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The Legacy of Joseph Creel

Probable discovery of Fort Caroline & Fort San Mateo . . . the legacy of Joseph Creel

All of our amazing discoveries have been the result of teamwork!

It was in the middle of December 2011. A few days earlier, Joseph had called me from his home in Fort Payne, AL to ask if he could visit for the day and see the Track Rock terrace ruins. He also wanted to buy some pottery for Christmas gifts and give me some special presents.

By the time Joseph arrived in Blairsville, however, the weather was awful . . . steady rain, heavy fog and chilled air. We decided to postpone the hike till another time and spent the day chatting over several books on Native American culture and history.

One of the books that he brought me was especially remarkable. This work of art was a 14” x 17” full color, high resolution collection of over 200 Colonial Era maps and drawings. Quite a few of the maps are not even in the Library of Congress.

With my magnifying glass I took a peek at the South Atlantic region of a map on the book’s cover. I spied the words “Carolina or May River” along the channel of the stream that is now called the Altamaha River. The Altamaha is the third largest contributor of fresh water along the Atlantic Seaboard of North America.

Intrigued, Joseph and I began looking at other maps inside the book. The 1562 map of the Americas by Spanish cartographer, Diego Gutiérrez, contained an amazingly accurate portrayal of the Chattahoochee River, from its source to the Gulf of Mexico, but did not show a river similar to the Altamaha. That meant that someone, completely forgotten by the history books, went up the entire 500 miles of the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River system prior to 1560. The Spanish called the Chattahoochee, the Rio de Espiritu Santo.

We moved on to other early maps that indicated that additional explorers had gone up certain Southeastern rivers, but been forgotten by history. The 1578 map of La Florida by Gutiérrez contained an accurate portrayal of the portion of the Altamaha River in Georgia’s Coastal Plain, but only vague information north of there. Gutiérrez called this great stream, the Rio Mayo, and showed Fort Caroline on the south side of its mouth. Consistently, all of the European maps from England, France, Spain and the Netherlands showed Fort Caroline at the same location in Georgia. Later Spanish maps changed the name of the river from Mayo to Seco.

What in the heck was going on? Everyone knew that Fort Caroline was on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida. It was a national park or something like that. All references stated that the St. Johns River was originally called the May River. There were no equivocations. All documents stated this as a fact. However, there was no similarity between the St. Johns River and the Altamaha. The St. Johns flowed out of central Florida and the Altamaha flowed out of the Blue Ridge Mountain Foothills.

It turned out that the Fort Caroline tourists see, is a scaled down fake, built in 1962. Seven decades of searching by archaeologists have not revealed a single 16th century French artifact in the Jacksonville Area or any footprints of an early colonial fort. With metropolitan development spreading outward in the region, the lack of evidence should have caused doubts among historians, but it didn’t. Traditionalist historians and archaeologists were afraid to tell the emperor that he had no clothing.

I had been working for about a year on a book about 16th century colonial architecture. The brief chapter in the first draft of the book on the early French colonization attempts was merely a regurgitation of what was in the references. There was obviously another story. The search for Fort Caroline began with two outdoorsy guys were looking for something to do on a rainy, winter’s day, but it would have never happened if Joseph had not brought that magnificent book of colonial maps.

The other Players on the Team

From the very beginning of the POOF, founding member, Michael Jacobs, has been chiding us about the rich, but far too often forgotten, heritage of Georgia’s coast. The history that is in the mainstream books is a caricature of its real history, especially in regard to its Native American and Early Colonial heritage. Michael has Catawba and Lumbee ancestry.

Michael is kept very busy in his job as Senior Planner of the South Georgia Regional Commission. He loves history, however, and has continually provided the names of obscure 16th, 17th and 18th century eyewitness accounts of the region, plus large Native American and Colonial Period archaeological sites that have not been studied by archaeologists. From day one, Michael has believed that there was a significant French presence in Southeast Georgia, even after the destruction of Fort Caroline in 1565. Did you know that Napoleon was in transit to asylum among French expatriates in Southeast Georgia when he was captured by the British?

The Altamaha Delta is 16 miles long and 8 miles wide. Finding Fort Caroline within its labyrinth of islands, tidal marshes and channels seemed an impossible until the descendant of Cherokee Principal Chief Pathkiller, Marilyn Rae, came along. I call her Princess Oh My Gosh, because she repeatedly finds amazing facts in Colonial Era literature that everyone else has missed.

Very frankly, by last fall, I had given up hope of finding the archaeological site without a huge grant from a foundation to hire a large staff. Then while scanning through The Travels of William Bartram in search of information on the Cherokees, Marilyn found an eyewitness account by Bartram about visiting the ruins of an ancient Spanish or French fort, in the exact same area described by the commander of Fort Caroline, René de Laudonnière. Within a week after she emailed me with the info, we had found the footprints of a large hexagonal structure and an even larger triangular structure. The rest is history.

Michael Jacobs, pioneer archaeologist Clarence Moore and The Travels of William Bartram all describe large Native American town sites with sophisticated plans along the Georgia Coast that have somehow remained outside the radar of the archaeological profession. Most intriguing is the site of the town of Seloy on the Sapelo River in Georgia. The large town site is in good condition, but has only received cursory attention from archaeologists. For about six months in late 1565 and early 1566, the original Spanish settlement of St. Augustine was located near Seloy. Once the sites of Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo are protected, we hope to move onto studying Seloy and the other Native town sites.

George Mathews has now taken on the role of orataw (facilitator) for the Fort Caroline Project. He has Creek ancestry. George is an entrepreneur and professional real estate developer. Those are the type skills that are needed to convert pretty pictures and planning reports into reality. George is also coordinating documentation of the probable fort sites with video and photography.

It takes many types of personalities and skills to create a building. They include the regional planer, the land use planner, surveyor, realtor, architect, landscape architect, soil engineer, civil engineer, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, construction manager and a myriad of construction contractors.

Such is the situation with our research. All of you have the potential of uncovering that long lost key that will unlock a mystery from the past.

Remember the family of Joseph and Hjordis Creel in your prayers.

The report on the Search for Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo

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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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