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Why are there no large Native American mounds near Asheville?

Why are there no large Native American mounds near Asheville?


Dear Mr. Thornton,   I know you!    I was in the youth group at Grace Covenant Presbyterian in Asheville that you and your wife were counselors for.  I was a friend of the Burkhardts.   You designed a Japanese teahouse for the Burkhardts up the road a bit from your farm.  After I was in college, I came by with the Burkhardts and one of the Sayles girls.  You showed me how to milk a goat. LOL  Do you remember when the youth group went hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia?  There was a terrible thunderstorm on the mountain top that night that scared the daylights out of us gals and then cold rain poured down all the next day.  You stopped us from hiking and told us to put up tarpaulins so we could get dry.  A group of Girl Scouts from Texas wandered into our camp, all blue skinned from hypothermia. We spent a couple of hours getting them warm again so they wouldn’t die.  Never forgotten that weekend.   I just read the articles on the Nikwasi Mound.  Very interesting.  My question is this.  The French Broad River is much bigger in Asheville than the river flowing through Franklin (North Carolina).  Why are there no big mounds in the Asheville area?   Inquiring minds want to know! LOL      Kathy Penland


OMG!   Yes, Kathy, I remember you coming by the farm when you were “all grown up.”   Somewhere in a box, I have a photo of you picking a nectarine “suggestively” that you had me take for your boyfriend.  Would you believe that I now live at the foot of the mountain, where we got stuck in the cold rain?  Life is indeed a box of chocolates.

The answer to your question is real simple.  It is all about climate and the minerals in the soil.  There is a huge difference in the climate between the North Georgia Mountains and the Asheville Area.  Franklin is just north of the state line. The Asheville Area is much drier and has a shorter growing season.  The French Broad Valley was just not as good a location to grow such former tropical plants as corn and beans. Nowadays, farmers grow crops from hybrid seeds, which have been adopted to colder climates.  I will explain below.

Asheville’s climatic records are deceiving.  For the past 50 years, they have come from the Asheville Airport, which really has a climate like Hendersonville.  There are some modest Native American ceremonial mounds near Hendersonville and Brevard.  Creek Indians lived in that area until after the American Revolution.  Even so . . . Asheville officially gets 41 inches of precipitation, while Franklin and Rabun Gap, GA get 67 inches.  The Asheville Airport averages 12 inches of snow a year, while Franklin averages 6.  As you know, Asheville and especially northern Buncombe County can get 32 inches of snow or more a year and have much shorter growing seasons (time between last and first frosts) than Hendersonville.

While I was in Asheville, North Carolina state archaeologists determined that during the period between around 1100 AD and 1500 AD there WERE villages in the Asheville Area with cultural traits similar to those of the Proto-Creek mound builders in North Georgia.  These villages were suddenly abandoned around 1500 AD.

In the 1600s, some Shawnee villages were established in Buncombe and Haywood Counties, but they were not mound builders and made a different, more primitive, type of pottery.   Actually, there was a huge Shawnee town where Biltmore Village is now.  The location is in fertile bottom land at the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers.   Swannanoa is the Anglicization of the Muskogee words meaning Shawnee Water or River.

A few years ago, climatologists discovered that a Little Ice Age struck eastern North America during that period.  It began in the mid-1200s and initially caused much heavier rains in the Southeast.  However, by 1500 the weather became much colder in the North Carolina Mountains.  In 1567, Spanish explorer Juan Pardo reported that the snowfall in December was so heavy that the North Carolina Mountains were impassible.  He had to turn around and go back to the South Carolina coast. It seems likely that a series of bad or no harvests around 1500 AD caused all the potential mound builders to leave the region  . . . before they could erect large mounds.

A toxic mineral in the soil

However, in the Asheville Area there was another obstacle to the establishment of large Native American towns.   It is a hidden killer in the soil.  

Now, where my farm was located, contained a deep layer of black top soil, washed down from the Craggy Mountains.  However, the sub-soil underneath it and the bottom land soils along that section of the French Broad River contain extremely high levels of aluminum and virtually no magnesium or calcium. 

Aluminum is toxic to both humans and livestock.  It inhibits muscular growth.  In high levels, the combination of aluminum toxicity with lack of magnesium and calcium are very similar to the effects of mercury toxicity.  It causes stillborn births, birth defects, skeletal deformities, retarded brain development and insanity.  

Visitors to the Asheville Area in the 1800s and early 1900s assumed that the degenerate appearance of many subsistence farm families in the region (aka Hillbillies) and their widespread eccentric behavior was due to babies being produced by brothers and sisters or first cousins frequently marrying.  It is much more likely that aluminum and the lack of magnesium and calcium were the culprits.

In the early 1900s, Asheville intentionally built its source of drinking water high in the Black Mountains to get above the aluminum soils.   In the meanwhile, increased affluence enabled more and more families to buy food, produced in other regions.  Thus, mental impairment and eccentric behavior is now only a problem in Biltmore Forest.  <joke>

After we moved our cheese creamery to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, our does (milk goats) averaged over 1/3 larger in size and produced over twice as much milk.  We had several batches of quintuplets and even sextuplets.  One doe gave over three gallons of milk a day.  Our males doubled in size.   

This is interesting.   The actual Shenandoah Valley in Shenandoah County, VA is about 1900 feet lower than our farm in the Reems Valley near Asheville.  Even though it was over 400 miles farther north,  the extreme winter temperatures at the Virginia farm were not nearly as severe as those in Reems Creek.  Instead, the temperatures then hovered around freezing much of the winter, so we had snow on the pastures most of the winter, but seldom any “unbearable” weather.   The growing season was longer.  There were once many mounds in the Shenandoah Valley.  Indian corn did well in the black bottom lands of the Shenandoah River as does hybrid corn today.

It is possible that Native Americans eventually realized that there was something wrong with the corn, beans and squash grown in French Broad River Valley, north of Asheville, then moved on elsewhere.  Alternatively, since they only ate food from that toxic soil,   their birth rate declined to the point of the agricultural villages vanishing.  

The Shawnees obtained much more of their food from hunting and gathering, so they were not as affected by the aluminum.  Also, the top soil on the Biltmore Estate, where the big Shawnee town was located, is very fertile and does not have nearly as much aluminum in 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.



    It seems to me that if the toxic metals problem is as pervasive as it looks, this may have been discernable to people visiting the area from much earlier dates, in the form of scrawnier rabbits and squirrels. It is also likely that bird populations would be less healthy, hence less numerous. People coming into the area would be highly sensitive to such subtleties, and simply avoided the Asheville area permanently. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could find some bit of religious heritage or folklore that referred to or explained such a place?

    • That’s a good point Dan . . . smaller and fewer game. Never thought about that, but it makes sense. I saw two scrawny deer in 10 years on our farm in Asheville. Imagine there are a lot more now. However, when got to the Shenandoah Valley, the deer ran in huge herds during the daytime. The deer in areas with dolimitic limestone are much larger. Pennsylvania deer are huge. The Swannanoa River Valley seems more fertile than the French Broad Valley around Asheville. There are a lot more Native American artifacts there.


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