Peruvian Indians Still Live in the Southern Tip of Appalachia
The Towns County Indians
Descendants of the Peruvian and Itza Maya Peoples, who gave the Appalachian Mountains their name, still live in the rugged mountains north of the Nacoochee Valley in Georgia. Locals call them the Towns County Indians, Hightower Creek Indians or the Coosa Creek Indians. Extended family clans of this unique people can be also found in the remote areas of Stevens, Habersham, White, Rabun, Union, Gilmer and Fannin Counties in Northeast Georgia.
Since World War II, some “Towns County Indians” have moved out of the mountains for economic opportunities elsewhere in the United States. Apparently, most have intermarried with their Caucasian neighbors. However, there are still many descendants, who still retain enough of their aboriginal DNA to be viewed as a very special and unique population.
In the 20th century, some of these families were given BIA numbers by the Federal government as “Cherokees,” but in truth, they are neither Cherokees nor Muskogee-Creeks. When the Cherokee Nation was given that area of Georgia in 1794, it did not consider these people Cherokees and thus, they had no role in the tribal government. Apparently, many families were in such remote locations on the eastern fringe of Cherokee territory that federal troops missed them in the roundup prior to the Trail of Tears. They deserve to be federally recognized as a separate, unique tribe.
In 2003, I had an experience deep within the Blue Ridge Mountains, north of the Nacoochee Valley, which I would not be able to explain for eight years. I was looking for the ruins of an ancient, mountaintop stone ring, which was last mentioned in the 1880s. It was east of Unicoi Gap and north of Tray Mountain. In the old, crudely sketched map, the site appeared to be on an isolated, cone-shaped peak just in the Towns County Line.
I noticed a well-traveled horse trail, headed in the right direction from a gravel US Forest Service road, and so parked my Explorer and began hoofing it along with my herd dog companion. That trail forked, so I took what looked like an old wagon road from the 1800s in the supposed direction of the ruins.
About a mile later I initially thought that I had walked through a time warp. Before me was an old farmstead, composed of log buildings with no vehicles and no electrical service. Prior to the 1950s, such vestiges of the past were quite common in Appalachia, but they virtually disappeared in the latter half of the 20th century, when the federal government bought up most of the mountainous land in North Georgia, Western North Carolina and the eastern edge of Tennessee. Rural electrification radically changed the lifestyles of the more accessible farms. The log houses and log barns are extremely rare now.
Being a historic preservation architect, I couldn’t resist the temptation to proceed further and inspect authentic Appalachian frontier architecture. However, when I got about 100 feet from the cabin, a full-blooded INDIAN came out with a shotgun in his arms – pointed at me. I could see his Native American wife and children peeking through the windows. Fortunately, after a summer of selling my handmade pottery at Native American arts festivals, I was tan as a Mexican campesino and my dog thought all Indians were “home folks.” He just smiled and wagged his tail . . . expecting to get a pat on the head and a piece of fry bread.
I did not dare turn my back to run, since he would have assumed that I was up to no good. I smiled, waved, said, “How y’all doing on this beautiful fall day?” He stared at me intently and responded, “What kind of Indian are you? You don’t look like no Cherokee.” The man had the same type of “Native American” accent to his English that one hears on remote Western reservations. He was definitely not from Latin America.
Well, he didn’t look like a Cherokee either . . . more like a Purepeche from Michoacan, Mexico or maybe someone from the Andes. Nevertheless, I asked him, “I’m part Creek. Are you a Cherokee?”
He said, “No!” The way he said it let me know that he didn’t want to discuss the matter further.
I told him that I was an architect and merely wanted to look at his beautiful log outbuildings. He didn’t know what an architect was, but at least was now pointing his shotgun down at the ground. He told me that I could look at the barn, but not to get near his family or house. I was to “get outa here” afterward.
The barn inspection was short and sweet. All the equipment in the tool shed looked like it dated from the 1800s. The family also had an old fashion blacksmith’s shed, where they apparently made many of their own metal tools. There was a mule and horse in the pasture. I had a feeling that those children had never spent a day in school.
Rob Roy the Wonder Dog and I got the heck out of there. I didn’t stop hiking at a fast pace until I was in my Explorer and headed home.
Fast forward to 2010
I had been living in a tent with my three herd dogs in the Southern Appalachians now for six months. Fed up with being constantly hounded by all three levels of law enforcement in North Carolina, I crossed the state line back into Georgia at Hiawassee.
