The Uchee People were the first settlers in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Dear Mr. Thornton,
Thank you for writing about beautiful Rabun County, GA. I grew up there and attended the famous Rabun Gap – Nacoochee School. Would you believe that I was one of the students, who created the Foxfire Tales? It was the happiest time of my life.
My mother has become a big fan of yours and asked me to write you. She’s 82 now, but still remembers the summer of 1957, when she and her boyfriend worked on the Tugaloo Island mounds with Dr. Caldwell. She says that you are absolutely right. The Creeks occupied Tugaloo Island until at least 1700 AD and that the Cherokees had nothing to do with the mounds in Northeast Georgia. She doesn’t understand why the State of Georgia put up historic markers years later, saying that Tugaloo was the “oldest Cherokee town in Georgia.” She and I both have told the Chamber of Commerce to stop saying that the Cherokees have been in Rabun County for thousands of years, but they won’tt listen to us.
This leads to our questions. Who were the aboriginal people of the Blue Ridge Mountains – the Creeks? Where are the artifacts that the Smithsonian Institute dug from the Dillard Mound? What were the names of the Native American towns around Rabun Gap?
Shelly K. Whitson
Chevy Chase, MD
Dear Ms. Whitson:
The Creek People are really a relatively recent assimilation of the survivors from many Native provinces in the Lower Southeast. They did share numerous cultural traits, but their ancestors came from many parts of the Americas and even northwestern Europe.
No one knows who roamed the Blue Ridge Mountains for thousands of years as hunters and gatherers. They were probably ancestors of some modern day tribe, but the Native peoples wandered long distances in the old days, so there is no way of being certain which one it is. No skeletons from that era have been excavated in Blue Ridge Mountains from which DNA could be extracted.
Your valley was settled by the Uchee
There is no doubt that the first permanent villages in Northeast Georgia were founded by the Uchee. To archaeologists, these villages and mounds are labeled the Deptford Culture. Around 1200 BC to 1000 BC the Uchee came up the Savannah River from their mother town in Savannah and settled along the headwaters of the Chattahoochee, Little Tennessee and Savannah Rivers. From here they controlled the salt trade between the South Atlantic Coast and the interior of North America.
I strongly suspect that the mounds and dark circles, that my ERSI imagery detected along Betty’s Creek and in the bottomlands of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School are Uchee mounds and structures. None of these sites have been investigated by professional archaeologists, however.
Around 550 AD, people of mixed Muskogean-Uchee-Panoan ancestry migrated into Northeast Georgia and the region around Franklin, NC. They are known to archaeologists as the Late Swift Creek Culture.
Around 800-900 AD, hybrid Itza Mayas came up the Savannah River from Savannah and established dominance over the Uchee. From then on the Uchee farmsteads and villages were on the west side of the Little Tennessee, while the Itza towns and villages were on the east side.
Around 1000 AD more Itza and Kekchi Maya Commoners arrived, probably because of the sacking of Chichen Itza by Mayapan. Their arrival initiated the construction of mounds and terrace complexes.
The population of the region declined between 1200 AD and 1375 AD. At the same time, the population around Etowah Mounds in northwest Georgia exploded.
Around 1375 AD, the population of the region began growing again. The period between 1375 AD and 1600 AD is when the greatest amount of mound construction occurred. This culture is known to archaeologists as the Lamar Culture and in extreme northeast Georgia as the Tugaloo and Jarrett Phases. These people were directly ancestral participants in the Creek Confederacy.
The Dillard Valley was conquered by the Proto-Cherokees in 1716, at the beginning of the Creek-Cherokee War. Several villages kept their Cherokee-nized Uchee or Itza names, but most of the residents, except war captives moved much farther south.
Villages in the Dillard Valley and Itsate Gap
The Uchee village near Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School was named Usta-toa in Uchee and Estatoa in Anglicized Cherokee. The large Muskogean town around the Dillard Mound was named Itsate in Itza Maya and Echete in Anglicized Cherokee. Almost all residents of these villages moved to the Ocmulgee River after the Cherokee Alliance was formed in 1725.
