Native American History of White County, Georgia
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White County is located in the northeastern tip of Georgia. The Blue Ridge Mountain Range runs along its northwestern corner. The famous poem by Sydney Lanier, “The Song of the Chattahoochee” opens with the phrase, “Out of the hills of Habersham, down through the valleys of Hall,” the river actually begins at Unicoi Gap, at the northern tip of the county. It then flows eastward through Helen, GA and the Nacoochee Valley before forming the boundary with Habersham County.
The Soque River begins on Tray Mountain in northern White County then flows eastward to the vicinity of Clarkesville, GA, where it joins the Chattahoochee River. The Soque River Basin is considered an extension of the Nacoochee Valley, since the rivers run in parallel, divided by Soque Mountain.
Although most popular literature describes the aboriginal occupants of White as being Cherokee, they were not. The Cherokee Alliance did not claim the northeastern tip of present day Georgia until after 1715. After then, the mountain ranges in the northwestern part of the county marked the western boundary of the Lower Cherokees until around 1784. Until that time, the southern 2/3 of White County was occupied by Chickasaw and Catawba villages. There were relatively few Cherokees living in Georgia until after the Revolution.
Alpine conditions and volcanic activity
No fossils of dinosaurs or early mammals have been discovered in the White County or surrounding region. Paleontologists explain their absence by geological conditions of that era. The Blue Ridge Mountains were a young mountain range during the millions of years that were similar in height to the Rockies, or even the Himalayas. It is theorized that alpine conditions were inhospitable to reptiles and amphibians. Recent discovery of dinosaur fossils in Antarctica and the southern tip of South America challenge that theory. A more likely threat to animal life would have been a chain of volcanoes in and near present day White County. Several cone shape cones can be found in the Nacoochee Valley that appear to be ancient volcanoes.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in White 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. 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 late Archaic Period, several trade routes developed in this region that interconnected the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Appalachian Mountains and Great Lakes. During this time, Native Americans began traveling long distances to trade and socialize. Some of the most important trade routes in the Southeast ran through present day White County. They connected the South Atlantic Coast with the Midwest via the Little Tennessee River Valley, and the Southern Highlands with the Gulf Coast, via the Chattahoochee River Valley. There was also an important east-west trail that ran from the headwaters of the Savannah River to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.
Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)
Along with the nearby Etowah River Valley, the Upper Chattahoochee River Valley was a location 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.
Archaeological evidence in the Chattahoochee 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.
Around 100 AD, the ancestors of the Creek Indians evolved to building permanent towns with horseshoe shaped plazas for playing ball games, near the Chattahoochee River. This was known as the Swift Creek Culture. Swift Creek Style pottery is considered some of the most beautiful every made in North America. 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.
Muskogean town dwellers (900 AD – 1715 AD)
Muskogeans carried with them advanced cultural traditions from Mexico and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The early Muskogeans eventually became known in White County area as the Itsati-Creeks, Koweta-Creeks, Sokee, and Chickasaws & Apalachees. However, prior to arrival of Europeans, there were no Indian “tribes.” The landscape was divided up into provinces
Most of the Native American place names in the White County area are of Itsati-Creek origin. For example, in the region White County are the Creek place names of Chattahoochee (Red River,) Sautee (Raccoon People,) Chota (Frog) and Nacoochee (Bear.) The Soque River gets its name from the Sokee Tribe, which was one of South Carolina’s most powerful native peoples until the mid-1600s, when English sponsored slave raids and European diseases decimated their population. Some of the Sokee joined the Cherokee Alliance, while others moved southward to join the Creek Confederacy.
Around 900 AD newcomers arrived in Georgia from the far south to establish trading posts. An enormous five side mound (Kenimer Mound) was constructed in what is now the village of Sautee. It is located about two miles east of the better known Nacoochee Mound. It is so large that most people think it is a wooded hill. Several new Mexican crops and Maya Indian words began appearing. Large towns, planned by architects appeared in the river valleys. Regional leaders, known as “Great Suns” built houses and temples on top of large platform mounds. These ancestors of the Creek Indians knew how to weave elaborated decorated cloth and build large, complex buildings.
