Native American History of Rockdale County, Georgia
Rockdale County located in northern Georgia and is part of the Atlanta Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA.) It’s name honors the strata of granite that lays under the county. The county seat is Conyers.
Rockdale County is bordered on the north by Gwinnett County. On the east is bordered by both Walton and Newton Counties. On the south it is bordered by Henry County and on the west by DeKalb County.
Geology and hydrology
Rockdale County was located in the Piedmont geological region, which is characterized by underlying rock strata of igneous and metamorphicized igneous rock. The Piedmont’s terrain generally consists of rolling hills and stream valleys with some areas being almost flat plains. There are few permanent wetlands paralleling the streams. The top soils are thin over most hills and steep slopes, while much deeper near streams and in the plains. Extensive swamplands parallel the South and Alcovy Rivers.
Most of Rockdale County was immediately south of the old Cotton Line, which marked the northern limit of cotton species grown before the Civil War. Cotton was the most important agricultural product before the Civil War, but there were few large plantations. The landscape varies from being flat to moderately hilly. .
Rockdale County is drained by the South, Alcovy, Mulberry and Apalachee Rivers. These are tributaries of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers. These small rivers were deep enough to support the largest of Native American canoes. There are very few shoals in Rockdale County. Therefore, canoe transportation would have been the most efficient means to transport bulk goods.
The Apalachee and Little Mulberry Rivers begin in the northeastern section of adjacent 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.
Rockdale County contains numerous creeks. Some streams flow fast and clear, while others meander through swamps or seasonal wetlands. It is typical in the Piedmont for some small streams (branches) to flow through narrow, swamp-like corridors of saturated soil. The major streams include Bailey Creek, Tom George Creek, Almand Creek, McClane Creek and Mountain Creek.
Native American occupation
A very important Native American trade path passed through northern Rockdale County. It connected the shoals on the Savannah River (Patofa) where Augusta is now located, with the shoals on the Etowah River adjacent to Etowah Mounds.
All British and French maps show the region around Rockdale County to be Kataapa (Catawba Indians) and the Kiawah (Keowee) Creeks until the American Revolution. 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, and thus considered just plain Creeks.
Virtually all references state that Rockdale County was on the border between the Cherokees and Creeks. An examination of tribal boundaries of the early 1800s shows that clearly was not the case. There was a trading post and fort serving the Creek Indians in present day Clarkesville (Georgia Mountains) until 1817, The Cherokees did not have official title of the lands west of the Chattahoochee River until the Treaty of 1793. They never had title to any lands east of the Chattahoochee. The confusion probably arose from the fact that the heartland of the Kiawah Creeks was the Upper Oconee River Valley. However, a branch of the Kiawah in the Blue Ridge Foothills of South Carolina, known to Europeans as the Keowee, was an original member of the Cherokee Alliance.
The fact that a river between Gwinnett and Rockdale 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.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in region around Rockdale 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.
Rockdale 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.
Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)
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 Rockdale 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 Rockdale 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 Rockdale 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 Rockdale 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.
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.
The level valleys of the South, Alcovy and Apalachee contained broad, fertile bottomlands, highly suitable for agriculture. Mixed blood Creek families from South Carolina and the Savannah River Valley relocated here during the late 1700s to establish large farms that differed little in appearance from those of Caucasian pioneers.
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 Rockdale 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 or else relocated farther west where there was a higher percentage of mixed-heritage families.