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Mysteries of the Cumberland River Basin

Relevant to histories of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia.

When Anglo-American settlers first arrived in the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1700s, they were astonished to find the landscape filled with vestiges of a dense human occupation. It seemed that almost everywhere they dug along the Cumberland and Harpeth Rivers, they encountered stone box graves, town sites, mounds, realistic ceramic statues or fine pottery. There are literally thousands of stone box graves in the Cumberland River Valley of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Until 1763 the region had been claimed by France. Before 1763, it had been a terra incognito for Great Britain. In fact, little was known about central Tennessee until the Anglo-America settlers arrived in the 1780s. During the short history of the United States, very few Native Americans had lived there. The Chickasaws were the last permanent inhabitants. Some Shawnees may have lived along the northern sections of the Cumberland River during the period of French colonialism.

Tennessee volunteers played the leading military role in both the Chickamauga War and later Creek Redstick War. Nashville’s citizens particularly hated the Upper Creeks. During the Chickamauga War, an Upper Creek army had almost captured Nashville. The Upper Creeks claimed that the whites on the Cumberland River were squatters on their ancestral lands. Many Tennesseans and Kentuckians living on the Cumberland River had also fought in the wars with Ohio Valley’s indigenous peoples, such as the Shawnee.

Several decades of war caused many Tennesseans to view the indigenous peoples as somewhat less than human. They could not imagine their enemies being the progenitors of what appeared to be an advanced civilization. “Urban myths” developed which placed the Aztecs, Toltecs, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Egyptians or Lost Tribes of Israel in ancient Tennessee. Strangely enough, even though the original name of the Tennessee River was the Callimaco, an Itza Maya word meaning “House of the King, “ no books suggested that the Mayas had ever lived there.

Enter General Gates P. Thruston on the scene. Thruston was a Midwesterner, who commanded Union occupation troops in Nashville during the Civil War. While supervising construction of fortifications, he became aware of the large amount of indigenous art being uncovered. Being a general, he was able to claim the finest art and artifacts for his home. That collection would one day become the core of the Tennessee State Museum’s outstanding Native American artifact collection.

Somewhere during the time of playing a conqueror’s role, Thruston fell in love with Tennessee and a Tennessee belle. He married the belle and made Nashville his lifetime home. He soon became more Tennessean than Jackson, Tennessee barbecued ribs or Stokely-Van Camp beans. During the remainder of the century, Thruston was a leader in Nashville’s cultural renaissance.

Perhaps, Thruston’s greatest achievement was the writing of The Antiquities of Tennessee in 1890. Unlike most books of the 1800s, the text was filled with photographs and drawings of exotic artifacts that seemed far too sophisticated to contemporaries to have been made by American Indians. They belonged in Mexico. The final chapter of Thruston’s book proposed that these artifacts were the product of an advanced indigenous people, who became extinct about a century before the arrival of Anglo-American settlers. Thruston did not have access to radiocarbon dating, so the accuracy of his chronology is even more amazing. However, replicating the “urban myth” of the early 1800s, Thruston labeled the Indian tribes known by early Tennessee settlers as possibly being responsible for the destruction of the advanced civilization.

An American Garden of Eden

Aerial view of the Mound Bottoms and Pack town sites

Aerial view of the Mound Bottoms and Pack town sites at the confluence of the Harpeth River and Mound Creek in Cheatham County, Tennessee.
Note the extremely narrow flood plain of the river. This was the only land suitable for manual cultivation.

Remarkable discoveries made by Tennessee archaeologists, working for the TVA, culminated in the construction of the Frank H. McClung Museum on the University of Tennessee campus in 1961. Gates P. Thruston’s Native American artifacts were already on exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum. Political leaders in Tennessee enthusiastically promoted its Native American heritage for tourism during the 1970s. In 1974 Pinson Mounds in the western part of Tennessee was made a state park. About that same time, Mound Bottom on the Harpeth River was purchased by the state to become a state park, but that has never happened. The construction of the new Tennessee State Museum in the James K. Polk Center in Nashville during 1980 marked the “high tide” of enthusiasm for Native American history and archaeology in the state.

After 1980, a “we know everything there is to know” attitude increasingly caused budget cutbacks for archaeological and historical research. This also happened in several other Southeastern states. In Tennessee, the Country Music industry seemed to be a more powerful draw for tourism dollars. The plazas and 29 mounds of Mound Bottom never became a state park open to the general public. In the 1991, 2001 and 2008-2014 Recessions, budgets and staffs were cut in cultural resource research programs, but never fully restored after the state’s economy strengthened. Today, relatively few Americans, even in the Nashville area, are aware that the Cumberland River Basin once contained a dense, sophisticated indigenous population.

Academicians have continued to study Tennessee’s past on a greatly diminished scale. The “we know everything there is to know about the mound builders” attitude continues. However, great strides have been made in understanding the earliest periods of mankind’s presence in Tennessee. One of the most surprising discoveries is that the Cumberland River Basin probably contained North America’s densest Clovis Period population. It was a hunter’s paradise in which large herds of megafauna, such as mastodons and giant bison grazed along the meadows that paralleled north-central Tennessee Rivers.

Who were those people?

In the autumn of 2013 the Tennessee Ancient Site Conservancy provided me with several archaeological reports on the Mound Bottoms and Pack sites. They were two extremely large indigenous towns that coexisted as neighbors for several centuries (c. 950 AD-1300 AD.) This alone is a highly unusual situation. There was a bigger surprise, however. The Harpeth River Valley, near the two towns, only has a small fraction of the bottomland necessary to support the population that normally would be required to build and maintain these towns. There is barely enough soil, suitable for manual cultivation, to support 100-200 inhabitants. Yes, the Harpeth River Valley inspired that beloved Country-Western song, “Harper Valley PTA,” sung by Jeannie C. Riley.

