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Nikwasi Mound . . . many Native peoples have lived in the Franklin, NC area

Nikwasi Mound . . . many Native peoples have lived in the Franklin, NC area


(Architectural rendering above)  At least one of the stages of the Nikwasi Mound was constructed by an advanced indigenous people, who also built a large town on Hiwassee Island, Tennessee.   Their name became the names of two rivers and a state!


When passing through was is now Franklin, NC in 1774, William Bartram asked a Cherokee elder who built the large mound in the little village of Nucosee.  The elder responded that it was already old when the Cherokees arrived.  He added that many peoples built on the mound, but no one knew who the original builders were.   Colonial archives, architectural analysis of the mound and linguistic analysis of indigenous places around Franklin back up the statements by these elders.   The major trade route passing through Rabun Gap, Georgia and Echete Pass, North Carolina attracted immigrants from long distances.  The architectural analysis is Part Three of these series.  In this article POOF will discuss archival and linguistic evidence. 


There are several place names around the Franklin Area, which are actually the names of indigenous peoples, who lived there before the Cherokees arrived in the late 16oos.  We know it is the late 1600s because a British explorer visited the Franklin Area in 1653.  He never mentioned the Cherokees anywhere he traveled in the Southern Highlands.  However, we will start with the name of the Cherokee village, visited by William Bartram.

(1) Nikiwasi – Oddly enough the word, Nikiwasi, is not mentioned in Colonial archives. The letter K was seldom used in English, until Daniel Webster’s Dictionary of American English replaced several British “c’s” with “k’s.”

On Colonel John Barwell’s 1721 map of South Carolina, the village was named Naquessee.    It is not mentioned on John Herberts 1725 Map of South Carolina, but in his field notes made while surveying the region, the village was spelled Nookassy.  It was spelled the same way in a 1749 map by George Haig.  It is spelled Nequasee on Kitchen’s 1746 map of the Cherokee Nation. It was spelled Naquasee by John Mitchell in his 1755 map of North America.  In his 1764 map of North Carolina and South Carolina, Kitchen spelled the word Naquasee.  In 1776, William Bartram spelled the name, Nucasee.

During much of the 1700s, there were several dialects of Cherokee.  Some bands, living on the sites of former Creek towns, converted a Creek Ka to a Kwa sound in English phonetic spelling.  Others converted a Ki or a Ka to a gi or ga sound.  Thus, the Creek town of Tokah became the Cherokee village of Tokwa.   This would explain the confusion by English speakers as to whether this Cherokee village’s name was Nakwasee or Nucassee.

The original name of the non-Cherokee town, when it had a large population and probably was the administrative center for a province was obviously, Nokase, the Muskogean word for bear. Uchee’s in Northeast Georgia typically pronounced the word, Nukase.  They had originally used another word for bear, but centuries of having Muskogean elites altered their original language.

Virtually every reference states that “Nikasee or Nukase was one of the largest and most important Cherokee towns.”  It was a dinky little village with 152 inhabitants in 1721 then declined steadily in size afterward. It had about 50 inhabitants when visited by William Bartram in 1774.  By the time, its land was ceded in 1818, the village was not even listed on most maps.  Bartram remarked that the Cherokee Country was far less densely populated than most people assumed.  He wrote that at that time the Creek town of Uchee had over 2,000 inhabitants and that some Creek towns were even larger.

(2) Tanasee Creek –  Until the late 1780s, the Little Tennessee River was called the Tanasee River, while the Tennessee River was called the Callimaco River.  Callimaco is an Itza Maya word, which means “House or Palace of the King.”

Tanasee is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek word, Taenasi, which means “Taeno (Arawaks) – descendants of.”  Many people are surprised to learn that the Arawaks had a major presence in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Any place name in the region that ends with coa, koa or qua is an Arawak word.  This suffix means, “people or tribe.”  They were called the Taensaw or Tenesaw by the Muskogee Creeks and Taensa by the French.

They built a large town on Hiwassee Island, Tennessee, which the chroniclers of the Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo Expeditions called Tanasqui.  The “qui” was the Castilian way of writing the Muskogee Creek word for “tribe or people” – ki or kee.   There were also several Taenasi towns and villages on the Middle Tennessee River.  These Taenasaw eventually migrated to the Tensaw River in southwest Alabama and joined the Creek Confederacy.

Taenasi temple on Hiwassee Island, TN

Taenasi villages also were located in the Piedmont of South Carolina near Greenville.  They appeared on maps of South Carolina until the 1720s.  This population was probably wiped out by a combination of European diseases and slave raids.

