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Why did Etula (Etowah) boom, while much of the Southern Highlands became the boonies?

Why did Etula (Etowah) boom, while much of the Southern Highlands became the boonies?


It is a pattern that you see in archaeological reports for hundreds of sites in Northern Georgia, Southeastern Tennessee and Western North North Carolina.  While a few towns, such as Etula, plus those on Hiwassee Island, Tennessee and Tugaloo Island, Georgia boomed between around 1200 AD and 1375 AD,  many towns and villages elsewhere suddenly had much smaller populations or were completely abandoned. The archaeologists could find few or no artifacts from that era.  What happened? 

The pattern first became apparent in 2012, while I was researching the region around the Track Rock Terrace Complex in extreme North Georgia and immediately north in Western North Carolina.  So far, the oldest radiocarbon date from a terrace at Track Rock is 1018 AD.  That’s only about 20 years later than the oldest radiocarbon dates at Etula and Ichese (the Lamar Village at Ocmulgee National Monument). Since only a couple of terraces out of well over 200 at Track Rock have been analyzed,  older terraces may exist, but the date does suggest contemporary community development at many locations in the Southern Piedmont and Appalachian Mountains.

TownCreekMoundIn the river bottomlands near Track Rock, numerous sites with modest truncated pyramidal mounds appeared about the same time.  In fact, two on Town Creek  in Union County, GA and Brasstown Creek in Towns County, GA were only about four miles away from the terrace complex.  That means two entirely different approaches to agriculture thrived in walking distance of each other.  Continuing northward on US Hwy. 129,which follows closely the route of the Nene Hvtke Rakko (Great White Path) mentioned in several Creek Migration Legends, you find more of these same type mounds, almost equally spaced all the way to the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.  In fact, one of the best preserved mounds in the Southeast is privately owned and adjacent to the US 129 right-of-way in Graham County, NC.  It is called the Talulah Mound . . . Tulula being the Itsate Creek word for a small town.

This mound is not even listed by the State of North Carolina in its official mound registry, despite being so visible to tourists.  However, its appearance provides readers with a good idea of what “Etowah I” mounds looked like.  Note that it has no protection and is being used as a cattle feeding lot.  During the past 30 years, numerous mounds containing Proto-Creek artifacts have been bulldozed in Western North Carolina.  One of them became the sewage treatment plant for the Cherokee Reservation.

Like the Harben Mound in Dawson County, GA, which was recently described in a POOF article,  the mounds built in the Southern Highlands during the period from 900 AD to 1200 AD had long, broad ramps aligned with the Winter Solstice Sunset. (See the photo below.)  They did not seem to be the segregated domain of some powerful high king, but places of worship, easily accessible by large numbers of people.   This suggest that religious practices were different than in the “Middle Mississippian Period” and that the societies were more egalitarian.   Certainly the extremely steep and narrow stairway of Mound A at Etowah Mounds suggests that few people were allowed to climb up to its summit and have direct contact with the Great Sun.

The Tallulah Mound -Only pottery and other artifacts, similar to those made at Etowah Mounds in NW Georgia can be found in the town site next to this well-preserved mound. Obviously, the Cherokees were no where around, so the mound is kept a secret by state officials and North Carolina archaeologists.

The Tallulah Mound – Only pottery and other artifacts, similar to those made at Etowah in NW Georgia can be found in the town site next to this well-preserved mound. Obviously, the Cherokees were nowhere around, so the mound is kept a secret by NC state officials and archaeologists.

A very similar mound formerly existed in the Nacocchee Valley in the Sautee Community, north of the Kenimer Mound.  In 1927, the new sanctuary for the Nacoochee Presbyterian Church was built upon it.   However, dozens of almost identical mounds once were landmarks in many other valleys of the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont.  Whenever you find a stream named Town Creek, Etowah Creek, Hightower Creek or Mound Creek, you can be sure that 180 years of plowing have almost erased the existence of this modest style of mound from the stream’s banks.  Etowah and Hightower are Anglicizations of the Muskogee Creek word, Etalwa, which is the equivalent of the Itsate word, Etula.

