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Native American History of Lumpkin County, Georgia

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Lumpkin County located in northern Georgia. It is part of the Atlanta Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA.) Its county seat is Dahlonega. It is named after Wilson Lumpkin, a U.S. Congressman and governor of Georgia in the early 1800s. He was state Indian commissioner when the Creeks ceded tracts of land that eventually became much of the Atlanta Metropolitan Area and Cherokees ceded a tract of land that included the future territory of Lumpkin County. The original name of Atlanta was Marthasville, taken from the first name of Wilson Lumpkin’s daughter.

Lumpkin County is best known for its historic association with the Georgia Gold Rush in the 1820s and 1830s. Gold was re-discovered by Georgians in the Nacoochee Valley of adjacent White County, but Dahlonega was chosen as the location of the United States Mint. Visitors to the county can still pan for gold at several gold mines. The town name Dahlonega is an anglicized form of the Cherokee word for gold, literally meaning “yellow earth.”

Lumpkin County is bordered on the north by Union County and on the northwest by Fannin County. Hall County adjoins Lumpkin on the southeast. Dawson County forms its western boundary while White County forms its eastern boundary.

Geology and hydrology

Lumpkin County is located in the Blue Ridge Foothills and Blue Ridge Mountains geological regions, which are characterized by underlying rock strata of igneous and metamorphicized igneous rock. Lumpkin County contains some of Georgia’s highest mountains. Blood Mountain (4,458 feet above sea level) on the boundary between Lumpkin and Union Counties is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. The terrain of the southern part of the county generally consists of rolling hills and valleys or ravines formed by streams. The Blue Ridge Mountains occupy the northern half of Lumpkin.

Alluvial flood plains along streams are very narrow, but generally contain very fertile soil. There are a few permanent or seasonal wetlands paralleling the streams. The top soils are thin over most hills and steep slopes, while much deeper near streams.

Lumpkin County was north of the old Cotton Line, which marked the northern limit of cotton species grown before the Civil War. There were no cotton plantations. Much of the rolling landscape was not suitable for large plantations. The commercial gold mines did use some slaves and hire Cherokee Indians as laborers. Most of the long time African American and Native American residents of the county trace their heritage to ancestors who worked in the gold extraction industry.

Lumpkin County is drained by the Etowah and Chestatee Rivers. Both originate in the county from springs on the south slope of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. While flowing through the county, these rivers are very shallow and in several sections flow extremely fast. Only small Native American canoes could have traversed some sections of these two rivers. Other sections would have been impassible for all canoes.

The county’s largest stream is the Chestatee. It begins at the confluence of Frogtown and Dicks Creeks northeast of Dahlonega then flows south-southwestward through Lumpkin and Hall Counties, before joining the Chattahoochee River. The point where the rivers once joined is now under Lake Sydney Lanier.

Most references state that Chestatee is the ccorruption of the Cherokee word “atsun-stati-yi” meaning “fire light place”. This common interpretation is highly unlikely since the word bears little resemblance to the actual pronunciation of the Cherokee words. Their pronunciation would be Äh-shün-sha(-te–ye-.

The “te or ti” suffix at the end of Chestatee is the Itsate (Hitchiti Creek) suffix for “people.” In Itsate (Hitchiti Creek) Chesata-te means “Rattle People.” The Chesate (Rat People in Itsate) were a short, dark skinned ethnic group with long noses that once lived in some valleys of the Georgia Mountains in Creek tradition. Give the preponderance of Itsate place names in the North Georgia Mountains, either Itsate word is a more plausible interpretation.

The dubious interpretation of the Chestatee River’s name is a common problem in mountains of Georgia and North Carolina. Not knowing either Cherokee or Itsate Creek, or that the Itsate Creeks occupied the entire region at one time, early Caucasian settlers passed down inaccurate interpretations of Native American words. They have been copied back and forth though the generations since then, that even archaeologists do not realize their inaccuracy.

The Etowah River begins at a spring on the south slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, west of Dahlonega. Etowah is the Anglicization of the Muskogee Creek word “Etalwa” which means “a large town.” That word is derived from the Itsate Creek and Maya word e-tula, which also means “large town.”

Lumpkin County contained numerous creeks that generally flow fast and clear. Most contain either native or introduced trout populations. The major streams include Cane, Frogtown, Dicks, Shoal, Bryant, Amicalola, Cavender, Camp, Calhoun, Bull, Tesnatee and Yahoola.

Frogtown Creek has an interesting origin. Prior to 1754, the “Cherokee” town at that site was called Chota, which is the Creek word for Frog. It was burned by the invading Koweta Creek army. After the American Revolution, the town site was resettled, but this time called Walasi-yi, the Cherokee words for “Place of the Frog.” Apparently, the original town was settled by Creek speaking people, allied with the Cherokees.

