The Hiwassee River Valley of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee played very important roles in both Native American history and the Early Colonial Era. In 1562, Captain René Goulaine de Laudonnière led a party of French Huguenots up the Savannah River and then westward on the Unicoi Trail to the Nacoochee Valley and what is now, Towns County. The Frenchmen developed friendly relations with the Apalachee and Itsati Natives, who then occupied the region. He named the Appalachian Mountains after them. For the next 200 years, the majestic scene of the Nantahala Mountains overlooking the Hiwassee River graced French maps, adjoining France’s claim to the Southern Highlands.
Although most tourist-oriented literature describes the aboriginal occupants of Towns County as being Cherokee, the Cherokee Alliance did not even claim the northeastern tip of present day Georgia until 1717. However, the Cherokee tribe occupied what is now Towns County longer than any other county in Georgia; roughly 1715-1838. Until 1793, what is now the western boundary of Towns County was the official western boundary of the Cherokee Nation in Georgia. After 1793, the eastern edge of the county was the eastern edge of Cherokee territory in Georgia.
Most of Towns County’s archaeological sites were covered by Lake Chatuge in 1942. It was a rushed, private sector, war-time project. Village sites and mounds were destroyed without professional archaeological study. Prior to public improvements being constructed in the Brasstown Valley, the Georgia DOT and DNR did contract with private archaeological consultants during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Copies of these reports can be obtained from the respective agencies.
Towns County is located in the north-central edge of Georgia. It northern boundary is Clay County, NC. On the east is Rabun County, GA. Its southern boundary is defined by Habersham and White Counties. On the west is Union County, GA. The county seat is Hiawassee. The other incorporated town is Young Harris, which developed around Young Harris College. Until the mid-20th century, Towns County was very isolated from the remainder of Georgia. Much of its economic ties were formerly with North Carolina towns farther down the Hiwassee River. The town of Hiawassee was not even incorporated until 1956.
Geography and Geology
The Blue Ridge Mountain or southern edge of the Nantahala Mountains cover all of Towns County except the flood plain of the Hiawassee River. Several of Georgia’s tallest mountains are located in the county. The ridge-like peak of Georgia’s highest mountain, Brasstown Bald (4,784 feet -1,458 m) forms part of the county’s western boundary. Hightower Bald is 4,568 feet (1,392 m) tall. Tray Mountain is 4,430 feet (1,350 m) tall.
The Blue Ridge Province is underlain by igneous and metamorphic rocks. There are few known caves that penetrate deeply into mountains, but several rock ledges that functioned as natural shelters for Native Americans. In the vicinity of Brasstown Mountain are also vent holes from ancient volcanic activity.
The Hiawassee River begins at the crest of Unicoi Gap in the southern edge of the county then flows across its full length. In North Carolina and Tennessee, Hiwassee is the spelling of the river’s name. That was also its spelling in Georgia in the 1800s. The Tallulah River begins on the east slope of the Nantahala Mountains in North Carolina then flows across the northeastern corner of Towns County.
There are several major streams in Towns County that support significant trout populations. Brasstown Creek forms on the slope of Brasstown Bald then flows northward into North Carolina. Hightower Creek flows northward from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the eastern part of the county. Other major streams include Bearmeat, Hog, Allen Mill, Fodder and Bell Creeks.
Native American Trade Routes
Two important trade routes ran through present day Towns County. One, known today by its Cherokee name of the Unicoi Trail, connected the Gulf Coast with the Mountains via the Chattahoochee River and South Atlantic Coast with the Midwest via the Savannah River and Hiwassee River. An important east-west leg of the trail ran from the headwaters of the Savannah River to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River at the Nacoochee Mound. It was joined her by the Peachtree Trail that follows Peachtree Road and Peachtree Street all the way into downtown Atlanta.
Another important trail connected the Native American towns on the Hiwassee River with great regional capital of Etalwa (Etowah Mounds.) Etalwa dominated a region about 300 miles in diameter. Cultural symbols that functioned as the city’s “logo” can be found throughout the Georgia and western North Carolina Mountains. The Etalwa Trail followed the Etowah River to its source, then followed the route of US 19 over Neels Gap into Union County. This trail then cut through Track Rock Gap. From there approximately followed US Hwy. 76 east to the Hiawassee River.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Towns 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 Hiwassee River Valley in Tennessee. 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.
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 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.
