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A small temporary fort was established by Captain Jean Ribault in Port Royal Sound, SC in 1562. Seventeenth Century French maps state that members of this colony traveled to the “gold-bearing mountains of the Apalache,” and claimed the territory for the King of France. Only French maps of the period provide an accurate description of the entire Savannah River system, but no archives have been found that collaborate such a journey.
In 1564, after establishing Fort Caroline somewhere in the vicinity of the mouth of the Altamaha River, Captain René Goulaine de Laudonniére dispatched several expeditions up the Altamaha River to the sources of its tributaries in the foothills of the mountains. He had learned from tribes on the coast that important trading activities occurred along this route. The Apalache Indians traded gold, copper, silver, greenstone, mica and crystals mined in the mountains to provinces in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. Control of this trade route was a major cause of warfare between the provinces in the lower elevations. Greenstone was the most desired commodity because it was the only stone suitable for axes and wedges to split wood.
The two longest expeditions lasted six months and two months; the longest one being commanded by La Roche Ferriere. These expeditions provided the names of the provinces between the mountains and the sea. One was named the Mayacoa or Maya People. De Laudonniére named the mountains “Les Apalachiens” in honor of his new trading partners, the Apalache.
The expeditions returned with gold, silver, copper, rubies and sapphires. A “red” metal were tested by a metallurgist and said to be gold, but it may have been a gold-zinc alloy. In Georgia, zinc is often found with gold in quartz. This is particularly true for area around Gainesville, GA, which is near the source of the Oconee River. Here, quartz rocks can be found with 1/2 inch wide veins of pure gold-zinc alloy.
De Laudonniére planned to establish the capital of New France at the point on a tributary of the Altamaha close to the mountains, where the water became too shallow for large trade canoes. This appears to be the terrace over the Oconee River, where the University of Georgia is now situated. However, almost all of the 900+ French colonists were killed in a hurricane or in massacres staged by Spanish soldiers. France never again attempted to found a permanent colony on the South Atlantic Coast.
Pierre Gambie, a member of French Admiral Coligny’s household, was on a trading expedition to the Georgia Mountains, when Fort Caroline was massacred. He established his own trade network to the mountains, married a Native king’s daughter, and eventually became the king himself. French maps of the Altamaha Basin became increasingly accurate in the years immediately after Fort Caroline was massacred. It is likely that Gambie continued to communicate with France via privateers.
English scholar, Richard Hakluyt, published the reports of Spaniards, Pedro Moreles and Nicholas Burgiognon in the late 1580s. The former residents of first, Santa Elena and then St. Augustine, described journeys from Santa Elena to the Georgia Mountains in order to trade with the Apalache’s for gold. The Spaniards stated that the capital of this province was a great city hidden in the highest of these mountains named Great Copal. The Apalache’s refused to tell the Spanish where Copal was located, although there is a suggestion that at least one Spaniard was able to see it. The description of Copal seems to match those of the great city on the side of a mountain in “The Migration Legend of the Kashita People” and the Florida Indians’ stories of a great city named Yupaha in the Georgia Mountains. Great Copal was probably located the half square mile ruins at Track Rock Gap.