Select Page

Traveling back in time along the Unicoi Trail

Traveling back in time along the Unicoi Trail


Why, in 1886, did Smithsonian Institute archaeologist, Cyrus Thomas, find over a hundred stone ruins and earthen mounds in a relatively unknown section of the Southern Appalachians . . . in the valleys and gorges, created by Sautee Creek, the Soque River and the Tallulah River? On Goat Island in the Tallulah River, Thomas discovered what archaeologist Robert Wauchope later described as the largest stone effigy in North America . . . a half acre size turtle.  It’s still there.  Every week, volunteers are finding even more intriguing sites in this region that Thomas, and in 1939, Wauchope, missed.  Just yesterday,  a historian with the Habersham County Public Library System, Bill Raper, told me about a complex of stone cairns and stone carvings “like the Mayas” on the north face of Tray Mountain.  He also provided me proof that what Wikipedia and Tennessee/North Carolina-authored references tell you about the Unicoi Trail . . . are partially wrong.  It took me two years to figure out that the town of Soque changed its name to Batesville in the 1920s.  Late 20th century archaeologists never figured that out and so could not find the stone ruins, described by Cyrus Thomas.

Described as the Unicoi Turnpike in most references, readers of all articles and tourist brochures are told that this was a road constructed in 1814 by a group of Anglo-American and mixed-blood Cherokee investors to connect the great Cherokee town of Tugaloo with the Tennessee River. You are told that Unicoi is an ancient Cherokee word that is “said” to mean “New Way.”  Before yesterday, I already knew that part of that story was wrong.

First of all . . . “New Way” in Middle Cherokee is roughly “i-tse-ga-lo-hi-s-di” . . . not even close.   French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, mentioned two major roads in the two chapters of a book that he wrote in 1658 about the indigenous peoples of present day Georgia.  The Great White Path was constructed under direction of a great king of the Apalache in Northeast Georgia to connect the Smoky Mountains with the Gulf of Mexico.  It is now the US 129 highway.  A little later, the Unicoi Road was constructed by a powerful Apalache queen to provide a safe route for Uchee salt traders in the Savannah Area to the Callemako (Tennessee) River,  because the road along the Little Tennessee River through what is now called Itsate or Echota Gap was blocked by an enemy tribe. Unicoi is an Apalache-Creek word meaning in modern English, “river connection.”  

The original Unicoi Turnpike passed through Sokee via the present day GA Hwy. 197.   In the 1820s, the road shifted westward through Unicoi Gap.


Soque – The correct indigenous pronunciation is Jzhõ : kē, but locals now pronounce it,  Sõ : kwē.  Early 19th century maps spelled the word Sokee or Sukee.   Soque is the 18th century English spelling for the most powerful and sophisticated tribe in the region, when South Carolina was founded in 1670.  Early explorers quickly noticed that this tribe had many “Mexican” traditions and also had a writing system, which was recorded on gold foil and rock carvings.  The word is Zoque-Mixtec from southern Mexico and means “civilized.”  Both the Zoque in Mexico and the Miccosukee in the United States claim to have been the progenitors of the “Olmec Civilization.”  The Olmecas had nothing to do with the civilization that bears their name.

Miccosukee – Anglicization of Sokee word, Mikosoke, which means “Leaders of the Sokee.”

Sautee Creek – Anglicization of the Itsate-Creek name of the Soque, Svte or Saute.

Tallulah River and Gorge – Anglicization of the Itsate-Creek word, talula, which was a district administrative town with one mound.  The equivalent word in Muskgoee Creek is talufa.

Terrora Gorge – Anglicization of the alternative name for the Tallulah River and Gorge . . . Turaree.   The meaning is problematic.  This may be a Cherokee pronunciation of the Creek word, Tallulah.   However, since the word has the Archaic Irish suffix “re”, we also have to consider a Bronze Age or later  Irish origin.  Tura was a town in northern Ireland, which was in the Kingdom of Cura.  See Currahee. 