Early Woodland Period (1000 BC – 300 BC) – (Kellogg Phase)
North Carolina archaeologists currently believe that the people living within the heart of the Southern Highlands remained migratory hunters longer than in the major river valleys of the Southeast. This may not be the case of the Upper Hiwassee Valley. Archaeological studies financed by Georgia in the Brasstown Creek Valley (a tributary) suggested that cultural advancement in Towns County kept pace with other areas of Georgia.
The Nacoochee Valley, on the south side of Unicoi Gap in White County, was a very early location of agriculture. Initially, the cultivated plants were of indigenous origin and included a native squash, native sweet potato, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, amaranth, sumpweed, and chenopodium. It is possible that there were also early sedentary agricultural villages in Towns County that spun off from the ones to the south. Most of the potential sites were destroyed by Lake Chatuge, but there are some flood plains on along the section of the Hiawassee leading up to Unicoi Gap. Both the Hiawassee and Nacoochee Valleys were major trade routes where ideas would spread quickly.
The early villages were relatively small and dispersed. Houses were round and built out of saplings, river cane and thatch. The oldest known pottery in the Western Hemisphere (2,500 BC) was found near Augusta, GA near the Savannah River. Knowledge of ceramic technology gradually spread up the Savannah River, westward to the Nacoochee Valley, and then over the Unicoi Gap to the Upper Hiwassee River Basin.
The Woodland Period peoples of the mountains built modest mounds from accumulated freshwater mussel shells or earth. Mounds were either for burials ceremonies or merely, accumulated detritus. They may have supported simple structures that were used for rituals or meetings. These mounds were constructed accretionally. The term means that the mounds grew in size over the generations by piling shells, soil or garbage from the village.
The occupants of the Upper Hiawassee River Valley during the Early Woodland Period were probably ancestors of the Yuchi, or perhaps also Southern Siouans (languages similar to Catawba.) Catawba villages were located in the Upper Chattahoochee River Valley around Gainesville, Dawsonville and Cleveland, GA from at least as early as 1690 through 1783. They may have been pushed out of the mountains by the Cherokees. There may have been other ethnic groups whose identities have been concealed by time.
During the Early Woodland Period, the region of Georgia north of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Fannin, Union, Towns and Rabin Counties, apparently were influenced by cultural centers both in the Southeast and the Midwest. Artifacts associated with the Hopewell Culture of the Midwest have also shown up in Hiwassee Valley sites. Over time, the advanced culture, based a Leake Mounds on the Etowah River, had increasing impact on Native communities in northeastern Georgia.
Swift Creek Culture (200 AD – 1000 AD)
The Swift Creek Culture began at the Fall Line along the Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee Rivers, plus the Etowah River Valley of northwest Georgia. These people, who were ancestors of the Creek Indians, built permanent towns with pyramidal mounds and horseshoe shaped plazas for playing ball games. They also introduced a cone shaped communal structure known as the chokopa (warm place in Maya.)
Swift Creek Style pottery is considered some of the most beautiful every made in North America. It was made by carving ornate, abstract designs on wooden paddles. The paddles were then skillfully slapped against moist clay bowls. The Swift Creek People were also known for their finely crafted copper tools, weapons and ornaments. They built both ellipsoid shaped accretional mounds and some large pyramidal mounds for temples.
The Etowah, Coosawattee and Chattahoochee River Valleys in northern Georgia seem to have become major Swift Creek Culture centers. This is evidence that agriculture was becoming increasingly important. Swift Creek ceramics do not appear elsewhere much in the northern Georgia Mountains and western North Carolina Mountains until after the culture had waned in southern Georgia. Villages with Swift Creek Culture characteristics could be found in northeast Georgia as late as 1000 AD.
Note: Several Cherokee, NC tourist brochures are now telling visitors that the Cherokees “invented” Swift Creek pottery. There is not accurate. The Swift Creek Culture had been thriving in middle, northwest and southern Georgia, plus the Florida Panhandle, for six centuries before the vestiges of its style reached southwestern Virginia, where the Rickohocken ancestors of the Cherokees were located.
Transition Period (650 AD – 1000 AD) – (Woodstock & Nacoochee Napier)
Several ethnic groups seemed to have occupied northeast Georgia during the period between 650 AD and 1000 AD. Due to the scarcity of comprehensive archaeological studies in Towns County, the period is not well understood. It is known that in the region cultivation of corn, beans and squash was beginning to occur on a greater scale. The bow and arrow was in widespread use.
