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Why we are studying the Chattahoochee River System

Why we are studying the Chattahoochee River System

As the governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia continue to spend millions upon millions of your tax dollars in court over who owns the Chattahoochee River, we are focusing on the history of its original owners, the Creek People.  The Muskogee word for a state governor in these three states was feko-mikko (dirt king).   Perhaps now we should change the word to Oka-mako (Georgia Creek) or Oue-mikko (Muskogee).  Both words mean “Water King.”

By the way,   Lakes Eufaula and Seminole, down where Alabama, Georgia and Florida meet, lose over 100 million gallons a day to evaporation.  However, even if the plugs weren’t pulled on those two Corps of Engineers boondoggles, the harvesting of rainwater from roofs would eliminate most of the demand for pulling water from Southeastern rivers.  Would you believe that my little cabin alone sheds 65,455 gallons of pure rain water a year?  That’s enough water for several households.

Back to our story . . . Sixteenth and seventeenth century maps show Proto-Creek town spread over a vast area of the Southeast.  Chickasaw villages are mixed among them.   The Creek’s ancestors were found as far north as among the Tamahite in Southwestern Virginia and the Vehete in Eastern South Carolina.  During the Late Mississippian and Early Colonial Periods, there were several massive towns stretching as much as three miles in length in what is now Metropolitan Atlanta.  Yes . . . Metropolitan Atlanta . . . they are today ignored by archaeologists, but they seem to be where the Creek Confederacy evolved.

In 1540, as Hernando de Soto traversed present day Georgia, South Carolina, Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee and Northeastern Alabama, all the words quoted in his chronicles were either Muskogean or Itza Maya words, with the exception of the Chiska, which is a Panoan word from Peru.  However, by 1725 the majority of Creek Confederacy towns were concentrated on the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, but the Chickasaws had moved to the west in Northern Alabama, northern Mississippi, western Tennessee and western Kentucky.   It stayed that way until all lands of the Chickasaws in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky were ceded in 1818 and all the Creek lands in Georgia were ceded in 1827.

As you will learn from a series of reports that will chart our progress, the Chattahoochee River is lined from beginning to end with ancient town sites.  Many contain potsherds dating back to the Early Woodland Period, which began around 1000 BC.  At the Chattahoochee’s headwaters in the Nacoochee Valley, the villages were packed together like sardines during the Mississippian and Proto-Historic Periods (1000 AD – 1680 AD).  Most of these villages didn’t have large mounds,  but not spending your days piling basketfuls of dirt to glorify a supreme leader sound pretty smart to me.


And yet . . . when you look at the maps enclosed in books published by the current generation of Southeastern archaeologists, you would think that the 550 mile long Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River system was mostly uninhabited.   The maps above are from Mississippian Archaeology in the Georgia Piedmont, published by the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology in 1986.

Not only is the Chattahoochee River shown to be mostly devoid of Mississippian Period towns, but also the Upper Oconee and its tributaries, Upper Ocmulgee, the headwaters of the Little Tennessee, the Nottely and the Flint.  And yet, if one goes into the state’s archaeological site registry, one finds dozens of towns on these rivers with Etowah I and Lamar Culture pottery styles . . . most with mounds.  What in the heck is going on?

I first ran into this question 20 years ago, when Principal Planner for Cobb County, GA.   Cobb is bounded on the east by the Chattahoochee River.  I was also the Historic Preservation Planner and so maintained the archaeological site files, plus TRIED to protect the mound sites.  Cobb contained several sizable Native American villages that had one or more mounds and were cultural satellites of Etowah Mounds.  However, these towns were ignored in archaeological text books and professional papers.  The Chattahoochee River was shown in maps to be uninhabited when in fact, I knew that there were a string of large towns with mounds almost evenly spaced along the Upper Chattahoochee River.

Why late 20th century archaeologists ignored so many town sites, which were the incubators of Creek AND Chickasaw Cultures, really can’t be answered with a simple explanation.  However, it was obvious that even though famous mid-20th century archaeologists such as Robert Wauchope and Arthur Kelly had studied and documented these towns, they were erased from the world view of the current generation. Most contemporary dissertations and papers completely ignore town sites excavated by Wauchope and Kelly on the Upper Chattahoochee River.

