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The Song of the Chattahoochee and how its Native American heritage was preserved

The Song of the Chattahoochee and how its Native American heritage was preserved

Once it exits the Nacoochee Valley, the Chattahoochee River enters a gorge that is actually an ancient fault.  The river flows through that fault all the way to the Coastal Plain.   The most scenic 40 mile long section of that gorge became the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in 1978.  From the beginning, National Park Service officials took a unique approach to their stewardship of the corridor park.  They were going to make it accessible as possible to hikers and canoeists, but also protect its natural and cultural assets. The linear park is a spider web now of hiking trails, regularly patrolled by a skilled team of National Park Service Rangers.  Hikers are safe, but most also know to play by the rules . . . look, enjoy, but don’t disturb.

The fascinating story about how a chain of events resulted in this wonderful park becoming a reality is only hinted at in references. I was an eyewitness and a participant in many of those early events.  It was a remarkable time to be alive.

Photo Above – The Palisades or Cochran Shoals section of the Chattahoochee is lined with Apalache (Proto-Creek) village sites.  The massive Apalache towns were mostly located along white water sections of rivers. They were pearl necklaces of villages (essentially neighborhoods) that could stretch for 2-7 miles along rapids. They did not fit the “Mississippian Model,” preconceived by most archaeologists, except Charles C. Jones, Robert Wauchope, Arthur Kelly, Phillip Smith and Clemmons de Baillou.

Roswell, Georgia – Passing into the boundary of the Morgan Falls Section of National Park Service land is like walking through a star gate here.  On one side is a quaint, historic Antebellum town, surrounded by miles of lushly landscaped, but densely packed, McMansions . . . mostly filled with corporate transplants from around the world.  On the other side, one walks into the primeval world of the Southeast’s past.  Vegetation that seems to belong 50 miles to the north in the Blue Ridge Mountains thrives here.  Trout and other white water fish are abundant in the rocky rapids of the river.

Every so often, though, you see reminders of the region’s Muskogean heritage.  There cylindrical piles of rock that we call cairns.  Much larger piles of river stone form oval mounds.  On some steep slopes are terraces; some buttressed with rock walls, others not.  In the flood plain are many earthen mounds.  Most of these ruins have an official archeological site number, but they seem to have been forgotten by the current generation of archaeologists.

The Chattahoochee River Corridor also appears to be the incubator of the Apalache Kingdom and its heir, the People of One Fire . . . aka the Creek Confederacy . . . complete with the stone architecture that we claim as our heritage.  In the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, you do not see any of the pre-adolescent nonsense like the US Forest Service employees in Georgia committed in 2012.   Well-maintained trails take you past earthen mounds, stone mounds, stone cairns, terrace complexes and rock shelters.  Native American heritage is America’s heritage, for all Americans to enjoy.

Morgan Falls

In 1959, the Georgia Power Company contracted with archaeologist Arthur Kelly to carry out an archaeological survey of about 500 acres of rugged landscape around the Morgan Falls Dam.  At the time, Dr. Kelly was considered the nation’s leading expert on the Muskogean towns that had once lined the rivers of the Southeast.

This dam had originally been built in 1904 to furnish electricity for Atlanta’s street car system.  Georgia Power had filed an application with the federal government to raise the dam six feet in order to furnish a more dependable supply of water for the City of Atlanta.   The corporation was being required to carry out a cultural resource and botanical survey, prior to being granted a permit.

Kelly entered a world that was “gone with the wind” in most areas of the Southern Piedmont and mountains.  As Charles C. Jones wrote in 1873, the ruins of ancient stone structures had once been commonplace in the region, but most stones had been moved to construct buildings, chimneys and foundations.   Here, the rugged landscape had discouraged European farming techniques.

Kelly identified over a hundred ancient stone structures within the study tract and adjacent private properties.  One can tell in the language of the report that he had suddenly realized that there was much more to the pre-European history of the Southeast than his profession had believed.  He was not quite sure what it was, but knew that there was much more to learn.  For one thing, he unearthed a rock shelter that had been used for thousands of years.  The last occupants made stamped pottery.

Kelly also discovered what has to be one of the most unusual indigenous burials in North America.  It was composed of stacked field stones and vertical flag stones.  As can be seen below, the meaning of the shape of these stones is still a mystery. The monument is 14 feet by 28 feet.  It symbolizes something . . . but what is it?


Drawing and photographs by Arthur Kelly (1960)

Blame it all on “Deliverance”

You can blame the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, the POOF website, the discovery of the Mayas in Georgia and even the first licensed goat cheese creamery, east of California, on  South Carolinian, James Dickey, author of the book, Deliverance.  In the fall of 1968, Dickey was hired as an English professor and Poet-In-Residence at Georgia Tech.   At the same time, he began doing lots of canoeing in the Georgia Mountains and writing “Deliverance.”

