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Native American History of Habersham County, Georgia
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Habersham County is located in the northeastern tip of Georgia. The Blue Ridge Mountain Range runs along its northwestern corner. The Chattahoochee River flows through the length of the county. All the famous poem by Sydney Lanier, “The Song of the Chattahoochee” opens with the phrase, “Out of the hills of Habersham, down through the valleys of Hall,” the river actually begins at Unicoi Gap, just north of Helen, GA in White County. Habersham also contains much of Tallulah Gorge, a 1000+ feet deep canyon formed in the Brevard Fault by the Tallulah River.
Although most popular literature describes the aboriginal occupants of Habersham as being Cherokee, they were not. Some non-Cherokee Native Peoples in the northern part of the county became briefly associated with the Cherokee Alliance after the American Revolution, but the entire county east of the Chattahoochee and roughly south of present day Clarkesville, was always Creek territory, until seized by the State of Georgia in 1784. This illegal land acquisition will be explained later.
No fossils of dinosaurs or early mammals have been discovered in the Habersham County or surrounding region. Paleontologists explain their absence by geological conditions of that era. The Blue Ridge Mountains were a young mountain range during the millions of years that were similar in height to the Rockies, or even the Himalayas. It is theorized that alpine conditions were inhospitable to reptiles and amphibians. Recent discovery of dinosaur fossils in Antarctica and the southern tip of South America challenge that theory. A more likely threat to animal life would have been a chain of volcanoes in and near present day Habersham County. Some appear to have been massive calderas, whose explosions would have wiped out all life in the region.
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Habersham County for at least 12,000 years, perhaps much longer. Clovis and Folsom points, associated with Late Ice age big game hunters have been found in the upper Chattahoochee River Valley. During the Ice Age, herds of giant mammals roamed the river bottom lands. The mastodons, saber tooth tigers, giant sloths and other massive mammals died out about 8,000 years ago. The ethnic identity of the Clovis Culture hunters is not known. They were long presumed to be American Indians, but recent research by anthropologists have revealed many similarities with the big game hunters of Western Europe. An ice cap on the North Atlantic Ocean may have permitted early humans to move back and forth between continents by paddling, while gaining sustenance from hunting sea mammals and fishing.
After the climate warmed, animals and plants typical of today soon predominated in this region. Humans adapted to the changes and gradually became more sophisticated. They adopted seasonal migratory patterns that maximized access to food resources. Archaic hunters probably moved to locations along major rivers during the winter, where they could eat fish and fresh water mussels, if game was not plentiful.
During the late Archaic Period, several trade routes developed in this region that interconnected the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Appalachian Mountains and Great Lakes. During this time, Native Americans began traveling long distances to trade and socialize. Some of the most important trade routes in the Southeast ran through present day Habersham. They connected the South Atlantic Coast with the Midwest via the Little Tennessee River Valley, and the Southern Highlands with the Gulf Coast, via the Chattahoochee River Valley. There was also an important east-west trail that ran from the headwaters of the Savannah River to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.
Along with the nearby Etowah River Valley, the Upper Chattahoochee River Valley was a location of some of the earliest permanent villages in North America. A sedentary lifestyle was made possible by abundant natural food sources such as game, freshwater mussels and chestnuts and the cultivation of gardens. Agriculture came very early here. Initially, the cultivated plants were of indigenous origin and included a native squash, native sweet potato, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, amaranth, sumpweed, and chenopodium.
The early villages were relatively small and dispersed. There was probably much socialization among these villages because of the need to find spouses that were not closely related. Houses were round and built out of saplings, river cane and thatch.
The Woodland Period peoples of the region built numerous mounds. Apparently, most mounds were primarily for burials, but may have also supported simple structures that were used for rituals or meetings. They were constructed accretionally. This means that the mounds grew in size over the generations by piling soil and detritus from the village over recent burials.
Alec Mountain is in the northwestern section of Habersham County. On its crest is a large fieldstone structure composed of stacked field stones in the shape of a slightly ellipsoid circle. It was apparently a ceremonial site that was used for monitoring the movements of the heavenly bodies and for large ceremonies. A brief archaeological survey of the site did not find many artifacts, but concluded that the stone ring was constructed in the Woodland Period.