The Taenasi towns are distinctive because they built round temples on cone-shaped pyramidal mounds.  Like the Taino temples in the Caribbean Basin,  the Taenasi mounds were described by explorers as having human heads on poles in front of the mounds and along side the steps that climbed up to the temples.  

Taenasi religion was very different that Creek monotheism.  They were animists and polytheists like the Taino in the Caribbean Basin.  Many of their religious practices, including human sacrifice, were associated with the control of demons, who they thought lived in fires, springs, rocks and trees.

(3)  Tessentee Creek is the Anglicization of Taenasi-te,  which means “Taena – descendants of” combined with the Itza Maya/Itsate Creek suffix for “tribe or people.”

(4) Watauga Creek is the Anglicization of the Cherokee ethnic name, Wata-gi, which means Wata People.  Wata-gi is pronounced Wă : täw : gē.    There are numerous blogs on the internet from North Carolina and Tennessee in which people either plead for the meaning of Watauga or replicate a legion of bogus explanations.  Almost all the explanations say that it is a Cherokee word having to do with water.  Well, one says it is Creek and means “breaking water” . . . NOT!  

Wata-gi is the Cherokee name for the Wata-re (Wataree) People of the Carolinas and Tennessee. Wataree is their name for themselves and means Wata (Fire) People.  In the 1500s, they occupied the North Carolina Mountains from present day Asheville northward to at least Grandfather Mountain, plus the Watauga Valley in Tennessee.  They were forced out of the mountains by the bitter cold weather of the Little Ice Age and slave raids.  The survivors ended up the South Carolina Low Country . . . hence the name, Wateree River.  By the mid-1700s, the tribe had disappeared from the maps.  The few survivors probably intermarried with their European and African neighbors or else migrated to Georgia and joined the Creek Confederacy.

The Wata-re of the Carolinas were known as being on the short side and having darker complexions than the Cherokees.  They may be the origin of the Cherokee legend of “little people” living in the Franklin area.  They are probably the descendants of the Wata People of Brazil, who are also known as being short and dark-complexioned.   If if seems implausible for South American Indians to live in the North Carolina Mountains,  there is a much more implausible ethnological example.  The Tobacco Indians of the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Virginia and Maryland called themselves the Petun People.  They were known for growing a “sweet” tropical type tobacco.  Petun is the Tupi word for tobacco.   The Tupi formerly occupied the Atlantic Coast of Brazil, but there was also a Tupi province near Midway, GA on Georgia’s coasts.

Although not true Pygmies, the Guatô or Wataw People are much shorter than most indigenous Americans.


(5) Coweeta Creek and Cowee –  Coweeta is the Anglicization of the most powerful division of the Creek Confederacy during the 1700s, the Koweta Creeks. The Kowetas remember their homeland as being in the Upper Tennessee River Valley.   Their name means “Mountain Lion People.  Their original mother town was Cowee (Kowi in Creek).  Cowee means “Mountain Lion.”    Cowee became the name of a Cherokee village in the 1700s.

(6) Cullasaja River joins the Little Tennessee River about 3/4th mile upstream from the Nikwasi Mound.  It is the Anglicization of a Cherokee word, Kulasetsi,  which is derived from Creek tribal name, Kulasi-te.  It does not mean “Sugar Fork” as all non-Creek references tell you.   The word means “Kulla – descendants of – people.”   Kulla, the large mother town of the Kullasee Creeks was located in Cullowhee, NC where the campus of Western North Carolina University is now located.  Three large mounds were destroyed in the 1970s, when WNC’s administrative building was constructed.  A proto-Creek Woodstock Culture town, nearby, was destroyed soon thereafter to build the Cullowhee Valley School and a county park.

The remaining Kullasees were forced out of the North Carolina Mountains by the Cherokees. Most of them may have already left the mountains for warmer locales before the Cherokees arrived.  That certainly seems to be the case with their cousins, the Koweta Creeks.

(7) Nantahala River is another one of those place names that have frustration people through the years.  There is a good reason.  Nantahala is the Anglicization of a Southern Arawak (Peruvian) word that means “place of rapids or white water river.”  That’s a good name for this scenic gorge.

Chiaha was located on a long island just downstream on the Little Tennessee River from Nantahala Gorge.