That assessment can also be made for all the stone architecture sites in North Georgia, NW South Carolina and NE Alabama.   They have fossilized a very myopic view of the past that is defined by where their professors told them there were “chiefdoms.”   They view their role now as defenders of an incomplete body of knowledge, whose expansion ended around 1979.

If you read enough of their dissertations and professional papers, it becomes obvious that their world view is defined by pottery styles.   Once archaeologists in the Chickasaw and Creek Homeland had created what they defined as an accurate ceramic chronology, they stopped asking questions and stopped excavating sites . . .  except when being paid to dig up archaeological sites destined for destruction by road construction or real estate developments.   These salvage archaeological reports make no waves and read more like warehouse inventories.


A snapshot made in 1718

The map above was drawn by the famous French cartographer,  Guillaume De Lisle, in 1718.  His version of this map in 1717, was the first European map to mention a word similar to Cherokee (Charaqui).   Note that the two largest Creek ethnic groups on the Upper Chattahoochee River were Kataapa’s and Tchattahoochee’s.  That’s right, the Siouan Catawbas in South Carolina got their English name from their Creek overlords, whose home base was in North Metro Atlanta.  They called themselves, not Catawba, but Issi.  The Tchattahoochee’s were based in a large town with multiple mounds, where Six Flags Over Georgia is now located.

Throughout the first 3/4th of the 18th century,  Apalachicolas occupied the Etowah River, while the Cusseta occupied the rest of Northwest Georgia and most of Southeastern Tennessee. The Cowetas were all over the place . . . Northeast Georgia, Middle Georgia, around Columbus, GA and even in South Central Tennessee.  Other branches of the Creeks with recognizable names were beginning to concentrate on the Lower Chattahoochee, but the process had only begun.  You can see how much things would change during the century that followed.

A definitive understanding of the Creek People

In reading the amazing discoveries, made by Robert Wauchope in 1939, it became obvious to me that something very special happened along the length of the Chattahoochee River over a period of 2,500 years.  Newcomers came and blended their cultural traditions with those who came before them.  Languages mixed.  Pottery styles evolved, but always were rooted in the Deptford Stamped Pottery of 2,500 years ago.  There was a strong Arawak influence on the Chattahoochee, just south of Atlanta.  Despite the influx of peoples, who worshiped multiple deities, a monotheistic religion evolved among the Creeks.   How did this happen?

What we hope to accomplish by studying and inventorying all of the Native American sites along the Chattahoochee River Basin is to develop a more complete picture of how our Muskogean cultures evolved over a period of 2,500 years. As you have read in recent articles, a whole bunch of surprises will be headed our way, as all the facts become known.

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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.



    Great work ( as usual ) Richard.


    Richard, I lived near Talladega Alabama for about 18 years. Local history stated that Talladega was a large Creek city. There must have been many, many indians in the area, because pottery and arrowheads were easily found in freshly plowed fields. Also, 10 miles away from town-center was the impoundment of Logan Martin Lake. In winter, when lake levels were quite low, walking the exposed shoreline could yield pockets full of arrowheads. Were these in fact the Creeks?

    • Talladega was originally the Shawnee town of Chalaka, which moved south from NE Tennessee in the late 1690s, when the Cherokee alliance began forming. It joined the Upper Creek Confederacy when it moved to Alabama. Over time, intermarriage with Creeks make it a culturally Creek town. On the 1684 Jean Baptiste de Franquelin Map, you can see Chalaka was still in Tennessee on the Holston River near its confluence with the French Broad.


    Hi there,
    Have you ever looked at the meaning of the term/name Eufaula? There is a small unincorporated town by this name which I randomly came across in Washington state. I can’t seem to find any history as to why it has this name but I am curious what you might know about the name’s origins and meaning. Thanks!

    • Eufaula was originally on the coast of Georgia near the mouth of the Satilla River and the city of Brunswick. It was mentioned in the memoir of Captain Rene de Laudonniere, Commander of Fort Carolina, plus shown on French, English and Dutch maps in that era. Since the village was in the land of the Sate-le, we can assume that it is a South American word. I have not tried to translate it. When the Spanish committed numerous atrocities on the coast in preparation for establishing a mission system, Eufala moved inland. It was on the Chattahoochee River in Alabama by the late 1600s and associated with the embryonic Creek Confederacy. A lot of Creeks in SE Alabama are showing up with South America DNA. Evidently, some of their ancestors were on the South Atlantic Coast.


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