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Yeona Mountain . . . the crouching lioness

Yeona Mountain . . .  the crouching lioness


Yonah Mountain looks like a crouching mountain lion, not a bear.

Ancient bronze retort for refining gold – found in the Nacoochee Valley.

On September 28, 2018 the People of One Fire published an article about my discovery that Yonah Mountain was named Nocosee Mountain in 1820 and Yeona Mountain in 1828, but a mapmaker in Savannah changed the name to Yonah in 1833.  Yeona is the English spelling of the Asturian word for lioness. The name of the mountain range it is in, Yeoha, means “place of the lion” in Asturian.  Asturian, Galician and Portuguese are descended from the same Early Medieval language. Asturia, in northwestern Iberia,  was the most important gold-mining region of Spain for thousands of years. Its original occupants were a Gaelic people, who spoke a Celtic language until around 900 AD.  In response to the waves of Romance language-speaking refugees fleeing the Muslim invasion of Iberian, the Asturians became “Latinized.”   Many Asturan miners migrated to the New World, where they became wealthy from mining gold and silver.

Late yesterday afternoon, I took the state highway back from Lowe’s, after buying construction materials, that follows an ancient trail, which connected the point on the Tugaloo River, where the Tugaloo Stone was found, to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River in the Nacoochee Valley.  From 15 miles away the ancient volcanic cone of Yonah Mountain dominated the horizon.  It definitely would have been a landmark that would have guided gold miners from afar.   The view got me re-thinking the on many assumptions from the past.   For one thing, as I will explain later in this article.  Yonah Mountain does not look like a “crouching bear” as a legion of encyclopedias and tourist brochures tell us. 

Until the early 1830s., Anglo-American settlers called Yonah Mountain a Creek name, Nokose – the word for bear.

Nocosee and Nacoochee are Anglicizations of the Creek word, nokose, which means bear.  The early Georgia maps called the upper Chattahoochee River, the Chota River.  Chota is the Creek word for frog.  Originally, the village of Chota had been located where Helen, GA is today.  The large town site with many mounds at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Chickamauga Creek was called Itsate in early maps, but Chota by this 1820 map. This will be a surprise to those who basis their history on frontier folklore.  The Native village of Nokose (pronounced Nō : kõ : shē)  was located at the conjunction of two extremely important trade paths . . . where Cleveland, GA is today.  It is not certain why its name was applied to the valley, now pronounced Nacoochee. 

Apparently,  new settlers in the region from Georgia knew that Nocosee meant “bear” in the Creek languages.  The Asturian name for the mountain, Yeona, was quickly shortened to Yonah.  Someone looked up Yonah in a Cherokee glossary several years later and saw that Yona meant Grizzly Bear . . . close enough!  Throughout the 1800s, Georgia planter class hated the Creeks because they had given sanctuary to runaway African slaves, while Alabama Creeks had opposed militarily the theft of their lands by white squatters.  This hatred filtered down to the less affluent classes of society.  The History of Methodism in Georgia (1786-1866) by the Rev.  George Smith, states, “The Creeks were a savage, barbaric people, who were so ignorant that they refused to acknowledge the natural superiority of the white race.  It is good that Georgia is rid of them.”

The white settlers in the mountains would have probably changed all the Native American place names to English or Cherokee words, had they known that none of these words meant anything in the Cherokee language other than proper nouns.  As it was, they changed the Creek word for bear into the Oklahoma Cherokee word for grizzly bear.  They changed the Creek word for frog into the English word and then several decades later, changed the English word into the Cherokee word for “Place of the Frog.”

For 185 years,  tourists to this region have been told that “the Cherokees name the mountain, Yonah, because it looked like a crouching bear.”  Actually, it doesn’t, but no one questioned the frontier myth.     Compare the appearance of a bear lying down to a mountain lion lying down.  The black bear projects his head forward, whereas the mountain lion, like most dogs, holds its head erect.

After viewing Yonah Mountain from all sides, I don’t think that the Uchees, Chickasaws, Itza Mayas  and Creeks, who lived around Yonah Mountain for thousands of years, ever called it Nokose (Bear) Mountain.  The rugged terrain, caves, rock overhangs and many stone-faced cliffs would have been an ideal habitat for mountain lions.  All 16th and 17th century European maps label the mountainous land of Northeast Georgia, the Apalache or Apalachen Mountains, but give no specific name for Yonah Mountain.   What is more likely is that in the 17th century, Asturian gold miners merely translated the name of it landmark peak into their own language.

Volunteers from this region, who want to help map its forgotten architectural ruins, tell me that there are HUNDREDS of stone cairns, walls and building foundations between Yonah Mountain, GA and Franklin, North Carolina.  One Nacoochee Valley resident told me that there are the stone foundations of ancient houses on the crest of a mountain, where there was no place to even grow a garden.  There are even several stone or earthen terrace complexes showing up on LIDAR images of the Nacoochee Valley.  It is going to take several years to map and understand these forgotten legacies from the ancient past of this complex terrain.  Below are several other views from different perspectives of the Crouching Lioness.  

View of the mountain from Yonah Mountain Vineyards ~ photo taken by a drone.

Another view from Yonah Mountain Vineyards


View from the northwest at Testnatee Gap


View from Lake Yonah

View from the Hardman Farm State Historic Site


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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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