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Paired Elite and Commoner Towns Solve Many Archaeological Riddles

Archaeological reports from sites in several regions of the Southeast discuss two towns located in close proximity. Observations of paired elite and commoner towns by French and Spanish explorers in Georgia would explain these dualities. Such a tradition would also explain why there were several towns in both the Cherokee Alliance and Creek Confederacy that had the same Creek name, plus explain the Muskogean traditions still maintained by the Cherokees.

In particular, 17th century French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, specifically stated that the elite and commoners of Apalache lived in separate towns, wore different clothes, spoke somewhat different languages and had somewhat different religious practices.

At the time, he wrote this observation (1658) the Apalache Confederacy spanned from southwestern Virginia to southern Georgia. [See The Apalache Chronicles.] The Apalache elite wore brightly dyed woven clothes that were stitched together in complex patterns, like we see later worn by the Seminoles. The commoners either wore simple garments made from deerskin or un-dyed lengths of mulberry fiber cloth.

This past Saturday, I found the location of the elite Apalache town where the Roanoke Colony survivors last lived. The chief of the town of Hontawase lived on top of a great cone shaped rock with his wife, Eleanor Dare. The rock would have functioned like a castle. Beneath the rock were the houses of his relatives and town leaders. The commoners of Hontawase, lived slightly upstream on the Chattahoochee River, around the famous Nacoochee Mound.

Perhaps I should first explain something. Being an architect and city planner, mostly what I do is draw lines between dots in these Brainfood newsletters. My major criticism of many non-indigenous archaeologists and historians is that they don’t know diddlysquat about the cultural history of the people in the Southeastern United States, who made their precious potsherds with English names. My main criticism of the non-indigenous cultural anthropologists in the Southeast is that in an effort to appear being scientists, they focus on individual dots so intensely that they never notice that the dots are pixels in a beautiful tapestry of the Western Hemisphere’s past.

Mound Bottom and the Pack Site

Kvsa Birdseye

Birdseye view of the elite and commoner towns at Kusa, visited by Hernando de Soto in the summer of 1540.
In the background is the site of Carters Dam, which inspired the book and movie, Deliverance.

The town sites that are perhaps most enigmatic to archaeologists are Mound Bottom and the Peak Site on the Harpeth River in north-central Tennessee. Two highly developed towns with multiple mounds thrived from around 950 AD to 1350 AD then devolved to intermittently occupied hamlets.

During 2013, Mark Tolley of the Tennessee Archaeological Conservancy sent me the archaeological reports and site plans of these two towns to evaluate. I was supposed to also get a high resolution LIDAR image from the Corps of Engineers, but it was detoured to Middle Tennessee State University.

Don’t you love it that archaeologists invariably assign Anglo-Saxon names to Southeastern Native American towns, cultures and artifacts? Perhaps we should rename the Viking Age in Scandinavia to be the Piratas del Norte Age!

Even without the high resolution LIDAR, I was able to quickly discern some fascinating architectural differences between the two towns, which undoubtedly the Middle Tennessee archaeologists won’t see. Tennessee archaeologists continue to think that these two towns were founded by colonists from Cahokia – No way.

The houses and site plan of Mound Bottom were straight from Ocmulgee Bottoms in Middle Georgia. Its houses are large, rectangular, post-ditch structures like Ocmulgee’s. The town was developed into a fortress by leveling and expanding a terrace overlooking the river. The builders of the acropolis on the Ocmulgee River did the same thing. Post-ditch houses appeared at Ocmulgee at least as early as 900 AD. They did not appear in Cahokia until around 1050 AD.

In contrast, the situation and architecture of the Pack Mounds Site is like Bessemer Mounds near Birmingham, AL, Oakville Mounds on the Tennessee River in Alabama and Shiloh Mounds on the Tennessee River near the Tennessee-Alabama line. The houses and village clusters at the Pack Site are like Chickasaw villages in Tennessee and Kentucky and the Fort Ancient villages in Ohio. They are Proto-Chickasaw. The Pack town site is far less defensible.

