The Forgotten Garden Villages of the Blue Ridge Foothills
It was the dawn of permanent agricultural settlements in North America . . . 1000 BC – 300 BC
The year is 1939. With the blessing of the famous archaeologist, Arthur Kelly, young South Carolina archaeologist, Robert Wauchope, had been hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to conduct a comprehensive survey of all of North Georgia. He was to simultaneously become the first anthropology professor at the University of Georgia. It was an extraordinary project that on paper was presented as primarily a means to provide jobs for down-and-out cotton farmers, laid low by the boll weevil.
Wauchope had just graduated from Harvard University in 1938. Knowing very little about the rugged topography of North Georgia, Wauchope perused through a report by Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian Institute from the 1880s. Thomas, the chief archaeologist for the Smithsonian, and his cousin, John Rogan, had taken a leisurely buggy ride diagonally across the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They journeyed from Cartersville, the location of Etowah Mounds, past Long Swamp Creek Mounds through the Nacoochee Valley to the Tugaloo River at the South Carolina line. Thomas and Roga didn’t even realize that there were eight mounds on Tugaloo Island and so concentrated on two modest mounds at the river’s edge. Wauchope assumed that there couldn’t be much more to look at than the mounds on Thomas’s itinerary.
At the time, all respectable archaeologists in the United States believed that the first pottery, villages and mounds were in Ohio and the first permanent agriculture and towns were in Illinois near Cahokia. Boy was Mr. Wauchope in for a surprise.
In 1916, George Gustav Heye had completely excavated a mound in the Nacoochee Valley then written a short book about this project. He had put some trophy artifacts on display in his Museum of the American Indian, but most everyone assumed that the builders of this mound had been colonists sent out from Cahokia, as was obviously the case for Ocmulgee National Monument . . . NOT! Wauchope hoped to find the village where the people lived, who built the Nacoochee Mound. He thought it would be a good way to get indoctrinated into the Indian cultures of North Georgia. His approach was to go from door to door in the valley asking residents and owners of “summer homes,” if they had seen any Indian artifacts on their land.
Did they have any artifacts? Families, who lived on the land there since the Georgia Gold Rush had rooms full of artifacts . . . not just Indian artifacts, but European tools, ceramics and weapons that seemed to belong to the 16th and 17th centuries. Local folklore interpreted the ancient European artifacts as being debris left by the De Soto Expedition. President Roosevelt had just appointed a commission to determine the route of the De Soto Expedition, so it could be developed for automobile-based tourism. This commission, headed by John W. Swanton of the Smithsonian Institute, agreed. The Nacoochee Valley was one location for De Soto that the entire group agreed on.
Wauchope began digging. What he encountered was the density and depth of cultural detritus that one normally only finds in Europe, central Mexico and some parts of Peru. In the process, he accidentally discovered 35 Clovis points scattered about the valley . . . plus several thousand stone points from the centuries between the Ice Age and the 1700s. Mankind had always lived in the Nacoochee Valley.
Village sites filled the Nacoochee Valley. Many had been occupied at the same time, even those spaced a quarter mile to 100 yards apart. Wauchope was astonished to find that several of the village sites had been occupied almost continuously from the lowest occupation level, which contained Dunlap Fiber Marked pottery to highest level, which contained European artifacts typical of the late 1500s and 1600s. The villages containing Dunlap style pottery were permanent settlements, not hunting camps. They showed all the signs of year-round occupation. Wauchope searched the Nacoochee Valley for a year, but could find no Cherokee Indian village or even 18th century artifacts associated with the Cherokees in North Carolina.
Wauchope continued down the Chattahoochee River Valley. Small permanent villages with Dunlap style pottery could be found relatively closely spaced down the entire length of the white water section of the Chattahoochee River. Where there were sections of fierce rapids and water falls, the villages were almost contiguous. When the speed of the river slowed down, southwest of Atlanta, the early villages ceased to be closely spaced together. Wauchope ended his surveys of the Chattahoochee about 20 miles below Atlanta. He planned to cover the rest of North Georgia in 1940, but wanted to see if the other mountain rivers were also densely settled in the Early Woodland Period.
