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The Lower Cherokees . . . Who were they really? – Part One

The Lower Cherokees . . . Who were they really?  – Part One


Even today there are three Cherokee dialects.  Once there were at least 14 languages and dialects spoken in the Cherokee Tribe.  Some of the languages were mutually unintelligible.

The Lower Cherokees originally were an alliance of eight small villages located along the tributaries of the Savannah River in extreme northwestern South Carolina. It is very difficult to find factual information on them in immediately accessible sources, because late 20th century and 21st century pseudo-historians greatly altered the words and interpretation of events so they would be compatible with the “New Cherokee History”. . . the religious belief that the Cherokee People had lived in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, northern South Carolina and northern Georgia for “10,000 years.”   

Indeed, many maps available on the web show the Cherokees traditionally occupying all of northern South Carolina since the Ice Age . . . most of which was the location of the Catawba Alliance.  Needless to say, the Catawba Nation, which is South Carolina’s only federally recognized Native American tribe, is quite upset about this distortion of Catawba History. Catawba scholars are one of the few sources within South Carolina, where one can obtain untainted eyewitness historical accounts. 

This map is not quite accurate. The Hillabee Creeks came from the Pee Dee River Valley.

It is really odd how articles about the Lower Cherokees totally dominate any discussion of the Native American history of South Carolina. Their lands covered about 3% of the state and all archaeological studies in that territory identified the burning of large towns with mounds in the late 1600s up to 1700 . . . followed by occupants with cultural characteristics, typical of the Cherokees.  The territories of the Cusabo and Creek tribes vastly exceeded those of the Cherokees, yet they are rarely mentioned.  The Catawbas hardly get any more coverage even though they are the only federally-recognized tribe in the state.   There were many advanced indigenous tribes throughout South Carolina associated with important archaeological sites, who are not even mentioned.

Until I was retained to do a small research job for the lady in Greenville, SC, I had never given much thought to the Lower Cherokees, since attending a conference on Early Cherokee History in 2006.  As an Architect-Planner, my main focus has always been the study of the physical manifestations of indigenous culture at a macro-scale.  I got into linguistics 14 years ago, because it was the only way that I could research the stark contrasts from what my research was revealing and that, which are taught by anthropology professors as orthodox facts.

What triggered this interest in linguistics was my realization that the houses at Etowah Mounds during the first phase of occupation were identical to traditional Totonac houses in the northern part of Vera Cruz State, Mexico.  When I looked up the word for house in a Totonac dictionary, I was shocked to learn that the word for house in Totonac and Itza Maya was the same exact word, used for house by the Itsate Creeks, Florida Creeks and the Miccosukee . . . chiki.  The Muskogee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Alabama word for house, choko, is the Itza Maya word for “warm.”   I eventually was able to link most of the Itsate and Miccosukee words associated with agriculture, architecture, town planning, political offices, trade and writing to the Itza Maya language.

If, in the past, a million+ anthropologists, historians, linguists and even Creek Historic Preservation officials had missed this important connection to Mesoamerica, what else had they missed?

So . . . if your Native American ancestors moved from South Carolina to Georgia or Alabama, as you can see in the map above, the chances are very high that they were originally Creeks, Cusabos or Siouans.  The Sokee joined the Cusabo Alliance and the Cusabo eventually moved to the Lower Chattahoochee River to join the Creek Confederacy,   Actually, Catawba immigrants formed a tribal town in the Creek Confederacy that settled on the Chattahoochee River, also. So did the Savano (Southern Shawnee) and the Westo.  South Carolina planters hated the Creeks because they gave sanctuary to runaway Native American and African slaves.  Thus, there are many examples of Creeks and Cusabos calling themselves Cherokee to avoid persecution in South Carolina.

South Carolina anthropologists have committed some boo-boos, though.   Pee Dee is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek word, vehete, which means “archers.”   The capital of the Vehete was named Ilape.  Both Vehete and Ilape are mentioned in the chronicles of the Captain Juan Pardo Expedition.   The word, Ilape, evolved both into the current names of the Hillabee Creeks and the Alapaha River.  Also, Santee is a Panoan word, not Siouan, and is used interchangeably with Sati.  The Santee originated in Satipo Province, Peru. 