The Tesnate were a branch of the Itstate-Creek Indians, who originally lived in north-central South Carolina. They relocated to the Georgia Mountains in the mid-1700s. Yahoola is the Creek word for the Speaker of the town or provincial council. It is still used today among Creek tribes. Both of these Native American words are erroneously labeled as “Cherokee words, whose meanings are unknown” by most tourist literature in Lumpkin County Area.

Native American occupation

It is not known which indigenous ethnic groups occupied Lumpkin County in very ancient times. They probably were ancestors of the Yuchi or Southern Siouans, but may have been unknown ethnic groups from the past. The preponderance of Creek place names is solid evidence that one or more branches of the Creek Indians occupied the region immediately prior to the Cherokees. The Cherokee Indians did not arrive in the region until after the American Revolution. A major trail, linking the Hiwassee River in North Carolina to the great town on the Etowah River now known as Etowah Mounds, followed the Etowah River into the county. From there it went to where Dahlonega is today. From there it roughly followed the route of US 19-29-129 northward over Neels Gap and into Union County. The alluvial floodplains in the county yield a wide range of pre-European artifacts, suggesting that these areas were intensively occupied for thousands of years.

There is a state historical marker at Neels Gap at the Lumpkin-Union County line that states that a great battle was fought on Blood Mountain in 1755 in which “the Cherokees won all of northern Georgia”. This is absolutely false. There is no record in Colonial archives of such a battle. In fact, an army from the single Creek town of Koweta (in west-central Georgia) destroyed all Cherokee villages and towns in Georgia and the southern half of western North Carolina in 1754. The famous 1755 map of North America by Professor John Mitchell of the University of North Carolina includes the words “Deserted Cherokee Settlements” across a broad swath of North Carolina and the northeastern tip of Georgia.

The re-captured region was originally taken from the Creeks by the Cherokees in 1715. All of the town leaders of the Creek Confederacy were invited to a friendly diplomatic conference at Tugaloo in 1715. They were murdered in their sleep. In the leadership vacuum, the Cherokees launched a blitzkrieg to gain the territory that the Koweta’s reoccupied in 1755. This victory ended the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War.

Native American Cultural Periods

Earliest Inhabitants

Humans have probably lived in Lumpkin County for at least 12,000 years, perhaps much longer, but this is not known for certain, due to the scarcity of archaeological studies in that county. Clovis and Folsom points, associated with Late Ice age big game hunters have been found in the Etowah River and Chattahoochee River Valleys. 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.

Archaic Period (8,000 BC – 1000 BC)

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 remainder of the year, smaller streams would have been desirable camp sites.

Lumpkin County was an ideal location for bands of hunters and gatherers. It was on a boundary area for two climate and geological zones. These provided a diverse ecological environment for game animals and edible plants. Native Americans learned to set massive brush fires in the late autumn which cleared the landscape of shrubs and created natural pastures for deer and elk.

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. Native Americans began traveling long distances to trade and socialize. There was an important east-west trail that paralleled the Etowah River to its headwaters then cut through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Nacoochee Valley in White County, GA.

Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)

The Etowah, Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys were locations 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 some small mounds, but most have disappeared due to natural erosion and agriculture. 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.

Archaeological evidence in the Etowah River Valley suggests that the first Muskogean farmers entered northeast Georgia around 400 BC, after migrating from west-central Mexico. They apparently also settled in mountain valleys in Lumpkin County. Swift Creek (200 AD – 750 AD) Napier Culture (600 AD- 900 AD) & Woodstock Culture (800 AD – 1000 AD) ceramics and a small mound were found on Cane Creek near Camp Glisson United Methodist Campground, north of Dahlonega.

Muskogean town dwellers (900 AD – 1784 AD)

Muskogeans carried with them advanced cultural traditions from Mexico and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The early Muskogeans eventually formed provinces that were governed by large towns. Prior to arrival of Europeans, there were no Indian “tribes.” The large towns were usually located in the bottomlands on major rivers such as the Etowah. Smaller villages located near creeks. Native Americans continued to live in what is now Lumpkin County, but their population was small and dispersed.

Throughout the Southeast, many provinces began to share common artistic symbols and agricultural lifestyles. Societies became more organized politically with elite families, non-agricultural specialists and local leaders. This era is known as the Southern Ceremonial Cult Period, Mississippian Period or Hierarchal Period. The “Mississippian” label came from a conference at Harvard University in 1947 which adopted the inaccurate belief that all advanced Native American culture originated north of the Mason-Dixon Line along the Mississippi River. Villages located in Lumpkin County would have been affected by the cultural influence of regional centers such as Etalwa (Etowah Mounds) on the Etowah River in present day Bartow County, GA and a cluster of towns in the mountains along major rivers.

European exploration period (1540 AD – 1717 AD)

There is evidence that European diseases began affecting coastal populations as early as 1500 AD Native American traders carried the microbes northward from Cuba and then into the lowlands near the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast. Shortly after the Hernando de Soto Expedition passed through Georgia in 1540, waves of European diseases began to decimate the Native American population. De Soto probably passed through or near Macon, GA in March of 1540. The indigenous people of Lumpkin County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens some time thereafter. It may have taken several years for plagues to reach the mountains. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Georgia dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700 AD.