An enigmatic people known as the Woodstock Culture were apparently living in the Brasstown Creek Valley during the transitional period. They grew corn, sunflowers, pumpkins, beans and squash on a large scale, but they apparently did not build mounds. Unlike Mesoamerican and Muskogean towns, their houses, plazas and villages were round. This is exactly the description of Yuchi towns when first encountered by British explorers in the North Carolina Highlands.
Around 850-900 AD, an enormous five sided mound (Kenimer Mound) was erected near the Chattahoochee River in the Nacoochee Valley, just south of Towns County. It is about a mile east of the better known Nacoochee Mound. This mega-mound and its diminutive neighbor have not been thorough studied, but numerous Napier Style pottery shards were discovered in test holes. The mound is so large that virtually all residents of Sautee-Nacoochee, GA think it is a large, wooded hill.
The Kenimer Mound also sits astride the Unicoi Trail. Such a large monument reflects a regional political influence that certainly would have extended to the Hiwassee River Valley. Almost all pentagonal mounds in the United States were built by ancestors of the Creek Indians. Five sided mounds were also built by the Itza Maya in southern Mexico during the same period that mound-building was occurring in the Southeast.
Early and Middle Hierarchal Periods – (900 AD – 1350 AD) – Itsati & Etalwa
The ancestors of the Creek Indians had been building pyramidal mounds in Georgia since at least 100 BC, but the communities with mounds functioned more as seasonal festival centers, rather than true towns. The stark expansion in agricultural production between 900 AD and 1000 AD resulted in more permanent villages and some true towns. There was probably at least one large village with a mound in what is now the bed of Lake Chatuge in Towns County, plus around five satellite villages.
Construction began at Etalwa in NW Georgia around 1000 AD. Its location was at the shoals, which blocked large trade canoes coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, from paddling any further northward. The town’s influence gradually spread outward, particularly to the north. It obviously reached Towns County. “Hightower” (as in Hightower Creek,) is how 19th century Georgia frontiersmen interpreted the Cherokee pronunciation of the Creek word, Etalwa.
The earliest accurate maps of the Southern Highlands show a string of “Cherokee” towns named Itsati or Talula, stretching from the Nacoochee Valley northward to Towns County, Clay & Cherokee Counties, NC, and then onto the Little Tennessee River near Vonore, TN. In fact, the original Cherokee name of the southern end of the Southern Highlands was “Itsa-yi, which means “Place of the Itsa.”
Itsati is NOT an ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost, as many Cherokee history books state. It is what most of the Creek Indians in Georgia called themselves – pronounced I(t-zjha(-te- by the Creeks – and pronounced Hitchiti by white frontiersmen. The Muskogee Creeks were in west-central Georgia and eastern Alabama. Apparently, Itsati means “Itza (Maya) People.” Talula is the Itsati word for a regional administrative town with at least one mound.
Late Hierarchal Period (1350 AD – 1585 AD) – Lamar Culture
The population of the river valleys in the Southern Highlands increased starkly between 1350 AD and 1540 AD. There were also distinct cultural stages. Early Hierarchal Period mounds were square, trapezoidal pyramids and faced the south. Middle Hierarchal Period mounds were pentagonal and faced the sunset on the Winter Solstice, if the principal mound of the town. Late Hierarchal Period principal mounds were oval and were oriented southward north of the Unicoi Gap, while being oriented east-west south of the Unicoi Gap. These changes in mound orientation probably reflected different starting months for the calendar.
European explorers and Sephardic gold miners (1562 AD – 1715 AD)
The 1939 De Soto Trail Commission placed the path of Hernando de Soto in 1541 through Towns County. A late 20th century study by several Southeastern university professors found that political considerations skewed the 1939 route to locations that could not be justified by Spanish archives. The description of the terrain in the de Soto Chronicles doe not match northeast Georgia.
There is extensive evidence of a French expedition to this region in 1562 from Charlesfort (Beaufort, SC.) All official French maps from about 1570 forward labeled the Southern Highlands as the Appalachian Mountains. These maps state in Latin that the French Protestant explorers had befriended the Apalachee (Creek) Indians living in a region where gold was found. The Apalachee apparently occupied the gold fields around the Chattahoochee River and the headwaters of the Hiawassee River.
It is likely that Captain Juan Pardo passed through Towns County in 1567 to or from his base in Santa Elena (Parris Island, SC.) He was looking for gold. Several of the towns his chronicles mention correspond to Creek town names in northeast Georgia. He probably followed the same route as the French. Many of Juan Pardo’s low-ranking troops were former Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism in 1492. Reports reached the Spanish capital at Santa Elena that all of the forts in the mountains had been massacred. The truth could be that these men abandoned their forts and went to live with Indian women.