Wauchope never excavated a complete Early Woodland village because of the lack of time. These villages did not seem to be very large . . . probably containing from 50 to 200 residents, with houses clustered around oval or round plazas. More typically he dug a pattern of test pits or trenches then excavated a complete house. The houses were round and supported by central timber posts. The walls of the houses were framed with saplings. There was no evidence of wattle and daub (clay stucco) in the walls. The diameters of the houses typically ran between 12 and 18 feet. Wauchope speculated that they looked like Caddo Indian houses from the 1700s and 1800s. There appeared to be one or two larger round structures in each village, which had diameters of 24 to 32 feet. These were probably communal structures.
The young archaeologist had used up most of his allotted year in the Nacoochee Valley and Upper Chattahoochee River Valley below it. He jumped over to the headwaters of Etowah and Amicalola Rivers, where they gushed out of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He found the same pattern. Small permanent villages dotted the banks of the white water rivers from around 1000 BC to around 1700 AD. A few of the village or town sites, such as at Peachtree Creek and Utoy Creek, became Creek Indian towns in the 1700s and early 1800s.
When college classes began in Athens, Wauchope was forced to only survey other counties on weekends, when the weather was good. He had not finished his project in the allotted time, but no one seemed concerned, since the primary purpose of his project from the federal government’s perspective was putting hungry farmers and archaeologists to work. During the brief time that he was a professor at UGA, he created the state’s archaeological site index files, and placed all the sites he had visited in the files.
Apparently, Wauchope was not being paid very much for teaching and digging in Georgia. Instead of completing the surveys of other counties as required by his contract, Wauchope resigned his position at UGA in the summer of 1940 and accepted a job as Director of the Laboratory of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He carried the many thousands of artifacts obtained in Georgia with the full intent of studying them later. Then the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. The following year, Wauchope began service in the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. He served in the Mediterranean Theater of War. After World War II, Wauchope was hired by Tulane University, where he stayed for the rest of his career. At Tulane, he became known primarily for his archaeological work at Maya cities. While on my fellowship in Mexico, I met him briefly at ruins of a Maya city in Campeche State . . . not knowing that he had any connection to Georgia. He did not mention his time in Georgia, even though he knew I was a Georgia Tech student.
Robert Wauchope was only in Georgia for 18 months and was newly minted archaeologist, operating in a professional vacuum. He was the only anthropology professor in the state, while almost all of the archaeologists, who had worked at Ocmulgee National Monument, had moved elsewhere. Radiocarbon dating would be invented in 1947 and become a practical technology for dating in the early 1950s. The adoption of the labels . . . Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian and Historic would be adopted at a conference held at Harvard University in 1947.
The attitude among North American archeologists that Southern Indians were dumb and backward because Southern whites were dumb and backward would plague the profession unto this day. Until the late 1960s, Ocmulgee National Monument handed out a brochure to tourists, which stated that the Swift Creek Indians came to Ocmulgee from New England . . . the Master Farmers came to Ocmulgee from Cahokia and the Lamar Culture farmers came to Ocmulgee from the Upper Mississippi River Basin or Ohio Valley. That is why the model of the Ocmulgee “Earth Lodge” at the Ocmulgee museum shows Indians wearing Mohawk hair cuts.
It would be over 60 more years after Wauchope worked in Georgia, when the North American archaeologists generally accepted the radical notion that Southeastern Indians could have being cultivating indigenous plants thousands of years before they had access to corn and bean seeds. This was forced down their throats by forensic botanists. POOF readers will recall from an earlier article that Dr. Arthur Kelly was permanently ostracized by his professional peers in 1969 when he proposed this theory. Kelly was painted as a fool and an incompetent archaeologist. Thus, it is obvious that Wauchope never considered the possibility that the Woodland Period peoples in the villages he excavated were growing crops. In fact, he never even looked for seeds. Apparently, that was not something that archaeologists in the 1930s normally did.
Federal sponsorship for the excavation of Native American communities had forced his profession during the Depression to grow beyond being glorified grave robbers. It was the first time in the United States that large numbers of prehistoric Indian artifacts had become the property of federal government agencies. Always before trophy artifacts were sought out to reward the wealthy donors, who financed archaeological digs or museums. However, in 1939 there really was no conceptual framework for analyzing Muskogean town sites, because they were so different than the Indian villages in the Northeast and Midwest, where most of the degree granting anthropology departments were.
Wauchope left Georgia before writing a report or even an article in a professional journal on what he had found. My guess is that in 1939, he thought that the oldest Early Woodland village he found, dated from after 500 AD or later, since the orthodoxy was that Adena and Hopewell Cultures came before anything beyond primitive hunters in the Southeast. There is nothing in his book on his time in Georgia to suggest that he pondered the ethnological, ecological and technological implications of so many villages being so close together for 2,600 years. Apparently, because he assumed that his Woodland villages were newer than those in the Midwest, it didn’t dawn on him that he had made discoveries that could turn the anthropology books upside down.