Cherokee history that you rarely hear

One of my first clients after receiving a Masters degree in urban planning was the Qualla Housing Authority on the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation.  At the time, tourists visiting the reservation were given brochures, which stated that the Cherokees arrived in the North Carolina Mountains only a short time before Europeans.  “They found the region almost uninhabited and the mounds abandoned. Their first village was where the Qualla Reservation is today and the Cherokees have lived there ever since.  Cherokees did not build any of the mounds, but built their townhouses upon them.”   There was no mention of there being multiple Cherokee languages or multiple Cherokee traditions.

Of course, I now know that even this version of Cherokee history is more accurate than the official version today, but is still off base.  According to “The History of the Cherokee People” by Principal Chief Charles Hicks [1826], the Cherokees arrived at the edge of the North Carolina Mountains about the same time that the English arrived in the Southeast. Their first town was Big Tellico at the confluence of what is now called the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers.  Cherokee scouts discovered that the “mound builders” living in the North Carolina Mountains had been greatly weakened by plagues. One by one the Cherokees attacked these towns.  They either killed or drove off the “mound builders” then burned their temples on top of the mounds.  Cherokee townhouses were then placed on top of the mounds.

Charles R. Hicks was the 1/4th or 1/8th Cherokee son of a Scottish trader at Tamatli, in the Andrews Valley northeast of present day Murphy.  He owned one of the largest personal libraries in the United States!  He was a brilliant man, yet even he did not know that Tamatli was a division of the Creek Confederacy, based in southeast Georgia.  Actually, it is a pure Northern Chontal Maya word meaning “Trade – Place of.”   Yes, that is the same “tli” suffix that you see at the end of many Aztec words.

A big surprise from the University of Tennessee

Just before attending this conference, I had been elevated from vice president to acting-president of the Georgia Trail of Tears Association, because the president had been diagnosed with brain cancer.  Only a few months before, he had replaced the previous TOTA  president, William Rogers (a citizen of the Cherokee Nation) who had died in a strange one car accident in downtown Riverdale, GA.  The police conjectured that he had become unconscious after sneezing in 20 mph traffic.  At the time, I knew less than 5% of what I know now about Southeastern Native American history.  Guess, that made me “safe” because I was still somewhat an ignoramus.

The most interesting presentation was by a team of professors in anthropology, history and linguistics from the University of Tennessee.  They stated that until the mid-1720s, what was to become the Cherokee Tribe were numerous tribes in a loose alliance that stretched across the Southern Highlands.  They spoke several different languages and dialects even within Tennessee.  The archaeologist stated that he had found significant evidence that the main body of “Cherokees” in northeastern Tennessee were originally entirely different ethnic groups in the 1600s.  He found that the pottery and art that they created did not become similar until around 1700.  His team could find no direct connection, artistically, between the Mississippian (Muskogean) peoples on the Little Tennessee River and the historic period Cherokees.

Colonel George Chicken’s visit to the Cherokees in 1725 encouraged them to strengthen central authority over the individual bands and towns.   Sir Alexander Cuming’s visit in 1730 persuaded the Cherokees to recognize an “emperor” or principal chief for a single tribe.  He met with delegates from most or all of the divisions of the Cherokees at Noquasee to create a real tribe. Several interpreters were required so that the delegates could understand each other.  (The word Nikwasi was never used in 18th century documents.)

A history professor quoted the research of archaeologist John Worth, who had formerly worked for the Coosawattee Foundation in Northwest Georgia.  Worth had investigated the Native American slave trade and discovered that the bands of the future Cherokees were the ”major players in the Native American slave trade” from around 1690 onward.  Throughout the first half of the 18th century, the colonies of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina issued distinct branding irons for marking their slaves to 14 separate divisions of the Cherokees, so that they could get proper payment at coastal slave markets.  This suggests that these 14 divisions were considered separate tribal and economic units. 

