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Union County is located in the north-central edge of Georgia. It northern boundary is Cherokee County, NC. On the east is Rabun County, GA. Its southern boundary is defined by Lumpkin and White Counties. On the west is Fannin County, GA. The county seat is Blairsville. Until the mid-20th century, Union County was very isolated from the remainder of Georgia, when a highway was improved over Neels Gap on Blood Mountain. Road access was greatly improved in the 1990s by the construction of the I-575-GA 515 controlled access highway that directly connected the county with the northwestern suburbs of metropolitan Atlanta.
Union County, GA has a very rich Native American heritage. However because of the lack of large mounds, tourism promotion has included this heritage as peripheral to outdoor recreation attractions. As typical of many areas of the Southeast, tourist brochures . . . and even state historical markers . . . have include stories originating among early Anglo-American pioneers that can not be verified by archaeologists.
Some of Union County’s archaeological sites were covered by Lake Nottely in 1942. It was a rushed, private sector, war-time project. Village sites 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.
Several Woodland, Mississippian and Historic Cherokee village sites in Union County have been designated by archaeologists. Few mounds are visible now at ground level because of centuries of plowing, or even intentional leveling. However, several rectangular or oval mounds are visible as dark spots on aerial photographs taken with infrared film or sensors. They are concentrated in the bottomlands of the Nottely River, Town Creek and Coosa Creek.
Geography and Geology
The Blue Ridge Mountains cover most of Union County except for a hilly plateau near the Nottely River in the northern part of the county. 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 eastern boundary with Towns County. Wolfpen Ridge (4,568 ft – 1,390 m.) forms another part of Union’s boundary with Towns County. Blood Mountain (4,458 ft. – 1,359 m.) defines the southern boundary with Lumpkin County. Slaughter Mountain (4,338 ft. – 1,322 m.) is to the northwest of Blood Mountain. Further northwest is Coosa Bald (4,280 ft. – 1,300 m.)
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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 Nottely River begins as several tributary streams in the southern edge of the county then flows across its full length. It joins the Hiwassee River in Cherokee County, NC. The river is impounded by a TVA reservoir in the southern part of the county that extends northward to the edge of the city of Blairsville. There are several major streams in Union County that support significant trout populations. Brasstown Creek forms on the slope of Brasstown Bald then flows northward into North Carolina. Other important streams include Coopers, Town, Wolf, Ivy Log, Coosa, Arkaquah, Bracket and Kiutuestia Creeks.
Native American Trade Routes
Several important trade routes ran through present day Union County. They may have composed the route taken by Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, is his unsuccessful attempt to reach the capital of Kusa in northwest Georgia from the town of Chiaha in North Carolina.
One important trail connected a chain series of 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” – a cross within a circle – 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.
Another trail followed the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, roughly following the route of GA Hwy. 515 today. This trail intersected the Etowah-Track Rock Trail in the Brasstown Valley.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Union 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 Upper Chattahoochee River Valley of Georgia and 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 interpretation is probably not applicable the cultural history of the Georgia Mountains. Most of the Georgia Mountains formed the headwaters for rivers that flowed to either the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. Along these rivers were some of the most advanced indigenous cultures of North America, north of Mexico. Archaeological studies financed by the State of Georgia in the Brasstown Creek Valley suggested that cultural advancement in Union County kept pace with other areas of Georgia.
The Nacoochee Valley, on the south side of Tesnatee 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 Union County that spun off from the ones to the south. Most of the potential sites are probably in the southern part of the county in the Choestoe Community or along the Nottely River, where mounds were later built .
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 Tesnatee Gap to the Nottely 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 Nottely 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 Muskogeans or 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, Union 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 Union 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 Union 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 Union 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 Union 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.
Early and Middle Hierarchal Periods – (900 AD – 1350 AD)
The ancestors of the Creek Indians had been building pyramidal mounds in Georgia since at least 100 BC, but the early communities with mounds functioned more as seasonal festival centers, with residual populations on the scale of villages. The stark expansion in agricultural production between 900 AD and 1000 AD resulted in more permanent villages and some true towns. 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 northeast.
Most of the Creek Indians in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee spoke the Itsati language, which in English is known as Hitchiti. Muskogee was originally spoken primarily in the middle Chattahoochee River Basin. Therefore, the proto-Creek villages in Union County were probably Itsati speakers.