This strongly suggests to me that Mound Bottoms was founded by traders and colonists from Ocmulgee, who came to dominate the region, politically, while the Pack Site was occupied by commoners, who became some of the ancestors of the Chickasaws.

Kusa in northwest Georgia

The chroniclers of the Hernando de Soto Expedition specifically stated that the capital of Kusa was divided into a commoners’ town (founded around 1300 AD) and an elite town that was founded after the sacking of Etula (Etowah Mounds) around 1375 AD. The two towns were separated by shallow Talking Rock Creek. When the water was drained from Lower Carters Lake in 2007, I was able to walk across shallow Talking Rock Creek from the mounds of the elite town to the flat terrain of the commoners town. The elite town had mounds. The commoners’ town did not.

Because the commoner’s town did not have mounds, it has received very little attention from archaeologists. Archaeologist David Halley’s team briefly examined the surface of the commoner’s village and primarily picked up shards of Plain Redware. In contrast, the elite town contained a much higher percentage of refined Lamar Culture pottery.

The excavations of Kusa were spotted and rushed because water was rapidly rising in the lake. The Corps of Engineers did not admit that the site of the Lower Reservoir was the location of one of the largest Native Americans towns north of Mexico, until Congress had already funded the controversial dam. The cost of Carters Dam, which is built over a fault line, exceeded its long term economic benefits, until the Corps of Engineers proposed a lower dam to create a secondary reservoir that would pump water up to the main reservoir at night, when less electricity was needed.

Even those numbers didn’t work until legislators in the region pushed through a bill incorporating the mythical city of 50,000 people named “Industrial City,” which would be the primary beneficiaries of Carters Dam. The Corps of Engineers then added onto their benefit column millions of dollars of industrial plants adjacent to the lake. Neither the city nor its industrial plants ever became a reality, but Carters Bottoms is a reservoir today, not a National Historic Landmark, as was originally proposed.

One good thing came out of the Carters Lake scam. It was the movie, Deliverance. Almost instantly, this movie literally spawned the “back to nature movement.” My generation denounced drugs, bought a canoe and headed to the mountains to farmstead. I never used drugs, but still have my canoe and started the second licensed goat cheese creamery in the nation. Now you know.

Dallas and Mouse Creek Cultures

University of Tennessee archaeologists were given reasonable time spans to study the sites about to be flooded by TVA lakes. They identified numerous pairings of towns between Hiwassee Island near Dayton, TN and Chattanooga. One town had mounds and Lamar Culture pottery. Its sister town had platform mounds and only small burial mounds. Its pottery was similar to Lamar pottery, but simpler. The simpler pottery was labeled Mouse Creek. Both types of towns had rectangular post-ditch houses with corner entrances and stone box burials immediately outside the house . . . identical to Itza Maya houses, but the Tennessee archaeologists didn’t know that, and probably still wouldn’t admit it.

Knowing very little about the Yuchi People, UT archaeologist, Dr. Lynn Sullivan labeled the Mouse Creek communities as being “Yuchi” and the Dallas Culture communities, “Creek.” Dallas Culture towns were definitely proto-Upper Creek. They called themselves the Kusa-te, now Anglicized to Cusseta.

Mouse Creek towns were definitely not Yuchi. As anyone who knows anything about the Yuchi would know, all traditional Yuchi houses, communal buildings and plazas were round. Their alternate name was “Roundtown Indians.” Mouse Creek houses, communal buildings and plazas were rectangular. They were also identical to Chickasaw and Fort Ancient villages.

Actually, the Hogeloge Yuchi villages were higher up in the mountains, both to the northwest and southeast of the Tennessee River. There were Yuchi hamlets in Georgia’s Cohutta Mountains until around 1911. Many of those Yuchi moved to the Snowbird Cherokee Reservation in Graham County, NC. Physiologically, they still today look very different that the Snowbird Cherokees of Soque origin. The Soque-Cherokees look like the Olmec statuary.