There was such a huge difference in the Sheriff’s Department in Towns County, GA. When I asked directions for a campground where I could keep my dogs unleashed, the friendly deputy called his brother on the phone to find out the best location for dog lovers. We then talked about dogs for awhile. He said growing up he had one like mine that he dearly loved. He called the dog, “Shep.”
After setting up my camp, I returned to Hiawassee to get a quick meal at a local “family style” restaurant and then drove on in the twilight of sunset to buy supplies at the supermarket. There were two pretty senoritas working the only open cash register, who were wearing authentic Native American jewelry and no wedding rings. I got ready to show off my Spanish, knowing that very few rural Georgians can speak Spanish to their new Latin American neighbors.
Closer to the check out, I heard them speaking with Southern drawls. They were definitely not Cherokees. They had small noses, small ears and gracile physiques. They were too short to be typical North Georgia Hitchiti Creeks or Upper Creeks. I figured that they must be two of those pretty Creek women in South Alabama, Southwest Georgia or the Florida Panhandle.
When it was my turn at the check-out, I explained that the former director of the National Park Service was paying me to do research on the early history of the mountains. I told them that I was Creek and was just curious as to what Indian tribe were they in.
The introduction was necessary, because I didn’t want them to think that I was some homeless male predator. Actually, I was a homeless bum at the time . . . but still a Southern gentleman.
The older lady said, “Oh some folks call us Cherokees, but we are real different than the Cherokees up in North Carolina. We call ourselves the Town County Indians.” The younger gal, who was in her early 20s, chipped in, “Yeh, my brother was married to a Cherokee gal from up in the reservation for awhile. Our family couldn’t get along with her at all. She would just go crazy for no reason sometimes and drank a lot. She eventually went off with a guy from Atlanta. She didn’t even come back for the divorce trial.”
What the heck? Real Indians, who look like people in Latin America, living in Towns County, Jawja . . . Who are these people? The answer would come about a year and a half later.
The BIG South American surprise
Fast forward to the spring of 2012 . . . Not long after the experience in Hiawassee, I had stumbled upon the nearby Track Rock Terrace Complex. I planned to hand off the ball to Georgia archaeologists and get back to my professional work in colonial architecture. Instead a clique of Georgia archaeologists attacked me personally like a pack of crazed, starving hound dogs going after fresh ham. It was obvious that People of One Fire researchers would have to do the work that other scholars should have done long ago.
One of the research projects involved DNA. Through my architecture column in the Examiner, I sent out a call for DNA reports from Native American descendants from the Southeast, whose DNA also included indigenous peoples from outside the United States. The plan was to show the archaeologists a pile of DNA reports, showing Maya DNA in the Southeast. That would shut down the nonsense they were saying to public.
However, the pile of Maya DNA reports turned out to be not necessary. The Georgia Society of Professional Archaeologists scripted a national article, which stated that no Maya writing had been found in Georgia. As proof they used a photograph of Boulder Six at Track Rock Gap, which contains several well known Maya glyphs, including the first one ever translated by the famous expert on the Mayas, Dr. David Stuart of the University of Texas. The credibility of the Georgia archaeologists went to zip after that stunt.
As expected, the Creeks in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Central Alabama often found that they carried at least some Maya DNA test markers. Creeks in Georgia had the highest levels of Maya ancestry. It generally ran about 10-12% of their total Asiatic DNA. No one from Oklahoma responded, so we still don’t know how common Maya DNA is among Muskogee Creeks.
The first big surprise was that members of a Cherokee band that is located on the edge of North Carolina, just north of Georgia’s Brasstown Bald Mountain also carried Maya DNA test markers. In fact, their DNA profiles were pretty much identical to Georgia Creek profiles and very different from those Cherokees living on the Qualla Reservation, about 45 miles away.
Duh-h-h-h, of course, we should have known. The main Cherokee town in this area of North Carolina was Itsa’yi. Itsa’yi means “Itza Mayas – place of” in English!
Very early in the process, a college student in Virginia hesitantly emailed me. She wrote, “Mr. Thornton, is it okay if we send you DNA reports with South American DNA instead of Maya DNA? I live in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. People always said that we were Cherokees, but all our family remembers is being enemies of the Cherokees. All the Indian families in our county are getting back reports that say we are from South America. That does not make any sense. We don’t know anybody in our family history, who was from South America.” I thought the test results were probably flukes, but told her to please tell her friends that their DNA results were welcomed too.
