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Itsate Gap, Georgia: Itza Mayas at the Gate!

Itsate Gap, Georgia:  Itza Mayas at the Gate!

Information from the highly detailed Barnwell Map, published in 1722, reinforces architectural, genetic and linguistic evidence that Itza-Chontal Maya traders established towns in mountain gaps and river confluences along Southern Appalachian Mountain trade routes. This is exactly how the Itza and Chontal Mayas established trade supremacy in Mesoamerica.

Since I first discovered a cluster of town and mound sites on the Upper Tennessee River in NE Georgia about 12 years ago, I have been puzzled by their Itza Maya names.   They were only about 12 miles west of the headwaters of the Savannah River.   It just did not make any sense.

First, I stumbled upon the Track Rock Terrace Complex in 2011 then in the past three years, we have identified over a dozen more terrace complexes farther south in Georgia.  Finally, in early 2015, we discovered the lost Migration Legend documents.  They said that the first Itsate (Creeks of Itza Maya decent) town was located in present day Savannah.  Then it all made sense.  The Itzas traveled up the Savannah River to reach the mountains.

In the early 1700s the Cherokees labeled the region around Cherokee, Clay and Franklin Counties, North Carolina, plus Union, Towns, Rabun, White and Habersham Counties, Georgia as Itsayi (Place of the Itza’s.) Most of the Cherokee towns with Itza Maya names disappeared from the European maps within a few years, while Creek and Seminole towns with Itza Maya names survived until the Trail of Tears.

lidar-imageOne of the biggest dangers while translating Native American place names in the Southeast is that they are typically Anglicized and only approximate the original indigenous words. For example, an internal “s” in Itstate Creek (Hitchiti) and the Maya “z” are pronounced as “jzh” sound. In Cherokee, an English “s” more guttural “sh”. So when an English speaker heard a Creek say It: jzhä : te-, it was written down as Hitchiti.

Cherokee was originally spoken with very little movement of the lips, whereas Itsate-Creek, like Maya, was often pronounced with the tip of the tongue or movement of the lips. For example, the Itsate-Creek word for “bear”, nokoshe, became Naguche in Cherokee and Nacoochee in English. Cherokees could not pronounce an Itzate “p” sound, so often dropped the “p” sound altogether from towns with Maya or Itsate Creek names. Itsapo became Etchao.

In 2006 I was working on the design of the adaptive reuse of an early 20th century Ford dealership in downtown Clayton, GA into a locally owned mega-pharmacy. Clayton is located in extreme northeast Georgia near the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River. Some of the most fertile land in the Appalachians is located in the floodplain of this river between Clayton and the North Carolina line. This was also the location of an extremely important trade route that linked the South Atlantic Coast with the Tennessee Valley and Midwest.

The region around headwaters of the Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee River is the traditional homeland of the Koweta Creeks. Known now by their Muskogee name, they were originally Itsate speakers, who called themselves Kowi-te (Mountain Lion People.) The first European map to mention this ethnic group shows them living no farther north than the northeastern Georgia Mountains. Their villages were scattered all over northern Georgia, but their capital in 1743 was in western Georgia on the Chattahoochee River.

The Koweta Creeks’ presence in Franklin County, NC survives in the place names of Cowee, Coweyi and the Coweeta Mound. The Coweeta Mound is now described in North Carolina literature as the oldest known Cherokee mound. Coweeta and Cowi are then explained as ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings have been lost.

After finishing the measurements of the old car dealership I drove northward to the GA-NC line to measure the little known Otto Mounds town site. I had “discovered” the Otto Mound in 2005 by creating a triangular matrix of all Early Mississippian sites in Georgia. The triangles were formed by the angle of the Winter Solstice Sunset, True North and True South. All of the major towns of that period were aligned to this triangular matrix. I suspected that there would be a mound somewhere near US 23-441 on the state line . . . and there it was.

Just to the south of the Otto Mound in Georgia are several other town sites with mounds along the Little Tennessee River. They occupied what is now called Rabun Gap, but in the 1700s was called Itsate Gap. It is a constricted, but gently sloped path through the Blue Ridge Mountains. A Native American canoe launched into the Little Tennessee River in Dillard, GA could have been paddled all the way to Cahokia and beyond.

