Biltmore Mound, Asheville, North Carolina

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Biltmore Mound
The Biltmore Mound was actually the oldest know example of a chokopa structure.
Photo: VR Image by Richard Thornton, Architect

During the 1980s American scholars suddenly became interested in Spain’s efforts to colonize the North America. For 200 years American history books had generally ignored the Spanish and French presence in North America prior to the English colonies winning their independence. Generations of students here were under the impression that no white man had set foot on the continent until brave Englishmen founded a short-lived colony on Roanoke Island, NC in 1585. Well, while all the history books were being printed in Boston, probably most students had the impression that the first colony was founded by the Pilgrims in 1621 on Massachusetts Bay! The earlier colonies at Roanoke Island and Jamestown, VA were painted as a typically inept effort by lazy Southern aristocrats, who would later start a Civil War.

First, the victorious British, and then, the propagandists of the new American republic wanted erase all memories of non-English speaking peoples ever having a legitimate claim to the lands they conquered. The Natives, of course, were barbaric savages thinly scattered across the landscape, who selfishly wanted to keep their lands for themselves. The Spanish and French were painted as lazy aristocrats, who briefly passed through the countryside, treated the Indians with extreme cruelty, and then were too incompetent to found permanent settlements.

The facts were something very different. The first attempt to found a colony in North America was by the Spanish at Sapelo Island, GA in 1526. By the end of that century, there were twice as many Spanish missions and mission Indians on the 90 mile long coast of Georgia, as there ever were on the 800 mile coastline of California. The Spanish established gold mining colonies in the Georgia Mountains 200 years before the nation’s first gold rush in that region. The French had established many towns and forts in the Gulf Coast region and Mississippi River Basin. In general, the French treated Native Americans with far more respect than did the other two colonial powers.

One of the questions that academicians researched was the routes taken by early Spanish explorers in exploring the Southeast. Of particular interest was the 1539-1543 AD expedition headed by Hernando De Soto. It had zigzagged through most of the Southeast from Florida to Texas. Four known chronicles of the expedition provided fascinating glimpses of advanced Native American societies prior to when European plagues, weapons and enslavement killed off about 95% of their population.

After intensively studying several 20th century state highway maps and conveniently ignoring a very accurate 300 year old map by French cartographer, DeLisle, a team of university professors decided that de Soto had passed through the North Carolina Mountains between South Carolina and Tennessee via the French Broad River. The French Broad River flows through Asheville, NC. They all traveled to Asheville to make their announcement to the world.

At that time, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce was marketing Asheville as “the Ancient Heart of the Cherokee Nation.” The fact was that Asheville was the farthest east the Cherokees ever got. Two tiny Cherokee hamlets near there had been abandoned in 1763. Nevertheless, the professors decide to stroke local egos by declaring a small mound on the nearby Biltmore Estate as the site of Guaxale (pronounced Wa-ha-le) the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation. Wahale means “southerners” in the Hitchiti (Eastern Creek Indian) language. It has no meaning in Cherokee.

The morning before a scheduled press conference at the Biltmore Estate, the professors were repeatedly told by local historians and state archaeologists that there were NO occupied Indian towns in the French Broad River Valley during the period when de Soto was exploring the Southeast. They were told that no Spanish artifacts had been ever found around Asheville, but plenty had been discovered in northern Georgia and extreme western North Carolina. Some especially knowledgeable historians also reminded the professors that their region had been inhabited by the Creek, Shawnee and Yuchi Indians for eons before the Cherokees ever arrived on the scene.

Nevertheless, the professors gave their press conference and published their book. Now, virtually every book and web site from Earth to the planet Jupiter states that de Soto came through Asheville and that the little mound on the Biltmore Estate was the site of Guaxale, the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation. Some Cherokee historians have carried the fabrication further and declared the little mound to be proof that the Cherokees are “the oldest civilization in the Western Hemisphere and the ancestors of the Mayas and Aztecs.”

Yes, the facts proved different again – and were quite a bit more interesting. In 2003 archaeologists from Appalachian State University excavated the Biltmore Mound site. It wasn’t much . . . an 18 inches high – 50 feet diameter bump in the hayfields of the Biltmore Estate. The professor-student team was initially excited about finding architectural proof of the Cherokee’s ancient civilization. What the found instead was that the mound was not even a mound. It was the ruins of a building. The organic residue from the structure was analyzed by equipment that measures the deterioration of Carbon 14 radioisotope absorbed by formerly living matter.

A large round structure had first been built there around 200 AD. Approximately every 50 years until around 450 AD. Each time the structure was rebuilt, a brightly colored clay cap was applied to the remains of the previous structure. After five reconstructions the combined clay caps probably reached the grand height of three feet. Artifacts found in and around the round structure were typical of those produced in the Middle Woodland Period (0-600 AD.) Some were similar to those found at Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio. (See articles on the Hopewell Ceremonial Complexes and the Seip Ceremonial Earthworks.) There was nothing unearthed, such as skeletons, which could possibly ascribe any ethnic identity to the builders of this round structure.

Southeastern archaeologists have profound tendency to be very knowledgeable about the English names for styles of artifacts they have found, but woefully ignorant of actual Native American culture and history. The Appalachian State archaeological team gleefully announced to the media that they had discovered “proof” that the Cherokees had lived in the Asheville Area for 2000 years and that this was the oldest known Cherokee Council House. It quickly became an official “Cherokee Heritage Site.”

The architectural facts were different. What the archaeologists had discovered was the oldest known chokopa – called a chukofa by those Creek Indians now living in Oklahoma. Chokopa is a Chontal Maya word meaning “warm place.” Similar cone shaped structures were used by the Creek and Yuchi Indians for special rituals and public dances. Some of the Creek chokopa’s were large enough to hold over 500 dancers. In the winter a damper at the top minimizes the updraft and allows the structural to be heated comfortably by a hearth in the center. Clay caps were packed around the rims of these structures to help insulate them against extreme cold and heat.

The chokopa’s were also once erected throughout southern Mexico as folk temples to the god of the Winds, Quetzalcoatl. The Mesoamerican century was 52 years long. It was commonplace for buildings in ancient Mexico to be partially destroyed and rebuilt every 52 years. The cone shape of the Quetzalcoatl temples caused a natural updraft of wind that in hot weather created a mesmerizing sound like a pipe organ. The Mexican Indians believed that Quetzalcoatl created this music.

Yes, you can’t always believe what you read in a history book or newspaper.



MLA Source Citation:

Thornton, Richard. People of One Fire. Web. Georgia. 2010-2013. Digital Rights Copyright 2010-2013 by AccessGenealogy.com. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 27 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/biltmore-mound-asheville-north-carolina.htm - Last updated on Jul 31st, 2013


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