Native American History of Forsyth County, Georgia
Discover your family's story.
Enter a grandparent's name to get started.
Forsyth County located in northern Georgia. It is part of the Atlanta Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA.) Its county seat is Cumming. It is named after John Forsyth, Governor of Georgia from 1827–1829 and Secretary of State under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.
Forsyth County is bordered on the north by Dawson County and the east by Hall County. Lake Lanier now covers the two counties boundary. Gwinnett County forms a short southwestern boundary of Forsyth. The section of Fulton County that was formerly Milton County adjoins Forsyth on the southwest. Cherokee County forms the northwestern border of Forsyth.
Geology and hydrology
Forsyth County is located in the Upper Piedmont and Blue Ridge foothills geological regions, which are characterized by underlying rock strata of igneous and metamorphicized igneous rock. Forsyth County contains some small to medium height mountains (for the Southeast.) These mountains do not form continuous ridges. The terrain of the county generally consists of rolling hills and valleys or ravines formed by streams. Saunee Mountain dominates the skyline of the central part of the county.
The sections of the Chattahoochee and Chesnatee Rivers passing through Forsyth County once had some alluvial flood plains, but these were all covered by Lake Sydney Lanier in the early 1950s. There are a few permanent or seasonal wetlands paralleling the streams that flow into the Chattahoochee. The Etowah River does have some swamps and seasonal wetlands in its much broader flood plain. However, Forsyth has far fewer wetlands than counties to the south. The top soils are thin over most hills and steep slopes, while much deeper near streams.
Forsyth County was north of the old Cotton Line, which marked the northern limit of cotton species grown before the Civil War. There were few, if any, cotton plantations until after the Civil War, when cotton hybrids were developed with shorter growing seasons. Much of the rolling landscape was not suitable for large plantations. As a result relatively few slaves were owned in Forsyth; at least as compared to counties in central, west and southern Georgia.
Forsyth County is drained by the Chattahoochee, Chesnatee and Etowah Rivers. The Eastern Continental Divide is a low ridge that runs from the county’s southwest to northeast corners. Cumming is located on this ridge. Sautee Mountain is within the Etowah River’s drainage area.
The county’s largest stream is the Chattahoochee River. Both the Chattahoochee and Chesnatee Rivers had all the characteristics of mountain rivers. Only the smallest of dugout canoes could have passed through the series of rocky shoals and rapids. Until flooded by Lake Lanier, the Chesnatee joined the Chattahoochee River in Forsyth County. The Chattahoochee River joins the Flint River in deep southwestern Georgia to form the Apalachicola River, which flows through Florida into the Gulf of Mexico.
The popular explanation of the meaning of Chattahoochee is that it is Creek word meaning, “River with the shining rocks.” This is probably not accurate. Until the late 1700s, there was a large Creek town with several mounds, where Six Flags Over Georgia is now located. In the Itsate (Hitchiti-Creek) language, it was named Cata-hvci (pronounced Chata-hawchee,) which means “Red River.” The river at this town site is often clay red and contains no visible stones. When most of the Creeks were forcibly deported to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma,) they called a principal river through their lands, the Red River.
The Etowah River flows through the northwestern corner of the county. It begins at a mountainside spring on the Blue Ridge Mountain chain west of Dahlonega, then flows south-southwestward through Dawson and Forsyth County. It is joined by the Amicalola River in Dawson County. Beginning near the Forsyth-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.”
Forsyth County contained numerous creeks that generally flow fast and clear. Most creeks are identical in appearance to those immediately to the north in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The major streams include Johns, Big, Vickery, Bentley, Daves, Baldridge, Cobb, Brewton, Cogburn, Saunee, Settingdown, Squattingdown, Hurricane, Taylor, Bannister, Thailey and Young Deer Creeks.
Native American occupation
A major mistake in some histories of Forsyth County is the statement that Forsyth was always the home of the Cherokee Indians. Until 1764, European maps show the Etowah River Valley to be occupied by the Apalachicola Indians; also known as the Conchakee. They were a branch of the Creek Confederacy. From 1764 until 1793 maps show most of northern Georgia being controlled and occupied by the Upper Creeks. However, in reality, thousands of Cherokees poured into northwest Georgia in the 1780s.
Numerous texts and even a historical marker describe a Battle of Taliwa in 1755 that was supposedly fought along the Etowah River near the Forsyth-Cherokee County line. These texts go on to state that the Cherokees won all of northern Georgia in this battle. The story first appeared in the 1820s when attorneys for the Cherokees were trying to stop forced re-location to the Indian Territory. In fact, the Cherokees lost a series of devastating battles to the Koweta and Upper Creeks during1754 and 1755. Their towns and villages in Georgia, southeastern Tennessee and even a section of the Hiwassee Valley in North Carolina were burned. The Koweta Creeks reclaimed the territory that had been theirs before 1715. The Cherokees were forced to sue for a peace that ended a 40 year long war.