This Proto-Creek province has received very little study from either Georgia or North Carolina archaeologists. Most Georgia archaeologists have shown little interest in the mountains even though Robert Wauchope chronicled phenomenal archaeological resources in that region during 1939 and 1940. The Otto Mound Site is 250 miles away from Chapel Hill and clearly off the radar screen of their archaeologists and educators.

rabun-gap,The only archaeological survey of the town site occurred in 1988 when a young archaeologist assigned to the Western District Office of the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office visited it for a few hours. She dug some post holes that immediately revealed an intense occupation of the town site going back to the Middle Woodland Period. She found both Swift Creek and Hopewell style ceramics, plus Late Woodland and a full range of Mississippian Styles typically found around Etowah Mounds in NW Georgia.

This presented a problem. Even though the same potsherds would have been labeled Napier Complicated Stamp, Woodstock, Etowah 1-3 and Lamar a hundred feet away in Georgia, she called them proto-Cherokee styles that didn’t exactly match potsherds found elsewhere in North Carolina. She speculated that the town had been abandoned at some time in the 1600s. There were some historical period artifacts near the surface that suggested the site might have been briefly occupied later on.

The archaeologist did not know that William Bartram had visited this town in 1776. She also was not even aware that the Otto site contained several mounds and a rectangular plaza. She apparently never looked at a topographic map, satellite photo or infrared image of the site. For reasons explained below, the Otto Site and a cluster of town sites immediately to the south in Georgia should be considered one of the more important archaeological zones in the Appalachians. Instead these town sites are virtually ignored.

There is something very special about the site plan of this town on the Little Tennessee River. The main mound is five sided like the big mound at Etowah. The Otto Mound and its rectangular plaza are a mirror image of the five sided mound and plaza at Etowah, but approximately 1/10th the size. Both architectural monuments are aligned to the Winter Solstice sunset, which was the beginning of the Maya solar year. It is the same shape and size as several five sided mounds along the Chattahoochee River in the vicinity of Columbus, GA.

Linguistic evidence and the 1721 map

Portion of the 1721 Barnwell Map

Portion of the 1721 Barnwell Map

After measuring the main Otto Mound, I headed north to get eat some barbecue in Franklin, NC. Along the way, a North Carolina historical marker entitled “Cherokee Victory” caught my eye. I stopped to read about the Battle of Echoee. It described a Cherokee victory against the British in 1760 farther south on US 23-441. The battle was fought near the present Georgia-North Carolina line. One word caught my eye. It was Itsate. That was the original name of the mountain pass at the location of the Otto Mounds, where the battle was fought. I wondered, “Why would the most important gap in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains have the same name as what the Itza Mayas called themselves?” That was weird. When I got home that evening, I looked up the words Echoee and Itsate in a Cherokee history website. Neither one had a known meaning in contemporary Cherokee.

In the years since then, I became aware that the original name of the large proto-Creek town around the five-side Kenimer Mound in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley was Itsate. This is where we re-discovered a large, terraced Chontal Maya ballcourt in October of 2013. Robert Wauchope first documented it and gave the massive earthwork an official site number, but somehow both Georgia’s archaeologists and the Sautee Community forgot that it was literally composed the front yard of their community center.

During the 1600s, French, Spanish and English maps placed a town named Apalache in the Nacoochee Valley. This may be the European name for Itsate, since an infrared image picked up the footprint of a three sided fort immediately south of the cluster of indigenous earthworks.

The original name for a large town on the lower Little Tennessee River in Tennessee was also Itsate. This town is better known by its Cherokee “nickname” of Chote. However, Chote is also an Itza Maya word. Cho’I was the language spoken by the Itza. The “te” suffix means “people” in Itza and Itsate Creek. Interestingly enough, the town named Itsate in the Nacoochee Valley eventually was also given the name Chote.

Research into the Track Rock Terrace Complex in 2011 and 2012 revealed that the Itstate Creek name for the region north of the Blue Ridge Mountain in north-central Georgia, northeast Georgia and western North Carolina was Itsapa. That is pure Itza-Chontal Maya and means “Place of the Itza.” The Cherokee word for the region was Itsayi. Itsayi and Itsapa had the same meaning.

