The Secret Treasures of Buzzard Island
The Intentionally Forgotten History of West Georgia
In 1969, all the land on the Fulton County (southeast) side of Buzzard Island, including archaeological site 9FU14, was bulldozed and covered with 20 feet of clay to push the surface elevation above the 100 year flood level. However, before any buildings could be constructed near the island, Jimmy Carter was elected governor and immediately established friendly working relationships with the Nixon Administration’s Dept. of the Interior, EPA, FEMA and US Army Corps of Engineers personnel.
The laws of the United States were immediately enforced on the Chattahoochee River. There would be no more developments in the flood hazard areas and a 300 feet natural buffer was established along the river and 150 ft. buffers on tributaries. Sadly, enforcement of federal and state laws came too late to save the archaeological site.
This 1,640 feet island in the Chattahoochee River was surrounded on both sides for at least 2,500 years by a dense concentration of permanent villages. However, today is it surrounded by late 20th century commercial development that destroyed most of the archaeological sites in a corridor, north of the island. Yet the island itself is in a natural state and never been studied by professional archaeologists.
Remarkably, for 35 miles downstream from the island is a corridor of broad river bottom lands, mostly in natural, semi-natural or agricultural landscapes, containing many Native American town and village sites. This corridor is part of the Heartland of the Creek People, yet has received relatively little attention from archaeologists, even though the landscape is “chock full of artifacts.”
The generosity of Atlanta environmentalist- philanthropist, John Raulet, has saved Buzzard Island from any chance of commercialization. It could well be one of the oldest occupation sites in the Creek Heartland. Raulet is also assembling a 3 1/2 mile long corridor along the river, downstream from the island, for preservation. This is a golden opportunity “to do things right.”
Latitude: 33°44’32″N ~ Longitude: 84°34’43″W
A Tale of Three Buzzard’s Roosts and One Buzzard Island
The Creek village of Buzzard’s Roost appears on early maps of Georgia as being on the west side of the confluence of the Chattahoochee River and Peachtree Creek. The map places it on the site of the former massive town of Pakanahuere (Standing Peachtree) and across the river from Fort Standing Peachtree.
Local histories can sometimes be farcical, but when the well-researched histories of Sylacauga, Alabama, the Sandtown Community Association, the Douglas County Historical Society and the South Fulton Chamber of Commerce were interpolated with the People of One Fire’s knowledge base, a fascinating new history of the Creek People in West Georgia emerged. These local histories were treasure troves. First, we will look at the etymologies of the Historic Period Creek villages of Buzzard Roost and Sandtown.
Buzzard Island is the modern shortening of Buzzard Roost Island, which is the “rough” English translation of Sylacauga, which is the Anglicization of the Muskogee-Creek word, sule-kaka. Sulekaka means “Two Buzzards Sitting.” The original Hillabee Creek town of Sulekaka was originally at the foot of a cone shaped hill, where Sylacauga, AL is now located.
Sandtown is the “rough” English translation of Oktahasasi. Oktahasasi does not mean Sandtown, but instead means “Offspring of Sand People” . . . possibly, “Offspring of Sand-Sun” or “Offspring of Sand-Month.” The “offspring of” suffix was typically used to signify a colony of a mother town, in this case being Oktahvsv (Okatahawsaw).
The dense concentration of Native American towns and villages along the Chattahoochee River in Metro Atlanta began in the Archaic Period (8000 BC-1000 BC) as seasonal camp sites where bands of Indians fished and gathered freshwater mussels. Beginning around 1000 BC (Woodland Period) these camps became base villages. Portions of the village would relocated to seasonal village sites, where certain food resources were temporarily abundant, but the pottery and some of the villagers remained on the river.
Agriculture began very early in the Lower Southeast . . . at least as early as 3,500 BC with the indigenous squash, perhaps 5,500 BC with members of the sunflower family. Apparently, the temperate climate and fertile soils of the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin made an ideal location to develop agriculture. Whereas in most of North America, Indian settlements were short-lived during the Woodland Period, those in the Chattahoochee and Upper Oconee River Basins thrived century after century.
One of the oldest and most important trade routes in the Lower Southeast started at the shoals of the Ocmulgee River near Jackson, GA and then went westward through Indian Springs, a ford on the Flint River, across Buzzard Island on the Chattahoochee and then to the confluence of the Tallapoosa and LIttle Tallapoosa Rivers in present day Alabama. By the late 1700s, it was called the Sandtown Trail. We will tell you why a little later.
A National Historic District
As described over the past three months a series of articles, newcomers arrived from time to time from several diverse parts of the Americas. As a result, the resulting hybrid culture became increasingly sophisticated, but the towns and villages remained.
A major reason for this cultural longevity is that these people did not devote enormous human labor to building large mounds for the elite. They were egalitarian communities. Mega-mound building would have stolen valuable time for producing food. Those egalitarian, “small mound” builders became the Creek Indians.