More recently, UT forensic anthropologist, Dr. Hugh Berryman, compared skeletons from Late Mississippian Period sites in the Middle Cumberland Basin, Dallas Culture towns and Mouse Creek Culture towns. In recent years archaeologists have switched to using the word “phases” instead of “cultures” so no one else will understand what the heck they are talking about, but you get the gist.

Berryman found that the skeletons found in Mouse Creek towns were identical to the skeletons in earlier north-central Tennessee towns such as Mound Bottom. They were different than the skeletons found in Dallas Culture (proto-Upper Creek) towns. Unfortunately, Berryman did not compare these skeletons to Colonial Period Chickasaws. He would have undoubtedly found them to be the same.

The Savannah River Basin and Oconaluftee River Valley

While studying indigenous town sites along the Savannah River in advance of Lake Richard B. Russell, archaeologists noticed a pairing of towns. There were towns with rectangular houses and ceremonial mounds next to towns with round houses and no mounds. These archaeologists did their homework, however. They correctly labeled the squares as proto-Creeks and the roundees as Yuchi. They then correctly identified the same pattern elsewhere in eastern Georgia along the headwaters of the Ogeechee River. Yuchi towns were often built next to proto-Creek towns.

The same pattern is seen in the Oconaluftee River Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Until the Eastern Band of Cherokees built a new sewage treatment plant at its location in the Birdtown Community on the reservation in the late 1980s, there was the ruins of a large Okonee Creek town with a massive five-sided Middle Mississippian mound on the Oconaluftee River. Oconaluftee is the Anglicization of Okvni-lufte, which means Oconee People – cut off or isolated. Upstream a bit, a large Yuchi town was found at the site where the new Cherokee High School was built. The Yuchi town was abandoned around 1600 AD, but the Quala folks, of course, called it the oldest known Cherokee town. HOWEVER, they found a circular plaza, surrounded by booths, that was identical to the Oklahoma Euchee dance grounds built today.

Throughout the earliest map of the Cherokee Nation in 1725, the majority of towns have either Creek or Maya names. The names of all those towns can also be found in later maps of the Creek Nation, but further south in Georgia and Alabama.

There was a radical change in the locations of the Cherokee villages between the 1715 John Beresford Map and the 1725 map of the Cherokee Nation. During that period, the Cherokees occupied most of western North Carolina, the northeastern tip of Georgia and the region in Tennessee between Knoxville and the Little Tennessee River.

What appears to have happened is that the sudden trauma of the Creek-Cherokee War caused schisms within individual Creek and Yuchi towns. The new Cherokee Alliance offered commoners a much more egalitarian lifestyle, plus unlimited access to British firearms, cloth, iron cooking pots and steel tools.

Those who allied with the emerging Creek Confederacy initially were continuing the old hierarchal societies and had less access to British goods. Territorial expansion by the Cherokees stopped almost immediately when the Creeks got back into friendly terms with the British or had access to French firearms. That change occurred between 1725 and 1733.

The elite had the most to lose by becoming part of the Cherokee alliance. Most moved south and took with them the more sophisticated aspects of their culture such as mathematics, land surveying, cloth weaving and the beautiful Lamar Style pottery. However, they generally kept the same town names.

Those commoners, who stayed put, initially spoke dialects of Itsate Creek, Yuchi or Apalache. They continued practicing simplified cultural traditions such as the stomp dance and Green Corn Festival, but quickly forgot how to weave. However, over time their words became mingles with the languages of the original core Cherokees from the north or their Jewish and Turkish in-laws. Even as late as 1763, most Cherokee town chiefs had the Itza Maya-Itsate Creek title of mako or the Muskogee-Creek title of mikko. Tamatli Cherokees still build rectangular Itza Maya houses with lime stucco finishes.

The Apalache-Creek town of Nokose (No-: ko- : she- ~ Bear) in the cruder Itsate of the commoners became Noguchee. After the Creek dialect speakers were almost exterminated by the last battles of the Creek-Cherokee War, new immigrants arrived, who called the mountain above the village, Yonah, which is the modern Cherokee word for bear. It all makes sense.

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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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