Native American History of Polk County, Georgia
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Polk County is located in northwest Georgia. It was named after James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States. The county seat is Cedartown.
Polk County is bounded on the north by Floyd County, GA and on the northeast by Bartow County, GA. On the south it adjoins Haralson County, GA. On the west, it is bordered by Cherokee County, Alabama and on the southwest by Cleburne County, Alabama.
Geology and hydrology
Most of Polk County is located in the Ridge and Valley geological region, which is characterized by multiple strata of Paleozoic sedimentary rocks deposited when eastern North America was flooded by the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Dolomitic limestone, limestone, sandstone, mudstone and shale are the dominant rock formations of the county. Caves and springs are common in the county.
Much of the central part of Polk County ranges in elevation from 1000 feet down to 600 feet, which is about the same range as adjacent Bartow County to the northeast. There are two mountainous areas in the county. In the east, the low mountains rise up 1,316 feet at Carnes Mountain. In the more rugged northwestern part of the county, elevations reach 1,600 feet on top of Indian Mountain.
A relatively small section in the southern section of the county is part of the Piedmont. It consists of slightly rolling hills and in general, contains smoother terrain than the remainder.
Seasonal or permanent wetlands parallel many of its small streams. These are relatively narrow bands of soggy terrain that provide ecological diversity for animal and plant life. The top soils are thin over most hills and steep slopes, while much deeper near streams. Short-sighted cultivation techniques in the 19th and early 20th century caused much of the best top soil to be eroded; thus exposing red clay sub-soil. Sandy loam can still be found near streams.
Most of the county drains into the Etowah River. Some of the Piedmont section eventually drains into the Tallapoosa River. The county’s largest stream is Euharlee Creek, which flows into Bartow County, and then the Etowah River. Other streams include: Cedar, Little Cedar, Silver, Simpson, Spring, Thomasson, Thompson, Hills and Fish Creek. None of the creeks were sufficient deep for navigation by dugout canoes.
Etowah is the Anglicization of the Creek word Etalwa, which means “large town.” Etalwa was derived from the Itsate Creek and Itza Maya word E-tula, which also means “large town.”
Euharlee comes from the Tamatli-Creek word for Wolf People or Wolf Clan; Yvhvle.
Native American occupation
Historically, present day Polk County was associated with the Talwa-Posa (Tallapoosa), Tamatli, Etawlwa and Koweta branches of the Creek Confederacy. Most of the Creeks left the area when it was given to the Cherokees in a 1793 treaty. From then until the Cherokee Removal in 1838 there was a small Cherokee population in the section of the Cherokee Nation that was to become Polk County.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Polk 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 nearby Etowah Valley.
During the Ice Age, herds of giant mammals roamed the river bottom lands. Many Late Ice Age fossils have been discovered within Ladds Cave in adjacent Bartow County. 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.
Polk 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 Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)
The Tallapoosa, 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 mounds. Apparently, most mounds were primarily small one 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.
One of the earliest towns north of Mexico with large pyramidal mounds was at the Leake Site on the Etowah River, only a few miles from where Euharlee Creek flows into the Etowah River. It was begun around 0 AD and continued to grow until around 600 AD. The base of its largest mound covered almost two acres when at its maximum size.
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 Polk County, but their populations were concentrated elsewhere.
One of the earliest “advanced” indigenous towns in the United States was also founded in the Etowah Valley around 990 AD. It is now known as Etowah Mounds National Landmark. 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 Polk County would have been affected by the cultural influence of regional centers such as the large town on the Etowah River in adjacent Bartow County.
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 and the Etowah River Valley in August of 1540. The indigenous people of Polk County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens at least by early autumn of 1540. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Georgia dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700 AD.
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 probably developed during the late 1600s. The member towns represented several ethnic groups, but the Muskogees and Itsati’s (Hitchiti) 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.
Early Cherokee settlements and Chickamauga War: 1776 AD – 1794 AD
In 1776 a party of white Indian traders with Chickasaw or Cherokee wives and mixed heritage children settled along Talking Rock and Scarecorn Creeks in present day Pickens County, plus Pine Log and Oothcalooga Creeks in present day Bartow County. The leader of the settlement party in northern Bartow County (near Floyd and Gordon Counties) was James Adair, the famous Indian trader and author. On the eve of the Revolution, he had published a comprehensive book on the North American Indians. Thus, while his sons are called mixed blood Cherokees in all history books, they were actually one half Chickasaw. Some of Adair’s descendants still live in the region today. The town of Adairsville on the northern edge of Bartow County is named after him.