A survey of a complex of fieldstone retaining walls at Track Rock Gap was carried out by an archaeologist in the early 2000s. Two spots in the archaeological zone were analyzed in detail. Radiocarbon dating placed the occupation of the agricultural village during a period between 1000 AD and 1550 AD. Due to the extremely limited scale of the analysis, the site may be older. Some Native American pottery shards were discovered in the soil of the site.
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 Neels Gap, while being oriented east-west south of the Neels and Tesnatee Gaps. These changes in mound orientation probably reflected different starting months for the calendar.
The appearance of Lamar Culture style artifacts probably announces the arrival the Apalachee. In their simultaneous excavations of the Nacoochee Mound in White County, GA and the Peachtree Mound near Murphy, NC, Heye Foundation archaeologists found almost identical artifacts within both mounds. Some 18th century artifacts, presumed to be Cherokee, were found on the surface of the village around the Peachtree Mound, where very few artifacts, possibly associated with the Cherokees, have been found around the Nacoochee Mound. Because the Peachtree Mound is in North Carolina, since 1976, North Carolina archaeologists have labeled
European explorers and Sephardic gold miners (1562 AD – 1715 AD)
The 1939 De Soto Commission adopted a route for Hernando de Soto that showed his 600 conquistadors passing through Cherokee County, NC in 1540, plus either Union, Towns and White Counties in Georgia . More recent research has cast that theory in doubt. However, only in Tallahassee, FL has any artifact been found that directly links that site to Hernando de Soto. De Soto’s temporary presence in Union County remains a possibility until more definitive proofs of his actual route are discovered.
The first definite contact between Native Americans in the Union County area, and Europeans, occurred 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 and Union Counties. Here they found abundant gold deposits and the region occupied by the mountain branch of the Apalachee.
Actually, the only real Apalachees may have been in the mountains. The early Spanish explorers in Florida were repeatedly told that a people living far to the north in the mountains, called the Apalachee, were very advanced and lived in large towns with many pyramids (mounds.) Gold could be picked up out of the streams, where the Apalachee lived. It was Hernando de Soto, who in 1539, called the native peoples of northwest Florida, the Apalachee.
The Frenchmen developed friendly relations with the Apalachees of the Highlands. Goulaine named the Appalachian Mountains after them. For the next 200 years, the majestic scene of the southern tip Nantahala Mountains overlooking a Georgia valley graced French maps. The drawing adjoined France’s claim to the Southern Highlands. British mapmakers and cartographers concealed this legitimate claim to present day northern Georgia when the French and British Empire competed for control of North America in the 18th century.
It is likely that Captain Juan Pardo passed through Union County in 1567 to or from his base in Santa Elena (Parris Island, SC.) He was looking for gold. Several of the towns that 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.
There is considerable evidence that Jewish Sephardic colonists occupied at least some valleys in northeast Georgia during the 1600s. During the 1690s, a British army reconnaissance expedition viewed numerous smoke plumes rising from the Nacoochee Valley. Their Native guides told the officers that the fires were from the smelting operations of Spanish gold miners. In 1824, miners working for John C. Calhoun found the ruins of European log cabins and 16th-17th Century European iron tools, along with a Spanish cigar mold.
Eighteenth century occupants
Much of the Eighteenth Century history of Union County remains poorly understood. No maps show any Cherokee villages being located in present day Union County until after the Revolution. Official British Army maps consistently showed the western boundary of the Georgia Cherokees to be Brasstown Bald until 1780. These same maps labeled the region west of this mountain to be occupied by the Coosa or Upper Creeks. In fact, there is a Coosa Creek flowing through Union County, and many old families along Coosa and Coopers Creeks have the distinct raptor-like features of the Upper Creeks. Not knowing the names of other indigenous peoples, they may say that they had a great-grandmother, who was a “Cherokee princess,” but the tall, slim physiques and facial features of Coosa Creeks are so different than that of the Cherokees, there can be no confusion.
The only solid date associated with any person, who was in the region during the early 1700s,can be found on the Track Rock petroglyphs. This bit of evidence was overlooked by the archaeologists working for the U.S. Forest Service. A Jewish girl named Liube inscribed her name and the date 1715 on the lower left hand corner of a boulder. The date 1715 coincides with the beginning of the Yamassee War. There may be a connection.
The word Cherokee is the French pronunciation of the Creek word, Chorakee, which means “splinter group.” “Cheraqui” first appears on a French map in 1718. 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 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.