This was the high tide of the Hippie Era. At the end of that school year would come the “Summer of Love”, Woodstock and the even larger, Atlanta Music Festival.  Even though the largest Hippie Colony in the United States was just across the expressway from Georgia Tech, most Tech students could not identify with the Drug Culture.  Free Love was okay, however.  On the other hand, most of the students knew instinctively that there was something terribly wrong with American materialistic values.  They just didn’t know how to express their desire for something better.

For those fortunate enough to have James Dickey as professor, they generally finished the English literature class, changed people.  Dickey presented a third alternative lifestyle, based on living with nature.  As he read his poems and talked about his previous weekend’s trip to Cherry Log, the Coosawattee River, Talking Rock Creek, the Chattooga River, the Nacoochee Valley, the Chattahoochee River or Amicalola Falls, we were entranced by a world that seem so far away from the Atlanta of the Hippie Era.  I never dreamed in a million years that I would ever live in or near those exotic worlds.

I walked out of that class thinking that after I had made the world a better place by designing in-town pedestrian villages and exurban newtowns, I would have a loving wife and large family.  We would move to the mountains and live on a farm with nature.  Some things came earlier than expected.  Others proved to be illusions.

By spring of 1969, some fraternity members at Georgia Tech were so inspired by Dickey’s descriptions of canoeing on white water rivers, that they challenged other fraternities at Georgia Tech to a 40 mile long raft race from near Buford Dam to where the rapids ended in Atlanta.  Only eight fraternities competed in the first race.

It was an idiotic plan.  Like the professors who charted de Soto’s route with highway maps, these environmental neophytes had no clue about the topography that they would be traversing.  A series of rocky, shallow shoals made passage of large rafts filled with students and beer tubs, impassible.  The occupants had to get out into the water and pull the rafts over the rocks.  Despite studying to be engineers, they also did not calculate how long it takes a heavily laden, home-made raft to float 40 miles.  Many of those, who were able to finish the race, ended up in the infirmary with extreme sun burns and dehydration.

The next spring, the Georgia Tech Fraternity Raft Race had a more sane route.  I joined the festivities. However, by the mid-1970s, what began as a race between 40 fraternities and sororities had grown into the world’s largest raft race.  Somewhere between 80 to 100 thousand rafters participated, while an estimated quarter of a million people watched.


It was back into the realm of insanity. An almost incalculable volume of garbage was created in and along the river by those “trying to get back to nature.”  The National Park Service quickly ended this insanity, when it took on stewardship of the river.  However, there is absolutely no doubt about it.  James Dickey’s lectures to Georgia Tech students inspired the original Chattahoochee Raft Races and those races brought the Chattahoochee River to national attention, which in turn caused Congress to approve this unusual park.

Few people will probably ever realize how the movie, Deliverance, changed America. I personally saw actor Burt Reynolds wearing a Seminole/Creek long shirt in between white water filming scenes. However, all references to him being a “civilized Indian” living in Atlanta, were struck from the final cut of the film.  For unknown reasons, Warner Brothers thought that have an Indian in the film would seem too “leftist.”

In 1968, if a typical college student had asked a coed to go hiking or canoeing for a first date, he would have been laughed off the phone.  James Dickey’s influence caused Georgia Tech fraternities to start planning “active recreation” outings in the mountains or on the lakes rather than always having “toga” parties.  The idea began to spread.

When students watched the dramatic filming of Deliverance in the Georgia Mountains during 1971, it sparked an explosive change in values.  Overnight hiking, camping and canoeing became the rage among Atlanta Area college students.  All things Native American became “in.”  The hallucinogenic drug culture was disdained. One of my fraternity brothers turned down a fat job offer from a mega-corporation that built nuclear reactors to start the Southeast’s first whitewater canoe store.  This back to nature/anti-hard drugs attitude spread across the nation.

One of the first actions by Jimmy Carter, when he became governor in 1971 was to toss out all laws, discriminating against American Indians.   By 1973, there was a state-recognized Creek tribe in Georgia . . .  for the first time in 146 years.  The Muscogee-Creek Nation would begin in 1979.  The back to nature movement and the Native Pride movement seemed to appear hand in hand.   The rest is history.

And finally to honor James Dickey, John Boorman, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight,  Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox . . . the people, who made Deliverance possible . . . we present to you a very special moment in motion picture history.

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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.



    And now i know the rest of the story. Thanks Richard


    Very much enjoyed this Richard. So did a number of friends and family I sent it to. As an Atlantan it’s especially rich. Thanks.


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