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The Secret History of New Echota . . . Part One

The Secret History of New Echota . . . Part One


It is the location of a town visited by De Soto and where some of Tristan de Luna’s men stayed for several weeks.  It is the location of the first Kansa (Kansas) town in Northwest Georgia. It is also a beautiful place in which mankind has been coming for 12,000 years.


During 2017,  research at the People of One Fire has been focused on the Native American history of Northeast Alabama, Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.  Readers have been provided one surprise after another.  Archaeologists in those regions decided at the end of the 1970s that they knew everything there was to know and so stopped asking questions.  In fact, about all they really knew were the English names of the pottery styles they dug up and where the last Cherokee Capital was.  The cultural histories of these regions are incredibly complex and still not fully understood.

In the early 1820s, a group of former Chickamauga Mixed-blood Renegades took control of the Cherokee Nation, disfranchised the traditional full blood leadership of the tribe  and announced plans to establish a national capital at the confluence of the Conasauga, Coosawattee and Oostanaula Rivers in Northwest Georgia.  Their choice for this location was highly symbolic, politically.  New Echota was built on TOP of the mother town of the Upper Creek Indians.  They were making an architectural statement, “We won!”  Visitors to the New Echota State Museum are not told this and the Wikipedia article on New Echota only vaguely refers to this heritage in one sentence . . . stating that” the archaeologists found evidence of earlier American Indian cultures.”

Today,  history textbooks, museums and archaeological references present an very incomplete and sometimes inaccurate description of the New Echota Archaeological Zone.  Readers are provided a distorted understanding of the past because virtually all attention is given to the brief five years that the planned Cherokee capital was occupied, plus an illegal treaty, which was signed there in 1836 . . . after the thinly populated capital had essentially been abandoned.


Change comes to late 20th century Northwest Georgia

Massive floods have always been a blessing and a curse for the people living along the Coosa River and its tributaries in Northeast Alabama and Northwest Georgia.  The annual floods deposited rich alluvial soil on the flood plains, making them ideal locations for agriculture.  The multiple layers of loam also covered Native American town sites and mounds, protecting them from artifact poachers. However, once cities developed beside the rivers,  catastrophic floods periodically ravaged these cities.   During the 1886 flood, a paddle wheel steam boat was used to rescue occupants of buildings in Downtown Rome, GA.

During World War II,  the US Army Corps of Engineers planned two dam projects to be built over the Cartersville Fault, which would help prevent catastrophic floods. Allatoona Dam on the Etowah River was constructed in the late 1940s.  Plans for damming the Coosawattee River waivered back and forth until around 1970, when the go-ahead was issued for Carters Dam.  The Corps of Engineers released funds to support limited archaeological studies along the Coosawattee River.  Otherwise, we would known practically nothing about the river’s dense indigenous occupation in the past.

In 1950, the Calhoun, GA Elks Lodge announced plans to relocate to a rural area of Gordon County, where a country club and golf course would be constructed.   Unstated was to move to a location, where illegal consumption of alcoholic beverages would not be visible.  This was typical of what was happening in many small towns in Georgia.  Most Georgia counties were officially “dry” so that sheriffs and politicians would hold a monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages.The elite of each county enjoyed consumption of alcoholic beverages at private clubs, while the sheriff’s departments make conspicuous arrests of blue collar whites and black residents, caught consuming bootleg booze.

When land clearing and grading for the golf course began on an old farm along the Oostanaula River,  workers immediately began uncovering Native American artifacts and what appeared to be mounds or building footprints.  Somehow, the Georgia Historical Commission found out about the many artifacts being unearthed.  Someone in that agency realized that this was the location of the last capital of the Cherokee Nation in the Southeast,  New Echota.

Archaeologists on the Oostanaula River

Only one building dating from the Cherokee occupation of New Echota still stood.  It was the Worcester House, the home of missionary Samuel Worcester and his wife.  In 1953, the house and farm land attached to it were deeded to the state of Georgia.  The house was in very poor condition.  The Georgia Historical Commission hired Lewis Larson, who had just received his MA in Anthropology from the University of Michigan, to supervise five laborers in the investigation of the land owned by the state.  Larson would not obtain his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan until 1969.