French and Indian War
One of the most common folklore stories presented to tourists is that there was a great battle between the Muskogee-Creeks and the Cherokees during the French and Indian War in the vicinity of Blood Mountain, in which the Cherokees won all of northern Georgia. Arrowheads are said to cover the mountainside from this battle/
If there was a great battle between Native American adversaries on Blood Mountain, it occurred long before thee 1750s, or else was a Creek victory. The Muskogee Creeks never lived in the mountains, and by the 1750s, Southeastern Native Americans had used muskets almost exclusively for several decades.
Wanting to put an end to the 40 years of bloodshed, the Creek town of Koweta (on the Chattahoochee River near present day Columbus) in 1754 dispatched an army to attack all Cherokee towns in areas of Georgia and North occupied by branches of the Creeks before 1715. The Koweta’s quickly destroyed all the Cherokee villages in North Georgia and the lower half of western North Carolina. Assassin squads were sent by Koweta into South to kill Cherokee chiefs, who were 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 north Georgia west of Brasstown Bald Mountain to be occupied by either branches of the Creeks, or Chickasaws.
At the end of the French and Indian War, the British took away most of the Cherokee’s lands in North Carolina. They then assigned them northeast Georgia, but encouraged most Cherokees to relocate to the Tennessee Valley. Remnants of the South Carolina Lower Cherokees and North Carolina Valley Cherokees moved into north-central Georgia. The Creek tribes in South Carolina and Georgia were encouraged to move to present day Alabama. Thousands of France’s Native allies had abandoned Alabama along with the French marines on garrison duty there.
The Koweta Creeks, remained in northeastern Georgia, east of the Chattahoochee River. As a precaution, the British created neutral hunting lands between the two hostile ethnic groups and relocated several remnant South Carolina Creek tribes to the eastern border of the new Cherokee Nation. These Creek tribes were not members of the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy and were placed in the territory of the Cherokees. Their names survive as geographical names in northeast Georgia. They include the Tesna-te (Tesnatee Gap in Union County,) Sokee (Soque River) and Eno-te (Mount Enotah.) Apparently, a Yuchi village, named Chestua (Choestoe) also moved into the Union County area, or perhaps it was already there. The Yuchi and Cherokee words for “rabbit” are similar, but there were several Yuchi villages on the Hiwassee River named Chestua in the 1700s.
Late 18th century maps show that several Cherokee hamlets sprang up in what is now Union County. Many became contemporary place names or rural communities. Apparently, because a significant percentage of Cherokee women married Anglo-American men, the names of these villages survive as modern place names in the county. They include Choestoe (Rabbit Town) Owl Town, Arkaqua, Kiutuestia, Skenah, Nahduhli (Nottely) and Walasi-yi. Nahduhli has no meaning in modern Cherokee. It is most likely the Cherokee pronunciation of the Itsati-Apalachee ethnic name, Note-le, which means “people on the other side.”
The period between 1793 and 1832 was a “golden era” for the Native Americans of what was to become Union County. High mountain ranges separated them from both white land squatters and the often acrimonious politics of the main concentration of Cherokees, now living in northwest Georgia. The river bottomlands contained extremely rich soil for agriculture, while the surrounding mountains provided wild game to supplement meat obtained from livestock. The lifestyles of these Native peoples, however, probably was little different than the white settlers, who followed them. All lived in log cabin which were on subsistence farms.
Some Cherokees in Union 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.
The history of the mixed-heritage Coosa Creek Indian families of western Union County and the mountainous portions of Fannin County, GA remain a mystery. Most still carry the “Creek Knot” on the backs of their heads that differentiate Creek and Maya Indians from most of other tribes. Most of their men and women are tall and slim like full-blooded Upper Creeks. They have the straight noses, deep set eyes and relatively small ears of full-blooded Upper Creeks. However, few, if any, families have any knowledge of how they ended up living on Coosa Creek or Coopers Creek. They are as likely to call themselves Cherokees as Creeks, even though “Coosa” is a pure Creek ethnic name.
The Coosa Creeks (or Kusa in their language) were the dominant ethnic group of the Southern Highlands during the 1500s. Are these families the descendants of pre-European, pre-Cherokee inhabitants? Are they descendants of Upper Creek refugees from Alabama, who were not on the pick-up lists of soldiers involved in the Cherokee Trail of Tears? Extensive ethnological research will probably be required to finally determine their origins.
- 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.