Archaeological evidence in the Chattahoochee River Valleys suggests that the first Muskogean farmers entered northeast Georgia around 400 BC, after migrating from west-central Mexico. However, the region was probably was already occupied by ancestors of the Yuchi and Southern Siouans with languages similar to the Catawba. There may have been other ethnic groups whose identities have been concealed by time. Agricultural technology, cultural traditions and DNA probably blended between these peoples. Modern “Creek” Indians may represent a genetic mix of several indigenous ethnic groups.
Around 100 AD, the ancestors of the Creek Indians evolved to building permanent towns with horseshoe shaped plazas for playing ball games, near the Chattahoochee River. This was known as the Swift Creek Culture. Swift Creek Style pottery is considered some of the most beautiful every made in North America. The Swift Creek People were also known for their finely crafted copper tools, weapons and ornaments. They built both ellipsoid shaped accretional mounds and some large pyramidal mounds for temples.
Muskogeans carried with them advanced cultural traditions from Mexico and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The early Muskogeans eventually became known in Habersham area as the Itsati-Creeks, Koweta-Creeks, Sokee, and Chickasaws & Apalachees. However, prior to arrival of Europeans, there were no Indian “tribes.” The landscape was divided up into provinces
Most of the Native American place names in the Habersham County area are of Itsati-Creek origin. For example, in the region around Habersham County are the Creek place names of Chattahoochee (Red River,) Tallulah (town) Sautee (Raccoon People,) Chota (Frog) and Nacoochee (Bear,) Tugaloo come through Cherokee from the original Itsati –Creek word for “freckled people” which is tokah-le. Toccoa comes through Cherokee from the Muskogee-Creek word for “freckled people” which is tokoh-ya. The name of Alec Mountain may also be Muskogean in origin. An Alek was a Creek medical doctor during the 1700s and 1800s. The name appears in several locations elsewhere in Georgia, associated with Creek occupations.
Around 900 AD newcomers arrived in Georgia from the far south to establish trading posts. An enormous five side mound (Kenimer Mound) was constructed in what is now the village of Sautee. It is located about two miles east of the better known Nacoochee Mound. It is so large that most people think it is a wooded hill. Several new Mexican crops and Maya Indian words began appearing. Large towns, planned by architects appeared in the river valleys. Regional leaders, known as “Great Suns” built houses and temples on top of large platform mounds. These ancestors of the Creek Indians knew how to weave elaborated decorated cloth and build large, complex buildings.
Clarkesville was once an important Sokee town called Suki O’lamako, which the Cherokees later called Sakwi-yi. In the 1500s the Sokees were one of the most advanced and powerful native peoples in South Carolina and northeast Georgia. Their capital was where Lake Jocassee is located today, They maintained many Mesoamerican customs, and apparently originated in Mexico. An ethnic group of the same name founded the Olmec Civilization in Mexico. Both the Habersham County Sokees and the Zoque’s in Mexican pronounced their ethnic name as “Jzho-kee.” Jocassee is another form of the word.
The Sokees were severely affected by European plagues in the 1600s. Most of the survivors joined the Creek Confederacy, while those in what is now northeast Georgia, initially joined the Cherokee Alliance, but probably continued to speak a dialect of the Creek language until the 1800s.
The 1939 De Soto Trail Commission placed the path of Hernando de Soto in 1541 through Habersham County. A late 20th century study by several Southeastern university professors found that political considerations skewed the 1939 route to locations that could not be justified by Spanish archives. The description of the terrain in the de Soto Chronicles doe not match northeast Georgia.
There is extensive evidence of a French expedition to this region in 1562 from Charlesfort (Beaufort, SC.) All official French maps from about 1570 forward labeled the Southern Highlands, the Appalachian Mountains and state on the maps in Latin that the French Protestant explorers had befriended the Apalachee (Creek) Indians living in a region where gold was found. The Apalachee apparently occupied the gold fields around the Chattahoochee River and the headwaters of the Hiawassee River, north of Helen, GA. The principal trail from Charlesfort to the gold fields passed through what is now Clarksville and the Nacoochee Valley.
