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Image: The Shocking Appearance of Etowah Mounds in 1818

Image: The Shocking Appearance of Etowah Mounds in 1818


Etowah Mounds in Cartersville, Georgia is a National Historic Landmark and a key property in the nation’s largest National Historic District.   The portion of the town on the north side of the Etowah River is maintained by the State of Georgia as a state historic site.  The part on the town on the south side of the river is privately owned.  Of the 14 mounds visible on both sides of the river in 1873, only three are easily discerned by visitors today. 

In 1818, Dr. Elias Cornelius, a Natural Science professor at Yale University, journeyed to Northwest Georgia to study its geology.  His visit coincided with an invitation by Second Chief Charles Hicks to the Methodist and Congregational Christian denominations to establish mission schools in the Cherokee Nation.  Cornelius was also an ordained minister. 

Cornelius visited a Cherokee village named Etowah, which was located roughly where Roselawn, the mansion of the Rev. Sam Jones, is now located in Cartersville, GA.   The original Cherokee burial grounds are under the west lawn of Roselawn.  Its stone walls can be seen in the winter.

Two Cherokee elders led Cornelius out to the ruins of of Etowah Mounds.  They said that the site was considered taboo, inhabited by Creek ghosts and covered with large trees, when the Cherokees arrived in Northwest Georgia in the mid-1780s.  The Cherokees never lived anywhere near the mounds because of the ghosts.   Cornelius estimated the oldest trees within the town site to be around 180-200  years old.

Cornelius only surveyed the largest mound, which was much larger and taller than the mound seen today.  It was about 100 feet tall, or almost as tall as Monks Mound at Cahokia. Apparently, the former temple at the top of Mound B (second largest) had a basement, which is visible on one of the architectural elevations.

Between 1838 and the early 1880s, the Tumlin Family, who owned the bottomlands at Etowah Mounds, allowed private collectors to excavate anywhere on the town site for the then exorbitant fee of $200 a day.  Thus, the Great Temple mound that we see today is result of extensive mining operations and alterations.   A vast section of the top of the mound and two of its three original ramps were destroyed by artifact collectors in the 1800s.

There has only been one professional archaeological excavation of Mound A.  As part of his dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania, Adam King excavated the area around the base of the eastern ramp in the late 1990s.  He found that the base of the mound is 15 feet below what is grade level today.  A catastrophic flood in 1886, washed away a huge section of the town’s acropolis and then deposited at least 15 feet of sandy, alluvial soil over the remainder of the site.  By comparing the 1818 drawing to the model below, it is obvious that the channel of the Etowah River was also radically changed by the flood.

A later study by Dr. Adam King determined that the entire plaza to the east of Mound A was supported by a six feet tall stone wall.  Both the drawings by Elias Cornelius and the information about the stone wall were unavailable to me when I constructed the model below of Etowah Mounds for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in 2007.   This six ft. by eight ft. model was based on the existing appearance of the mounds, scaled aerial photos, infrared imagery and an incomplete ground radar study, funded by the Muscogee-Creek Nation.  Had the 1818 drawing been available, Mound A would have covered a significantly larger proportion of the town.



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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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