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The Secret Treasures of Buzzard Island

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


Because Douglas County, on the west side of the Chattahoochee River, did not allow construction in the flood plain, several very important Creek Heritage Sites remain in a natural state. Site 9DO1 contains a mound and a man-made terrace that the leaders built their house on. Just downstream from Buzzard Roost is a large village (9DO4) that had four mounds in 1939. Robert Wauchope did not have time to study it.

From Sweetwater Creek southward for about 30 miles to Chattachoochee Bend State Park, there is a broad flood plain that is almost completely in a natural, semi-natural or agricultural state. This flood plain is almost continuous Native American archaeological sites.

There is a concentration of very important Native American, Antebellum and Civil War Era archaeological sites east, south and west of Buzzard Island. These all could be joined in a National Historic District and annexed to Sweetwater Creek State Park or the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area (National Park Service). From Sweetwater Creek southward for about 30 miles to Chattahoochee Bend State Park, there is a broad flood plain that is almost completely in a natural, semi-natural or agricultural state. This flood plain is almost continuous Native American archaeological sites.


After the Creeks ceded most of what is now Metro Atlanta in 1818, Buzzard’s Roost moved southward to next to Buzzard Island. It stayed there until about 1840, 15 years after William McIntosh and his cronies had illegally ceded all Creek lands to Georgia in the first Treaty of Indian Springs. Why would a Creek village stay in Georgia long after the Creek Confederacy had ceded all its lands? This was a mystery that needed investigation!


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.

Detail of 1684 map by Jean Baptiste de Franqueline

Detail of 1684 map by Jean Baptiste de Franqueline.  Note Tchalaka at lower right.

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.



    I was just down to the site 9D04 on 5-3-16 after some heavy rains in the area. It is behind the American Red Cross building, it’s the large red dirt patch in your picture above. It seems like it was graded for a large retention pond because its encircled by silt fencing and high earthen banks. There was a corrugated pipe spill way to the back side that lead to an very old road bed. I followed it because it lead toward to river.

    The area that you described and a ” very important Native American, Antebellum and Civil War Era archaeological sites east, south and west of Buzzard Island.” is currently being graded and being built upon. I stopped at a construction site located on Douglas Hill Rd and asked one of the workers where the pictographs were, just to see what he would say. To my surprise he said everything they found was given to the visitor center at the park. Good to know that they were handling everything with such care…..
    I also went to 1901 Private Drive off River Road where a huge building was just build and opened 5 months ago, as well as another site that the security guard said it took 4 months working 7 days a week to grade down. They are just now pouring the concrete footings.

    I then went to the Sweetwater Creek state park visitor center, where the ranger on duty said they were working on all artifacts and nothing but the Sweetwater stone and a case of arrowheads were available to view. I saw a copy of Richard’s work from POOF downloaded concerning the pictograph on display. It’s in the back of a large 3 ring binder on the case.

    • We were too late! At least the Aneewakee town site downstream is still in a natural state.


    The last few sentences here sure brought out a chuckle Richard.
    Wouldn’t be hard to get any Creek to raid a Cherokee to steal a horse or any livestock. They only came to Georgia after being paid to rob the Creeks when urged to by Andrew Jackson during the previous Indian wars, but that’s another inconvenient truth.
    I suspect my ancestors never told anyone anything except they were black Irish. They would have been smiling stealing horses back then. History, it can be funny to remember what it may have felt like on a personal level…
    take care, you bring many smiles to d=faces that need them.


    My Mother is roughly 75% Creek ( Full blooded Father , half Mother )& lives in Sandtown now . She told me of walking to visit relatives in Buzzards Roost ( her telling of it ). It’s sad that none of her children or grandchildren really got any exposure to that culture . My Great Grandfather was full blooded Creek & was a farmer & security guard at one of the Sock Mills in Villa Rica .
    I didn’t even know I was 50% Creek until I was about 30 years old . I just knew I had “something” . I’m not sure why it was not talked about , but really wish it had been .


    Good story you may want to update the date in this part from 1725 to 1825 “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. ”

    My mother rebuilt the McIntosh home at McIntosh Reserve in Carroll County with a same period log house moved there form Alabama.

    Douglas County was not created till 1870. It was cut from original Campbell & Carroll Counties, Carroll County sometimes called the “Free State of Carroll” had a active “Pony Club” around the same time, wonder if there are the same men?

    • I remember when your mother did that amazing feat. She done good!

      It could be the same men. Most people don’t know that Douglas County was named after the African-American leader, Frederick Douglas.


    Hey Richard,

    Have you visited 9DO4 or 9DO1? I went down to 9DO4 this weekend, parking behind some warehouse and walking through the woods to the river. There wasn’t really anything to see but I wanted to check the site out, nonetheless. I assume the large clearing near the bank of the river was the site of something. I did not appear that the trees growing were very old.

    I plan on checking out Buzzard Roost Island this weekend and maybe even 9DO1 if I can find a place on the bank to set my kayak. I hope the mound on 9DO1 is still preserved. It is a real shame that we have ruined the history of these people by not preserving their lands.

    • Chris, to be honest I have not been back to that cluster of archaeological sites since the summer after my sophomore year at Georgia Tech. The last visit, when I saw someone trying to frame Dr. Kelly, made me want to stay away – bad memories.


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