A big surprise came with the 1721 Barnwell map of Southeastern North America. It was the first British map to mention the word “Charakee” and also included the names of many Cherokee towns. There were three towns at Unicoi Gap, Itsate (Echoee) Pass and Tanasee Gap that had Itza as a root word. William Hamerton, the cartographer of this map, wrote the Cherokee “s” sound as a “tch”. The map labeled the Cherokee province around the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, Etchayi (Itsayi). That is the same label that the 1725 Hunter Map placed on the region around Brasstown Bald to the west.

The Barnwell map also displayed several village names along the Little Tennessee River between Rabun Gap and the Tennessee River that were obviously Itza Maya words. Chiaha means “Salvia River” or possibly “Salvia Lord.” Chichiwe means “Dog People.” Several other village names had “Etchi” or “Itchi” as their anglicized roots. Near the confluence of the Tennessee and Little Tennessee River was another town named Itsate (Etchate in Hamerton’s spelling.)

A pattern emerges

black-mountainThe Cherokee towns with Maya names were located in North Carolina counties in which the 2102 POOF DNA study found substantial Maya DNA in members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. This region was known as the Valley Cherokees. These Valley Cherokees had very different genetic profiles than those EBC members living on the Qualla Reservation, which were analyzed by DNA Consultants, Inc. Also, the Valley Cherokees carried much higher percentages of Asiatic (Native American) DNA than those on the reservation. Cherokees in Towns County, GA also carried substantial levels of South American DNA.

Although the POOF study was not a truly scientific random sample, no Middle Eastern DNA showed up in our test subjects, while Middle Eastern DNA was prevalent among Qualla Cherokees. This contrast strongly suggests that the original Cherokee Alliance was composed of distinctly different ethnic groups.

The province of Itsapa was defined on all sides by tall mountains and interlaced by improved paths. According to Creek tradition, a wide trail, paved with shells and white stones and known as the Great White Path, was constructed along a route that is now US 129 Highway. It ran from the proto-Creek town of Talassee on the Little Tennessee River and Great Smoky Mountains in Graham County, NC; through present day Murphy, NC and Track Rock Gap, GA; then through Neels Gap and Dahlonega, GA to the head of canoe navigation of the Oconee River in present day Athens, GA.

At every one of the gaps in these high mountains there are Early Mississippian town sites with either five sided or truncated mounds. A town named Itsate with the massive, five-sided Kenimer Mound guarded the eastern entrance to the Nacoochee Valley, while Nokoshe guarded the west. Itsapo was where Helen, GA now sits, guarding the Unicoi Gap, which was where both the Chattahoochee and Hiwassee Rivers had their sources. Itsa-E (meaning the principal town) was the probable name of the Otto Mounds at Rabun Gap. There was a large town at the base of Andrews Gap in Cherokee County, NC and another town with Tallula mound guarding the other side of the gap in Graham County, NC. Tali guarded the Little Tennessee River Gorge through the Unaka Mountains. Chiaha was on an island in the Little Tennessee at the mouth of Nantahala Gorge. A town of unknown name was situated on Cane Creek in Lumpkin County, GA where it flowed out of Neels Gap.

Regional organization of town locations and maintenance of regional trade routes is strong evidence that the indigenous people of the Southern Appalachians were led by a political structure that was substantially more sophisticated than typical of what anthropologists label “chiefdoms.”

Many Southeastern tribes have a tradition that immigrants from the south introduced this political sophistication. They were called “sun lords” . . . hene ahau in Itza Maya. The official title of the Second Chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation is henehv.

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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.



    I was thrilled to come across this blog tonight and have stayed up way too late reading. I was born in Rabun County and grew up only a few miles from the NC line. I’m a fan of American Unearthed and there’s a mound I can see from my house that was on family land until the past decade. I regularly look for arrowheads and pottery shards in the fields here and would love to see more research about this area of northeast Georgia. Thank you for your work.

    • Catherine

      Could you please write me with more information at Where you lived was the largest concentration of the Itza Mayas and a focus of my research. POOF is really not a blog site, but where core researchers can report their findings as they go along. That’s is why we were founded . . . to speed up the research process by sharing it.
      Thank you!


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