The other history professor then stated that she strongly suspected that the original reason for these small tribes forming an alliance was as a defense against slave raids by the Iroquois and Rickohockens down into the Southeast or perhaps the chaos created by many small tribes constantly raiding each other to obtain slaves to sell to British slave traders. 

I stood up and told her that I had formerly lived in Virginia and been Chairman of our city’s historic preservation commission.  The Virginia state history text for over two centuries has always said that the Rickohockens were the original Cherokees. According to Virginia historians, the Rickohockens changed their name to Cherokees, because they were so hated by whites on the Virginia frontier and had formed an alliance with some other tribes. She responded that she had never heard that before.

The questions from the audience then tended to dwell on the Native American slave trade.  One professor, I believe from Kentucky, stated that it was well-documented that the Cherokees raided other tribes as far west as the Mississippi River, as far north as the Great Lakes and as far south as southern Florida.  “Were these raids actually slave raids to obtain captives for slave markets in the Carolinas and Virginia?” 

The professor added that most sources never explained why the Cherokees were going such long distances to wage war on small tribes.  It seemed illogical that they were going to Lake Erie to hunt for deer skins. 

The male history professor said, “Yes, these were obviously slave raids.”   He added that other tribes in the Southeast are known to have conducted slave raids.  The Lower Creeks and Yamasee had virtually destroyed the mission system of Florida.  However, geographically and numbers-wise, the other tribes’ activities were not on the scale of the Cherokees.

One could see grimaces on the faces of the officials at the conference from the Eastern Band of Cherokees during the first part of this presentation.  Discussions of the Cherokees not really being a single ethnic group smacked right at their new claim of being in North Carolina for 10,000 years.  I sensed that they were thinking, “Well these SOB’s won’t ever get a penny of our casino money again!”  Someone came up to the moderator and handed him a note.  He then ended the first phase of the UT presentation with the claim that they were running short of time.

The linguistics professors then spoke about their project, being funded by some private foundation (whose name I have forgotten), Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Eastern Band of Cherokees.  It was an academic effort to recreate the lost “Cherokee dialects” of the Valley Cherokees and Lower Cherokees.  Until that conference, I did not realize that there are, even today, three Cherokee dialects.  Even the Cherokee scholars admitted that there were once two other Cherokee languages, Valley Cherokee and Lower Cherokee, which are now considered extinct.

The two professors first described the differences in the three dialects of Cherokee.  This was interesting to me, but probably the Cherokees and wannabe Cherokees in the audience already knew this information. 

When they got around to what they had been paid to research, the two ladies began going around in circles . . . quoting history and past studies in detail, but never actually discussing what they had been paid to research . . . namely the Valley Cherokee and Lower Cherokee equivalents of contemporary Cherokee words.

In the final section of their presentation, the professors listed all the “Cherokee” town names and political titles recorded by the chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition, while the conquistadors were in South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.   They then listed all of the ancient divisions of the Cherokee People, such as Etowah, Chiaha, Oconee, Chauga, Tuskegee, Tallulah, Tugaloo, Tanasi, Tamatly, Tamasee, Oconee, Nikwasee, Naguchee, Oconaluftee, etc. which they had been unable to translate.

Geez!   These are all Creek words . . . several were actual tribal towns of the Creek Confederacy.”  I stood up and told the audience that.  I asked the professors, why they just didn’t go out and spend $28 for a Creek dictionary?

You could have heard a pin drop.   Grimaces were followed by “the cat who ate the bird” smiles.  Who is this crazy person?   Everyone knows that Chiaha and Tuskegee are ancient Cherokee words.

The startled professors didn’t respond directly to my question.  They then took authoritative postures and recounted all their years of education that made them experts on the subject and that I was not qualified to comment on their research.

