The Secret History of the Gold in Them Thar Hills
The map above from 1820, portrays the region where the first major gold rush in the United States occurred in 1828. The center of the gold mining activity was the Nacoochee Valley . . . as where it had been during the 1500s and 1600s, when it was heavily mined by Sephardic Jewish colonists. Two large, European gold mining villages from the late 1500s or 1600s were found by Anglo-American gold miners in the 1820s and 1830s. The sites have never been investigated by archaeologists.
Do you Creeks see what I see? When Mount Yonah was part of the Cherokee Nation, it had a Creek name, Noccosee (Nokose) which means “bear.” Chota means “Frog.” Sawate means “Raccoon People.” Tasnugiti means “Warrior People.” Itsate means “Itza Maya People.” Talula means “town.” You get the gist.
Many people in North Georgia will argue with you that these words are Cherokee until they are blue in the face . . . because their teachers told them so . . . but the truth is that all but one of these villages are Creek tribal names or straight out of a Hitchiti Creek dictionary. Satikoa is not Creek, but a Southern Arawak word meaning “colonists” . . . either from the Georgia Coast or from Peru. Most Satikoa, who survived the Holocaust moved to the Chattahoochee River or North Georgia and assimilated with the Creeks.
A year later, in 1821, Daniel Brown from 150 miles away in Burke County, NC, would lead a small group of land speculators in buying up the Nacoochee Valley for 10 cents an acre. At the time, it was officially in the Cherokee Nation, but this was not a land cession treaty. In fact, if Cherokee leaders had sold the land to the US Government, they would have at least gotten a dollar an acre. Furthermore, it was against Cherokee law for individual Cherokees to sell tribal land. That was the primary reason for Chief Doublehead being assassinated in 1807. So what was going on here?
Did we mention that Burke County is still the main center of gold mining activity in North Carolina?
(left) This is an engraving by 16th century Dutch artist, Teodor De Bry, which shows ancestors of the Creek Indians “mining” gold from the sands of what is probably the Chestatee River near Dahlonega, GA. The gold nuggets settled to the bottom of the tubes, while the almost-as-valuable gold-colored mica floated to the top.
In doing the research for my book on the history of the Nacoochee Valley, I stumbled upon something astonishing. The book is about to be published after 18 years of research! During the period between 1794 and 1836, when the Cherokee Nation officially occupied North-Central and Northwest Georgia, official maps of both the state as a whole and the tribal lands mentioned very few place names that were actually Cherokee word. All those Anglicized indigenous place and river names that Chamber of Commerce brochures call “ancient words of the Cherokees” are actually Creek words.
Much of the eastern part of the Cherokee Nation was overrun with white settlers 16 years before the Cherokees were driven out of Georgia like cattle. These settlers were mainly from North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina. They probably knew nothing about Georgia’s Native American history or its Creek and Uchee Indians. In the 1840s, some key landmarks such as Mount Noccosee and Chota (Frogtown) Gap were re-assigned Cherokee names . . . Mount Yonah and Walasi-yi Gap. Those responsible, knew exactly what they were doing. The Cherokee words were the translations of the original Creek words.
All history books and “Cherokee history” web sites state that some anonymous white man was trespassing on Cherokee lands when he unexpectedly discovered some gold nuggets and unleashed a torrent of squatters on the ancestral Cherokee lands. I couldn’t believe that the North Carolina Cherokees’ epic film for public television had the gall to claim that they had been living in the Nacoochee Valley for 10,000 years, when whites suddenly found gold there and forced them out of the ancestral lands. The whole story is malarkey, even though it has been repeated so much that the vast majority of North Americans believe it to be true.
Captain René de Laudonnière, commander of Fort Caroline, dispatched six small teams to explore the interior of the Southeast. They paddled up the Altamaha River then branched out along its tributaries to make contact with various Native provinces in order to establish peaceful trade relations with the French Huguenots. Teams lead by Pierre Gambye, La Roche Ferrier and Lt. Grotauld visited both the provinces or Apalache and Ustanauli, where the main gold deposits were. They brought back what was called yellow, white and red gold, plus what was described as a high grade copper alloy with brass-like qualities.
Florida anthropologists and historians have promoted these passages in de Laudonnière’s memoir as “proof” that no Frenchmen explored the North Georgia Mountains, because there is no such thing as red gold, white gold and natural brass. They knew for a fact that there was no copper in Georgia. However, the real fact that the colonists at Fort Caroline (1564-1565) only provided us descriptions of Indian tribes, rivers and mountains in present day Georgia is one of the strongest arguments that Fort Caroline was indeed, in Georgia.
