Native American History of Dawson County, Georgia
Dawson County located in northern Georgia. It is part of the Atlanta Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA.) Its county seat is Dawsonville. It is named after William Crosby Dawson, a U.S. Senator from Georgia. The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is located in Dawson County at Amicalola State Park. Up until the late 20th century, Dawson County was associated with the illegal moonshine industry and stock car racing, which the moonshine industry spawned.
Dawson County is bordered on the north by Fannin County, the northeast by Lumpkin County and the east by Hall County. Forsyth County is located south of Dawson. Cherokee County forms it southwest boundary. Pickens County forms its western boundary. Gilmer County adjoins Dawson on its northwest side.
Geology and hydrology
Dawson 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. Dawson County contains some small to medium height mountains (for the Southeast.) These mountains do not form continuous ridges. The terrain of most of the county generally consists of rolling hills and valleys or ravines formed by streams. The Blue Ridge Escarpment runs across the northern edge of Dawson. It is characterized by steep slopes, deep ravines and elevations up to 3.620 feet above sea level on the top of Black Mountain.
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.
Dawson 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. As a result relatively few slaves were owned in Dawson.
Dawson County is drained by the Amicalola and Etowah Rivers. While flowing through the county, these rivers are very shallow and in several sections flow extremely fast. The End of the World Rapids on the Amicalola River in the western part of the county are some of the most dangerous in the nation. Only small Native American canoes could have traversed some sections of these two rivers.
The county’s largest stream is the Etowah It begins at a mountainside spring on the Blue Ridge Mountain chain west of Dahlonega, then flows south-southwestward through Dawson and Dawson County. It is joined by the Amicalola River in Dawson County. Beginning near the Dawson-Dawson County line, the Etowah becomes much deeper and flows slower. It was sufficiently deep to support large trade canoes once the channel deepened. Etowah is the Anglicization of the Creek word “Etalwa” which means “a large town.” That word is derived from the Itza Maya word e-tula, which also means “large town.”
The Amicalola River begins as Amicalola Falls on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. At 729 feet, it is the tallest waterfall in Georgia and one of the tallest in the nation. The origin of the world, Amicalola, is obviously Native American, but does not have any immediately recognizable roots in either the Creek or Cherokee languages.
Dawson County contained numerous creeks that generally flow fast and clear. The major streams include Amicalola, Little Amicalola, Nimblewill, Sweetwater, Burt, Shoal and Cochran Creeks.
Native American occupation
It is not known which indigenous ethnic group occupied Dawson County in pre-European times. 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 through the county. The few alluvial floodplains in the county yield a wide range of pre-European artifacts, suggesting that these areas were intensively occupied for thousands of years.
It is possible that present day Dawson County was occupied by aboriginal ethnic groups such as the Yuchi and Southern Siouans after the Muskogean farmers pushed up the Etowah River as far as they could find suitable locations for large scale farming. There are some small mounds in southern Dawson County along the Etowah River that appear to date from the Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD) but they have never been fully studied by professional archaeologists.
Native American Cultural Periods
Humans have probably lived in Dawson 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 Middle Etowah 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.
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.
Dawson 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 to the north of Dawson County, along the Upper Chattahoochee, Upper Hiawassee and Nottely Rivers. The Upper Piedmont 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.
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 Dawson 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 Dawson 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 Dawson 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 east side of the Chattahoochee River northward to Habersham County.
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,” but they were promised that their other Sacred Lands, the Ocmulgee Bottoms, would be theirs forever.
From 1793 to 1838, what was to become Dawson County was officially part of the Cherokee Nation, but had very few full-blooded Native Americans living there. The Lower Etowah River Valley had broad, fertile bottomlands for agriculture, suitable tracts for Cherokee farming methods. There were some bottomlands along the section of the Etowah River between Ball Ground and Canton, GA in Cherokee County.
Cherokee Indian Removal Period: 1832-1838
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 Dawson 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, some Cherokees had been removed from what was to become Dawson County. Many Cherokee women, who were married to white men, stayed in the region, because they were not required to relocate.