It is likely that Captain Juan Pardo passed through Habersham County in 1567 to or from his base in Santa Elena (Parris Island, SC.) He was looking for gold. Several of the towns his chronicles mention correspond to Creek town names in northeast Georgia. He probably followed the same route as the French. The ruins of a fort on Alex Mountain in Habersham County may be one of the forts that Pardo was known to construct. Many of Juan Pardo’s low-ranking troops were former Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism in 1492. Reports reached the Spanish capital at Santa Elena that all of the forts in the mountains had been massacred. The truth could be that these men abandoned their forts and went to live with Indian women.
The Kingdom of Spain claimed all of the Chattahoochee River Basin, including Habersham County, from 1567 until 1745, This claim was based on the Juan Pardo Expedition and a surveying expedition authorized by Governor Don Benito Ruiz de Salazar Vallecilla of the Province of La Florida around 1647. The surveying and gold prospecting expedition followed the Chattahoochee River to its source at Unicoi Gap. The Governor then established a trading post in the vicinity of the Chattahoochee headwaters. The ruins of the fort on Alex Mountain could be the trading post.
It is known that Spanish Sephardic Jews established secret gold mining colonies in the Georgia Mountains in the late 1600s and silver mining villages in the North Carolina Mountains by 1615. A Jewish wedding in 1615 is memorialized by a dated rock inscription in the Smokies. The largest Sephardic communities were probably in Habersham County and the Nacoochee Valley. While writing his book on the Melungeons, Dr. Brent Kennedy discovered colonial records of a 1694, British army exploratory party which observed Sephardic villages, while looking from mountain tops in what is now Habersham County. In his 1873 book on Georgia’s Indians, Charles C. Jones discussed the discovery in 1824 by American gold miners of the ruins of Spanish gold mining villages along the Chattahoochee River.
The word Cherokee is the French pronunciation of the Creek word, Chorakee, which means “splinter group.” The first use of the word Cherokee is on an English map dated 1725. There were no Cherokee words recorded by the de Soto Expedition in 1541. The first use of the words “Creek Indian” is on a 1745 English map. Both these tribes were an assimilation of many remnant groups that survived years of plagues, war and slave raids after the arrival of the European settlers. By the time that the Cherokees entered Georgia, they were hunting with muskets and cooking in iron pots.
The time period at which the Cherokees first entered North Carolina is subject to debate. However, the Cherokee occupation of the former Creek town of Tugaloo at the headwaters of the Savannah River was dated by University of Georgia archaeologists at no earlier than 1700 AD. The Cherokees never lived in the lower half of Habersham County or east of the Chattahoochee River. They probably occupied northern Habersham County after 1715. In 1715, the Cherokees invited all the Creek leaders from what is now Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee to a peaceful diplomatic conference in Tugaloo. The Creek leaders were murdered in their sleep. This was the start of the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War.
Between 1715 and 1754, the Cherokee villages in northeast Georgia had Creek Indian names such as Chota and Nacoochee. The main body of the Cherokees in North Carolina called the Georgia Cherokees Itsati, which happens to be what the Itsati-Creeks called themselves. Apparently, the Northeast Georgia Cherokees were originally a faction of Creeks, who wished to have the decentralized, egalitarian type of government practiced by the Cherokee Alliance. Creek towns were rigidly planned into streets, blocks, courtyards and plazas. Creek men were obligated to work on public construction projects like roads, canals and defensive walls. Cherokee men were pretty much free to do as they please.
For forty years, the ground of Habersham County ran red with blood from the Creek-Cherokee War. Our county was “ground zero” for the fighting. Initially, the Cherokee Alliance made territorial gains because they were the “favorite Indians” of the Colony of South Carolina and received all the munitions they needed. However, once the Creek Confederacy became the allies of the new Colony of Georgia, the situation rapidly changed. The Creeks were now well supplied with firearms and munitions. Creek towns were heavily fortified and could not be captured by the Cherokees. However, Cherokee men had more free time to stage lightening raids on Creek hunting or trading parties.
