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Why is the soil so black in the Dillard Valley?

Why is the soil so black in the Dillard Valley?


Dear Mr. Thornton,

I just subscribed to People of One Fire.  Very interesting articles!   Our family took a drive through the mountains this past Saturday.  As we drove along US 441 north of Clayton, GA, we noticed that the soil was jet black until we got to the North Carolina State Line at Otto.   Being Southerners, we are not accustomed to seeing black soil . . .  only red Georgia clay.   Why is the soil black there?  It looks like a place, where a lot of Indians would have lived.  Are there any mounds that we can visit, if we go back there again?

Dan and Patty Garner – Henry County, GA

The Little Tennessee River begins in the northeast corner of Rabun County, Georgia . . . only 8 1/2 miles west of the headwaters of the Savannah River . . . even though the Savannah flows southward to the Atlantic Ocean, which the waters of the Little Tennessee River eventually join the Tennessee River, which flows into the Ohio River a short distance upstream from its confluence with the Mississippi River.  There was a dense concentration of Native American towns and villages along the headwaters of the Little Tennessee, but the archaeological zone remains a terra incognita to the archaeology profession.

The Dillard Valley (Little Tennessee River Headwaters) viewed from the crest of Black Mountain, Georgia

Thank your for writing us.  Yes, the soil is very fertile along the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River.  Unfortunately, I could not find an answer from anyone in Rabun County. GA or the internet concerning your question about its color.

Here is my best guess.  The Little Tennessee River is older than the Blue Ridge Mountains.  It begins near Mountain City, GA and the flows northward through the Blue Ridge Mountains for about 18 miles, before turning west in Franklin, NC.  It eventually joins the Tennessee River near Lenoir, TN.  Throughout the eons, the Little Tennessee cut through the Blue Ridge Mountains as they grew, creating Rabun Gap and Itsate Gap.  There were “probably” not alpine glaciers in the Southern Appalachians during the last Ice Age, but they did have ice caps.

When the ice caps and permafrost soils melted on the tops of these mountains at the end of the Ice Age, the mountains weighed less and probably pushed upward slightly.  This may have occurred instead, during an earlier ice age or when there was a change in the earth’s gravity.  Whatever the case, a natural dam would have been created at Itsate Gap in Otto, NC.

The natural dam would have created a lake, which stretched about 12 miles to the south.  The lake probably lasted for several thousand years, but increasingly became shallower as the Little Tennessee River cut through the hard rock of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  For an even longer time, there would have been a swamp and then seasonal wetlands, created by spring floods. A thick layer of black, peaty soil built up while the valley was covered with either a lake or a swamp.

The Creek name for the Blue Ridge Mountains is the Snowy Mountains.  During the Little Ice Age between the early 1500s and mid-18th century,  heavy snows in the Blue Ridge Mountains made them almost impassible in the winter.  William Bartram stated that even as late as 1776, the melting of the snow during March and April in the Georgia Mountains caused the Okefenokee Swamp and Altamaha River to spread over most of Southeast Georgia to be covered in water until June.

Early Native American occupation

The density of mounds, settlement sites and numerous Native American artifacts found in plowed fields along the Little Tennessee River in Georgia suggests that it was likewise once densely occupied by Native American peoples.  Unfortunately, I cannot tell you much about those peoples.  This archaeological zone remains a terra incognito for the archaeology profession.  This archaeological zone is 300 miles from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.   It has been 60 years since any Georgia archaeologist excavated a mound in the Georgia Mountains.   They seem to think that the state line is a mile north of the University of Georgia.  University of Georgia archaeology professors even refused to study the Sandy Creek Terrace Complex, which is six miles north of the Anthropology Department.

None of the mounds in the Little Tennessee River Headwaters are publicly owned or open to the public.  However, it is possible to view the Greenwood (Dillard) Mound in Georgia and the Otto Mound in North Carolina from a public right of way.

The following is a chronological description of archaeological investigations in the Little Tennessee River Headwaters Basin:

A Michigan archaeologist ran some test ditches in the Greenwood Mound in Dillard, GA in 1932, before archaeologists had ever even classified and named the artifacts in Georgia. Of course, the mound was partially excavated two decades before radiocarbon dating became generally available.  He shipped all the artifacts to the Smithsonian Institute, which does not now know where they are located.  All we have today are a few pictures in the archaeologist’s report.  The potsherds in one photo appear to be Late Mississippian Lamar Culture.

In 1939,  archaeologist Robert Wauchope was supposed to survey all the counties in North Georgia.  However, he spent most of his time in the Nacoochee Valley and on the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta.  He never got around to the Little Tennessee River Valley.

