This past Saturday, I visited two Native American sites located in the north GA mountains. I planned to visit a third located nearby, but there was so much to see at the first two, I didn’t have time. It’s remarkable that three sites, located within 50 or so miles of each other, can be so different from each other. New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 until the Trail of Tears, is just up the road from Etowah, the site of a busting town from the Mississippian culture (800AD to 1600AD), and both are not far from Fort Mountain, the location of a mysterious wall.
New Echota is the latest historically of the three Native American sites. The location of a few Cherokee homesteaders, it rose to prominence in 1828 when it was selected as the capital of the shrinking Cherokee Nation. Years of land grabs and territorial encroachments had eroded the territory greatly. In the hopes of preventing further loss, the Cherokee Nation took steps to “civilize” themselves (essentially, emulate the white man). To take territory from “savages” is one thing, to take it from a modern, sovereign nation is another. The Cherokees established a three-branch government (legislative, executive, judicial), set up a printing press with the syllabary invented by Sequoyah, and built structures to house their governmental bodies comprised of elected officials. Because of intermarriage, many of the Cherokee leaders were of mixed ancestry, and English and Cherokee were widely spoken. The town of New Echota, though, small, was thriving.
Unfortunately, the sovereignty of the territory was critically threatened by the discovery of gold in the North Georgia mountains. White settlers entered Cherokee territory to pan and mine for gold, and the state of Georgia often turned a blind eye to invasions. When rules were set down to “protect” the Cherokee territory, they were often insulting. Cherokees were forbidden from mining gold on their own land and from testifying in any criminal or civil case against a white man.
The ability for the state of Georgia to even make laws governing the Cherokee territory was in question. A missionary, Samuel Worcester, was a great friend to the Cherokee and lived at New Echota. Under Georgia law, as a white man living in Cherokee territory, he was required to obtain a permit to live there. But the Cherokee asserted that, if Worcester were permitted by the Cherokee government at New Echota, no further permission was required. Worcester was arrested for failing to obtain the permit and remained imprisoned for two years while his case travelled all the way to the US Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of Cherokee self-government. Then-president Andrew Jackson was furious with the ruling. Having promised the state of Georgia that all Native Americans would be evicted “eventually,” Jackson decided that the time was now, and a US agent engaged with a few Cherokee leaders to sign the treaty of New Echota, which exchanged the remaining Cherokee territories for new reservation land in Oklahoma. Most Cherokees were furious at the treaty, arguing that the few signers of the treaty did not have legislative authority to speak for the whole Cherokee nation. But Congress ratified the treaty of New Echota despite these objections. The state of Georgia took possession of the remaining Cherokee territories, raffling off the land to Georgia citizens in a series of land lotteries. In 1838, Cherokees were rounded up in various locations, including New Echota, and escorted to the Oklahoma territory. This was the Trail of Tears. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died during or shortly after the migration.
Today, New Echota is not as busy a place as it once was. Having been reduced to a level field after 1838, it is now a Georgia state historic site. Several important buildings have been reconstructed, and a few have been relocated to New Echota from other places. Reconstructions of the court house / capitol building, printing office, and a middle-class Cherokee farm are highlights, as is the sole remaining structure actually standing in new Echota in 1838 — the house in which missionary Samuel Worchester lived with his family and boarders.
Because the events of New Echota happened in historic times and were recorded by outsiders and the Cherokee themselves, its history is much better understood than Etowah, just a few miles down the road. Etowah was a major town in the Mississippian culture, a loose confederation of tribes that shared certain physical, social, and religious characteristics. Etowah was a town of 1,000 – 4,000 people, built beside the Etowah river. A defensive ditch and high wooden fence protected homes, workshops, food storage, and impressive dwelling and burial mounds, the highest of which is 63 feet tall. Political and religious leaders lived in houses on top of the mounds, with higher-ranking leaders on the higher mounds. A large plaza of hard-packed clay was the site of markets, social gatherings, and sporting activities, such as the ball game. A large population of farmers and fishermen supported warriors, craftsmen, and religious leaders in a complicated, organized society with trade connections stretching for thousands of miles.
DeSoto’s expedition encountered the Etowah population center in 1540 and stayed several days. The Mississippian culture was already in decline prior to contact with white explorers and settlers, but the introduction of European diseases and instruments of war certainly hastened the collapse. By 1600, the Etowah site was abandoned. Over the centuries, some of the smaller mounds were plowed down for farmland. Later owners of the property recognized the importance of the site and prevented the largest mounds from being destroyed (but the owners did plant corn on the top of the mounds and constructed a ramp so that mules could get to the top for plowing). Excavations starting in the 1850’s and continuing through today have unearthed thousands of amazing artifacts, mainly from the burial mounds. Useful tools, like knives and scrapers and pottery, were found along with objects of pure art, including jewelry and statues. In the museum at Etowah are two spectacular, painted marble figures.
Archaeologists hypothesize that these figures had a key role in the decline and abandonment of Etowah. They were broken and buried — perhaps a sign of a political or religious revolt, an invasion, or dereliction of culture caused by disease, encroachment, or something else. The real answer may never be known because, unlike New Echota, there is no written record from Etowah.
The third site, Fort Mountain, is the most mysterious. Fort Mountain is a Georgia state park, so named because of a wooden fortification constructed by white settlers. But their fortification is singularly unimpressive compared to the 855-foot stone wall built centuries ago at the crest of the mountain. The wall is only a few feet high today, though at the time of construction it would have been higher. Along its length are shallow pits, which the tourism industry of the early 1900’s called “Indian honeymoon suites.”
Theories on the origin and purpose of the wall abound. Did the Mississippians build it? Did DeSoto’s expedition? This seems unlikely, as DeSoto wasn’t in the area long enough to build such a monumental structure. Was it built by the Welsh prince Madoc, said to have landed in the southeastern United States in the 11th century? There is only scant, circumspect evidence that he arrived in the United States at all, and such a discovery would rewrite early American history. As a fortification, the wall seems odd — why build a wall at the top of a mountain, already a barrier against attack? Perhaps the wall was more symbolic — a boundary between tribes or cultures, or a structure of religious significance.
Exploring these three sites gives three very different pictures of Native American life in northwest Georgia. New Echota speaks of the attempts of the Cherokee to become “civilized” to defend themselves against an uncivil foe. Etowah, a few hundred years older, is evidence of how civilized the Native Americans were, with complicated social structures, long-distance trade routes, and the organizational and technical skills to build monumental architecture. And Fort Mountain’s mysterious wall reinforces how little we know of America’s history even a thousand years ago — our best guesses could be only hints at the true, complex history of the Native Americans.