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The Otto Mound . . . an ancient Uchee and Itzate trading center in the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Otto Mound . . . an ancient Uchee and Itzate trading center in the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

This was also the site of the Cherokee village, Echoe, in the 1700s.  It was visited by William Bartram.

GPS Coordinates:    Latitude 35°02’37″N ~ Longitude – 83°22’55″W

Geographical Location: The town site is located to the east of US Hwy. 441 and immediately north of a bend in the Little Tennessee River.  The farm tract is on the south side of Joe Bradley Road.

Etymology: Creek Itcha-e then Cherokee Echoee, or Echoe  . . . These are the Anglicizations of the Cherokee-nization of the Itzate word, Itza-E, which means Itza (Maya) – Principal.   The E prefix or suffix was added to ethnic names by the Itza Mayas and Creeks to signify at district or provincial capital.

This little known, privately owned, archaeological zone has an ancient history.  It was probably a seasonal camp site in the Archaic Period (6,000 BC-1000 BC) then became a key node on the regional trade route between the South Atlantic Coast and the Tennessee Valley.  In the late 1980s, an archaeologists with the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office spent part of a day on the site. While digging test pits, she found what appeared to be Hopewell Culture potsherds mixed in with typical Muskogean potsherds of the region.  The town was on an important trade route that ran from Taube Island (Itza Maya and Itsate Creek for salt = Tybee Island, GA) up the Savannah River to the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River and then the Tennessee River Valley.  Obviously, a trade path continued northward to the Ohio Valley.

 

In 2003, I discovered the Otto Mound the good ole fashion way . . . triangulation of polar coordinates on a GIS map.  While I was working on the design of a county history museum, the Hancock County, GA County Commissioners had asked me to apply virtual reality architectural rendering software to the Shoulderbone Mounds Complex and also study this town site to see if it was connected to other proto-Creek towns.  If so, they wanted to build a copy of the largest mound in a county park in Sparta, the county seat.

The commissioners wanted to sponsor a Green Corn Festival at this park in order to “bring black and white residents together.”   You see . . . about 75% of the African American and Caucasian students at Hancock County High School had Creek knots on the backs of their heads.  Most residents openly acknowledged their partial Creek ancestry.  The commissioners wisely sought to stress the common bond of Creek Indian identity to overcome long time socio-economic friction.

The largest mound at Shoulderbone was five-sided.  Out of curiosity, I plotted other known mound sites in eastern Georgia and western North Carolina.  I was shocked to see a line of mounds running northward from the Sun Priestess Temple on Billy’s Island in the Okefenokee Swamp through the Shoulderbone Mounds to a (now destroyed) large five sided mound on the Oconaluftee River in the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation. 

At the same time, I was voluntarily working on a site plan for Ocmulgee National Monument.  Within an hour after started on the project, I realized that all the Mississippian Period mounds along a 12 mile corridor of the Ocmulgee River were précised aligned to a triangular matrix.  It hypotenuses were the angle of the Winter Solstice Sunset azimuth.  Its legs were true North-South and true East-West lines.

Again, out of curiosity, I extended the alignment of the large five-side mound at Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark northeastward.  This alignment matches the azimuth of the Winter Solstice Sunset.  The North-South line of the proto-Creek towns in eastern Georgia intersected the azimuth line from Etowah Mounds, slightly north of the Georgia-North Carolina state line in Otto, NC. 

The following weekend, I drove up to Otto and asked personnel at local shops if there was an Indian mound in Otto.  Most people only knew of the Nikasee Mound in nearby Franklin, NC, but one lady told me that there was an Indian mound on the road where she lived.  Sure enough, there was the mound in a pasture in back of a farm house.

At that time, the Otto Mound was named on a list of Native American mounds in North Carolina, which was part of the website maintained by the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office.  It was described as one of the oldest Cherokee Sacred Heritage Sites and the location of Echoe, which was visited by William Bartram.  That citation contained a link to a brief report by a female archaeologist, based at the Western District Office of the NC Department of Natural Resources in Asheville. 

The archaeologist had obtained permission from the property owner to dig small test pits.  She went down to the Middle Woodland Period artifacts and stopped.  Being located in a flood plain, the archaeological record would have gone much deeper because of periodic coverage of strata by flood sediments. At any rate, she found that most of the artifacts were typical of North Georgia, but labeled them proto-Cherokee because they were two miles inside North Carolina. She also found some potsherds, made from a very different clay that she interpreted as being Hopewell pottery from Ohio.  The other potsherds were primarily Cartersville, Swift Creek, Etowah I, Savannah and Lamar Culture potsherds . . . the Mississippian Period potsherds were typical of Etowah Mounds. There was a narrow band of sterile soil on top of which were mixed indigenous and European artifacts, which she labeled Quala Period Cherokee.    