During the terrible days of 1776, the Cherokees, without warning had attacked white and non-Cherokee Indian settlements in the Carolinas. Angry Patriot militias were killing any Cherokee they found. Cherokee refugees from North Carolina soon began filtering into the Georgia Mountains after a counter attack by the Carolina and Virginia militias destroyed most of the Lower and Middle Cherokee villages. Apparently most of the Cherokees initially concentrated near where the white men were developing farms and building grist mills.
The main body of Cherokee hostiles surrendered to the Americans, and renounced their alliance with Great Britain in 1777. However, the Overhills Cherokee faction led by Dragging Canoe refused to surrender, and ignored orders from the tribal leaders to cease hostilities. He moved his renegade band to a Chickasaw village named Chickamauga that was located on the Tennessee River near the northwestern tip of Georgia. Chickamauga is probably derived from the Chickasaw words chika mauka, which mean “place to look out.” Many texts state that they are Creek words meaning “bloody water,” but this is incorrect.
More and more Cherokees settled in and around Chickamauga. Hostile Cherokee villages were established in northwest Georgia mountain valleys that relocated each year to avoid detection The Chickasaws became a minority and the Chickamaugas became known to history as Cherokees. As more and more whites settled in Tennessee, the tide of the guerilla warfare turned in favor of the United States. Undisciplined militia units attacked any Cherokee farmstead or village encountered – even those which were on amicable terms with the United States. Many neutral Cherokees were forced out of Tennessee into northwest Georgia and northeastern Alabama. This is how the Cherokees came to live in northwestern Georgia.
Battle of Etowah Cliffs (October 17, 1793)
Chickamauga Cherokees attacked the white settlement of Cavett’s Station on the French Broad River. They massacred most of their prisoners. To avenge their deaths, Col. John Sevier led an army of Tennessee Militia in their pursuit. The Chickamaugas and their Upper Creek allies were camped on large, mountainous hilsl overlooking the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers, when the Tennesseans overtook them. A considerable percentage of the Native Americans were women and children.
On October 17, 1793 the Tennesseans surrounded the two hills and staged a surprise attack. The number of Native American casualties has never been ascertained, but the Cherokees stated afterward that over 800 of their number died. Many of the deaths were non-combatants. This cruelty was to avenge the Cherokee execution of women and children at Cavett’s Station. The surviving Cherokee guerillas fled to remote villages in the Georgia Mountains. However, some bands of Chickamauga Cherokees continued to stage guerilla attacks for almost another year. In the mean time, northwest Georgia was rapidly becoming a Cherokee territory rather than Upper Creek.
Note: The majority of “Cherokee Histories” found online, and even in books, state that this battle was fought near Etowah Mounds in present day Cartersville, GA. This is not correct. The error is the result of self-appointed Cherokee historians, who are not from northwestern Georgia, presuming that the Cherokee village of Itawa-yi was at the mounds. Once that was done, a legion of other historians copied an erroneous version of the battle.
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 including Polk County and the northern halves 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. Some Upper Creek towns also joined with the Chickamauga Cherokees, but this was done in defiance of the Creek Confederacy. Tennesseans were mad at the Upper Creeks for almost capturing Nashville. It was explained to the Creek Confederacy’s leadership that the land theft was a “clerical mistake.” The “clerical mistake” was soon treated as a land cession to the United States and Cherokee Nation in return for cancellation of debts due to damages done by those Upper Creeks who had fought with the Cherokees. From 1793 to 1838, what was to become Polk County was officially part of the Cherokee Nation. What is now Bartow and Gordon Counties had the largest Cherokee populations.
Cherokee Nation Period: 1793-1838
Numerous survivors of the catastrophic Cherokee defeat at Etowah Cliffs (1793) across from Downtown Rome, GA, fled to the remote village of Pine Log, GA. Several of these refugees, or their sons, became important figures in Cherokee history. Most eventually moved to the area around Rome, GA in the early 1800s, but by then they had kindled the Cherokee renaissance. The plantation homes of both Major Ridge and John Ridge still survive in Floyd County.
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 Floyd County into 160 acre land lots. Planters 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.
Twenty-five crude stockades were constructed to temporarily contain captured Cherokee families until they could be quickly relocated outside of the state. One of those stockades, known as Fort Cedartown, was used to hold the relatively small Cherokee population still living in what is now Polk County. It was only used briefly until its prisoners were marched to larger forts and then to embarkation points outside Georgia.
By October of 1838, most Cherokees had been removed from what was to become Polk County. Many Cherokee women, who were married to white men, stayed in the region, because they were not required to relocate. Other families took state citizenship and renounced membership in the Cherokee Nation. There are still people living in Polk County, who are descendants of Cherokees, who did not go on the Trail of Tears.