It was April 2010. I was homeless and living in the Western North Carolina Mountains. A couple had invited me to camp out inside their unoccupied vacation cabin in the Tuskeegee community near Fontana Lake. Tuskeegee is in Graham County, North Carolina. Graham is a breathtakingly beautiful place, completely walled in by some of the Eastern United State’s highest mountains. Its county seat, Robbinsville, is closer to seven other state capitals than it is to Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital.
After moving from a tent in the Nantahala Mountains into the cabin on the side of a small mountain, my immediate question was, “What is the name of one of the principal tribal towns of the Creek Confederacy doing in the Great Smoky Mountains?” The Tuskeegee town site was in short walking distance from the cabin. Its Cherokee name was Taskegi.1 The original Creek version of the name was Tvskeke. The remnants of some mounds are visible. Its invisible inhabitants evidently were delighted to have a kinsman and his herd dogs visit them. The dogs appeared to be playing with children at the town site, but I couldn’t see anything. Most people in Graham County didn’t like going there because they said that it was haunted by unfriendly Indian spirits, especially at night.
Locals would just smile sympathetically to the crazy, homeless man, when he told them that Tuskeegee was the Anglicization of the Creek word, Tvskeke, which means, “Piliated Woodpecker People.” They knew for a fact that it was a Cherokee word. Folks had just forgotten what it meant. If this fellow was so smart, how come he was homeless?
I soon noticed that 7 out of 8 of the Native American place names in Graham County were Creek words. The eighth, Stecoa, was claimed by the Cherokees, but none of them could come up with a similar Cherokee word that looked anything close.2 The main highway through the county was named “Tallulah Road.” That is the Itstate Creek word for town. No one believed me, of course . . . for the same reasons as above, plus everybody knew that the Cherokees had always lived in their valley.
There is a big, pyramidal mound beside US 129 that is not even on North Carolina’s list of Indian mounds.3 Beside it, along Tallulah Creek was a huge town site, where farmers were always digging up pottery shards that were the styles of pottery made in northern Georgia by the ancestors of the Creeks. I studied an online infrared photograph of the town site. There were several rectangles and circles that appeared to be either smaller mounds or house sites that had been concealed by 200 years of plowing.
Next stop was the Graham County Library. The librarian said that a retired archaeologist from Florida had surveyed the county because North Carolina archaeologists had forgotten that Graham County existed. There were at least a dozen mounds in the county, some of them quite large. The archaeologist had prepared a report on his survey and given copies to the library and the Graham County Historical Society.
The librarian added that the archaeologist had found several artifacts that he thought were 16th century Spanish beads, weapons and tools. Graham County and the adjacent Andrews Valley was the only region in western North Carolina where such artifacts had been found by archeologists. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish artifacts are not that rare in northwest Georgia and the Georgia gold fields.
The librarian told me to come back in a couple of days and he would give me a photocopy of the archaeological report. When I returned, he wouldn’t look me in the eyes, and said that he couldn’t find the report. He quickly walked away to avoid being seen near me. I later learned that someone in law enforcement had spread a false rumor that I was a convicted sexual predator. Thereafter, very few of the locals would talk to me. However, the Snowbird Cherokees continued to be as friendly as ever. So were the newcomers from Georgia and Florida, who were delighted to have an intelligent conversation with someone from the outside world.
One of my new Snowbird Cherokee friends was a sales clerk at a convenience store on Tallulah Road. Her family had exactly the same name, Chikililee, as one of the principal leaders of the Creek Confederacy when Georgia was first settled. He was the Palache chief, who gave the “Migration Legend of the Kashita People” written in the Creek writing system, to Governor Oglethorpe. At the time, the Palache war chief told Oglethorpe that his people had once lived in the mountains. Chikililee was also a name of a village visited by French explorers in Georgia’s Coastal Plain in 1565. I asked my new Snowbird friend what her family name meant in Cherokee. She didn’t know.
As we got to know each other in my trips to purchase gasoline, my Snowbird friend began to tell more about the history of Snowbirds. They originally were a remnant tribe that had been forced into association with the Cherokees, but preferred to stay separate. Cherokees on the main reservation, 45 miles to the east, called them, “Moon Faces” because many of the Snowbird men looked like the Olmec stone heads. The eastern boundary of the Cherokee Nation ran through Robbinsville between 1763 and 1838. The main reservation lands today were outside the Cherokee Nation during that period.
The Snowbirds, who then called themselves Soque or Sokee (pronounced jzhō : kē) had lived outside the Cherokee Nation’s boundaries near Soco (Soque) Gap until the Trail of Tears. Their chief had somehow persuaded the federal government to have his band exempted from the Treaty of New Echota. After the main body of Cherokees were gathered up and deported to the Indian Territory, the Soque moved just inside the old boundaries. They were eventually joined by a band of Yuchi, who had hidden in the Cohutta Mountains of Georgia during the removal period. Some Yuchi remained in Georgia till the 1900s.
I told Sally one day, “Do you realize that your people could be related to the Olmec Civilization in Mexico? It was really the Zoque who started the first Mexican civilization.” She didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, but perceived that it had something to do with the Spanish. She then blurted out, “Did you know that De Soto came through here? He carved his name and the date on a rock up on the Cherohala Skyway.” She sketched me a map of how to get there. The location was over 5400 feet above sea level.
At that time in mid-March there was still heavy snow on the upper elevations of the Cherohala Skyway. However, an excuse arose about three weeks later when my female herd dog went into heat. An acquaintance living near Oak Ridge, TN wanted to breed his male herd dog to her. I checked with the state DOT and the ice had melted off the Cherohala Skyway. The three dogs and I headed west in my Ford Explorer. I bought a new pack of batteries for my digital camera so I could have photographic proof that Hernando de Soto came through the Little Tennessee River Valley gorge.
