For almost 250 years, they lived in log cabins in remote locations . . . so were completely overlooked by government officials and academicians.
Native American Heritage Month
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
There are isolated, rural pockets of Native American descendants in southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, northeast Georgia and Louisiana, who are not members of federally-recognized tribes, yet carry extremely high levels of South American DNA. How could that be? They are descended from Native Americans, who partially assimilated into the dominant European culture . . . lived in log cabins in remote locations . . . then over time were forgotten.
The period during all of 2012 through 2015, when I was exposed to strangers throughout the world via my Architecture column on the Examiner, was not all bad. In fact, it was mostly good. I did get several caustic messages from stormtrooper wannabe’s telling me to “take my meds.” However, the vast majority of readers provided me information that was totally unavailable in books or online references. In particular, I learned about numerous clusters of Native American descendants in rural areas of the Southeast, whom nobody ever heard of.
I actually became their National Architecture columnist in March 2010, when I was homeless . . . and most of my belongings were in storage until May 2018. The Examiner management never knew that. For the first two years, I felt appreciated if there were over 200 readers in one day. After December 21, 2011, I jumped to at least 100,000 per day . . . several times over a million . . . three days after my first article on Track Rock Gap was 2.75 million from countries all over the world. With those numbers came a tidal wave of DNA test results, unpublished maps, videos and fascinating family lore that forced me to challenge the orthodox version of eastern North America’s Pre-Columbian past.
Secrets carried by Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains
The first notice that the Southeast had a secret past came from a charming young woman, living in Grayson County . . . in the Blue Ridge Mountains of far southwestern Virginia. She said that many families in her valley were Native Americans. Some people called them Cherokees, but they knew that their ancestors lived in these mountains long before the Cherokees.
After reading one of my Examiner articles, she became convinced that they were Mayas. She and some of her cousins ordered DNA testing kits. The tests came back saying that they were 12 to 24 % Peruvian Indian and had no North American indigenous DNA. She filmed a video, which presented her DNA test and posted it on Youtube. However, I cannot find it now, because after Google bought Youtube, the algorithms were changed to maximize advertising income.
That is an extremely high percentage, considering that it is rare for a “full blood” western Native American to be more than 38% Native American. Typical Oklahoma Cherokee DNA profiles typically show 0-1% Native American. Current commercial testing procedures are incapable of fully measuring Native American heritage. By the way, the total lack of 100% Native American ancestry among “full blood” Indians started me wondering if “American Indian” DNA was just one of the components that made the American Indian. All European and western Asian DNA was being ignored by the labs, without further testing to determine WHEN that DNA arrived in the Americas.
The DNA tests stated specifically that the Grayson County Indians were carrying Asháninka (southern Arawak) DNA markers. The Asháninka today live in the western edge of the Amazon Basin in Peru and Pará Province, Brazil. It’s 3,300 miles (5,310 km) from Grayson County, VA to Satipo, Brazil. That is a long way to immigrate, but obviously they did.
Asháninka DNA markers also show up in the descendants of Florida Apalache Indians, who fled to Louisiana to escape slave raiders. They did not call themselves Apalache and in fact, originally wore grass skirts like the peoples of western Amazonia. The real Apalache were in the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains and Foothills in northern Georgia. The descendants of real Apalache carry Panoan DNA from the foothills of the Andes in eastern Peru.
Cryptic Native Americans in Northwestern Virginia
A public health nurse told me in 1990 that they had just become aware of a valley containing intermarried families, whose life styles were little different than pioneers on the Appalachian frontier in the early 1800s. Tax assessors became aware of a terra incognito in a valley, where the newest deeds dated from the early 1800s. There were no paved roads, no electricity or telephone lines, no mail delivery, no stores, no public-school students listed there or any payments made for property taxes . . . so for well over a century, county officials had forgotten that the valley was there.
