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How Southern Appalachian archaeology devolved into absurdity

How Southern Appalachian archaeology devolved into absurdity

The People of One Fire website will be up to over 75,000 views this month. Quoting Teddy Roosevelt . . . that’s one bully pulpit. Many of you are probably either casual readers or else livid haters of the Mayas in Jawja, but there is a core group of readers, who are Muskogean Native Americans in situations in which they can change things for the better.

You are educators, parents, tribal leaders, business owners, Scoutmasters and civic leaders. POOF’s articles are specifically intended to prevent you being in the situation my mother was in a generation ago. She was forced to teach history from a state mandated syllabus that she knew from her own family’s experiences, was wrong. However, she did not have any specific facts to challenge that politicized history.

There are interrelated cultural factors associated with the current deviation from reality in the Southern Appalachian Region. I will discuss them briefly then move on to the chronology of changes in the archaeology profession’s official ethnic labeling of the region.

1. Shallow research – This is a serious problem among many Southeastern archaeological studies that you just don’t see in European and Latin American archaeological investigations. Even at the doctoral level, background research seems to be conceived as a survey of the opinions of recent authority figures in the profession in order to show that “you have daddy’s approval for what you are doing.” Historical archives, maps, eyewitness accounts, indigenous place name translations, input from other professions, etc is given short shrift or no attention at all.

For example, no Southeastern archaeologists seem to be aware that after French civil engineers and marines explored western North Carolina in the 1690s, French maps labeled the occupants of the region to be several branches of the Creeks and the Shawnee. The first map to mention the word similar to Cherokee in that region was published in 1715. At that time, those branches of the Creeks and Shawnees were shown to have moved southward into North Georgia.

2. Cultural vacuum – Archaeologists in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas refuse to learn the languages of the peoples, whose towns they excavate. This is especially a problem where North Carolina archaeologists are labeling towns with Creek names as having been Cherokee for 1000 years.

The Pisgah Style pottery was originally identified at Mississippian Period sites in the Tuckasegee River Basin. Although there are several other styles of pottery to the west of there, all Mississippian Period pottery within the state lines of Western North Carolina are now labeled “Pisgah Phase” and Cherokee.

There is a big problem with this assumption that their profession is totally clueless about. Tuckaseegee is the Anglicization of the Muskogee word, Tokahsegi or “Offspring of the Tokah People.” Tokah means “spotted or freckled.” Their capital of Tokah-pa was at present day Highlands, NC. When the Little Ice Age in the early 1600s made it impossible to grow corn in the North Carolina Mountains, they first moved to the Atlanta Area and then to the Tallapoosa River. Their Alibamer capital is known today by its Anglicized name of Tuckabatchee, a major town of the Creek Confederacy.

Other Tokase moved south to northern Florida, where they became a major division of the Seminole Confederacy. About 75 to 100 years later a small band of Cherokees or Tennessee Uchees built a hamlet on a portion of the town site where Pisgah pottery was first identified.

Their sister tribe, the Coweta (Mountain Lion People), originated on the Upper Tennessee River in both Georgia and North Carolina, but also eventually headed south because of the Little Ice Age. However, in their homeland you will find the Coweeta Mound and Cowee, NC.

Look up the archaeological report, “Revisiting Coweeta Creek: Reconstructing Ancient Cherokee Lifeways in Southwestern North Carolina” and roll in the floor laughing. There is actually a statement where the archaeologist admits that the houses in Coweeta were like proto-Creek houses in Georgia at that time, “but we know it was Cherokee.” His study was paid for the Eastern Band of Cherokees.

3. Bunch of Buncombe Factor – The terms “bunch of buncombe, “bunch of bunk” and bunko all originated with a congressman from Asheville, NC in the 1830s, who incessantly gave speeches in Congress, extolling the virtues of Buncombe County, where Asheville is located. From the perspective of his and his constituents, western North Carolina was the center of the world and everything there is the best and biggest in the world.

The Bunch of Bunk Factor is still a cultural trait among some residents of the region. I saw it again and again during the 10 years that I lived in the Asheville Area. For example, after we told Charles Hudson and Company that the Asheville Area was Shawnee and these Shawnee were arch-enemies of the Cherokees, we informed them that their proposed site for Quaxule was a Woodland Period village and that nobody was living in our region, when De Soto and Juan Pardo were wandering around the South.

