Native American History of Gwinnett County, Georgia
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Gwinnett County located in northern Georgia and is part of the Atlanta Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA.) It was named after Button Gwinnett, one of Georgia’s signers of the decoration of independence. Its county seat is Lawrenceville. With over 800,000 residents, it is Georgia’s second most populous county.
Gwinnett County is bordered on the northwest by Forsythe County and the “Old Milton” County portion of Fulton County. It is bordered on the southwest by DeKalb County and the southeast by Rockdale and Walton Counties. Barrow County forms its eastern boundary, while Hall County forms its northeastern boundary. The Chattahoochee River forms an extensive portion of the county’s western boundary. The extreme northern section of the county is covered by Lake Lanier, which is created by Buford Dam.
Geology and hydrology
Gwinnett County was located in the Upper Piedmont geological region, which is characterized by underlying rock strata of igneous and metamorphicized igneous rock. The Upper Piedmont terrain generally consists of rolling hills and stream valleys, but in some areas can seem semi-mountainous. This is because high mountains once stood at these locations, but have eroded to large hills through the eons. The section of the Chattahoochee River passing by Gwinnett County generally has a narrow flood plain. There are few permanent wetlands paralleling the streams that flow into the Chattahoochee. The top soils are thin over most hills and steep slopes, while much deeper near streams.
The Eastern Continental Divide, known locally as the Peachtree Ridge, runs through the county from its northeastern to southwestern corners. To the west of the ridge, water flows to the Gulf of Mexico. To the east of the ridge, water flows to the Atlantic Ocean.
Gwinnett 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. The rolling landscape was not suitable for large plantations. As a result relatively few slaves were owned in Gwinnett; at least as compared to counties in central, west and southern Georgia.
Gwinnett County is drained by the Chattahoochee, South, Alcovy, Apalachee and Little Mulberry Rivers. The county’s largest stream is the Chattahoochee River. The river flows along Gwinnett’s northwestern boundary. In the vicinity of Alpharetta and Roswell, there are many rapids in the Chattahoochee and very narrow flood plains. The river has all the characteristics of a mountain river. Only the smallest of dugout canoes could have passed through the series of rocky shoals and rapids. It is the most southerly location in the eastern United States where native trout can thrive. 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 source of the Yellow River is in the southern tip of Gwinnett County while the Alcovy begins in the eastern part of the county. These two rivers are tributaries of the Ocmulgee River.
The Apalachee and Little Mulberry Rivers begin in the northeastern section of Gwinnett County. They are tributaries of the Oconee River. The Apalachee River gets its name from the Mountain Apalachee Indians, who occupied much of western North Carolina until 1715 when driven out by the Cherokees. The Appalachian Mountains were named after this Native American people.
Gwinnett County contained numerous creeks that generally flow fast and clear. However, it is typical for the Upper Piedmont for some small streams (branches) to flow through narrow, swamp-like corridors of saturated soil. The major streams include Cedar, Brushy Fork, Brushy, Bromolow, Suwannee, Sweetwater, Beaver Ruin, Hopkins, No Business, Shoal, Drowning, Ivy, Jacks, Jackson, Turkey, Wildcat, Wolf and Watson Creeks.
Native American occupation
All British and French maps show the occupants of region around Gwinnett County to be Kataapa (Catawba Indians) until the American Revolution. In fact the territory controlled by Georgia Catawba during that era was far more extensive than that of the South Carolina Catawba, even though the Georgia Catawba have been completely forgotten by history books. The probable reason is that these Catawba joined the Creek Confederacy, and so within a generation, were probably speaking one of the Creek languages.
A Shawnee town was established on the Chattahoochee River at some time in the 1700s, most likely after the French & Indian War. These Shawnees were probably from the North Carolina Mountains in the vicinity of Asheville. All Creek, Yuchi, Shawnee and Cherokee towns east of the 84th meridian were removed from the North Carolina Mountains in 1763. The location of the Shawnee town is now the city of Suwannee, GA.
The fact that a river in Gwinnett County is named after the Apalachee Indians, strongly suggests that they at one time lived in the region. The most likely time period was the 1700s. Once the Mountain Apalachee had joined the Creek Confederacy, their ethnic distinctions quickly disappeared.
All many references and novels describe the Cherokees as the aboriginal inhabitants of Gwinnett County, the Cherokee Nation never had any territory within its boundaries. Cherokees only arrived west of the Chattahoochee River after the Treaty of 1793. Even after then, the Cherokee population was very sparse in the vicinity of Gwinnett County.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Gwinnett 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.
Gwinnett 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. 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 east-west trail that ran from the shoals on the Savannah River (now Augusta) to the Chattahoochee River in Gwinnett County; and then to the land of the Chickasaws in southwestern Tennessee.
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 numerous mounds. 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.
The occupants of the region around Gwinnett County prior to around 200 BC were probably Southern Siouans. Up until the end of the American Revolution, British and French maps showed the Catawba occupying the region between Metropolitan Atlanta and the Nacoochee Valley in northeast Georgia. The Siouans were probably pushed out the lower Chattahoochee River and Etowah River Valleys by Muskogean immigrants.
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. However, the region was probably 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, Yuchi and Siouan 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 Gwinnett County, but their populations were concentrated at a town with multiple mounds, such as the Summerour Mounds near Buford Dam or Etalwa (Etowah Mounds) in Cartersville, GA on the Etowah River. There was also a large town site on the Chattahoochee River, where Six Flags amusement park is located that was never studied by archaeologists. The location corresponds to the Creek town of Chattahoochee that was show on 18th and early 19th century maps.
One of the earliest “advanced” indigenous towns in the United States was founded on the Macon Plateau around 900 AD. Its founders were newcomers, who carried with them many Mesoamerican cultural traits. They may have been either Itza Mayas or the hybrid descendants of both Mayas and indigenous peoples. The language that most of the Creek Indians’ ancestors spoke in Georgia was Itsate (Hitchiti in English.) The Itza Maya’s also called themselves, Itsati. There are many Maya and Totonac words in the various dialects spoken by the Creek Indians that came from Mexico.
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 Gwinnett 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.
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 and Sparta, GA in March of 1540. The indigenous people of Gwinnett County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens at least by the summer of 1540 as they were transmitted up the tributaries of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers. 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 Gwinnett 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 Gwinett 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 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 probable 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 – 1821 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.
While the nearby Etowah River Valley had broad, fertile bottomlands for agriculture, suitable tracts for Native American farming methods near the Chattahoochee River were relatively small and dispersed. There were some bottomlands along the section of the Chattahoochee near present day Suwannee, GA. Mixed blood families with some Creek or Cherokee ancestry established plantations in this area during the early 1800s. They were not cotton plantations, however. Some of these families remained in the region. Others immigrated to eastern Texas where their mixed-heritage features blended in with the “locals.” A few families shared the fate of their Native kin and relocated to Oklahoma.
In 1818 the Creek Confederacy ceded a corridor along the east side of the Chattahoochee up to Clarkesville, GA that included all of present day Gwinnett County. In 1821, it ceded a much larger tract of land that included present day Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Creeks, who were wives of Caucasian men, or mixed heritage male heads of households, who elected to take state citizenship, remained in the region. These land cessions ended Native American ownership of the region, but many mixed blood families (particularly the Creeks) opted for state citizenship. Over time, they assimilated with the general population.