The Tallulah Mound in Graham County, North Carolina
The Talulah Mound is one of the best preserved mounds in North Carolina. It overlooks the site of a large indigenous town where perhaps even more ancient mounds, leave their tell-tale dark footprint in the soil. Graham County is on the extreme western tip of North Carolina. It is closer to seven other state capitals than it is to Raleigh, NC. Perhaps, that’s part of the problem.
Talula is the Itsate Creek word for a one mound town and means roughly the same as the Muskogee Creek word , tvlofa. Bet that you have never heard of the Tallulah Mound. Many of you have probably driven right past it on the way to Fontana Lake and didn’t notice it, because the structure was so close to the highway.
The main artery through the entire county is named Talulah Road, but not a single resident I talked to was aware that Tallulah was a Creek word, derived from Itza Maya. All assumed that Tallulah was either a Cherokee word, whose meaning had been lost . . . or as a North Carolina tourist brochure states . . . was the Cherokee word for “waterfall.” In fact, local residents grinned and generally looked at me as if I was crazy, when I told them that Tallulah was the Itstate Creek word for town and Tuskegee was also a Creek word . . . a major division of the Creek Confederacy. Oh well . . .
Once upon a time, Graham County was indeed a Native American Shangri-La. The fertile, black soils of Tallulah Creek, Cheoah River and Santeetlah Creek are surrounded by towering mountains on all sides. The flood plain of the Little Tennessee River was up to a thousand feet below this fertile valley so it was extremely difficult to get in and out of until the State of North Carolina built modern highways over the mountains. This is probably why the Snowbird Cherokees and in the early 20th century, a band of Uchees from the Cohutta Mountains in Georgia chose to settle here. No one was going to bother them and they got along just fine with the hardy Anglo-American families, who settled in the region.
The mound is directly adjacent to the right-of-way of a federal highway that links the Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Creeks know this route as the Nene Hvtke Rakko . . . The Great White Path, repeatedly discussed in the Creek Migration Legends. According to 17th century French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, the original road was built by the High King of Apalache, residing in NE Georgia, to interconnect his realm with a colony in the Florida Panhandle, which became the Florida Apalachees. The Great White Path and the pioneer wagon road that followed it, originally passed many of North Carolina’s, Georgia’s and Florida’s most important Native American archaeological sites . . . including Track Rock Gap. In the 1920’s the route of US 129 was altered a bit from the wagon road to pass through downtowns.
The Tallulah Mound is a truncated, square platform with an access ramp oriented to the sunset of the Winter Solstice. It is very typical of the Early Mississippian Period. YET . . . when I was staying in Graham County, the mound was neither listed on the National Register of Historic Places nor on the North Carolina State Archaeologist’s Office’s List of Native American Mounds. Instead, it was being used to feed cattle.
I asked the staff member of the Eastern Band of Cherokees Cultural Heritage Preservation Office, based at a building near Junaluska’s grave, why this amazing legacy from the past was being ignored. I was told that the reasoning behind it not being a major tourist attraction in the county was that “it didn’t have anything to do with the Cherokees.” Say what-t-t-t?
I asked an official in the Graham County Chamber of Commerce, why their tourist brochure made no mention of what was probably one of the oldest structures in the county. He told me that “the Cherokees told him that the mound wasn’t important.”
I sent an email to the Graham County Historical Society from the county library, asking why this mound was not mentioned in their website, while several web pages were spent on Junaluska’s Grave. There was no response.
I sent an email to the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office from the Graham County Library, along with the photo above. I asked them why this important structure was not listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They responded that they were not aware of any mound being located in Graham County other that at the Tuskeegee Site on Fontana Lake. They said that if this unusual feature was really a mound, a professional archaeologist would have long ago placed it in their site files.
In order to communicate with the outside world and write articles for the Examiner, I had rented a booth at the Valkyrie Video Games Parlor in Robbinsville, where I set up my computer. It is generally not a good idea to keep a graphics platform computer in your tent. A few days after I got the response from the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, the video game parlor was raided by the North Carolina State Police . . . well, actually I was raided. The officers were wearing SWAT armor and carrying military-type weapons. When the lead officer realized the ridiculous nature of their raid, he sheepishly admitted that “We received information from another law enforcement agency that you were operating an illegal architecture office from this location.”
Actually, I had maintained a North Carolina license for most of my adult life, even while living in Virginia and now in Georgia, but had dropped it in 2008, when the economy collapsed. In 2010, there was no construction going on within a 200 mile radius, so even if I had wanted to convert a video games parlor into a bustling architecture office, we would have had no work.
After that point, things got worse and worse. Apparently, the TVA, state and US Forest Service law enforcement officers, who had helped hide Olympic Games bomber, Eric Rudolph, from the FBI thought that I was a government spy. They spread false rumors around Graham, Swaim, Cherokee and Clay Counties, North Carolina that I was a gay, male prostitute. By late May, I had to get out of Dodge City, fast . . . as the old saying goes. I was never able to complete my search for Juan Pardo’s forts or Sephardic Jewish settlements in western North Carolina.
County librarian provides a different point of view
The Director of the Graham County Library was a Scout Master of a local Boy Scout troop. He was also interested in all facets of history. He told me that a prominent Florida archaeologist had retired in their county and spent his retirement years documenting the many archaeological sites in the county. This archaeologist had received permission to dig test holes in at least a dozen mounds in the county. There were several more suspected mounds, which he was not allowed to study. He also had found 16th century Spanish weapons, tools and beads at several locations . . . especially in the bed of Lake Santeetlah, when its water level was lowered.
The Florida archaeologist was convinced that Juan Pardo had built one of his forts where Lake Santeetlah was located, plus that both Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo had visited Graham County during their explorations of the Southern Highlands. No 16th century Spanish artifacts have ever been found at the official sites of Chiaha, determined by 20th century academicians. However, a warehouse full of Spanish artifacts have been found in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley.
A 16th century Spanish fort may not be hiding under the waters of Lake Santeetlah. It may be an early 17th century Sephardic fort or settlement. In April 2010, I found an inscribed stone on a mountaintop above Lake Santeetlah, which stated, “PRE DARMOS CASADA ~ SEP 15. 1615 . . . a Jewish wedding had taken place. Of course, it is known that there were many Conversos and Moriscos among the men of the De Soto and Pardo. De Soto came from a converted Jewish family, while Pardo came from a converted Moorish family. Perhaps the Sephardi knew about this beautiful Shangri-La from survivors of those expeditions. There is still so much that we don’t know about that period in the Southeast’s history.
Whatever the case, the professional archaeologist dutifully prepared a report on his findings in Graham County and sent it to the State Archaeologist’s Office and the State Historic Preservation Office in Raleigh . . . expecting the archaeological sites to be placed on the state’s site files and the mounds to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nothing happened . . . the archaeologist eventually passed away with nothing to show for his 15+ years of voluntary work.
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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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