That afternoon the professors announced that the little mound on the Biltmore Estate was the capital of the ancient Cherokee Nation and was where de Soto spent the night in 1540. The Asheville Chamber of Commerce immediately kicked off the “Asheville, Ancient Heart of the Cherokee Nation” ad campaign. The State of North Carolina put up two historical markers announcing that the great capital of the ancient Cherokee Nation was located on the Biltmore Estate and that the De Soto Expedition visited there. Never mind that Guaxule is a Creek word meaning, “Southerners.” De Soto’s chroniclers described the place as a dinky village that didn’t have many corn fields.

Then in 2000, the Anthropology Department of Appalachian State University decided to achieve fame and fortune by excavated the three foot high mound at the great Cherokee capital. There were all manner of press releases and press conferences about the pending discovery of Spanish artifacts and the great city that was once the capital of a Cherokee Nation that spanned from Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean.

The mound turned out to be the ruins of a Creek chokopa (chukofa in Oklahoma) a cone shaped structure for council meetings. It was surrounded by a handful of round huts. The chokapa was radiocarbon dated to have been occupied between 250 AD and 500 AD. Never mind the surprise. The final headline from the dig was . . .

Archaeologists discover oldest known example of Cherokee architecture in the world!

Chronology . . . a comedy of errors

1. 1859 – Pioneer Georgia archaeologist, Charles C. Jones, Jr, excavated test pits near the Nacoochee Mound and discerned that the artifacts were almost identical to those found around Macon, GA. Therefore, he postulated that the Creeks built the Nacoochee Mound.

2. 1884-1886 – Smithsonian archaeologist Cyrus Thomas, and his amateur archaeologist, John Rogan, excavated several mound sites in northern Georgia, most notably Mound C at Etowah. Thomas agreed that the artifacts were very similar to those around Macon and therefore Etowah (unfortunately, he said) could not be attributed to the Cherokees.

3. 1889 – Thomas had never finished surveying the mounds in northern Georgia, so he asked ethnologist, James Mooney, to take time off from his studies of the North Carolina Cherokees to survey the remaining mounds. Mooney was not an archeologist and did no excavations in Georgia. He merely marked the mounds, including the Nacoochee Mound, on a map and labeled them Cherokee.

4. 1916 – George Heye and two associates (Museum of the American Indian) excavated the Nacoochee Mound. They found the artifacts to be almost identical to those around Macon, GA and tended to agree with Charles Jones that both regions were Creek, but also postulated that both regions might be Cherokee and that the Creeks had arrived in Georgia during the early 1700s.

5. 1917 – Two employees of George Heye excavated the Peachtree Mound in Cherokee County, NC about three miles north of the Georgia State Line. Cherokees living nearby told them that the Cherokees did not build this mound and never lived on the site. The two archaeologists found the pottery in the mound to be almost identical to those at the Nacoochee Mound and very different from pottery being found near the Tuckasegee River about 50 miles to the east.

Despite what the Cherokees told them, the archaeologists determined that the Peachtree Mound, the Nacoochee Mound and the mounds around Macon, GA had to be built by the Cherokees, because they were more civilized than the Creeks. North Carolina now officially labels the pottery at the Peachtree Mound as being Pisgah Culture pottery, made by the Cherokees, even though it is very different than the original Pisgah style pottery.

6. 1955 – The State of Georgia erected a historical marker next to the Nacoochee mound and described it as the Cherokee town of Guaxule, where De Soto visited in 1540. In 1939, the De Soto Commission HAD erroneously labeled the Nacoochee Mound as Guaxule, but also said it was Creek because the Spaniards only recorded Creek words in association with the town.

7. 1957 – Archaeologist Joe Caldwell, working for the Smithsonian Institute, determined that the large town of Tugaloo was first occupied by ancestors of the Creek Indians around 800 AD and the Creeks continued to live there until at least 1700 AD, when the town was burned and sacked. A few years later, a small section of the town was reoccupied by some crude round huts. He said that none of the eight mounds at Tugaloo were used by the newcomers. Most of the mounds dated from 800 AD to 1350 AD.

8. 1971 – The State of Georgia erected a historic marker near the Tugaloo town site, which was entitled “Oldest Cherokee Town in Georgia.” The marker stated that the Cherokees built the eight mounds at Tugaloo around 1450 AD and that Cherokee priests maintained sacred fires in the temples atop the mounds, 24 hours a day.