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 White 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, the Appalachian Mountains and state on the maps 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, north of Helen, GA. The principal trail from Charlesfort to the gold fields passed through the Nacoochee Valley.
It is likely that Captain Juan Pardo passed through White 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.
The Kingdom of Spain claimed all of the Chattahoochee River Basin, including White 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..
It is known that Spanish Sephardic Jews established secret gold mining colonies in the Georgia Mountains in the late 1600s and silver mining villages in the North Carolina Mountains by 1615. A Jewish wedding in 1615 is memorialized by a dated rock inscription in the Smokies. The largest Sephardic communities were probably in the Nacoochee Valley. While writing his book on the Melungeons, Dr. Brent Kennedy discovered colonial records of a 1694, British army exploratory party which observed Sephardic villages, while looking from mountain tops along the eastern edge of the valley. In his 1873 book on Georgia’s Indians, Charles C. Jones discussed the discovery in 1824 by American gold miners of the ruins of Spanish gold mining villages along the Chattahoochee River. The largest was on Dukes Creek in White County.
First and second Cherokee occupations (1715 AD – 1824 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 Georgia, they were hunting with muskets and cooking in iron pots.
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.
Between 1715 and 1754, the Cherokee villages in northeast Georgia had Creek Indian names such as Chota and Nacoochee. The main body of the Cherokees in North Carolina called the Georgia Cherokees Itsati, which happens to be what the Itsati-Creeks called themselves. Apparently, the Northeast Georgia Cherokees were originally a faction of Creeks, who wished to have the decentralized, egalitarian type of government practiced by the Cherokee Alliance. Creek towns were rigidly planned into streets, blocks, courtyards and plazas. Creek men were obligated to work on public construction projects like roads, canals and defensive walls. Cherokee men were pretty much free to do as they please.
Until the American Revolution, English and French maps showed the occupants immediately south of Yonah Mountain to be a band of Chickasaws, while what is now southern White County, Hall County, Dawson County and northern Forsythe County to be occupied by Catawba Indians. Apparently, this branch of the Catawbas was allied with the Creek Confederacy. After the Revolution, most Catawba moved down the Chattahoochee River to southwestern Georgia and assimilated into the Creek Indian Confederacy.
In an effort to maintain piece between the Cherokees and the faction of Creeks who were British allies, the British Crown brought Chickasaws from Alabama to occupy much of what is now eastern White County around 1723. Their main town was named Oostanaula or in English, Eastanollee. Georgia.
In 1754 the Creek town of Koweta dispatched an army composed of only its men. 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. Several were even assassinated on the streets of Charleston. Six Cherokee leaders, who were descendants of the leaders in Tugaloo, that murdered the chiefs and priests in their sleep, were marched back to a location on the Chattahoochee River near Carrollton, GA – then burned alive.
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. The Battle of Blood Mountain, in which the Cherokees supposedly won North Georgia in 1754, never happened. However, there may have been a great battle at that location prior to the Cherokees arrival in the Nacoochee Valley.
Relations with early European settlers
The sparse white population in northeast Georgia before the American Revolution was composed of people, whose families had intermarried with the Koweta Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws or Catawba. The last thing the surviving Georgia Cherokees wanted was another war with the Koweta Creeks. Throughout much of the 1700s the Cherokees and Creeks were both allies of Great Britain even while they were fighting each other. However, Carolina Cherokees did twice attack whites on the Carolina frontier without warning.
After the French & Indian War, the British government moved several remnant Muskogean tribes in South Carolina to what is now White, White, Union, and Towns Counties. They were used as a buffer zone between the Koweta Creeks and the Cherokees. Some North Carolina Cherokees also moved down to the Nacoochee Valley to replace the extensive casualties of the Creek-Cherokee War. The new Cherokees spoke a dialect that was more similar to modern Cherokee. While the pre-1754 Cherokee villages all had Itsati Creek names, several post-1776 Cherokee villages in present day White County had Algonquian names.
The End of Native American occupation
Few Native Americans lived in White County after 1784. There were some Cherokee hamlets in the Nacoochee 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. Approximately, 50-75 Cherokee men were allowed to live outside the new boundaries in order to work as laborers at corporate gold mining operations. Some avoided capture by Federal troops in 1838 and thus, were able to remain in the region.
- 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.