Colonial archives

The Hernando de Soto Expedition:   Guasuli or Guasili (Medieval Castilian) or Guaxule (Portuguese) was a Native American village, visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in the spring of 1540.  It was on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains on a river which flowed westward through a long gorge to join the Tennessee River.  Downstream from Guasuli were two small villages,  Conesagua and Coneste, plus at least two large towns, Chiaha and Tali.  The confusion is spelling was cause by the fact that the Iberian Peninsula then had at least 15 languages and that the Iberians did not know how to translate the Muskogean V sound into their alphabet.  The Muskogean V is pronounced roughly like an English “äw” sound.  There was no W in any of the Iberian alphabets, but Castilians used either gua, joa or hua to equivocate a W sound.

Thus, in Castilian, the word might be pronounced Wä : sü : lē, in the Native American tongue the word was actually  Wä : säw : rē  . . . with the “r” being heavily rolled.  That’s a tribe in Georgia . . . the Wassaw!  Wassaw Sound south of Ossabaw Island and Savannah is named after them .  They were assumed to have lived along the Savannah or Ogeechee Rivers, but perhaps they moved up the Savannah River into the mountains.

All maps of the Cherokee Nation show the villages Conesagua and Coneste on the Little Tennessee River downstream from Franklin, NC.  Cheoah Mountain and the Cheoah River are located in Graham County, NC on the south side of the Little Tennessee River George.  Guasule had to be in the vicinity of Franklin.  It may have been the Nikawasi Mound Site or the Watauga Mound Site.

In the early 1980s a self-appointed team of professors from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia attempted to determine the route for the Hernando de Soto Expedition through their states.  The group was destined to make major mistakes.  They planned the route of the conquistadors, using state highway maps and masking tape.  That might have been fine for the Coastal Plain, but ignoring the mountainous topography of the Southern Appalachians could produce unrealistic results.
In addition, none of the professors knew any of the Creek or Maya languages.  All but two of the place names recorded by De Soto’s chronicler’s in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and eastern Tennessee were modern Creek words.  Chiaha in North Carolina is an Itza Maya word meaning “Salvia River.”  The De Soto chronicles even state that these people grew large fields of salvia (Chia seeds) along rivers.   The Chiskas in northeastern Tennessee looked the same and spoke the same language as the Chiskas in eastern Peru.  The professors called the Chiskas, Yuchi’s.   Most of the Native town names in North Carolina,  they labeled “ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings have been lost.”

Prior to checking with local experts on the archaeology and history of the region, the professor came to Asheville, NC to announce that Guasule was on the Biltmore Estate next to the French Broad River and Chiaha was on an island in the French Broad River downstream.  Their early morning breakfast speech to the Asheville Chamber of Commerce announced that the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation was in Asheville. 

Two state archaeologists and I (as director of the Asheville-Buncombe County Historic Resources Commission) met with the professors. The archaeologists told them that there were no occupied village sites on the French Broad from Asheville downstream during the 1500s.  At any rate, the two archaeological sites that they had placed Guasuli and Chiaha on were Woodland mound sites that had probably abandoned for a thousand years when De Soto came through.  Also, no 16th century European artifacts had been found in the Asheville Area.

I told the professors that the Asheville Area was always Shawnee until occupied by white settlers.  The eastern boundary of the Cherokee Nation was at Soco Gap, 40 miles to the west.  The Hendersonville-Brevard, NC area was always Creek.  The Old Fort-Lenoir-Morganton, NC area was always Yuchi.  There was NO ancient Cherokee Nation around Asheville.

The professors ignored us.  False history became the facts taught to generations of anthropology and North Carolina high school students for the next 30 years.  In 2001, an archaeological team excavated the three feet tall Biltmore Mound and found that it was a ruin of a council house that was abandoned around 450 AD.   It was not the ancient capital of the Great Cherokee Nation. 

The chroniclers of the Hernando de Soto Expedition were not terribly impressed by Guasuli, which makes its description in the late 20th century as “the ancient capital of the Great Cherokee Nation, seem even more ludicrous.  The tillable land adjoining the village was not very large.  The village did not have much corn or beans on hand . . . so the expedition spent the night and then headed downstream.   This seems to be a more appropriate description of the Watauga Mound site.   The Nikwasee Mound would have been impressive and there are many acres of fertile bottom land along the Little Tennessee River in the vicinity of Franklin.

Watauga is now covered by Lake Emory, but still it is obvious that only a small population could be supported here.