9. 1976 – The State of North Carolina adopted as a policy that all Mississippian Period pottery found in Western North Carolina would be labeled Pisgah and Cherokee. All Woodland Period pottery in the region would be labeled Conestee and “probably Cherokee.” The joke was on them. Conestee is a Creek word.
10. 1977 – 1987 – Most of the mounds on the Cherokee Reservation were bulldozed without investigation by professional archaeologists.

11. 2004 – Archaeologists with the LAMAR Institute investigated the entire Nacoochee Mound site and could find no evidence of any Cherokee occupation.

12. 2010 – While temporarily living in Graham County, NC in a tent, I quickly noticed the Tallula Mound on US 129. It is the largest and best preserved Indian mound in North Carolina, but is not even listed on the state’s archaeological registry. Talula is the Itsate Creek word for a village with one mound.

A retired archaeologist from Florida told me that the bottomlands around this mound teemed with pottery typical of Etowah Mounds and that there were several smaller mounds near the big one. He also said that he had found several 16th century Spanish artifacts in Graham County along the Santeelah River, but none had been found in the official route to the east, promoted by the professors in the De Soto Route committee.

The archaeologist told me that he had taken his Etowah style and Spanish artifacts to Raleigh, NC (State Capital) in an effort to get historic site designation for the mound and funds to look for more Spanish artifacts. He said that as soon as mentioned Etowah (Creek) style artifacts being abundant in the county, he was practically railroaded out of the building. The state officials cut off any further contact with him.

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.



    So every ceramic in the southern Apps up until 1690 was a creek ceramic? Pisgah=creek, dallas=creek, lamar=creek…qualla=creek (?), …what is the cherokee ceramic tradition in your opinion?


    Please check into work of Dr. Katheryn Sampeck (Illinois State) and Dr. Jay Franklin concerning Nolichucky Archaeology.
    Student has “already” determined this to be “Cherokee Settlement Patterns”. Late Mississippian/Cherokee sites along the middle Nolichuckey River Valley. In the area of Chuckey, TN, there was a great presence of early peoples that has not been professionally explored. Underground stream and caves, trail marker tree, mound. TDOT did survey of area for possible extension of highway and has a map containing some notable sites….except tree. Sampeck and students are working 15-20 miles northeast of here along Nolichucky at “major” settlement.

    • Yet Nolichucky is not a Cherokee word. I have no doubt, though, that the late 17th century settlements on the Nolichucky will be ancestral to the Cherokees. That area and along the Lower Holston River is where the first map to use the word “Charaqui” shows them living. The absurdity is in the region along the border with North Carolina and Georgia.

  3. The pottery that most closely matches “Qualla Style” pottery is in region along the Tuckasegee and Middle Little Tennessee River basins.

    Actually, the Creek Confederacy didn’t really come into being until 1717. It was ultimately composed of at least 24 ethnic groups speaking several languages and many dialects. Each of the ethnic provinces had ceramic traditions that differed.

    Really the same thing could be said for the Cherokees. They were not a single tribe until 1725 and there was a significant distance of rugged mountains that separated the Lower Cherokees from those living in the northeastern tip of Tennessee and SW Virginia. Remember the Cherokees still had separate chiefs for their 14+ bands until after the Revolution. Bands that were adjacent to each other shared many more similarities in their pottery than those widely dispersed and using different raw materials.

    The Lower Cherokees were a very different people that those in western North Carolina and NE Tennessee. They originally spoke a dialect of Itsate. All eight of the original Lower Cherokee villages had Creek names that corresponded to major provinces in Georgia. They were just splinter groups, who ultimately decided to join with the other divisions of the Cherokee, rather than be in the Creek Confederacy.


      Can you give a description of such cherokee ceramics? Designs or motifs? Tempers? Thanks


    I am thrilled that you are questioning and bringing to light the current misinformation about the origins and interrelationships of peoples along the border of present-day Georgia and North Carolina. I began an ambitious project in 1980 to write a history of the Little Tennessee watershed, a treatise that evolved into heavily researched historical fiction (Tuckaseegee Chronicles, 27 available so far on Amazon Kindle with more in the pipeline), which I found more readable and interesting for me than a footnoted history, and I am finding that most of my research in the 1970s-1980s does not even resemble the information that is been published and promoted in Western North Carolina today.