In 1976, the Eastern Band of Cherokees funded excavation of the Mississippian Period Coweeta Mound, just across the state line in North Carolina, west of the Little Tennessee River.  Whenever discussing the site, North Carolina archaeologists insert the word Cherokee or Cherokee Sacred Site in every other sentence.  Yet it has the name of the most important division of the Creek Confederacy and the type of houses, built by Upper Creeks throughout North Georgia and Southeastern Tennessee.  The village was abandoned over a century before the word, Cherokee, appears on any map.  You go figure?  That means all parties concerned know that it is really a mound built by the ancestors of the Coweta Creeks.  LOL

In 1989, a staff member of the Western District Office of the North Carolina State Archaeologist’s Office paid a brief visit to the Otto Mound. It is located about a mile east of the Coweeta Mound. The owners allowed the archaeologist to dig a few post holes near the main mound and in some smaller mounds near the Little Tennessee River.   At the bottom of the occupation zone she found several Swift Creek potsherds and some potsherds, which she interpreted as being from the Hopewell Culture. She interpreted the Swift Creek potsherds as being made by proto-Cherokees. 

In higher strata she found Etowah I,  Etowah-Savannah and Late Mississippian Lamar Culture potsherds.  She labeled all Mississippian Period potsherds to be “Proto-Cherokee” since someone taught her at Western Carolina University that the Cherokees built Etowah Mounds. 

She found no distinct Qualla Style pottery, which is associated with the Late Colonial Period Cherokees, but nevertheless labeled the village as the site of where William Bartram stayed with the Cherokees for two weeks.  She interpreted the five-sided ceremonial mound as “one of the oldest known Cherokee Mounds and proof that the Cherokees were integral participants in the Hopewell Culture.”

Both the Otto Mound and the pristine Tallulah Mound adjacent to US 129 in Graham County, NC are not listed as Native American sites in North Carolina by its Department of Natural Resources.  They are also not noted on a map created in 2012 by a special project funded to identify all Cherokee mounds in western North Carolina.

In 2006, I discovered the Otto Mound, when analyzing the precise triangular matrix on which all Mississippian Period Proto-Creek Mounds are placed.  With my ERSI GIS software, I extended a North-South line northward from a five-sided mound on the Oconee River, with a diagonal line created by the alignment of Etowah Mounds.  I then drove from my home to the point where the two lines intersected.  There was the Otto Mound!

Analyzing the site plan and alignment of the Otto Mound with ERSI GIS software, I was astonished to discover that the Otto Mound and its main plaza were mirror images of Etowah Mound A and its large plaza . . . except the mound and plaza on the Little Tennessee River were substantially smaller.  Their alignment to the solar azimuth were identical, however.

The Dillard Valley is worth the visit for its beautiful scenery and feasts offered at the Dillard House Restaurant.  However, don’t expect local residents to even be aware that there are mounds in their valley.   This verdant mountain valley remains one of the chapters in “the Forgotten History of the Southern Appalachians.”

View of the Otto Mound village, looking southwest toward Black Mountain State Park in Georgia



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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.



    My Kelly family has lived in Rabun Gap, Rabun County, Georgia for seven generations. The ‘Dillard’ mound is on traditional Kelly family land which was sold to the largest commercial farm in the area in the past 15 or 20 years. After living in Atlanta for 30 years I’ve moved back to God’s country and live in a house my grandparents built in the late 60s. I find many shards and points walking the fields around my home. One of the aerial shots in your recent post is less than a 1/2 mile from my home and also shows traditional family lands from another branch of my family, the Grists. It is also now owned by the same large farming family.

    As to the black soil here in the valley: For centuries the LIttle Tennessee river flooded the area regularly. Most of the valley was literally a swamp and there are still at least two Appalachian bogs in the area, both visible from Highway 441. I remember heavy flooding from my childhood in the 60s. At some point, the Little Tennessee River – from Rabun County up through Otto, NC – was dug out to ameliorate the flooding problem. But that flooding problem, over thousands of years, maybe longer, gave us some of the best farmland in the state.

    • Thank you! So I was right about it formerly being a swamp. However, I was just guessing. We appreciate you providing us first hand information!


    I thoroughly enjoy reading POOF items. As you Previously discussed, I was told my entire life I had Cherokee and Choctaw and sisters. DNA proved that wrong but I do have 4% Finland and Northwest Russian DNA which makes the Maritime Lapp connection to NE Georgia intriguing.

    • That’s is typical DNA for Uchee-Lapp descendants. Very interesting!


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