These academicians should have stuck to playing with their potsherds. I interviewed the staff at the Gold Museum in Dahlonega. Some of the purest gold and copper in the world comes from the Georgia Mountains. The natural brass deposits are north of the city. Both this special copper and regular copper have been heavily mined in north-central Georgia during the past. Red gold is found to the south of the city – between Auraria and Gainesville – while white and yellow gold deposits are found throughout the gold belts . . . the white gold being most common in the region around Ellijay, GA. In fact, one of the largest gold nuggets every found . . . weighing over 90 pounds . . . was found east of Ellijay in the Rich Mountains.
La Roche Ferrier claimed that he found nuggets of pure copper and gold on mountainsides. A geologist told me that he thinks that at that point in his journey, Ferrier was in the Amicalola or Rich Mountains that run rise between Amicalola Falls and Ellijay. Early settlers in this region made the same statements. A large copper smelting plant in Copper Hill, Tennessee formerly mined the copper on the north slopes of the Rich Mountains and in the nearby Copper Valley.
Ferrier also brought back a sketch map, from which resident Fort Caroline artist, Jacques Le Moyne, painted this water color below. You see a section of the map, focused on the Nacoochee Valley. Ferrier described seeing gold dust in the sands beneath a particularly beautiful water falls . . . probably Anna Ruby Falls near Helen, GA. He called the main town in the valley, Apalatci (Apalachee) from which the Appalachian Mountains get their name. The town, given the Europeanized name of Appalou, was located at the confluence of Peachtree Creek and the Chattahoochee River in present day Northwest Atlanta. Its real name was Aparu, which means “from Peru.”
All Gringo anthropology books state today that the Southeastern Indians either did not know about gold or thought it of no value. This is not true for the ancestors of the Creeks and the South Atlantic Coastal Peoples. According to René de Laudonnière, the fabrication of gold into chains and foil for export, plus the mining of adjacent greenstone deposits, made the Apalache extremely wealthy and powerful. De Laudonnière and a century later, Charles de Rochefort, stated that the gold foil was used for writing sacred texts and histories. The high kings of the Lower Southeast also placed gold on their shields, breast plates and crowns. Apparently, almost all of this Pre-European use of gold was quickly ravaged by the initial waves of European explorers and settlers.
Beginning with this map first drawn in 1565, all English, French, Dutch and German maps labeled the Georgia Mountains as either the Apalache, Apalatci or Apalachen Mountains until around 1715. Apalachen is the plural of Apalache in the Panoan language dialect spoken by the Apalache elite of North Georgia. All of these maps also stated that the Apalache Mountains contained substantial gold deposits. Thus any educated European would have known from the 1560s onward that there was “Gold in them thar hills.” The illiterate or semi-literate white settlers, who poured into North Georgia after the Revolution from the Carolinas and western Virginia may have not known about the gold, but the educated planter elite sure did . . . and they were about to make their fortunes off of it.
Some things never change . . . did you know that about half of the Georgia Gold Belt was in the Creek Nation until 1827?
One of the many myths held by people today in the Southern Highlands was that the Georgia Mountains were heavily populated with Cherokees at the time of the Trail of Tears. In fact, the mountainous regions were mostly wilderness and lightly populated by a Mestizo people, who had lived there before the Cherokees were given their land in the treaties in 1785 and 1794.
Ethnic Cherokees were concentrated in the river valleys of Northwest Georgia, Southeastern Tennessee and Northeastern Alabama. By the early 1800s, there were few Cherokees living in the extreme western tip of North Carolina, which was still in the Cherokee Nation. These mountaineers had absolutely no political influence in the Cherokee Nation’s government, which was dominated by men of predominantly white ancestry, who had been born in either Tennessee or the area around Andrews, NC. I have looked at the official maps of the Cherokee Nation at New Echota National Historic Landmark. The region between Ellijay, GA and the Nacoochee Valley was treated by Cherokee leaders as a virtual Terra Incognito with no representatives on the Cherokee National Council.
Evidence of this misconception can be seen in the local lore, where I live. The official history of the county says that Yahoola Creek was named after a Cherokee “Chief” Yahoola, who hung around the area, after most of the Cherokees left and befriended the whites. As all of you Creeks and Seminoles would know, Yahola is an important Muskogean ceremonial office. This person served as the master of Sacred Black Drink (Ase) ceremonies and as Speaker of either the town councils or the national councils. The real name of the famous Creek-Seminole leader, Osceola, was Ase Yahola. No Cherokee “chief” would be named Yahola or Yahoola . . . period. It would be like saying that a rabbi was the same thing as a mullah.