Tugaloo River – Anglicization of the Cherokee pronunciation of the tribal name, tokahle or tokahre.   The word is Archaic Irish and means “Principal People or Nation.”  In Muskogee Creek, the word means “freckled.”

Toccoa – Anglicization of the Apalache Creek name for the Tokahle, which was Toka-kora.

Toque and Tokee – Spanish and English names for the Tokahle.

Tuckasegee River – Anglicization of Tokahsegi, which means “Descendants of the Tokah People.”

Currahee Mountain- Anglicization of the Creek word, Kurahi, which roughly means “Place of the Kura.”  Creeks rolled their R’s so hard that English speakers usually wrote the sound down as a L.  The Kulasee or “Descendants of Kura” were shown living in southern Stephens County during the early 1700s, but later moved to either the Lower Chattahoochee River or Florida.  Their original capital was Kura-re (Cullowhee, NC) on the Tuckasegee River.

Alekmanni – Archaic Anglisk tribal name meaning Principal Medicine People, it may be the original name of the English. However, it is known that the Alekmanni were a Germanic tribe in southern Scandinavia during the Iron Age and also a tribe on the Altamaha River in Georgia during the 1500s. They were located across the river from Fort Caroline, but after the Spanish invaded Georgia, they moved inland and later joined the Creek Confederacy.  Apparently, they also had a colony in the Georgia Mountains in the vicinity of Alec Mountain. In the 1700s, alek became the Creek word for a physician (medical doctor).  *Fort Caroline was show on ALL European maps, located near the mouth of the Altamaha River.  The location of the 1/12th scale model of the fort near Jacksonville, FL is a scam.  Sea-going sailing ships could not even enter the St. Johns River until 1860.

Itsate –  The word is Itza and Itsate Creek.  It means Itza People.   Itsate was the name of the largest town in the Nacoochee Valley until the early 1700s.

Chote – Anglicization of Cho’i-te, which is a large branch of the Mayas living in Tabasco State, Mexico.  It is the original indigenous name for the town of Helen, GA.  Chota is the Creek and Chickasaw word for a frog.

Callimako – This was the name of the Tennessee River until 1786.  It is an Itza Maya word that means “House of the King.”

The Tugaloo Rock, near Toccoa, GA,  portrays Northwest European Bronze age symbols and four Scandinavian Bronze Age boats.

The Apalache queen and the early 19th century investors may have improved the route and built new bridges, but what I saw this past weekend and early reconnaissance of the region has convinced me that the Unicoi Trail is thousands of years old.  The Unicoi Trail began at the exact location where farm laborers found the Tugaloo Rock in 1796.  It then followed the old route of US 123 through present day Toccoa to the side of Toccoa Falls then continued westward on the route of Georgia Route 17A to the foot of Currahee Mountain.  On top of Currahee were formerly the ruins of Pre-Columbian stone buildings.  Some of the walls remain.  Next, all references, readily available to the public, state that the Unicoi Trail then followed the modern route across relatively level terrain to Itsa-te (Sautee Village) and through the Nacoochee Valley and then the present day town of Helen, which was formerly Cho’i-te (Chote in Cherokee).   That indeed is an ancient Native American trade route, but Bill Raper, yesterday showed me absolute proof that it was not the original Unicoi Trail. He had historic maps and eyewitness accounts to back up his case.

During the early 1800s,  Sookee (Soque) was the only Native community of any significant size in the northeastern tip of Georgia. The History of Habersham County states that Clarkesville and Soque were the original white settlements in the county after the southern half of Habersham County was ceded by the Creek Confederacy in 1817 and the northern half was ceded by the Cherokee Tribe in 1818.  That fact only makes sense if there was a major road going through Soquee.   In 1821, the Native Americans in the Nacoochee Valley and surrounding areas sold most of their land to real estate speculators from Burke County, NC.