This continued a pattern seen in Georgia archaeology from the 1880s onward.  Archaeologists were hired from other regions of the United States, who had no knowledge of the state’s indigenous Native Americans, to interpret the past.  They created orthodoxies about the state’s past without any consultation with Creek and Uchee elders and scholars. The People of One Fire’s research had repeatedly found examples where the pioneer archaeologist of the Southeast, Charles C. Jones, Jr of Savannah, was far closer to the truth in 1873 than professionally educated archaeologists a century later.

In March 1954, the small archaeological team began work on the section of New Echota owned by the state.   Once the team was working a in the main flood plain of the river, they were finding little evidence of a historical Cherokee occupation.  What they found instead was a deep layer of strata, associated with pre-19th century indigenous occupations of the land.

To his credit, Larson realized that he did not know diddlysquat about the pre-Cherokee occupation of the region.  He brought in Joseph Caldwell and Clemmons de Ballou, who had been doing work for the National Park Service and Smithsonian Institute at Ocmulgee National Monument and Lake Allatoona, which is about 25 miles south of New Echota.

Caldwell and De Ballou found that the layer immediately below the shallow scattering of Historic Cherokee artifacts, were much more substantial deposits of artifacts associated with the Colonial Period Creek and Chickasaw Indians.  Below that layer were artifacts associated with the Proto-Creek Lamar Culture and below that were artifacts typical of the McKee Island site near Guntersville in North-Central Alabama.

Once the slightly larger team identified likely locations to find Cherokee artifacts, they did have some success. The group recovered a Spanish coin dated 1802, crockery, household wares, remains of boots and shoes, a small quantity of lead, and 1700 other artifacts. They identified 600 items out of a total of 1700 artifacts, as having belonged to the Cherokee.  However, a comment made by Larson in his Etowah Mounds report three years later, suggests that most pre-Cherokee artifacts such as potsherds and stone points were briefly examined then tossed back into the pile of excavated dirt.  That dirt was then used as land fill for highway construction.  In addition to the standard finds and remains of many buildings, Larsen and Caldwell astonished the world by discovering much of the type once used to print the Cherokee Phoenix.

Astonishingly, despite over a century of plowing, the archaeologists were able to discern the original gridiron pattern of New Echota’s streets and drainage ditches.  New Echota was laid out by surveyors in 1827 and abandoned as the seat of tribal government in 1832.  Its maximum permanent population was perhaps 50 people or less.  Large numbers of Cherokees did camp out there during controversial meetings of the National Council.  Therefore, it is an extraordinary feat of archaeological skills for Lewis Larson and Joseph Caldwell to have found the little used streets.

Other parts of New Echota are not open to the public, as they are private property. Across from the New Echota park are two farmhouse sites formerly owned by white men who had married Cherokee women. These sites are now part of the Elks Lodge and Golf Course, but are known to archaeologists are the Baxter Farm Site.

Building a historical village and museum

On March 13, 1957, following the news of these archeological finds, the State of Georgia authorized reconstruction of the town of New Echota as a state park. They reconstructed such buildings as the Council House, the Supreme Court and the print shop of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper.  The state then purchased and relocated several authentic Cherokee log buildings from other parts of North Georgia.  They include a “pole timber cabin,” typical of a poor Cherokee family, a common Cherokee cabin representing a home of an average family, a middle-class Cherokee home, including outbuildings and Vann’s Tavern. It was one of 14 taverns, owned by Vann.  The Worcester House was restored to its 19th-century condition.

Print shop of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper

In 1963, The State of Georgia constructed a museum for introducing the New Echota site to visitors, which includes a memorial to the Trail of Tears.  Its exhibits are completed focused on Cherokee history.  New Echota, until 1973 was called a historical park and that indeed is its best description.  Most of the original blocks laid out for the town are empty and covered with grass.

The museum and historic village are attractively laid out.  Various travel websites show very high ratings from visitors, who have been to New Echota.  The problem is that the museum  presents itself as being a factual account of history, when it is really only telling visitors part of the locale’s history.   The truth is that the Cherokees had barely the time to get settled into their new home in Georgia, before the State of Georgia was pulling some very dirty tricks to drive them away.   That’s the true story.  Putting in subtle manipulations of information to make people think that the Cherokees had been in North Georgia for hundreds or thousands of years . . . is not the true story.   The site of New Echota was officially occupied by the Chickasaw People until 1785.