In 1959 Wauchope returned to Georgia f0r the first time in a station wagon full of wife and kids. He openly admitted that he became lost several times because the landscape had changed so much in 20 years. Many of the sites he studied on the Chattahoochee and Etowah Rivers were now covered by US Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs. Some of the mounds had been destroyed.
Wauchope published Archaeological Survey of Northern Georgia in 1966. The book contains varying levels of details about the hundreds of sites that Wauchope visited, but much greater details, including drawings and photographs of the artifacts he excavated. It is an extremely valuable book for historic preservationists, but is absolutely not an anthropology book.
The dense pattern of archaeological sites that Wauchope discovered in the river valleys of the Blue Ridge Foothills are documented in Georgia’s archaeological site index, but clearly not part of the “world view” of the contemporary archaeologists. Most are left out of books published in the past 30 years. NONE of the archaeological sites visited and designated by Robert Wauchope in the Upper Chattahoochee River Valley have ever been studied again by other archaeologists. A local “water boy” told Wauchope about the massive Kenimer Mound as he was working on mounds in the flood plain below, but Wauchope didn’t believe him. The Nacoochee Mound had already been completely excavated in 1916.
Statements are made by the archaeologists in their books and professional papers, which indicated a general ignorance of his work. For example, a recent article in a professional journal stated that there were no mounds or Early Mississippian village sites upstream from the Long Swamp Creek site (9CK1) in Ball Ground, GA. In fact, Wauchope identified 11 Early Mississippian villages and four Early Mississippian mounds, upstream on the Etowah River and Long Swamp Creek. One of the mounds is still 40 feet tall.
A fresh look at the Early Woodland villages discovered by Robert Wauchope
In 2016, a client funded my study of all Native American archaeological sites on the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola Rivers. It was the first time that I had ever really studied Robert Wauchope’s book. Part of the professional services involved noting the location of these town and village sites on GIS satellite imagery and ERSI topographic maps. I am certain that this was the first time that anyone had studied all of the settlement sites on the Chattahoochee River at one time. This year I am doing the same thing along the Coosa-Etowah-Oostanaula-Coosawatee-Conasauga River Systems.
I looked at the dots signifying Early Woodland villages along the Upper Chattahoochee River, plus its major tributary creeks . . . and I looked again. This was impossible. There is no way that villages spaced every quarter mile to two miles apart could obtain enough food from this region by only fishing, hunting and gathering. Their location on shoals and water falls indicated a use of fish traps and harvesting mussels, but at such population densities, the fish and shellfish would have been long gone after over 2,000 years of human occupation. There was also no way that there would be enough deer and bear in the nearby woods to feed all these people. They could have all the chestnuts they wanted. Prior to the 1930s almost half of the trees here near the source of the Etowah River were chestnut trees . . . but that is not the balanced nutrition necessary for villages to thrive for many, many centuries.
Almost all these village sites are located on natural terraces gently sloping down to fertile bottom lands next to river shoals. Few villages were located where hills or cliffs came down next to the river banks. There would be only one reason to be near both shoals and broad bottomlands . . . agriculture.
Then there is the issue of mounds. The construction of mounds suggest that the population was sedentary much of the year and politically organized. If one is having to go long distances into the woods to hunt and gather foods, there is less time to make pottery and build mounds.
If someone had suggested twenty years ago that permanent villages in the Upper Piedmont subsisted partially on vegetable gardens during the Early Woodland Period, they would have been laughed out of the auditorium. That’s almost as funny as saying that Itsate Creeks were related to Itsate (Itza) Mayas. However, botanists have proven without a doubt that indigenous peoples within the interior of the Southeast began domesticating and cultivating indigenous plants at least as early as 3,500 BC. So by 1000 BC they would have had 2,500 years to polish their gardening skills. Maybe our indigenous ancestors were not so dumb as some museums would have you believe.
In the meantime, it seems the only way that we are going to get the ball rolling again in the quest to answer, “Who are we?” . . . is to join forces with economic development agencies and community associations to promote Native American heritage tourism. Living history museums that contain indigenous villages from different cultural periods could be a major tourist draw and also a cool place to shoot movies.
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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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