Pre-Civil War maps showed some people with German and English names living in the nearly inaccessible valley, so just to be sure, the county treasurer borrowed use of a state drug enforcement helicopter and dispatched two deputies to fly over the valley. To the astonishment of the deputies, they saw smoke rising from crude log cabins, plus horses and livestock in the pastures.
Three brave social workers went into the valley on horseback and discovered a lost world that looked like the Appalachian Frontier two centuries ago. The families used hand made wood furniture and ate on hand-carved wooden trenchers with hand-made knives and wooden spoons. They grew most of the food that they ate. Anything else they needed was bartered with some “regular folk” neighbors, who would drive into town to buy things for them and intentionally kept the community a secret.
Surprisingly, they turned out to be mixed- blood Native Americans, who spoke a language that mixed Virginia-Southern English with Plat Deutsch (Late Medieval Saxon). The County Treasurer decided to keep their existence a secret, since the families obviously did not have money to pay property taxes. However, a grant was obtained from the Appalachian Regional Commission to fund visiting nurses and teachers, who drove into the valley in Jeeps.
While living in Shenandoah County, I met a woman and children in a supermarket, who looked “very Native American.” She said that her family had always lived east of Mt. Jackson at the foot of North Mountain, but she didn’t know what tribe they were. Until the late 20th century, they were expected to only marry other people, who looked Indian.
I also saw a photocopy of a newspaper from the Civil War period. It contained a photo of an Indian Confederate soldier in the famous Stonewall Brigade. He was described as one of several “Indian heroes” from the county, who fought for the Confederacy. However, I don’t think any of the late 20th century Civil War enthusiasts in the Shenandoah Valley were aware that Indians from the Valley fought for the Confederacy.
The answer to this mystery came three years later when I was suddenly single, living in Georgia, but dating the daughter of a woman, who had grown up about a mile from my farm in Toms Brook. Her mother’s last name was Funkhouser, but she looked part Native American and was very proud of that heritage. She told me that many “Christian Indians” from southwestern Virginia had moved to Shenandoah County in the early and mid-1700s to get away from Cherokee slave raiders.
The Indians got along well with the German Protestant refugees, who were settling in Shenandoah County. Many were pacifists, who did not believe in slavery. Large numbers of Indian laborers were needed in the process of converting massive, mountainside forests into pastures,orchards, lumber and charcoal. Her mother believed that her ancestry was Saponi. Her ancestors had worked at the Zane Iron Furnace on Cedar Creek during the 1700s. Cindy’s mother’s family had originally lived at an inaccessible valley between Little North Mountain and North Mountain, near where the cultural isolated community still existed.
I reconnected with the Virginia Belle from the Shenandoah Valley in 2021. She was called “Cindy Funkhouser” in my book, The Shenandoah Chronicles. Cindy is single again . . . holds a PhD . . . and is employed by the World Bank. She told me that about two years earlier, her mother and her paid for DNA tests from Ancestry.com. They were surprised to learn that most of their Native American ancestry is from Peru! The remainder is from Native American DNA, typical of central and northern Mexico. They have no explanation.
Cultural isolation in West Virginia
There are culturally isolated valleys like this one throughout central and southern West Virginia. I discovered that many of these valleys contain Native American descendants, who were not related to federally-recognized tribes.
People from rural West Virginia emailed me that they were members of tribes that I never heard of. Several had the same South American heritage, showing in their DNA that was in Grayson County, VA. Others had Arawak DNA from the Caribbean Islands, Panoan DNA from Peru, northern Mexican DNA or southern Mexican DNA. Most, who thought they were Cherokee, turned out to be a mixture of Sephardic Jewish, Spanish, Moorish and Portuguese. One community were a mixture of Sami and Finnish from the Arctic region of Europe. Again, these were signs that North America’s history was far more complex than what our history books taught us.
The Hiwalsi or Towns County Indians
In 2005, I was exploring the rugged mountains, north of the Nacoochee Valley that occupy southern Towns County. Thinking that we were still in the Chattahoochee National Forest, my herd dog and I followed, what appeared to be a Jeep trail. It terminated at an ancient farmstead in which all the structures were built of logs. I saw two kids run inside the cabin, who looked like American Indians. I assumed that they were Cherokees, who somehow avoided being shipped off to Oklahoma.