In an effort to maintain piece between the Cherokees and the faction of Creeks who were British allies, the British Crown brought Chickasaws from Alabama to occupy much of what is now eastern Habersham County around 1723. Their main town was named Oostanaula or in English, Eastanollee. Georgia Colonial maps show what is now southern Habersham County occupied by several branches of the Creeks, plus some Yuchi villages near Tugaloo.
In 1754 the Creek town of Koweta dispatched an army composed of only its men. Creek armies fought in a disciplined manner like Europeans. The Koweta’s quickly destroyed all the Cherokee towns in North Georgia and the lower half of western North Carolina. Assassin squads were sent by Koweta into South and North Carolina to kill Cherokee chiefs. Several were even assassinated on the streets of Charleston. Six Cherokee leaders, who were descendants of the leaders in Tugaloo, that murdered the chiefs and priests in their sleep, were marched back to a location on the Chattahoochee River near Carrollton, GA – then burned alive.
A 1755 map of the British Colonies by the famous cartographer, John Mitchell, has written in bold letters, “Deserted Cherokee Settlements” over what is now southern western North Carolina and northeast Georgia. The Battle of Blood Mountain, in which the Cherokees supposedly won North Georgia in 1754, never happened. However, there may have been a great battle at that location prior to the Cherokees arrival at that location
In the frontier days of Habersham County, stories arose of Georgia Cherokees crossing the middle of the county and massacring European settlers. This is a myth. There were a few individual atrocities on both sides, but the Cherokees in northeast Georgia were protected from incursions by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sparse white population in northeast Georgia before the American Revolution were people, whose families had intermarried with the Koweta Creeks. The last thing the surviving Georgia Cherokees wanted was another war with the Koweta Creeks. Throughout much of the 1700s the Cherokees and Creeks were both allies of Great Britain even while they were fighting each other. However, Carolina Cherokees did twice attack whites on the Carolina frontier without warning.
Six miles southeast of Clarkesville stood an oak tree that became famous in the history of the early settlers. Several trails converged at the tree, and it was there that the Cherokees met and planned their next raid against their enemies. Because a gash was cut into the tree whenever a scalp was taken, the tree, which no longer stands, came to be known as Chopped Oak.
After the French & Indian War, the British government moved several remnant Muskogean tribes in South Carolina to what is now Habersham, White, Union and Towns Counties. They were used as a buffer zone between the Koweta Creeks and the Cherokees. Some North Carolina Cherokees also moved down to the Nacoochee Valley to replace the extensive casualties of the Creek-Cherokee War. The new Cherokees spoke a dialect that was more similar to modern Cherokee.
During the last battle of the American Revolution, Georgia and South Carolina mounted militia defeated a band of Tory Raiders and renegade Cherokees near the Cherokee village of Long Swamp Creek in what is now Pickens County, GA. The Cherokee village surrendered without a fight. The Cherokee chief drew a map of the Creek territories in northeast Georgia as part of the surrender. This land was given away by the Cherokees even though they had never lived there. It belonged to their arch-enemies, the Koweta Creeks, The map included about half of the land that is now Habersham County.
The Koweta Creeks were allies of the winning Patriots. The Cherokees were allied with the losing British, yet it was the Koweta Creeks who lost all their land in northeast Georgia. Georgia kept the land that was not theirs, but as a conciliatory gesture, awarded large veteran’s reserves to Creek men from South Carolina or Georgia, who had fought in Patriot militia units or the Continentals.
Few Native Americans lived in Habersham County after 1784. Maps of that era show no large villages in what is now Habersham, Rabun and Stevens Counties. In 1793, the Cherokees ceded the remainder of northeast Georgia to compensate for damages incurred by the Chickamauga Cherokees in Tennessee and what is now northern Alabama.
After gold was discovered in the Chattahoochee River Valley in 1824, the State of Georgia quickly redrew the boundary between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation. All of the Chattahoochee River Valley was now outside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. Approximately, 50-75 Cherokee men were allowed to live outside the new boundaries in order to work as laborers at corporate gold mining operations. Some avoided capture by Federal troops in 1838 and thus, were able to remain in the region.
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