Cherokee National Council Building

The New Echota Museum developed an extensive depository of Cherokee archives. These documents were invaluable to two generations of researchers, but the public now has very little access to the archives.

Visitors are told that the original Cherokee name for New Echota was Gansagi-yi then it was changed to Ustanauli after being named the Cherokee capital.  That was before finally being renamed Newtown or New Echota.  Gansagi-yi means “Place of the Kansa (Kansas) Indians” and Ustanauli was originally a Chickasaw town, two miles upstream. The site’s Creek name was Kvsa-haci or Kusa Old Town.  If the archaeologists, who worked at New Echota, had bothered to translate the Native American place names, they would have produced a very different interpretation of the archaeological site.

The Cherokees played virtually no role in Georgia’s history until the Battle of Etowah Cliffs in Rome, GA in late 1793.  Even that battle was between the Tennessee Militia and Cherokees from Tennessee and North Carolina.   Therefore, a large proportion of the museum space was dedicated to 18th century events and personalities in Tennessee and North Carolina.  Visitors are made to believe that the prehistoric occupants of North Georgia were Cherokees, when in fact, Georgia’s main legal grounds for demanding their eviction to the Indian Territory was that they were uninvited squatters, who arrived in Northwest Georgia during the 1780s and 1790s.

Actually,  Georgia’s attorneys in the late 1820s had short memories.   Georgia stole Northwest Georgia from the Upper Creeks in 1784 and then GAVE it to the Cherokees as “hunting grounds” in the 1784 Treaty of Augusta.  The Creeks didn’t know that their land was no longer theirs until 1790.

On display in the museum are Pre-Colonial Period artifacts that clearly have nothing to do with a people, who showed up on the Oostanaula River after the American Revolution.   Any archaeologists, associated with the museum during its 54 years of operation would have to know that, but the profession has remained silent.  The archaeological profession also made no effort to persuade the museum designers to tell the complete story of the dense concentration of humans at that location over the past thousand years.

The Cherokees did NOT build stone chimneys!

This museum leaves out well-documented events of history, which would let visitors know “something wasn’t right.”   The Chickasaw-Jewish wife of the famous historian, James Adair, was born in the CHICKASAW village of Ustanauli near the site of New Echota.  The museum tells you that it was a Cherokee town.  The De Soto Expedition passed directly through the site of New Echota, while visiting the CREEK province of Kusa in Northwest Georgia.  The museum makes visitors think that the Cherokees greeted De Soto in Georgia.  They were nowhere around.  The site of New Echota was first the “mother town” of the Upper Creek Indians.  Of course, this is not mentioned either.

In 2008, the Georgia Division of Parks and Historic Sites announced its intent to close the New Echota Historic Site.  This plan was bitterly opposed by both Gordon County residents and history lovers everywhere.  Nevertheless, most of New Echota’s staff was laid off and visitation was limited to part of the weekend.

The site is now staffed by volunteers and part-time employees.  It is open to the public Wednesday–Saturday 9 a.m.–5 p.m.


In Part Two,   POOF will interpolate historical maps,  eyewitness accounts by European explorers and what few archaeological reports are available to construct a time line of human occupation at the New Echota site.  It will still have gaps, but will be much more comprehensive that available now in references.


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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.



    Superb post Richard thank you. You are certainly opening up history which seems; will need to be re=written. I get the feeling you are not overly fond of archaeologists. But it does seem this subject is not fully understood anyway. This history for me is very interesting as I have said before. Can’t wait for part 2.

    • Actually, I have been very good friends with archeologists in Mexico, the Washington, DC area and Sweden. Two internally known archaeologists were my mentors when I was a young man. Arthur Kelly and Roman Pina-Chan. What I am not fond of are archaeologists, who are not intellectually curious and are constantly playing pre-adolescent games. I would not be fond of architects and engineers with those traits either.


        Oh I see what you mean !!.. Well, I am an archaeologist but I am curious and always willing to learn more as you may have gathered. Thanks for your prompt answer Richard.


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