After that conference, things got really strange at TOTA.   Three months in a row, black SUV’s and pickups with North Carolina tags tried to run me off the road, while I was driving to preside at TOTA meetings.  Then the night before the September meeting in Cumming, someone, somehow fried the electrical system and motors in my Explorer, while it was parked in front of my house.   It would have cost much more to replace the wiring and motors in the car than it was worth.  I had to buy a new car.  Bye-bye TOTA.


In Part Two,  the People of One Fire will go systematically through the colonial archives, which describe the observations of Europeans, who passed through northwestern South Carolina.   Some of these stories, you will be familiar with . . . but not the actual facts.  During the past three decades, Southeastern academicians edited these accounts by redacting certain ethnic groups and substituting words.  Other accounts have never made it into the majority of history texts.  What they tell us conflicts with the orthodox history of the Southeast.

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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.



    While we’re on the subject, I’m unable to get the star rating function to work on your site. I’d have left a lot of five star reviews if it had.

    • Hey Jesse,

      I am just the editor and have no control over the website. The webmaster and operator of the server computer are in two other states, several hundred miles from me. I will pass on that information to the webmaster. In the meantime, you can just add a comment each time stating “Five Stars!”.


    Richard, The university folks still have a ways to go to catch up to your knowledge. Do you think that the Catawba (Issa) people were related to the Itza? I think the ancient Kingdoms of Central America / Mexico had set Farming, mining colonies in the South based on the word meanings of some of these locations you have decoded. Keep up the Great work!!!

    • Mark, did you read my report to the client in Greenville? The real Catawba, actually Katawpa in Creek, were an Itsate (descended from Itza Mayas) who occupied the region between Atlanta and Gainesville, GA. Their name means “Place of the Crown” in Itza. They established a colony in South Carolina in which the commoners were Siouans. About 99% of the Catawba were dead by the mid-1700s. There were little more than about 100 left alive. Those few survivors were Siouan Commoners, who did have some Itza words in their language. All Catawbas today are descended from that small group of survivors.

      You can see the word Kataapa on mid-18th century maps – located where North Metro Atlanta is today.


    Richard, this is not the main subject of your post but it was mentioned. It is concerning the Native American slave trade. The book “On the Rim of the Caribbean” by Paul M Pressly researches colonial Georgia. He discussed and documented several reasons behind why so many Native Americans were captured and enslaved. Some of the reasons why Native American captured by other Natives was for rum. Officially Native American were not allowed to be sold rum but tens of thousands of gallons of rum was illegally traded for captured slaves. Native American slaves were not as valueable as African slaves (4 to 1 ) and were shipped off to work sugar plantations in the Caribbean. I read that a plantation commented that it was cheaper to replace an Indian slave than to feed them. Untold thousands were send to their death.

    By the way this book has a bibliography that is 33 pages long and I can find only one mention of Cherokee, and they were located in northern part of NC. There are 100’s of references to Creek and other Tribes.

    Keep the discussion going, the truth will win in the end. Thank you for all your hard work.

    • Ed, I have never heard about the rum trade. It makes sense, but has been completely kept out of the history textbooks that the kids have to read.


    One question: do you have any more info on those deer herding people that , I think , pardo encountered ?

    And we have a similar problem here where I live. The creek words for ” Creek ” and ” river ” are totally different than the Choctaw ones , yet we are told that ” okaloosa”, ” Escambia ” etc. are Choctaw words. Mobile county , AL has Choctaw words for rivers ( chickasabogue, being one) yet no where east of the Alabama river has any Choctaw names. I think Escambia comes from the name of the first Spanish mission on the chattahoochee , which was mission d’s escambe , which was moved to the location they just found north of Molino , Florida. I read on your site , I think , where a tribe from southern Florida called themselves the ” escampe” ( or similar ) , and know that the Spanish named their missions after the tribes.

    • You’re right. The Chatot lived in the Florida Panhandle. They were Muskogeans, but not Choctaw, even though the words are similar.


