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William Bartram’s description of a Cherokee council house at Watauga in the Little Tennessee Valley

William Bartram’s description of a Cherokee council house at Watauga in the Little Tennessee Valley


This is probably the council house for a Cherokee village on the Little Tennessee River at Wautaga Creek near Franklin, NC.

Botanist and explorer, William Bartram, is the most accurate source for information on the indigenous peoples of the Southeastern United States, immediately prior to the American Revolution.   Unlike the traders and politicians, he was very interested in their architecture and cultural practices such as dancing.  He states that this particular branch of the Cherokees had musicians, not just drummers, and that they performed most nights.  We already knew this about the Creeks.  They had many musical instruments.  Thus, any “pow-wow” which only includes “boom boom” Plains Indian drums is not an authentic portrayal of Southeastern Native American culture. Bartram actually measured and drew several Creek towns.  His drawings were the sources for the architectural models that I built of 18th century Creek towns for the Muscogee-Creek Nation and Perdido Bay Creek Tribe.  


Note that Bartram specifically states that the Cherokees did not build any of their mounds and didn’t know who had built the mounds.   This statement “flies in the face” of Eastern Band of Cherokee bureaucrats and North Carolina archaeologists, who now claim that the Cherokees were “full participants” in the Mississippian Ceremonial Culture.  There is one North Carolina museum that has a full room dedicated to Bartram’s short visit in their state, yet has another room, which claims that the Cherokees built all the mounds in a seven state area of the Southeastern United States!

In his History of the Cherokee People, written in 1826,  Cherokee Principal Chief Charles Hicks stated that “the Cherokees arrived in the Southern Mountains from the west, about the same time that the British arrived in Carolina.  We killed or drove off the mound builders, burned their temples and then erected our town houses atop their mounds.”


William Bartram’s description of a Cherokee Council House

Riding through this large town, Watoga, the road carried me winding about through their little plantations of Corn, Beans, &c. up to the council-house, which was a very large dome or rotunda, situated on top of an ancient artificial mount. The council or town-house is a large rotunda, capable of accommodating several hundred people: it stands on the top of an ancient artificial mount of earth, of about twenty feet perpendicular, and the rotunda on the top of it being above thirty feet more, gives the whole fabric an elevation of about sixty feet from the common surface of the ground. But it may be proper to observe, that this mount on which the rotunda stands, is of a much ancienter date than the building, and perhaps was raised for another purpose.

The Cherokees themselves are as ignorant as we are, by what people or for what purpose these artificial hills were raised; they have various stories concerning them, the best of which amounts to no more than mere conjecture, and leave us entirely in the dark; but they have a tradition common with the other nations of Indians, that they found them in much the same condition as they now appear, when their forefathers arrived from the West and possessed themselves of the country, after vanquishing the nations of red men who then inhabited it, who themselves found these mounts when they took possession of the country, the former possessors delivering the same story concerning them: perhaps they were designed and appropriated by the people who constructed them, to some religious purpose, as great altars and temples similar to the high places and sacred groves anciently amongst the Canaanites and other nations of Palestine and Judea.

The rotunda is constructed after the following manner: they first fix in the ground a circular range of posts or trunks of trees, about six feet high, at equal distances, which are notched at top, to receive into them, from one to another, a range of beams or wall plates; within this is another circular order of very large and strong pillars, above twelve feet high, notched in like manner at top, to receive another range of wall plates, and within this is yet another or third range of stronger and higher pillars, but fewer in number, and standing at a greater distance from each other; and lastly, in the centre stands a very strong pillar, which forms the pinnacle of the building, and to which the rafters centre at top; these rafters are strengthened and bound together by cross beams and laths, which sustain the roof or covering, which is a layer of bark neatly placed, and tight enough to exclude the rain, and sometimes they cast a thin superficies of earth over all. There is but one large door, which serves at the same time to admit light from without and the smoak [smoke] to escape when a fire is kindled; but as there is but a small fire kept, sufficient to give light at night, and that fed with dry small sound wood divested of its bark, there is but little smoak.

All around the inside of the building, betwixt the second range of pillars and the wall, is a range of cabins or sophas [sofas], consisting of two or three steps, one above or behind the other, in theatrical order, where the assembly sit or lean down; these sophas are covered with mats or carpets, very curiously made of thin splints of Ash or Oak, woven or platted together; near the great pillar in the centre the fire is kindled for light, near which the musicians seat themselves, and round about this the performers exhibit their dances and other shows at public festivals, which happen almost every night throughout the year.

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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.



    Richard, A wonderful book Mr. Bartram has left us to understand and consider the Native Elders words. A Delaware Chieftain stated that the first people “in the land” were the people called the “Allegany / Tallegeny”… the only people that preceded the Delaware people in Ohio. This might have been the so called “Hopewell culture” in Ohio which collapse coincides with the use of the bow and arrow weapon. That Delaware Chieftain stated the Tallegeny /Cherokee were the same people that lost the war and were driven South into Kentucky and most likely some into the mountains of Virginia. One of the 6 areas of the Apalacha Kingdom was noted as being called “A-Chalaque” or Cha-la-kee by Mr. Brigstock in 1653 and was North of Georgia. Most likely Eastern Kentucky by the Mountains and as stated by the Cherokee Elders they did not build the Native mounds of Georgia or Tennessee. There are connections with the sound “Achi” all the way down to Peru / “Para” which could be some connection with the Cofit-achi and the Pi-achi. Perhaps these peoples were also called the “Tokah” peoples by the Creeks and the Cherokee?

    • I am still hearing rumors of large numbers of skeletons being held in Tennessee by the TVA. Several of those informants were University of Tennessee professors. I have no personal knowledge of the situation, however.


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