Initial Cherokee occupation (c. 1715 AD)
The word Cherokee is the French pronunciation of the Creek word, Chorakee, which means “splinter group.” The first use of the word Cherokee is on an English map dated 1725. There were no Cherokee words recorded by the de Soto Expedition in 1541. The first use of the words “Creek Indian” is on a 1745 English map. Both these tribes were an assimilation of many remnant groups that survived years of plagues, war and slave raids after the arrival of the European settlers. By the time that the Cherokees entered North Georgia, they were hunting with muskets and cooking in iron pots. The display of “Cherokee” arrow and spear points in the Brasstown Valley Museum is inappropriate.
The time period at which the Cherokees first entered North Carolina is subject to debate. However, the Cherokee occupation of the former Creek town of Tugaloo at the headwaters of the Savannah River was dated by University of Georgia archaeologists at no earlier than 1700 AD. In 1715, the Cherokees invited all the Creek leaders from what is now Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee to a peaceful diplomatic conference in Tugaloo. The Creek leaders were murdered in their sleep. This was the start of the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War.
Maps made before 1715 show the northwest corner of South Carolina, occupied by eight towns known as the Chorakees. After 1717, the northeast corner of present-day Georgia and the Hiwassee River Valley in both Georgia and North Carolina are shown as Chorokee territory.
Cherokee villages and towns before 1755
British maps show the following Cherokee communities in present-day Towns County before 1755 – in order from south to north:
Cultagochee ~ Tasache ~ Etawa ~ Hywasse ~ Itsati
Hiwassee is often described as the derivative of a similar Cherokee word that white authors define with varied meanings, the most common being meadow. However, the Cherokees’ own history describes the region as being originally occupied by snake idol worshipers and/or a people named the Itza. The Itza Maya in Mexico were known as “the Children of the Serpent.” In the Itsati language, Hiwasee literally means “Children of the Pit Viper.”
Wanting to put an end to the 40 years of bloodshed, the Creek town of Koweta in 1754 dispatched an army to attack all Cherokee towns in areas of Georgia and North formerly occupied by Muskogeans.. Creek armies fought in a disciplined manner like Europeans. The Koweta’s quickly destroyed all the Cherokee towns in North Georgia and the lower half of western North Carolina. Assassin squads were sent by Koweta into South and North Carolina to kill Cherokee chiefs descended from those involved in the 1715 treachery at Tugaloo. Several were even assassinated on the streets of Charleston.
A 1755 map of the British Colonies by the famous cartographer, John Mitchell, has written in bold letters, “Deserted Cherokee Settlements” over what is now southern western North Carolina and northeast Georgia. That same year, the Overhills Cherokees requested that the British build a fort on the Little Tennessee River, because Upper Creeks had seized back much of their former territory.
The loss of about a third of their territory to just the army of one town of the Creek Confederacy, was quite humiliating to later generations of Cherokees. Apparently, they made up campfire stories of great victories in 1754 that never happened. Professors from the University of Oklahoma have thoroughly researched the colonial archives of Georgia and South Carolina. They can find no mention of the Battles of Taliwa and Blood Mountain, in which the Cherokees supposedly won all of North Georgia in 1754. In fact, official British Army maps as late as 1780 show the western boundary of the Cherokee Nation to be Brasstown Bald Mountain. However, there may have been a great battle on Blood Mountain prior to the Cherokees arrival in the Nacoochee Valley.
The End of Native American occupation
Few Cherokees lived in Towns County between 1755 and 1793. There were some Cherokee hamlets in the Upper Hiwassee River Valley that were settled by North Carolina Cherokee refugees, but most of the original Lower Cherokees had been killed or captured during the attacks by the Koweta Creeks in 1754.
After gold was discovered in the Chattahoochee River Valley in 1824, the State of Georgia quickly redrew the boundary between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation. In the new maps, all of the Chattahoochee River Valley was outside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. Some Cherokees in Towns County avoided capture by Federal troops in 1838 by hiding in the rugged mountains, and thus, were able to remain in the region. Many other Cherokees legally stayed in the region, because either they were the wife of a white man, or the children of a white man.
- Martin, Jack B. & Maudin, Margaret M., A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
- Jones, Charles C., Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes (1873),
- The De Soto Chronicles, The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543
Edited by Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight, Jr., and Edward C. Moore
- De la Bandera, Juan, Relaciones de La Florida – The Captain Juan Pardo Expeditions.