For most of its 12,000 years or more of human occupation,  the artifacts found in the Nacoochee Valley were identical or similar to those found in Northwest Georgia and often even in Middle Georgia.  While excavating 38 archaeological sites in the Nacoochee Valley during 1939,  archaeologist Robert Wauchope only found one or two sites, which he thought contained artifacts they he thought dated to the period between 1250 and 1400 AD at Etowah Mounds.   There seemed to be about a 200 year period when few people lived in the valley.

Currently, I am studying the work of archaeologists Robert Wauchope, Arthur Kelly and Lewis Larson in the Upper Etowah River Valley and its tributaries.  The region had a relative dense human occupation from the Early Woodland Period until the end of the Etula’s first occupation around 1200 AD.  There were several towns containing mounds at such locations as Long Swamp Creek in Pickens County,  the Etowah River and Cane Creek in Lumpkin County, plus Amicalola Creek in Dawson County.   Very few artifacts have been found, which date from the period between 1200 AD and 1400 AD. The region was then reoccupied by people making highly refined Lamar Culture artifacts.   These highly respected archaeologists had no explanation for the apparent 200 year gap in human occupation.

An apocalyptic storm and then a diaspora?

Around 1200 AD a massive storm rolled through the Lower Southeast.  The rains caused the Ocmulgee River to completely inundate the town of Ichese, which was on a horseshoe bend in that river.  Afterward, Ichese was on an island.  The Ocmulgee flood left a deposit of alluvial muck over the entire town.  In the 1930s,  archaeologists did not continue digging through the muck to get to the original town.  This is what started the myth that Ichese was not settled for 200 years after the abandonment of the Ocmulgee Acropolis.   Like so much other archaeological mythology that we Creeks have to deal with, this orthodoxy began as a speculation before the days of radiocarbon dating. 

In 1973 and 1974, National Park Service archaeologists dug through the muck and obtained a founding date of around 990 AD for Ichese, but this fact has been kept out of the textbooks and references such as Wikipedia, although many (still living) archaeologists attended the conference, where the date was presented.  The same people, making the same styles of pottery founded both Ichese and Etula at about the same time.

1818-etowahmounds-detailA similar process of fabricated history happened at Etowah Mounds.  During the first occupation of  Etula, Mound A was on the north end of a horseshoe bend. The massive storm inundated the town and cut a new channel for the river to the south of the three big mounds.  You can still see the old channel in the landscape of Etowah Mounds.  The town then extended southward to both sides of where the river flows.  Originally, there were 15 to 18 mounds, depending on whose early account you trust.  In 1818,  Yale professor, Elias Cornelius, surveyed Mound A.  The mound was a different shape than today and had 18 feet more earth on top.  Between 1818 and 1885, the appearance of the mounds changed radically because the Tumlin family allowed collectors to pay $200 a day to excavate anywhere they liked.  

In 1886, a massive flood on the Etowah River devastated the Etowah Mounds archaeological zone.  Earthworks near the river banks on both sides were swept away, while up to 15 feet of sand was deposited on the portion of the zone that is now a state-owned park. In the late 1990s, while working on his dissertation, archaeologist Adam King discovered that the base of Mound A was actually 15 feet below the current surface.  So in 1818, Etowah Mound was almost as tall as Monks Mound in Cahokia!

etula-evolutionFor 60 years, visitors to the Etowah Mounds museum were led to believe that Georgia archaeologists studied the entire town site between 1955 and 1957.  In fact, they only excavated Mounds B and C, plus the area immediately around those mounds. Etowah Mound A, the big one, has never been excavated by professional archaeologists.  Property owners had bulldozed several mounds on the south side of the river, when they heard that the state was planning to buy the town site.

Archaeologists Arthur Kelly, Lew Larson and Joseph Caldwell made no mention of the 40-50 acres of the town site, south of the river.  Subsequent archaeological papers and references have also ignored this area.  In his dissertation and subsequent books, Adam King even seems unaware that much of the original town was completely destroyed by the relocation, south of the river and channel.  He describes the original town as being essentially a village with modest mounds.