A man with long black hair came out, holding a shot gun. His teenage boy came out, holding what looked like a 22 rifle. Oops! I told them that I had accidently hiked off of federal land and would leave immediately. Trying to be friendly, I yelled, “Hey, I am Creek Indian. Are you Cherokee?” He angrily responded with a sarcastic-sounding, “No” . . . then told me to get off his land. Very odd!
Life has its surprises. In June 2010, I was still very much homeless and living in a tent with my three herd dogs. I was tired of being hassled in the daytime by a weird US Forest Service Law Enforcement Ranger in North Carolina, who wore a cowboy hat and cowboy books . . . and liked to drive around the countryside with teenage boys sitting beside him . . . and at night by Neo-Nazi’s, who liked to attack my camp just after I went to sleep.
I relocated southward into Towns County, Georgia, where the people were a lot friendlier. After setting up camp on Lake Chatuge (above), I drove over to the Ingles Supermarket in Hiawassee to get a meal from their delicatessen and vittles to cook the next day. The store was about to close.
At the only open cash register were two women in their early 20s. Both looked like almost full bloods, but not at all like most Cherokees. They spoke with a Southern accent and were slim . . . gracile like many Creek gals, so I assumed that they were Itsate (Hitchiti) Seminoles from Florida. The Itsate (Itza Maya) women in Chiapas State, Mexico were also gracile. Well, they also had almost identical facial features to the Georgia Creek gals, too.
When it was my turn to check out, I asked the girls if they were Seminoles. They said, “No, we are Towns County Indians. Our real name is Hiwassee Indians. A lot of whites call us Cherokees, but we have been here a lot longer than the Cherokees.”
Hiwassee is the Anglicization of the Creek word Hiwalsi, which means “Highlanders.” Another name for the river in the early 1700s was Eufasee, which is the Anglicization of the Creek word, “Ufasi,” which means “Colony of the Ufa (Dog) People.”
In the 1500s, the Ufa People were in Southeast Georgia, but most moved to the Chattahoochee River to escape the Spanish. There, they founded the town of Ufvle, which is now Eufaula, Alabama. Neither word was used by the Cherokees until modern times, although the Cherokees now claim Hiwassee to be one of their words.
I was the last customer in the store, so since I was also Native American, she kept on telling me about her people. She said for a long time, they lived up in the mountains, but since the mid-20th century, many families had moved down near the town of Hiawassee. Their people, who had lived in the valley near the Cherokes, were captured by the soldiers and forced to join the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.
She added with a twinkle in her eye, “We don’t look like or act like the Cherokees. My brother moved to Atlanta and married a Cherokee gal. She was always going into rages and couldn’t get along with our family. He divorced her and married a pretty Native American gal from Louisiana. We really like her.”
Flash forward to 2012. I received a comment on my Examiner column from a manager of the Dave and Buster’s restaurant in northern suburb of Atlanta. He told me that he was Towns County Indian. He had paid for a DNA test and the results told him that he was 25% Peruvian Indian. His ancestors were Southern Arawaks. His relatives had also paid for DNA tests. They were either Peruvian or a mixture of Peruvian and Maya.
I did some research. Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, came through that area and called it the Province of Conas. One of the towns, he visited was Conasi, which in the 1700s became the Cherokee village of Quanasi. All of the villages along the Hiwassee River, mentioned by Pardo, or showing up on 18th century maps, are either Southern Arawak, Itza Maya or Creek words. I mentioned the Hiwassee or Towns County Indians to Judge Patrick Moore of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. He said that they met all the criteria for becoming a separate Federally-recognized tribe. As far as I know, there has been no push in Towns County, however, for this fascinating people to be federally recognized. That would certainly be an economic game changer for Northeast Georgia, however.