As soon as I posted the Youtube video that the young lady made about her South American DNA, I was hit with an avalanche of DNA reports from the Lower Southeast with South American or Arawak DNA. Creeks from SE Alabama were showing up with DNA typical of the Amazon Basin. Creeks, who traced their ancestry from the Georgia Coast were showing up with DNA typical of eastern Peru. Creeks in central Alabama and western Georgia were showing up with both Maya and Arawak DNA. I continued to suspect that the commercial DNA labs were using faulty methodology, but was beginning to wonder.
Then a bombshell arrived in my email. An executive with Dave & Buster’s Restaurant chain was one of those “Towns County Indians,” but his family was on the rolls of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. He had paid for a very sophisticated DNA analysis. He was at least 25% indigenous American, which means he was probably more like 50% or higher in reality. Typical DNA tests of card-carrying Cherokees in Oklahoma and North Carolina show them to be 0-2% Native American. However, all of his indigenous DNA was FROM PERU! The high tech test even broke down, which specific ethnic groups, he was descended from. One was a Southern Arawak tribe. The other was a Panoan tribe. There did not appear to be any Quechua (Inca) in his ancestry.
Fourteen other residents of Towns County sent me their DNA reports. Most of these people were not members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Six submitted DNA profiles similar to that of the restaurant executive. The others either had an almost equal mix of South American and Maya DNA or else profiles identical to North Georgia Creeks with about 10% of it being Maya DNA.
Obviously, the picture that the Anthropology profession had painted of the Southeast’s Pre-Columbian history was wrong. At some time in the past, South American peoples had settled in the Southeast in large numbers. What we thought were Muskogean traditions had actually been imported from Mesoamerica and South America.
Apalache is the Anglicization of the Panoan word Aparashe, which means “Descendants from Pará” (Eastern Peru-Western Brazil)
The significance of this mysterious South American DNA remained a mystery for a year. Then in 2013, Cherokee researcher, Marilyn Rae, discovered a long forgotten book, written by French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort in 1658. It contained 2 ½ chapters that described the indigenous peoples of North Georgia in the year 1653, when they were visited by Englishman, Richard Briggstock. At that time, most of Georgia, the eastern edge of Alabama, western North Carolina, the eastern end of Tennessee and the southwestern tip of Virginia was part of a confederated kingdom called Apalache. Its capital was in Northeast Georgia. In 1653, the capital was in Northeast Metro Atlanta. However, the last English map to mention Apalache showed the capital (Domus Regae) to be in the Nacoochee Valley, where the village of Sautee is today. That’s immediately south of where the Towns County Indians are concentrated.
Illustrations in De Rochefort’s book showed the elite of the Apalache, dressed just like the indigenous people of Satipo Province, Peru. Many of their customs seemed to be from South America. Then I remembered that there was a town on the Georgia coast, visited by the colonists of Fort Caroline (1564-1565) named Satipo. There was also a town named Satipo in the North Carolina Mountains that was visited by Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, in 1567. Peruvian peoples were living in the Southern Appalachians prior to European contact. It was a whole new world.
Since then I have learned the Panoan and Southern Arawak languages well enough to translate numerous towns and villages in the Lower Southeast with South American names. Swift Creek pottery was first made in South America and its beautiful designs are still popular on the clothing of Conibo Indians in eastern Peru. We now realize that the most basic traditions of the Creek and Seminole Peoples, such as the stomp dance and Sacred Black Drink, came from Eastern Peru. However, it was the arrival of Itza and Kekchi Maya immigrants that kicked off the construction of large planned towns and much more sophisticated architecture. The Creek Indians essentially represent a blend of Muskogean traditions from NE Mexico, Mesoamerican traditions from southern Mexico, plus Panoan and Arawak traditions from NW South America.
Wouldn’t you love to have a time machine to go back to those days?
PS – This is why I will always have a warm spot in my heart for the Towns County, GA Sheriff’s Department. I spent my last night in North Carolina in a motel room in Hayesville, NC. Every couple of weeks I did that while on the long tenting expedition, just to clean up, eat at a restaurant, watch TV and get a good night’s sleep. However, the morning after in Hayesville, I woke up to see my room surrounded by the Clay County Sheriff’s Department SWAT squad. I have no clue why they felt the need to do that. I have nothing to hide about anything . . . perfect driving record . . . no criminal record . . . kept my hair cut . . . etc. I just ignored them. I left my room door open. Let the dogs out of the Explorer on leashes. Let the dogs pee on the grass in front of the stormtroopers, then asked them if they could move their cars out of the way so I could leave. They did. However, it was just typical of the experiences I had the whole six months that I was in the North Carolina Mountains. I kissed the ground when I cross the state line. The friendly Towns County, GA deputy in the convenience store, who gave me directions, is what all law enforcement officers should be like.
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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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