    Richard, a statement made by the elders of the Muscogee Creeks to Mr. Bartram (1775): “On the east banks of the Oakmulge, this trading road runs nearly two miles through ancient Indian fields, which are called the Oakmulge fields: they are the rich low lands of the river. On the heights of these low grounds are yet visible monuments, or traces, of an ancient town, such as artificial mounts or terraces, squares and banks, encircling considerable areas. Their old fields and planting land extend up and down the river, fifteen or twenty miles from this site.
    AND, if we are to give credit to the account the Creeks give of themselves, this place is remarkable for being the first town or settlement, when they sat down (as they term it) or established themselves, after their emigration from the west, beyond the Missisippi, their original native country. On this long journey they suffered great and innumerable difficulties, encountering and vanquishing numerous and valiant tribes of Indians, who opposed and retarded their march. Having crossed the river, still pushing eastward, they were obliged to make a stand, and fortify themselves in this place, as their only remaining hope, being to the last degree persecuted and weakened by their surrounding foes. Having formed for themselves this retreat, and driven off the inhabitants by degrees, they recovered their spirits, and again faced their enemies, when they came off victorious in a memorable and decisive battle. They afterwards gradually subdued their surrounding enemies, strengthening themselves by taking into confederacy the vanquished tribes and they say, also, that about this period the English were establishing the colony of Carolina, and the Creeks, understanding that they were a powerful, warlike people, sent deputies to Charleston, their capital, offering them their friendship and alliance, which was accepted, and, in consequence thereof, a treaty took place between them, which has remained inviolable to this day: they never ceased war against the numerous and potent bands of Indians, who then surrounded and cramped the English plantations, as the Savannas, Ogeeches, Wapoos, Santees, Yamasees, Utinas, Icosans, Paticas, and others, until they had extirpated them. The Yamasees and their adherents sheltering themselves under the power and protection of the Spaniards”

    Who was responsible for the mostly depopulated areas of Georgia and Northern Florida supported by European factors of that time period? The Mitchell map of 1750 seems to report that information. The Apalachi peoples of 1650 were clearly already using some European words ( Melilot, Bemarin, Amana) perhaps brought by the Armenians, Dutch during that time period and were still in control of a large area of Georgia, Alabama, Tenn., Eastern N.C. The Cherokee were not even a unified people until around the early 1700’s, just small tribes of people around the Southern mountains that had survived.

    • Actually, the 1701-1706 maps of North American by De Lisle label western North Carolina “Land of the Shawnee” but also show Creek towns along the Little Tennessee River. So the tribes who made up the Cherokees were not from western North Carolina.


    I must be getting old. I can remember when everyone knew that Etowah derived from Italwa, and didn’t need to find a Cherokee root for the word.

    • Brian, I guess it is the anthropology professors, who are getting old. It is very weird, dealing with academicians in North Carolina these days.

  7. Glenn Drummond was unable to post his comment so I am posting it for him. His discussion of the cattle plagues are very interesting. This explains why Georgia’s bison population was suddenly wiped out in the early 1750s. It was concentrated in NE Georgia. One can still see a few “buffalo wallows” in that region.

    “The professor added that most sources never explained why the Cherokees were going such long distances to wage war on small tribes. It seemed illogical that they were going to Lake Erie to hunt for deer skins.”

    From this statement I can deduce that the good professor possessed, at best, a very shallow understanding of life in the Creek Nation, and probably the Cherokee Nation as well. I base the following comment on research I accomplished fifteen to five years ago regarding the Tallapoosa River Creeks’ participation in southeastern deerskin trade with English agents in Charles Town and Savannah.

    I feel certain that you know the story of the European cattle plague of the seventeenth century and much of the eighteenth century. However, since this event has been vastly under studied by our “professional” colleagues, I will hit the high spots of the event for the benefit of POOF readers.

    This scourge swept into into southwestern Europe, beginning in the early 1600’s, in about 15-year cycles, and quickly spread northward until essentially all of western Europe was affected. Fortunately, there was never a bovine/human connection of this plague; however, the massive deaths of cattle (including oxen) was a severe blow to milk, meat, and hide supplies. While the European population was able to cope with diminishing supplies of milk and meat, the European leather industry was in dire straits. England was the source of most of the processed leather goods at the time the plague began to have a serious affect on the industry. The English became aware of great abundance of deer skins utilized by the North American Native Americans, especially those living in the southeast.