Spanish gem miners on the Little Tennessee River:  In 1653,  Barbados planter, Richard Briggstock, spent several months in the Kingdom of Apalache as the guest of its high king.  The capital was located in what is now northeast Metro Atlanta, but Briggstock traveled over most of northern Georgia during those months.  While staying at the Spanish trading post in the Nacoochee Valley (NE Georgia) built by Florida’s governor, Benito Ruíz de Salazar Vallecilla, Briggstock was encouraged to visit a new Spanish mining colony about 35 miles to the northeast.  His description of terrain sounds exactly like the Franklin area, which is known for its ruby and sapphire deposits. 

Briggstock said that the Spaniards were very hospitable and that they used Indian laborers.  The Nacochee (Bear) Mound is identical in form and size to the Nikwasee (Bear) Mound, prior to it being altered by the Cherokees.  Although the state historical marker says that the Cherokees used the Nacoochee Mound,  archaeologists have not found any European artifacts in or on the mound or in the village site around it.  This suggests that  Nikwasi may have gotten its name from Apalache Creeks in the Nacoochee Valley, who traveled with the Spaniards to mine gems . . . or perhaps the mound was re-occupied by Apalache-Creeks from the Nacoochee Valley in pre-Columbian times then reconstructed to the form of a Lamar culture mound.

With so little archaeological work having been done in the Franklin, NC area, it is only possible to propose plausible speculations to the area’s actual Native American history.

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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.



    Thanks so much for this information.

    • You are quite welcome. If you know of a cabin with a workshop space in Rabin County for rent, I would appreciate it. There is nothing but rusty old trailers around Dahlonega because the University of North Georgia added over 2000 students without building dorms for them. I actually in the past made more income from building architectural models for museums than I did in designing buildings . . . it was a lot more fun too.


        So sorry. I am in Pittsboro NC. I was in that area because of a workshop at the Highlands for the UU Womens Retreat. A former student of mine has a place in Franklin, but it is not for rent. Best of luck in finding a place. Do so enjoy your posts, even when they speak to the inhumanities done. Better to write and speak of these things, so that they can be heard.

        • Well, you never can tell. I am told that the type place I need often is not advertised because the owners do not want drug users, drug dealers or a group of students packed into a small cabin. I have to be in Georgia because that is where my architecture license is. Also, I have designed several buildings in Rabun County, which turned out real well.


            I will let my student know. If she knows of places, I will let you know.


    Richard, The Wataree (Fire) man sure looks like someone that is related to the people of South East Asia. I was watching a TV show of the design connections of some of the Maya pyramids with those of South East Asia. This photo is proof clearly of another group of people that made it to this landmass by boats from Asia. Some of the Wataree people must have been with the Maya (I-am-ma) in the past and migrated with the Itza/Itsa peoples in the 800’s-900’s AD to the South. They might have been the people that brought the fireworks noted seen in the 1600’s in the Carolinas.

    • They look like Philippinos to me, except that they are shorter.


        True. These University folks must be blind with their one group of Humans migration thesis for all American Natives. On another note, The main Taenasi temple building looks a lot like a Teepee in structure. This type of structure was clearly used in Eastern South America, the Caribbean’s islands, the South and the American West. They might have had some connection to the Lakota (Itazipcola) in the distant past and called the “Cofitachikee” by the Apalacha Kingdom peoples.

        • Yes, the standard house in much of northern South America was a giant teepee.


    I am working on a piece for the Macon County News on the Cherokee history and heritage in the county and Franklin, N.C. Would like to reference this information and possible use this computer rendition of the village that may have been here in Franklin. Is that a historically accurate portrayl? Are there any other sketches/illustrations of what the Cherokee community may have looked like? Is the illustration at the Wayah Bald fire tower accurate? Any assistance you can provide would be appreciated. I would like the article to be indepth, factual (of course), and honoring to the Cherokee. 803-608-2976; 828-349-8522. Deena C. Bouknight

    • Deena, Keep in mind that the occupants of the village in Franklin were NOT ethnic Cherokees, but Watari (Watagi) who had lived in Western North Carolina before the Cherokees arrived and elected to become allied with the Cherokees. The Watagi chief told William Bartram and many peoples had used and built on the Nikwasi Mound before his people. You can contact us at

  4. That’s true. When I was a consultant to the Eastern Band of Cherokees in the late 1970s, they told tourists that they did not build any of the mounds in North Carolina. A Watauga chief told botanist William Bartram that the Cherokees did not build the Nikwasi Mound, but did construct a council house on it. He said that several peoples, through the centuries had expanded this mound and utilized as a temple site.



  1. After 200 years, Cherokee poised to regain mysterious tribal mound dating to 1,000 AD - SacraTomato Live - […] 1774 reported being told by a Cherokee elder that the tribe did not know who built the mound which…

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