There still was snow on the side of the Skyway and on the trail at Hoopers Bald, but Sally’s map was accurate. I found the boulder and saw the inscription then my heart sank. It was in Spanish, but had nothing to do with de Soto. The date September 15, 1615 was clearly visible. The words were:
PRE DARMOS CASADA – SEP 15 – 1615
The Spanish phrase meant, “Before???” we will give, married September 15, 1615. The “pre” part didn’t make sense. I pulled out my camera and started to document the inscription anyway. The batteries went dead as the telescopic lens extended. All eight of the supposedly new batteries I had just bought in Robbinsville were dead. I would have to come back after buying newer batteries in Tennessee.
The man’s male dog was not the least interested in my flamingly interested female. Fortunately, she was not the least bit interested in her brother or father. They fought the whole way to Tennessee and back over a female, who didn’t believe in incest. As we climbed above 4000 feet, we entered a cloud. By 4:00 PM it was pitch black inside the cloud. Even with the car lights on I could only see about three feet in front of me. There was practically no siding on the highway. To the right, two feet from the paving, was a rock escarpment. To the left was a cliff dropping about 1200 feet to the Little Tennessee River. I had to slow down to less than 5 mph, but was still the most scared, I have ever been in my life. Lightning was forming in the cloud and striking down into the gorge below. The winds were swirling violently in all directions, knocking the Ford Explorer left and right.
The surrealism of the experience reached a climax near Hoopers Bald. An SUV with the same silver color as mine was engulfed in flames. It had veered off to the right and hit the escarpment. Onlookers were frantically trying to get the probably already dead driver out, but were being forced away by the flames. There was no way I was going to stop to take photos of the inscription and it was too dark anyway.
We did not exit the cloud until about the 4,000 feet level on the other side of the Unicoi Mountain Range. It had taken me two hours to go about 10 miles. What else could go wrong after passing through the cloud from hell? The answer came quickly. Just after I exited the cloud, I looked to my left toward the Little Tennessee River Gorge. There was a **** tornado extending from the bottom of the cloud a few feet above my car down into the gorge. I took liberties with the posted speed limit to get the blazes away from that tornado. All the cops were at the burning car anyway. I felt no guilt from breaking the law.
Asking around Robbinsville the next week revealed that one of my newcomer friends knew about the inscription on Hoopers Bald. Photos of it were on the web page of the Graham County Historical Society. Not only that, the society had shown the photos to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee. An archaeologist there had translated it for them. He said that was Latin and meant “Land we will hold and defend.” Say what? That professor had no clue what he was talking about.
I did some more research and found out that “pre” was the medieval Castilian word for “prayer.” However, by the late Middle Ages, Spanish Catholics used the word, suplicacion for prayer. Sephardic Jews continued to use pre. I had discovered proof of a Sephardic Jewish wedding on the top of Ole Smoky on September 15, 1615. When I excitedly told of my discovery to the few people in Graham County who would speak to me, they smiled again sympathetically as they had with “Tuskeegee.” Why would a crazy, homeless man with three dogs know more about foreign words that a bonified ARCHAEOLOGY professor?
I never had a chance to go back to Hoopers Bald for photographs. Two days before I planned to photograph the inscription, the owners of the cabin called me and said that they wanted me to have a home to live in. They would continue to pay the power and telephone bills until I found a way to make a living. They offered to pay for the rental truck to move all my appliances, plus some of my personal belongings and best furniture. That weekend, they even drove over 300 miles one way to help me move.
The day after the cabin’s owners returned home from helping me move in, they filed an eviction notice with the Graham County Sheriff’s Department. Why would anyone want to file for an eviction, when the evictee was a non-paying, invited guest? I could not figure it out at the time. It was shocking enough to have deputies show up at the front door without warning to hand me eviction papers for the second time in four months. What I later learned was the owners’ main home in Raleigh was being foreclosed on. They planned to use my appliances and furniture in the cabin since they assumed that I would not have the money on short notice to move out my belongings.
The day after the eviction notice was delivered, the phone and internet were disconnected. The owners had not paid the phone bill in three months. The next morning, Duke Power showed up first thing to turn off the power. The owners had stopped paying the power bill the day I moved in. That meant that I had no lights, no refrigerated food, no water and no working toilet. It was going to be back to living in a tent. Fortunately, the nice folks at Robbinsville Furniture Co. let me pay one of their employees to help me move out my belongings to a storage bin. I ended up losing all my appliances and antiques that had been in the family since the early 1800s, since I couldn’t afford to pay the rental fees in the late winter of 2011. However, I was able to move out my clothing, kiln and cooking utensils before the bin was locked.
Some Cherokee scholars are aware that there are two locations for a town named Tvskeke, but tourists are not told this since it would refute the story that the Cherokees have lived in western North Carolina for 10,000 years. Apparently, most of the Creeks were driven away while the minority joined the Cherokee Alliance. A Creek “k” sounds like a “g” to English and Cherokee speakers. ↩
Tallula, Tuskegee, Cheoah (Chiaha), Santeetlah (Santeele), Tennessee (Tanasi), Talasee, and Chickalee (Creek chief who gave Governor Oglethorpe the “Migration Legend of the Creek People.”) The “coa” ending on the word, Stecoah is Arawak and means “people.” Three years later it is now known that Caribbean peoples immigrated beyond Florida into the Southern Highlands in large numbers. ↩
The mound is directly adjacent to the north side of the right of way of US 129 and is in excellent condition. ↩