    The Charles Town traders quickly realized the opportunity presented to them by the English demand for raw skins. The supply available from the Carolinas and Georgia was soon exhausted necessitating the Carolina traders to begin sending individuals and teams of “long hunters” into west Georgia, east Tennessee, and Alabama to tap those resources. At first, the Creeks received trade goods for skins delivered at Charles Town. Once the Creeks began delivering skins taken further to the west, it became obvious that they could not satisfy the demand by backpacking them from the Tallapoosa towns and that the time required resulted in excessive spoiling of the skins. This caused the Charles Town traders to initiate caravans of pack horses to the Creek towns as well as insist on pre-processed the skins. Where the backpacking of raw skins was done by the younger females of the Creek towns, this change in plan required that the majority of the Creek females become involved in the processing of skins while the men extended their hunting ranges.

    Eventually the deer populations of the mid-south began to be exhausted requiring the hunters to range further west and northwest of keep up with the demand. Soon it became necessary for the women to follow the men in order to process the skins at or near the places of kill rather than have the men stop hunting in order to carry the skins back to the towns.

    By the early 1700’s, the hunters and processors were ranging all the way into areas now known as Arkansas, western Kentucky, and Missouri. Note that some skins taken by Choctaw and Chickasaw hunters, perhaps others as well,were delivered to Mobile and Pensacola at this time. Although much closer to port facilities than those at Charles Town and Savannah, the English found it “inconvenient” to trade there so it was still necessary to carry the processed skins eastward.

    While the literature makes it known that the Cherokees and others were supplying the Charles Town traders with skins, I have found it difficult to develop an understanding of the magnitude of this influx from the north. The problem is the unreliability of library resources available to me without extensive travel.

    With all of the above said, I find it short-sighted to say that the Cherokees, or others, would have found it infeasible to extend their hunting range well north of the Ohio River. On the other hand, perhaps she was totally unaware of the European cattle plague event and its demand on North American resources as a substitute for their leather goods?


    Why is there a continued attempt to eradicate and commit genocide to the Chickamauga?
    With the exception of one group, we thought that the writers of POOF were friends of the Chickamauga,
    The “so called” “Lower Cherokee” were Chickamauga.
    The “lower villages” were Chickamauga.

    • The South Carolina Cherokees were always called Lower Cherokees until they no longer existed. After Cherokee territory shifted westward and southward, the term was used for those Cherokees associated with Pathkiller in what was then Georgia, but in a couple of decades became NE Alabama.

      Until 1785, NE Alabama and the section of NW Georgia north of the Coosawattee River was Chickasaw Territory. Chickamauga is a Chickasaw word. James Adair’s wife was a half-Chickasaw/half Jewish lass from that region. In 1777, Cherokees who refused to abide by the treaty between the Continental Congress and Cherokee Tribe were expelled. More and more took refuge in villages near the Chickasaw village of Chickamauga to the point that they vastly outnumbered the Chickasaw. The Cherokees living in that region, who were hostiles, were often called Chickamaugas.

    • Chalaki and chiliki are the Totonac and Creek words for barbarians. They were most likely a primitive people from Florida or Cuba, who lived off of sweet potatoes – such as the Guanahatabeyes or Ciboneys. There were definitely Ciboneys in Georgia.



        Need to update the “Cheraqui” name appearing on a map timeline. This one is solid at 1687. Sorry about the previous reference of 1718.

        Perhaps just an Algonquin speaking tribe possibly displaced by the Iroquois. But perhaps something much much older involved with control over those passes. More to come…

        • Nope, that is a exact copy of Guiluame De L’Isle’s 1717 map of North America. I have extensive map collection that is a result of donations from members through the years. De L’Isle’s map was the first one to mention the Cherokees.


            Yup… I stand corrected. 1720.

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