While showy places like Ocmulgee, Cahokia, Etowah and Moundville boomed for about 2 1/2 centuries then collapsed, these communities lived on until the arrival of Europeans in the Southeast. In fact, some continued to thrive until their occupants were forced out by land cessions in the early 19th century. In a few cases, long occupied Creek towns were immediately occupied by the new owners.
The longest, continuous occupation of any human settlements in the United States can be found on the Upper Chattahoochee River . . . from around 1000 BC (or earlier) until the present. This is an archaeological fact verified by professional archaeologists with national reputations – Robert Wauchope and Arthur Kelly.
A four mile long Native American archaeological zone at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River in the Nacoochee Valley has already been designated a National Historic District. The much longer corridor in Metro Atlanta is equally deserving of this honor. Native American History is America’s History.
Solving the mystery of Buzzard’s Roost
In 1567, when contacted by Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, the Hillabee Creeks were living on the Pee Dee River in northern South Carolina. They were called the Vehete and their capital was Ilape. Both these words are Itza Maya. Vehete means “Bow & arrow People,” i.e. archers. Vehete was Anglicized to Pee Dee and Ilape was Anglicized to Hillabee.
After Virginia-based slave raiders began raiding the Carolinas in the late 1600s, the Vehete moved first to Northeast Georgia and then to West Georgia. By the mid-1700s they were living on the Tallapoosa River and what is now Randolph, Cleburne and Clay Counties, Alabama.
In 1748, French trader, Pierre Chartier led the Chalaka People to what is now Sylacauga, AL in Talledega. Until the late 1780s, they had lived in their ancestral home at the confluence of the French Broad and Nolichucky Rivers in Northeast Tennessee. The Chalaka and their neighbors, the Chiska were attacked and massacred by Spanish-speaking colonists from the North Carolina Mountains and Rickohocken slave raiders. At the invitation of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle , the survivors settled on the Cumberland River at a fortified French trading post, where they befriended Pierre’s father, Martin.
The alliance of the Spanish-speaking colonists and the Rickohockens became the Cherokees. By the 1740s, the Cherokees were attacking Shawnee, Chiska and Chalaka villages on the Cumberland, so Chartier led them to Northeastern Alabama, where they received the protection of the Creek Confederacy. This is how such large numbers of Shawnee ended up with the Creeks.
In 1776, the capital town of Tuckabatchee moved from the Tallapoosa River to an ancient town site at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Anneewakee Creek in present day Douglas County, GA. Apparently, many Hillabee Creeks, Chalaka and Shawnee moved with them, establishing such villages as Buzzard Roost near Standing Peachtree and Oktahvsv near the ancient town site across from Buzzard Island. Both the old town of Okahvsv (Sandtown) and the new town of that name were on the old trail from the Ocmulgee River, hence the trail became known as the Sandtown Trail.
In 1813, the Hillabee Creeks at Sulikaka (Sylacuaga, AL) did not want to become involved with the Creek Redstick War, so they moved to where their former neighbors had lived, the vicinity of Buzzard Island. In 1818, the area around Fort Standing Peachtree was ceded by the Creek Confederacy. The hybrid Creek-Shawnee-Chalaka people there moved south to the area around Sandtown, which was the now the northern boundary of the Creek Confederacy. According to an eyewitness account by Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins, most of the Creeks around Sandtown lived on farmsteads, not in planned villages.
In 1725, William McIntosh and his cronies, including two sons of Benjamin Hawkins signed the fraudulent First Treaty of Indian Springs, which gave away all Creek lands in Georgia except for sizable tracts reserved for the signers of the treaty. Congress refused to ratify this treaty, but hundreds, if not thousands, of squatters moved onto Creek lands, making the treaty an accomplished fact.
Some of those squatters were a group of Crackers from McMinn County, Tennessee. They occupied abandoned Creek cabins at Sandtown and established a “Pony Club.” The Buzzard’s Roost Pony Club acquired “investors” among other squatters in what is now Metro Atlanta. They sponsored raids into the Cherokee Nation, which stole horses and livestock then sold them to buyers in other parts of Georgia. To help things out, their cronies in the Georgia General Assembly to pass a law, which forbade Indians from testifying in court on their own behalf. Thus, the Cherokees could not seek legal relief when their horses and livestock were stolen.
The Hillabee Creek village of Buzzard’s Roost disappeared from the maps of Georgia shortly after the Cherokees were deported to the Indian Territory in 1838. Members of the Buzzard’s Roost Pony Club then dispersed into former Cherokee lands, while the Hillabee Creeks, Chalaka and Shawnees at Buzzard Roost apparently took state citizenship and assimilated into the population. No official history says this, but presumably, the Indians in Buzzard Roost were the actual horse rustlers for the Pony Club, because they would be far less visible when sneaking into the Cherokee Nation.
And now you know!
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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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