Intrigued, the next week I looked at the site with satellite and near visible light infrared imagery.  I was shocked to see multiple mounds plus a raised rectangular plaza next to the largest mound, which was five-side.  The plaza and five-sided mound were aligned to the Winter Solstice Sunset and a mirror image of their counterparts at Etowah Mounds.   The Native town around the Otto Mound was much older than the Etowah Mounds town.  Could it be that people from Itsate Gap founded Etula (Etowah Mounds) or at least the second phase of Etula, when the giant five sided mound was built?  

Sure enough, farther north in Otto was another mound, called the Coweeta Mound.  It was at the confluence of Coweeta Creek and the Little Tennessee River.  It dated from the Late Mississippian Period and Early Colonial Period.  North of Franklin, NC is the Cowee Mound.  In North Carolina Cowee and Coweeta are defined as “ancient Cherokee words whose meanings have been lost.”  Outside of North Carolina, they are translated as the Itsate Creek words for Mountain Lion and Mountain Lion People.  Koweta is the Muskogee-Creek equivalent of the Itsate Creek word, Kowete. 

Satellite image of the Otto Mound town site . . .  other site features such as burial mounds and plazas are not visible.

 

The graytone Near Visible Light Infrared image revealed many more sub-surface archaeological features.

 

This Site Plan was based on the Near Visible Light Infrared image.

 

Who lived here originally?

The Koweta Creeks have always claimed the Headwaters of the Little Tennessee River as their original homeland.  The presence of the Cowee and Coweeta Mounds affirms that tradition.  Kowe means “Mountain Lion” in Itsate Creek, while Kowete means Mountain Lion People and Koweta is the Muscogee Creek version of the word.   However, linguistic, cartographic and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that several other indigenous peoples also lived in the region before the Cherokees.

Itza and Creek place names near Little Tennessee River.

Without a comprehensive archaeological investigation  . . . free of political manipulations like we have seen in recent decades . . . interpretation of this important town site remains somewhat in the realm of speculation.  It is known that Uchee trading villages (aka the Deptford Culture) spread outward from Savannah in the Early Woodland Period (1200 BC-0 AD in Georgia) to create a trade network to cover Georgia, northern Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, parts of North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee.   The Deptford Culture map in Wikipedia is absolutely wrong.   Archaeologist Robert Wauchope found Deptford villages and large Deptford mounds throughout the Southern Appalachians.   Since the Otto Mound site is on the main Salt Trade Route from Savannah, it is highly probable that Uchee traders first established a village here and it evolved into the Uchee Bear Clan.   To the north in Franklin, NC is the Nikasee Mound which was labeled Nakosee in 1721 . . . obviously derived from the Creek word for bear,  Nokose.

The first maps to provide the names of individual villages in the Southern Highlands was drawn by Colonel John Barnwell in 1721.   All of the village names along the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River are derived from either Itza Maya or Creek words.  Most of the villages had Etcha or Itcha  (Itza) as their root.   However, the next map of the region, produced after the official formation of the Cherokee tribe in 1725, had only a couple village names with Itza as their root.  This suggests that these people elected not to join the Cherokee Tribe and instead moved farther south into Creek territory.

The presence of many former Itza colonist village makes sense.  In southern Mesoamerica, the Itza, Kekchi and Chontal Mayas typically located their trading villages in mountain passes or at points where major trade routes crossed mountain rivers . . .  particularly river shoals.  Etowah Mounds,  Ocmulgee Mounds and the Nacoochee Valley mounds are located where major trade routes crossed mountain rivers.  Copal (the Track Rock Terrace Complex) is located in a mountain gap through which passed the  Nene Hatke Mako (The Great White Path).

Nevertheless,  as is discussed in another article, the Nikasee Mound in Franklin, NC is a unique style of mound rarely see other than in the Irene Island Mounds Complex, north of Downtown Savannah.   The Late Mississippian, Coweeta Mound village, farther north in Otto, contains the style mound and houses, built by the Kaushete Creeks from the Tennessee Valley.   The Kaushete Migration Legend (aka Creek Migration Legend) recalls that the Kaushete swept eastward up the Talasee (Little Tennessee) River because of a horrific drought in the Tennessee River Valley. 

Then east of Franklin, NC is Tanasee Creek, which gave the Tennessee River and state its name.  Tanasi is the Anglicization of the Itsate ethnic name, Taenasi, which means “Descendants of the Taino Arawaks.  Thus, evidently there were also Caribbean immigrants in the region.   We can safely assume that the indigenous inhabitants of the Little Tennessee River Headwaters represented several ethnic groups, who assimilated over the years.

The presence of Maya and Muskogean village names among the later Cherokee villages can be easily explained.  When Cherokee slave raiders attacked a village of another people, they killed all the adult males, older adult females and toddlers too young to walk to the slave markets on the Carolina or Virginia coast.  Most youth and young mothers were bound and marched to the slave markets.  However,  some teenage girls were kept as slaves (sikuya), concubines and wives. Some, especially strong, young boys were adopted to replace lost warriors.  The teenage girls were just learning how to make pottery.  That is why early 18th century Qualla style pottery looks like what someone in a beginners ceramics class would produce when trying to imitate Lamar Style pottery.  The men built the houses, so we suddenly see small, round Cherokee houses replacing much larger, multi-roomed, rectangular Muskogean houses.  Sequoyah took one of the names of his mother, Siquoya, so he wouldn’t have to use an English name.  He probably didn’t know that Siquoya meant “war captive or slave” in Creek!