It is quite obvious that the Native or mixed-heritage people living in the Nacoochee Valley in 1821 were more interested in getting away from both the Cherokees and the white settlers than maximizing their income. They were probably Itsate-Creek speaking Elati (Foothill People) who were Creeks, who didn’t want to join the Creek Confederacy or the Cherokee Alliance. Poor people, with dark hair and tan skin continued to live high up in the mountains in cabins for about another 15 years. It is not clear, who they were, but they were not ethnic Cherokees – most likely mixed blood descendants of mixed Sephardic-Spanish-Apalache-Dutch-French marriages in the 1600s. They also benefited little from the gold rush. Some would bring down small bags of gold dust during the 1820s to trade for goods at the trading post near Sautee, but none grew wealthy. Their gold was intentionally under-valued. Most of the gold in that part of the Georgia Mountains was found in the valleys, which had been sold to North Carolina land speculators in 1821.
The Creeks ceded all their land in Northeast and North-Central Georgia in the treaties of 1817 and 1821. These treaties were rammed down the throats of the Creeks by William McIntosh, who was then at the peak of his political power. These two land cessions included most of what is now Metro Atlanta, plus a substantial portion of the Georgia Gold Belt.
Almost immediately, Georgia government officials informed the Cherokees that they had misunderstood the Cherokee Treaty of 1818. The eastern boundary of the Cherokee Nation was actually west of Dahlonega. Is it any accident the “real legal boundary” put most of the known gold deposits outside Cherokee territory? While the state’s agents and Cherokee representatives wrangled about the boundary for four year, Georgia allowed white squatters to settle on the lands between the Etowah River and the Nacoochee Valley. It was rugged land of little value to the mostly white Cherokee planters, who dominated their tribe. It was also thinly populated by people, who had no political influence. The Cherokee leaders eventually ceded the disputed territory almost simultaneously as news about gold being discovered was allowed to leak out.
So despite what most history books say, the Georgia Gold Rush had very little direct impact on the “real” Cherokees or the Muskogee-Creeks. By the time that the “gold rush” was publicly announced in 1828, the State of Georgia had gobbled up all Muskogee-Creek lands in the southern half of the gold belt and through hook or crook allowed whites to purchase or steal Cherokee-owned lands in the northern half of the Gold Belt.
Here is another surprise. The first mention of gold in the Georgia gold belt was NOT in the Nacoochee Valley, but in Carroll County, GA in the Piedmont, where the University of West Georgia is now located. Micco William McIntosh knew there was gold in West Georgia as early as 1818. He intentionally built his plantation in the southern end of the gold belt, across the Chattahoochee River from Carroll County. He actively mining gold bearing sites there several years before the gold rush began in the mountains.
The popular conception of the Georgia Gold Rush was that thousands of men rushed into the region and quickly became wealthy. That is not exactly what happened. Before and simultaneously with the announcement of the discovery of gold, some of Georgia’s and South Carolina’s most politically powerful and wealthy men, bought large tracts of land in the heart of the gold belt. One of the largest mining operations was owned by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. The principal mining operations required elaborate machinery for their days, to shoot high pressure water streams on to hillsides to wash down the gold bearing strata. Some mining companies dug canals several miles long in order to develop enough pressure. These operations required significant capital, which the majority of Southerners did not have.
Calhoun and several other owners initially ran their mines with slaves. However, the slaves found it quite easy to escape to the Creek Nation in this rugged mountain terrain. So, eventually the mines became employers of large numbers of white and Native American laborers. The laborers did not get rich, but in the South’s slave-based economy, any job that paid cash (or gold) wages was better than the opportunities at home. Some independent prospectors did happen to find gold deposits that made them affluent, but most only found enough to justify their efforts.
By 1848, when gold was discovered in California, most of the easily obtainable gold in the Georgia Mountains was gone. Those miners, who had only developed a marginal lifestyle in Georgia began planning to make the long trip across the continent to California. These miners included several Native Americans. Georgia miners furnished the technical knowledge that made the California Rush so spectacular. They had an advantage over the vast majority of minors, who were neophytes. Many of the white and Native American miners became quite wealthy in California. Some returned to Georgia to develop large plantations or textile mills with that wealth.
However, their departure created a severe labor shortage for the wealthy mine owners. As a large wagon train of California-bound miners was about to depart the square in Dahlonega, the editor of the Dahlonega Nugget Newspaper stood on the balcony of the county courthouse and gave a rousing speech on the benefits of staying put in the Appalachians. He closed his speech by shouting, “Why fellows there is still gold in these hills.” A favorite phrase in the English language was born . . . slightly modified into Appalachianese. Most of the miners ignored his speech and headed for California.
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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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