According to eyewitness accounts, the original route of the Unicoi Turnpike followed the Soque River along what is now GA Route 197 to a concentration of ancient stone structures and earthen mounds called Sookee then followed the Tallulah River past the enormous turtle effigy to what is now US 76 then turned west toward present day Hiawasee, GA.  There is a state historical marker noting the turnoff from what is now now Historic US 441 to Route 197,  but then states that the Unicoi Turnpike went through Unicoi Gap, north of Helen.  That’s impossible,  GA 197 goes to Batesville and then through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is not nearly as high as present day Unicoi Gap.  However, I am fairly certain that the pre-1814 route for the Unicoi Trail took a more northwesterly route through the region near Batesville, which contains so many stone ruins.

Looking at the oldest available maps of Native American trails and roads, there seems to have been an older route for the Unicoi Trail (not the Turnpike), which zig-zagged past many of the stone structures identified by either Thomas or Wauchope.  Perhaps this was the Apalache Unicoi Trail or even a much older trail system.  It looks more like the road system of a very, very ancient people or else a regional worship area. I am not sure if the oldest roads interconnected communities or shrines. 

There is a feeling one gets when up in those rugged volcanic mountains that mankind has been there a long, long time.  The topography is extremely complex and in the lower elevations, the vegetation is like a jungle.  One can be 30 feet away from a perfectly preserved stone altar or stone ring and not see it.   It is going to take many years of exploration in the mountains between Alec Mountain and Hiawasee to truly understand what was going on back then.


The following two tabs change content below.
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.



    Very educational
    Thanks Richard

    • Wish I could tell you more, but it is a vast, rugged, rocky region that no one has every studied.



    Love the work you do it is the most reliable information out there. Knowing you and your circumstances I am amazed by how you are able to create such meaningful data. May the Creator bless you.

    Please email me

    Dewey Painter

    • And may God bless you too! It is amazing how much you accomplish all over the world.


    I would like to email you a photo an artifact that i have that is Mayan and see what you think of it.


    Richard, in regards to the original Unicoi trail that Ga 197 now follows, I would think the Native Americans would have picked the shortest route by turning up Dicks Creek versus following 197 to US 76. Are there any historical maps showing the original route?

    Bill in Roswell GA

    • Yes, the historian at the Clarkesville Library had an account from someone in the 19th century plus a sketched map from that era, which showed the route that cuts north of Clarkesville to GA 197 then follows Georgia 197 all the way to US 76 east of Hiawassee. It makes sense because Clarkesville was originally a fortified trading post on the line between the Creeks and the Soque. The Early History of Habersham County said that both Clarkesville and Soque (Batesville) were founded in 1818, making them the county’s two oldest white communities.

      The state of Georgia put up a historical marker which states that Route 17A then Route 197 were the Unicoi Turnpike.


    In regards to Tray Mtn, the northside is an ancient boulder field and not an easy place to walk. I’ve not seen indication of ruins. Perhaps ruins are on a ridge off of Tray Mtn. I’ll sure give it a look next time I’m up that way.

    Bill in Roswell, GA


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to POOF via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this website and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 823 other subscribers

The Information World is changing!

People of One Fire needs your help to evolve with it.

We are now celebrating the 11th year of the People of One Fire. In that time, we have seen a radical change in the way people receive information. The magazine industry has almost died. Printed newspapers are on life support. Ezines, such as POOF, replaced printed books as the primary means to present new knowledge. Now the media is shifting to videos, animated films of ancient towns, Youtube and three dimensional holograph images.

During the past six years, a privately owned business has generously subsidized my research as I virtually traveled along the coast lines and rivers of the Southeast. That will end in December 2017. I desperately need to find a means to keep our research self-supporting with advertising from a broader range of viewers. Creation of animated architectural history films for POOF and a People of One Fire Youtube Channel appears to be the way. To do this I will need to acquire state-of-art software and video hardware, which I can not afford with my very limited income. Several of you know personally that I live a very modest lifestyle. If you can help with this endeavor, it will be greatly appreciated.

Support Us!

Richard Thornton . . . the truth is out there somewhere!

Pin It on Pinterest