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The Uchee People were the first settlers in the Blue Ridge Mountains

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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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.



    Such a shame those artifacts were dispersed and ended up in different places. But are all of those artifacts exhibited in the museum now or are some of them lost ?. Why on earth they were not catalogued in the first place beats me. Thank you for sharing your research Richard.

    • They were never catalogued because the Coburns merely viewed them as “primitive art”.

    • The artifacts were never catalogued because the owners merely viewed them as conversation pieces in their mansions.

    • The artifacts were never catalogued because the owners viewed them merely as conversation pieces in their mansions.


    Richard, The Yuchi people have stated they were the first people in Georgia? but there were hunters gathers in the state going back at least to 13-12,000 BC. Clovis type flint tools found in Georgia and France so perhaps a connection with the Yuchi and the Clovis peoples hunting the whales. Both the Celtic Euro’s and the Yuchi were noted as making round houses towns to live in. Do you know what type of houses the “Chiska” people built? An ancient name noted of the Savanna river was “Chiske” by the 17 century.

    • If you read my articles, I say that they are the oldest ethnic groups still in the Southeast. The Uchee’s say that there was no one in the Lower Southeast, when they arrived, but there were many shell mounds and shell rings, which had been made by a people before them.


        Thank You, for Articles Richard you have taught me a lot about the Histories passed down from the Native Elders. 1200 BC was an important time for peoples on both sides of the Atlantic ocean with the arrival of the Olmec’s (Yama-see) to Mexico and you have noted an event in 1200 BC for Denmark as well? Perhaps an comet strike in the Ocean at that time line affected people living by coastal areas and caused them to migrate to other lands in boats. Perhaps that’s why the Yuchi Elders found no one living by the coastlines when they arrived but further inland by the mountains peoples must have survived by seeking shelter in caves. Hence the stories of peoples coming out of the ground told by some of the Native elders. There was a massive strike in 9400 BC which led to over 200 large animals disappearing and perhaps also led to this area of the Earth domesticating over 70% of the produce eaten today.


    Thank you for your reply Richard If they are in a museum can they be seen online at all.?

    • They may be online somewhere, but they will be labeled as being from North Carolina. There is a traveling exhibit, which has been floating around the United States for 10 years called, “People of One Fire . . . 6,000 years of Cherokee pottery in North Carolina.” They stole the name of the exhibit from our organization. Almost all the pottery on the exhibit, which dates before 1600 AD is from Georgia and was made by ancestors of the Creek Indians.

      That’s what we have to deal with here in the states . . . fraudulent archaeology.


    Apparently, the story of the Euchee is the story of a most purposely obscured people hiding in plain site. As you may (or may not) remember, I had been searching for information about them for the past 20 years, and only when I stumbled upon your writings did I discover anything of substance about them. Again, thank you, Richard.

    • Thank you Cynthia. Several of my cousins have created a Face Book site, which focusing on Uchee research. They have double-side Uchee heritage. There is still much we don’t know because, as you said, few people have been interested in the Uchee.


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