A Muskogean village on the west side of the Little Tennessee River, just north of the Georgia-North Carolina Line was named Kowi-te in Creek and Coweeta in Anglicized Cherokee. The large town around the Otto Mound in Otto, NC was named Itsate-E in Itza Maya and Etchoe in Anglicized Cherokee. The E suffix at the end is Itza Maya grammar. It means “principal” or “capital” town.
Location of Dillard Mound artifacts
I did some deeper research after getting your letter last week. I was shocked to learn that some details of what I wrote in an earlier article on the Dillard Valley were stated in all references, but not true. There has been very little professional archaeological work in the valley where you grew up. Numerous references say that archaeologist William Coburn from the Smithsonian Institute excavated the Dillard mound in 1932 . . . not true!
William and Burnham Coburn were brothers from a wealthy family in Detroit. They were friends of fellow Detroit residents, Harvey Firestone, Sr. and Henry Ford. In the early 1920s, the Coburn Brothers joined Firestone in Asheville, NC. They became investors and home owners in the ritzy Biltmore Forest Development, which was intended to be a community for America’s new nobility.
The Coburn Brothers made their money in real estate and banking (Biltmore Forest, Asheville First National Bank, Coburn Realty, Coburn Properties, Inc.) but they were avid amateur geologists. On trip down to Atlanta they saw the Dillard Mound and soon paid the owner, J. J. Greenwood for the right to excavate. This occurred in 1932 at the peak of the Depression, so they only paid him pocket change. Much of the excavation was done by local laborers with a surveyor from Franklin, NC as the foreman.
The Coburns paid the famous archaeologist, Warrant K. Moorehead, to take the train down from Boston to visit their digging one day and give them guidance. That was the sole involvement of professional archaeologists on their dig.
The Colburns eventually shipped a box of non-descript artifacts and potsherds to the Smithsonian Institute along with numerous photographs of their excavation. They have never been curated and are still stored in boxes at a warehouse, owned by the Smithsonian Institute in Suitland, MD.
All of the museum quality artifacts were kept by the brothers or given to friends. After Burnham Coburn’s death, his collection of minerals, gems and Dillard Mound artifacts became the Coburn Mineral Museum in Asheville, NC. In 1972 the collection was moved to the basement of the new Pack Memorial Library, next to the Asheville Convention Center. In the 1980s, they were moved to the renovated Old Pack Library, which was later connected to the remodeled Pack Theater. In subsequent renovations of the complex, art dilatants dispersed the Native American artifacts from the Dillard Mound to several museums around Asheville and back to the new Pack Library.
So if you want to see any artifacts from the Dillard Mound in Rabun County, GA, look for Native American artifacts on display in Asheville, NC, which are labeled, “Artifact from Cherokee mound near Asheville – From Coburn Mineral Museum Collection.” Some artifacts might be labeled, “From Cherokee mound on French Broad River in Asheville – Burham Coburn Collection.”
How would he know that?
The first project to ever bear my architect’s seal was the renovation of the Old Pack Library in Asheville to be an art museum to house the Coburn artifact collection and contemporary Cherokee art. The second project to bear my architect’s seal composed all those large brick plazas on Pack Square in Asheville near this museum.
I was told by the director of the Coburn Mineral Museum that all the artifacts came from a Cherokee mound were excavated by Burnham Coburn on the French Broad River near Downtown Asheville. I now know that there was never a mound at that location and the Cherokees never built mounds. In fact, the Cherokees never even lived near Asheville. It was Shawnee territory. The Dillard Mound in Georgia was the only mound that the Coburn Brothers ever excavated.
At the time, I thought the artifacts looked way too fine a quality to be from North Carolina. They looked like the artifacts at the Etowah Mounds Museum in Northwest Georgia. But who was I to question such things? My job was to restore the building according to U.S. Department of Interior Standards, not question the authenticity of exhibits.
Life goes in circles, doesn’t it?
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