Around 1250 AD,  the site of Etula, north of the Etowah River, was re-occupied by a people making a different style of pottery.  I strongly suspect that remnants of the original population never stopped living on the south side of the river.  On the north side an entirely different town plan was developed, which was reminiscent of the plan of several large towns on the Lower Mississippi River, such as Marksville.  The town was heavily fortified with a moat and a continues palisade with guard towers spaced around 75 feet apart.  The original mounds were greatly expanded.  Enormous amounts of human energy were required to haul the dirt to expand Mound A from a modest platform to a pyramidal man-made mountain.


As a massive population increase occurred at the new town of Etula, satellite towns and villages sprang up within one days walk north, west, east and south of the fortified capital.  Many had a single mound, indicated that they were tululas (tvlofa in Muskogee) or district administrative centers.  There are many Native American town sites in Cobb, Floyd, Paulding and Cherokee Counties, Georgia that local residents have never heard of, because after receiving an official site number from archaeologists, or perhaps even being excavated, their existence was never publicized.  Large towns, 200 years older than Etula near Ball Ground, GA (9CK1)  and across from the mouth of Peachtree Creek in Cobb County, GA continued to grow with multiple mounds.  However, once one gets much farther than 25 miles from Etowah Mounds, there is little evidence of human occupation between 1250 AD and 1400 AD, until one gets into sites with stone terraces and stone architecture . . . the realms of the Highland Apalache.

While Etula, Hiwassee Island, Tugaloo Island, the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, Ocmulgee Bottoms and the Georgia stone architecture towns were booming,  the Anasazi Culture disappeared, the Middle Mississippi Valley became almost depopulated and Moundville, Alabama was largely abandoned.  Yet there is very little evidence of human occupation in between the big towns in the Southern Highlands and Blue Ridge Foothills.

This depopulation of Foothills and Appalachians has not apparently not been an phenomenon that interested anthropologists, but it is of great interest to Native Americans, who want to know the true history of their ancestors.   A few anthropologists in the Southwest and Texas, with little knowledge of the Creek Homeland, state in their books and papers that the same drought, which devastated peoples in the Midwest, also wiped out the towns in the Mississippi Basin and the Southeast.  Drought could not be the culprit in the Creek Homeland.  The Amicalola River Basin gets 14 more inches of rainfall a year than Etowah Mounds, yet it was apparently almost uninhabited while the Lower Etowah River Valley was booming.

There was probably no ethnic cleansing carried out by invaders around 1250 AD, because there is a continuous evolution of pottery and architectural styles in the Creek Homeland from the Early Woodland Period (c. 1000 BC) to around 1700 AD.  The Lamar Culture People, who repopulated these regions after around 1375 AD, built architecture that had been seen before (at a more modest scale) and made pottery that was merely a refinement of earlier ceramic traditions in the Creek Homeland. 

Apparently, “something” motivated villagers to abandon their homes and relocate to the vicinity of the Lower Etowah River Basin.  Did the elite, who re-established Etula on a grander scale around 1250 AD force indigenous peoples to resettle near their capital?   Did wars, on an apocalyptic scale between major towns, cause residents to flee to major population centers, where large armies could protect them?  Did the availability of cultural activity, imported commodities and agricultural surpluses make life in the “Big Cities” make life there so attractive that large numbers of people found it an advantage to move to the Big City?  These are questions that have not been answered.

What can be said with some certainty is that the rise of the Lamar Culture after Etula was suddenly abandoned seems to represent the military victory of a more egalitarian alliance over the large towns such as Etula.  Soon thereafter similar architecture, art and ceramics could be found from southwestern Virginia to the Lower Chattahoochee River Basin.  It was the beginning of the very first, People of One Fire.


Appearance of a Lamar Culture town on the Hiwassee River in Peachtree, NC around 1500 AD.

Appearance of a Lamar Culture town on the Hiwassee River in Peachtree, NC around 1567 AD. The Cherokees were nowhere around.


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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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