The archaeological reports display the same wide discrepancies between the level of attention given technical classification of artifacts versus cultural anthropology. This is a continuing problem in the Southeastern United States. There was very little intellectual energy applied to determining who these people were; why they built so many towns in north central Tennessee; or how in the heck did they feed so many people on the Harpeth River with such limited areas suitable for manual cultivation? Actually, none of the archaeologists even noticed that the bottomlands near the towns were adequate for perhaps one modern farm.

What these reports contained instead were brief statements based on mid-20th century speculations. Consistently, they stated that the mound builders in Tennessee were immigrants from Cahokia. There was no scientific proof and deductive analysis accompanying those brief statements . . . but the reports went into great detail about such things as the pottery fragments found near a post hole of Structure D-3.

Woe Nelly! The mounds and post-ditch construction houses at Mound Bottom predate those at Cahokia by about a century. The Mound Bottom site was first settled around 800 AD and the mounds were begun at least as early as 950 AD. Monks Mound and post-ditch construction appeared at Cahokia around 1050 AD. Also, the site planning and public architecture at Mound Bottoms is quite different at Mound Bottom than at Cahokia. Mound Bottom’s town plan consisted of an artificial terrace, sculpted from a hill overlooking the river. The platform mounds were square, truncated pyramids. Their houses were square and of post-ditch construction. These towns were not similar to Cahokia.

Native American pottery was generally made by women. The original women at Mound Bottom and the Pack site could have been local gals. Pottery is not necessarily an accurate indicator of a new cultural presence. However, the architecture and town plans were created by men. These Native men apparently came from somewhere else. It is not known whether they brought women and children with them.

The Itsate of northern Georgia and western North Carolina can be immediately eliminated as candidates for Mound Bottom. They initially constructed stone box graves, but their principal platform mounds were pentagonal pyramids and their post-ditch houses had the proportions of a shoe box.

The only locations currently known that had sculpted terraces, square platform mounds and square post-ditch houses before 950 AD were at Ocmulgee National Monument and at some smaller sites on the Lower Chattahoochee River. However, the earliest known tombs at Ocmulgee are log-lined sepulchers with the bodies fully extended, not stone box graves with folded human remains. On the other hand, the locations of Ocmulgee and Mound Bottom are similar. They were both traditional sites, where people met to trade and socialize that could also function as fortifications.

An explanation of the sudden appearance of many Native towns in the Southeast after around 1000 AD is that they were the offspring of the initial trading centers such as Ocmulgee, Hiwassee Island, TN, Roods Creek, GA and Mound Bottom, TN. Perhaps traders, based at market centers like Ocmulgee and Roods Creek spread outward into the interior of North America. They probably were of mixed ethnic heritage and carried varying combinations of several cultural influences. Where they established new trading posts, over time, evolved separate dialects and somewhat unique combinations of cultural traditions.

It is quite possible that the twin towns either functioned like the castles of medieval lords or else were ceremonial centers with few permanent residents. The lack of convenient bottom land meant that food production was spread over a relatively long stretch of the Harpeth Valley, where the commoners lived. This fact suggests that they were vassals, who were obligated to feed the town folk.

After around 1300 AD, Mound Bottom had few or no residents. This was when a horrific drought spread from the Southwest to as far as central Alabama and central Tennessee. At the same time, many new ethnic groups appeared in the Southern Highlands, apparently refugees from the drought. The new highlanders eventually became the Upper Creeks, after moving again into northern Alabama. That would explain the claim of Alabama Upper Creeks on the environs of Nashville. However, very little definitive information will be possible for the network of Native towns in the Cumberland-Harpeth River System until archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, botanists, architects and geologists begin studying their surviving sites again.

Life is like a box of chocolates: In 1989, my former wife and I drove over to Ellicott City, MD one Saturday to buy antique nicknacks and books to decorate our newly restored Shenandoah Valley Colonial farmhouse. Two of the books I purchased were an 1811 history of the United States, originally owned by someone named David Crockett, and an original edition of Thruston’s Antiquities of Tennessee. Never considered that I would ever have use for the Thruston book. The used book shop owner had never looked inside the American history book to see who had signed it. It was priced at $5.

A lot of questions still have to be answered in Tennessee!

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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 found two arrow heads in a plowed field on the Cumberland river in Lebanon TN. Any idea what Indians used it and what time period. One is chipped and one is perfect.
    Earl Boyles

    • Earl, most likely you have found atlatl points, not arrowheads. Arrowheads were extremely small . . . what most collectors call “bird points.” In fact, the Creeks typically used fire-hardened wood or bone for their arrowheads, since a heavy stone point would make the river cane shaft unstable in flight. Therefore, what you have found probably date from the Woodland, Middle Archaic or Late Archaic Periods (4000 BC – 600 AD). It would be impossible to link them to a modern federally recognized tribe, since none of those tribes existed back then.


    I know where there are mounds that have never been studied or recorded. That is, as long as the man who presently owns the property hasn’t destroyed them? My grandfather took me to them several times until about 30 years ago.

    • There was a never studied 40 feet tall mound that was destroyed near me last year. The new owner of the property said that it messed up his view, when he came out on weekends. Locals in that county applauded his action because it would keep libruls and treehuggers from driving out to their county.


    What a shame! Why do people have to take these things to a political arena? I am no a liberal however, I do love trees. I wonder if the property had been archived would he have been permitted to destroy it?


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