Dispersed farmsteads: 1780 AD – 1838 AD

Thousands of Cherokee refugees moved into northwestern Georgia during the 1780s and 1790s. The Creeks continued to occupy the Coosa Creek region of Union County and the east side of the Chattahoochee River northward to Habersham County. Folklore in Lumpkin County states that a “Cherokee” named Yahoola was living there, when whites arrived. Perhaps some Creeks continued to live in Lumpkin, since Yahoola is a Creek political title, but has no meaning in Cherokee.

In 1793, the Creek Nation was shocked to learn that the Federal government had given away some of its most sacred territory, the Etowah River Valley down to the middle of what is now Paulding and Cobb Counties to the Cherokees. The Principal Chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation is still called Etalwamikko . . . King of Etowah. The remainder of northwest Georgia was taken from the Upper Creeks as punishment for assisting the British in the Revolution. Of course, the Chickamauga Cherokees had killed over a thousand settlers between 1776 and 1793, but Tennesseans were mad at the Upper Creeks for almost capturing Nashville. It was explained to the Creeks that the land theft was a “clerical mistake.

From 1793 to 1824, what was to become Lumpkin County was officially part of the Cherokee Nation, but had very few full-blooded Native Americans living there. Sections of the Etowah and Chestatee River Valleys had ertile bottomlands for agriculture, suitable tracts for Native American farming methods. Isolated families or extended families of Native Americans occupied these relatively small tracts. By this time Cherokee and Creek “towns” were really areas where there were concentrations of farmsteads. Neither ethnic group was still building compact towns.

Cherokee Indian Removal Period: 1828-1838

Gold was re-discovered by Georgians on Dukes Creek in the Nacoochee Valley in 1828. This was on land ceded by the Cherokees in 1817. However, suspecting gold was in the region, Georgia officials had redrawn the boundary of the Cherokee Nation prior in 1824. The unilaterally defined line put much of Lumpkin County outside Cherokee territory. However, it was a confusing situation in which whites tried to settle on lands that the Cherokees felt they still owned, since the new boundaries had not been approved by Congress.

A massive influx of gold miners in 1828 and 1829 worsened the situation. By then Cherokees had little hope of protection from Georgia law enforcement. Most families were pushed westward out of the gold fields which they owned, according to the United States government. Dahlonega remained in a portion of the Cherokee Nation that even Georgia recognized, but within a matter two years the torrent of white manners effectively pushed most of Lumpkin County out of Cherokee sovereignty.

Throughout the 1820s, Cherokee leaders and their attorneys fought the State of Georgia in courts in hope of thwarting efforts to evict the Cherokees from the state. The Cherokee’s position was that treaties between the United States and the Cherokee Nation could not be affected by laws passed unilaterally by United States Congress or the Georgia General Assembly.

The State of Georgia’s position was that the Cherokees were a northern tribe, not indigenous to the state. Therefore, they could not be considered to be sovereign over any territory. Also, an agreement between the Federal government and Georgia in 1798 had promised Georgia that all Native Americans would be removed from the state after it ceded the territory that was to become Alabama and Mississippi. The United States Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the Cherokees.

Both the Executive Branch of the Federal government and the State of Georgia refused to obey the Supreme Court’s ruling. In 1832 Georgia dispatched surveyors to divide up what is now Lumpkin County into 40 acre “gold lots.” Gold miners and homesteaders began occupying lots they had won in the Cherokee land lottery, even as many Cherokees struggled to remain on their farmsteads.

In 1836, a faction of Cherokee leaders, led by Major Ridge, signed the Treaty of New Echota, without authorization of the elected Cherokee government. Congress approved the fraudulent treaty anyway. It ceded all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi and made provisions for the Cherokees to be relocated to the Indian Territory – now the State of Oklahoma.

In 1838, Georgia and the Federal government began forced removal of any Cherokee families who had neither applied for state citizenship nor moved to the Indian Territory on their own. Crude stockades were constructed to temporarily contain captured Cherokee families until they could be quickly relocated outside of the state. One of those stockades was on the Etowah River near Canton.

By October of 1838, most of the remaining Cherokees had been removed from what was to become Lumpkin County. Many Cherokee women, who were married to white men, stayed in the region, because they were not required to relocate. It is from these mixed-heritage families that most Lumpkin County residents, who claim Cherokee ancestry, descend.

With so many Creek place names surviving, however, the question remains, if some of the mixed heritage families labeled “Cherokee” are really either of Creek or Yuchi ancestry. It is known that of the over 3,000 Creeks living in Georgia’s Cherokee Nation, only about 800 were captured by Federal troops. Their names and farm locations were not on the official “pick up” lists. Union, Fannin, Gilmer and Murray Counties contain numerous families with Upper Creek heritage. Are there some in Lumpkin County?


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