    For example, information about the Nikwasi Mound in Franklin, NC, and the path along the Little Tennessee River to its headwaters in North Georgia is now being promoted as having had Cherokee occupation for more than 10,000 years, and the Creek place names all along the way (I live near Coweeta) are either ignored or disclaimed, as well as the matter of the Cherokee having always said they do not know who built the Nikwasi Mound, and that it was already here when they moved into the area.

    Also of note, UNC did an extensive archeological dig in the 1960s in the Tessentee/Coweeta area, which created much interest in the community, but those artifacts were taken to Raleigh or Chapel Hill (?) never to be seen again.

    At this time, the focus here is on tourism, and everything is being cherry-picked to accommodate and boost tourism.

      • The Swannanoa River in Asheville is derived from the Muskogee words, Suwani Owa, which mean Shawnee Water or River. Upstream on the French Broad River is the town of Etowah, NC – which local historians admit is derived from the Muskogee word for town, Etalwa. I have seen the original British and French Colonial documents. I used them when I was Director of the Asheville-Buncombe Historic Resources Commission. The Cherokees got no farther east than the Pigeon River, but pulled back to Soco Gap, because of Shawnee attacks from a big Shawnee town where Biltmore Village is today. In fact, you can read in Cherokee history documents about meetings between the Shawnee and Cherokees at the boundary of the Cherokees at Soco Gap. That is also where Tecumseh met with the Cherokees. For the Cherokees to claim Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian Period archaeological sites near Asheville and Hendersonville, NC is ABSURD.


    Richard, Your articles concerning the Apalasi wearing “conical hats” like the Chisi? of (Tenn. / Kentucky), Peru… has led me to think there may be a connection with a people called the “Ad-y-gey” and also called “Cher-kess” by the Black Sea that also wore “conical hats”. That word sounds close to a ancient people of North America called “Allegany” by a Lenape Chief over 200 years ago.
    A few Cherokee Chiefs clearly stated that their people did not build the Toltec/Itsa/Maya type temple mounds of Georgia but there was one statement, that I read long ago, that the Cherokees did build round type mounds for their dead.


    so where did the Cherokee originally come before migrating to North Carolina??

    • POOF researcher Dennis Partridge has traced them to southern Ontario around the year 1600 AD. Just as their legends state, they were involved in a bloody war with the Iroquois Confederacy and pushed southward. However, that is just the core group. The Cherokees today represent a mixture of many indigenous and Old World ethnic groups.


        Richard, when do you think the Delaware (Lenape)Native people, based on your knowledge of pottery, did that nation settle into the state of Delaware? That would be very helpful as to when many of the “Allegany” and perhaps really spelled “Ala-ghe-y” people migrated.
        These ancient Sea people might also connected to the Creek people: Alabama “Albaama”.




        The Cherokee language is Iroquoian, which is an indicator of their northern origins before merging with other groups from the west and south through centuries of both war and peace. The research and works of William Anderson, et. al., are impeccable in tracing the coming of the Cherokee to our area (EBCI) in several waves of immigration, and it is best not to get caught up in the ongoing rush for power, control, and rewriting of history for purposes of tourism. The actual irrefutable and authenticated history and archeology is exciting enough.




    No small part of this is Cherokee propaganda and the lasting connections that locals have through association and marriage the the Cherokee. The Cherokee insist absurdly that not only did they not wage a genocidal war against the previous inhabitants, but that they built not only the mounds but were descended from the earliest human settlers.


    Even more hilariously: the Saponi (and other) Indians were a remnant, multiethnic tribe (joined by other refugees) who escaped the Cherokee massacre. They actually—rarely—found protection under the white settlers and weren’t exterminated completely. But they did adopt English as their common language and lost the Sioux/Creek/uncertain what else other originally spoke. They always knew they were Indian, married amongst themselves, and kept some old stores. But because they were a multi-tribal refugee group, not a lot of their culture stayed intact. So they eventually sought recognition as a tribe, but the Cherokee are fighting them legally, saying they’re imaginary Indians. Frankly, they’re more Indian at a glance than any other Eastern tribe I’ve ever seen. If they’ve forgotten much of their heritage, it’s because the Cherokee tried to exterminate them. Just like they try to exterminate the history of other tribes in the region. The Cherokee are Iroquois. They’re from the north. They beat English settlers to NC and Tennessee by at MOST 150 years.


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