Back to the present

Around 2008, the information about the Otto Mound was removed from the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Division website.  It is not mentioned in any current document, published by the State of North Carolina . . . neither is the Tallulah Mound in Graham County, NC, which is the best preserved mound in the state.   I know, however, that the Otto Mound was not a figment of my imagination.  It is listed as a Cherokee Sacred Heritage Site in a book, published by the University of North Carolina Press, Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook.   

Since the documentation of the Otto Mound is no longer published, this past week, in preparation for writing a report for a client and this article, I contacted the Western District Office of the NC State Historic Preservation  Division to obtain its correct archaeological site number and a copy of the report prepared by this office on the Otto Mound.   I provided them the GPS coordinates and street address.

State Historic Preservation Offices in Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina maintain a digitized registry of all historic and prehistoric sites, which are available online.  In Georgia, however, the staff at the Laboratory of Archaeology at the University of Georgia, recently redacted all locational information for Native American sites . . . nevertheless, the archaeological site numbers are still listed. 

Apparently, North Carolina has not gotten around to doing this.  The archeologist at the Western District Office emailed back that she could not find the archaeological site number or the report that she wrote on the Otto Mound Site.

This is exactly why, over the past six years, that a private client has funded my detailed analyses of Native American sites in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, southeastern Tennessee and now western North Carolina.  Far too many Indigenous Heritage Sites have been destroyed in recent decades because archaeologists were so secretive about them that even THEY forgot that these precious vestiges from the past existed.  

 

Please remember that this archaeological zone is on privately owned land, which includes a family home and working farm.  Do not trespass on their property or disturb this family in any way.   The mound is easily viewed from a public-right-of-way. 

 

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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.

10 Comments

  1. jacnrg@aol.com'

    Richard,

    We appreciate your continued illumination of our Creek history. My mother was from Sparta in Hancock County, and I would love for you to point me in the direction of any indian sites there.

    God Bless!

    EagleLittle

    Reply
    • One of Georgia’s largest mound complexes is Shoulderbone Mounds. The Shoulderbone Mounds Site is just north of Whitten Creek, a small tributary of Shoulderbone Creek. Whitten Creek has also been called Little Shoulderbone Creek in the past and the site itself has been called Little Shoulderbone in some accounts. Shoulderbone Creek enters the eastern side of the Oconee River near the head of present day Lake Sinclair, also in Hancock County. The famous 1786 “Treaty of Shoulderbone,” which ceded all the lands east of the Oconee River to the state of Georgia, was signed by Creek Indians near the mouth of Shoulderbone Creek, not at the mounds as is often assumed.

      Hancock County also has many Native American stone structures in a large archaeological zone near Shoulderbone Mounds. The county government has an archaeological report, which will tell you where the other sites are.

      Reply
  2. kevinleebell@gmail.com'

    I live across the river from this mound in Otto. There are 3 other mounds in Otto within a short distance. Between Otto and Franklin is a site with rock carvings. There is a large stone with strange symbols and writing on the side, a bowl depression on top and another large stone shaped like an arrowhead. Another site in Otto has a large natural rock house on top of a mountain where pottery, arrowheads and a pipe have been found.

    Reply
    • Kevin is very important! I will be contacting you via regular email!

      Reply
    • d_wilson@southwesterncc.edu'

      Hi Kevin….I would love to get to see these places….My grandfather was from Otto…Cecil Brown…and I passed the one mound each weekend when going to visit. If you could give me directions to find these places I would really enjoy seeing them. Thank you, Donna

      Reply
      • kevinleebell@gmail.com'

        Is this the Donna Wilson that I worked at Macon Bank with?

        Reply
        • d_wilson@southwesterncc.edu'

          Hey Kev…it sure is…this is great…easier to txt my phone is 828.421.5324 or facebook friend me ….I’m really interested in all of this…would love to see these places.

          Reply
          • Donna, you might want to communicate with Kevin via a private email. The world can see your phone number. I will remove your comment when you get directly in touch with Kevin.

          • d_wilson@southwesterncc.edu'

            Thank you so very much…didn’t realize that.

  3. d_wilson@southwesterncc.edu'

    Thank you for this article…I am a native of Franklin, NC and grandparents lived in Otto…I passed this site often when going to visit and always thought it was likely an Indian Mound but even my parents never talked about it so this article was of high interest to me. I always wanted to stop and ask if I could walk down to the mound but never did. I’m very surprised that my ancestors were not curious or excited to know about the mound. I would love to see items that were found there. Thank you again for the article, Donna Wilson

    Reply

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