Northwest Georgia was awarded to the Cherokees by a treaty in 1793. After 1793, some members of other tribes, including the Cherokee, did settle in what was to become Forsyth County. After that date, the territory was officially part of the Cherokee Nation until 1838, but surviving Native American names, such as Saunee, suggest that it had a multi-ethnic population. For example, Saunee is pronounced Shawnee in Cherokee. The main body of true Cherokees was concentrated to the west in the Great Appalachian Valley where the Lower Etowah, Oostanaula and Coosa Rivers flowed.
Prior to the Lake Lanier being filled with water, a team of archaeologists from the University of Georgia excavated the Summerour Mounds (site 9FO16) in Forsyth County, north of Buford Dam. These were some of Georgia’s oldest pyramidal platform mounds. Pottery associated with the Swift Creek and Napier Cultures were found there. Much of the mound construction occurred during the Napier Culture, between 600 AD and 900 AD. There was also a Woodstock Culture occupation of the site that began around 900 AD and lasted for a century. The information gained from the examination of this site has in recent years become valuable for understanding the appearance of large scale corn cultivation and town development in Georgia.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Forsyth 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 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.
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.
Forsyth County was an ideal location for bands of hunters and gatherers. The county’s network of creeks and wetlands 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. Woodland bison probably also roamed this region until around 1740. The landscape that European settlers encountered in the Piedmont was not natural. It had been altered for thousands of years by Native Americans to create optimum environments for the natural production of food sources.
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 north-south trail that paralleled the Chattahoochee River to its headwaters in 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 Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys suggests that the first Muskogean farmers entered northeast Georgia around 400 BC, after migrating from west-central Mexico. They apparently settled in mountain valleys to the north of Forsyth County. 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 Chattahoochee. Smaller villages located near creeks. Native Americans continued to live in what is now Forsyth County, but their populations were concentrated at a town with multiple mounds, where Summerour mounds were located and farther down the Etowah at Ball Ground, GA or at Etowah Mounds in Bartow County, GA.
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 Forsyth 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 Forsyth County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens some time thereafter. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Georgia dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700 AD.
The Kingdom of Spain claimed all of the Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins, including Forsyth 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 Spanish explorers and traders definitely passed through the future Forsyth County on many occasions.
Agricultural advancements: Almost immediately after Spanish missions were established on the coast of Georgia in the late 1500s, the ancestors of the Creeks were growing European fruits and vegetables in addition to their traditional crops. A Spanish expedition in 1600 observed peaches, pears and melons being grown in a village on the Ocmulgee River. By the 1700s, Creeks and their Kataapa allies in northern Georgia were also raising European livestock. Chickens and hogs were the first European animals acquired to supplement their turkey flocks and Mexican meat dogs. By the late 1700s, most Georgia Creek men owned horses and had become skilled herders of cattle, horses and hogs.
Creek Confederacy: The Creek Confederacy of “People of One Fire” was a political alliance formed by the remnants of many advanced indigenous provinces in the Lower Southeast. This alliance probably developed during the late 1600s. The member towns represented several ethnic groups, but the Muskogees and Itsati’s (Hitchitis) dominated the alliance. Muskogee was selected as the parliamentary language of the alliance. When British settlers first settled the coast of Georgia, Itsati was spoken by most Georgia Creeks. By 1800, a composite Muskogee language had became the spoken tongue of Creek citizens.
Dispersed farmsteads: 1780 AD – 1838 AD
After the American Revolution, Creek families dispersed across the vast territory now controlled by the Creek Confederacy. There were relatively few in the North Georgia Mountains, which were controlled by the Upper Creeks. 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 Forsyth 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. Bottomlands near the Chattahoochee River were relatively small and dispersed. There were some bottomlands along the section of the Etowah River between Ball Ground and Canton, GA in Cherokee County.
In 1817 the Cherokee Nation ceded its lands along the Chesnatee River and a wedge along the western side of the Chattahoochee River down to the Shawnee village of Suwannee in what is now Gwinnett County, GA. Most of this wedge became western Hall 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 Forsyth 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 Forsyth County. Many Cherokee women, who were married to white men, stayed in the region, because they were not required to relocate. Evidently, several Native American families, who were listed with the Cherokees, figured out a way to avoid deportation. Their names appear on the 1832 Cherokee rolls and then on the 1840 census of area that was to become Forsyth County.