered catastrophic population losses due to European diseases and English-sponsored slave raids. Their language and cultural traditions were quite different than the Muskogee-speaking tribes. They moved down into Florida and eventually established their own alliance. However, I have noticed that until the 1800s, they were generally called either Florida Creeks or Seminole Creeks.


    Thank you for your research. I love history and we are building a home in Ellijay. Although much is known it is interesting to find any prior history. From Michigan originally and now in Pinellas County Florida, we find Ellijay will be an awesome place to call home.

    • When you get settled, you must see the terrace complex east of Ellijay. It has the finest stonework that we have seen in the eastern United States.


        How do you find the terraces located east of Ellijay? I live just east of Ellijay and have accessed Rich mountain by Owl Town road. Would love to see this!

        • They are in the Rich Mountain Wilderness Area. I was asked not to give out the exact location because the US Forest Service does not have rangers available to stand guard over them 24/7. I think they should be made into a tourist attraction where visitors would pay a fee to park and see them. That money could be used to hire a ranger.


    Good afternoon Mr. Thornton I live in the area not far from Carters lake and my grandfather was one of the first bulldozer operators to work on that project, so i have have always been curious about that site. I can only say that after reading your articles i would give anything to be able to walk in that area with you to see some of the wonders you describe. I have lived in several places in life time including Hiwassee Island in Meigs county tn. Thank you for your very informative articles


    Hello Mr. Thornton,
    I’m a Gilmer County resident and am working with an old diary transcript, from the early 1880’s… I have the only copy of this document… The original is unknown to the family of the man who wrote the diary…
    It was a daily business journal for the author who worked with miners to revitalize gold miners in Gilmer, Dawson and Fannin Counties…
    The author walked everywhere he went… no matter the weather…
    At the beginning of this transcript is several drawings…
    I don’t know what any of them are… and don’t recognize them as being from the Cherokee alphabet…
    They might be of interest to you… or someone else who might like to know about them…
    Also, in our front yard is a dry-stacked stone gristmill foundation, that my ancestors purchased in 1890… The mill was last operated by my grandfather in 1925, and the mill was falling in, along about 1965… and is no longer there… but the stonework is intact… We are unable to determine its age, but being such a massive foundation and being fitted and not mortared stone… seems to date itself back prior to the land lottery days…
    Accompanying the gristmill are long ditches dug around the mountain to a sufficient level to provide proper water flow…
    The amount of work to dry-stack the foundation and dig the water flumes is hard to imagine…
    Gilmer County does have secrets… and I too, don’t understand why we don’t know more, other than the fact the old families of the county were very secretive… It is much different in the last 30 years, with the influx of new residents…


    Fascinating article. Thank you for sharing. My family hails from Ellijay and have documents dating back to 1832 (survey and deed of “former Cherokee land”}. Have collection of arrowheads collected in bottom land in bend of Mountaintown Creek on Gates Chapel Road. Once owned property near Turnip Town Creek that had curious mound in bottom land we frequently joked was our “Indian Mound”. Would be most interested in any further information/research of history of this area. Evidence clearly indicates there is much history that has gone unreported/lost.


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