The Track Rock Terrace Complex . . . federal and tribal bureaucrats behaving badly!

Track Rock Gap . . . Ten years later

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

A simple plea by my Examiner article for maintenance of the Track Rock archaeological zone and further archaeological study was converted into a ludicrous political battle. American taxpayers were asked to pick up the tab . . . which was far more than the US Forest Service had spent on maintaining these ancient ruins over the past century.


It began on December 21, 2011 as an article in the Architecture Column of the Examiner to introduce the virtually unknown Track Rock Terrace Complex to the world. It was much larger than Machu Pichu in Peru.  While owners of this spectacular archaeological zone, the US Forest Service had allowed vines, trees and loggers to seriously damage the stone structures.  To attract the interest of a university archaeological team, I pointed out that both the Creek and Cherokee Indians called that section of the Appalachians, words, which meant . . . Land of the Itzas (Mayas).  The terrace complex was identical to Itza terrace complexes in Chiapas and the Guatemalan Highlands.

Three months later, I was being sent a treasure trove of emails from US Forest Service employees, North Carolina and Oklahoma tribal employees, archaeologists and  professors.  I became aware of a bureaucratic spider web, which is concealed from members of Congress, state governors and even upper tier federal administrators.  It was obvious that policies concerning the use of federally-owned lands are implemented, which are contrary to the will of the vast majority of American citizens and unknown by members of Congress.

Within this vast interstate conspiracy of over a hundred individuals, only THREE had actually SEEN any of the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  Archaeologist Johannes Loubser had seen a significant portion, but he was never aware of about 45 acres of terraces on the southern and western edges of the archaeological zone, plus a royal tomb complex on the crest of Buzzard’s Roost Mountain. At the time this web was being spun, only a small team of Georgia state-recognized Creek tribal members and an amateur film maker from Indiana, Jon Haskell, had seen the full extent of the Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone.

Who lived there last?

Before we describe bureaucrats behaving badly, let’s make certain that the reader understands the facts. Who actually lived at Track Rock Gap?  All three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes still claim that their ancestors built the stone structures. What archaeological and historical evidence to do we have?

The acropolis of Copal on the Winter Solstice Sunset

Geography:  According to The History of the Cherokee People [1826]by Principal Chief Charles Hicks, the Cherokees did not live south of the Hiwassee River until after the American Revolution.  Track Rock Gap is south of the Hiwassee River. The Track Rock Terrace Complex was within the territory of the Creek Confederacy until the 1784 Treaty of Augusta, GA.

The stone-walled agriculture terrace complexes in Union County, GA (such as at Track Rock Gap) are merely the most northerly of at least three dozen such sites, which can be found southward in Georgia to the Fall Line and also in East Central Alabama.  All of the sites were in territory occupied by the Creek Confederacy, when the Province of Georgia was founded in 1732.  The greatest concentration of these terrace complexes is along the tributaries of the Oconee River in the Georgia Piedmont and Metropolitan Atlanta.

McIntosh the Herd Dog inspects a wall

Archaeology: In 2002, archaeologist Johannes Loubser excavated three pits at the upper level of the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  He unearthed a combination of black soil, potsherds and charcoal particles.  Not being familiar with the agricultural technology of the Americas, he did not realize that he had obtained prima facie evidence of terra preta or bio-char soil.  It is a technique for biochemically creating fertile soil that was first developed in Amazonia and then adopted in southern Mesoamerica.

Loubser appeared unaware of the discovery of many Native American burials in the late 1960s and early 1970s along the flanks of Track Rock Gap Road, when it was reconstructed.  This was before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  State DOT supervisors and the private contractor did not call in an archaeologist, when the workers began encountering pottery, statues, stone artifacts and human skeletons. 

Instead, the supervisor allowed the workers to keep or sell the artifacts and skeletons to collectors, mainly from the Atlanta Area.  Many of skulls had flattened foreheads like Classic Period Maya skulls.  Workers on the site, still living in Union County, when I was there, total me that a significant percentage of the pottery was “painted bright colors like Mexican Indian pottery.”

Loubser’s archaeological report also seems totally unaware that there were numerous Proto-Creek and Historic Creek town sites in the vicinity of Track Rock Gap that had been excavated by the famous archaeologists Robert Wauchope and Arthur Kelly.  There are large Etowah I period [900 AD-1250 AD] mounds . . . four miles to the northeast and four miles to the southwest from Track Rock Gap.  Both archaeologists equated the pottery and other artifacts excavated to known cultural centers of the Creeks on the Etowah and Ocmulgee Rivers in Georgia.  All of these Creek towns and villages were occupied at the same time that the Track Rock Terrace Complex was occupied.

The Upper Creek garrison town of Coosa, on Coosa Creek near Blairsville, GA was occupied until 1784.  Most of its residents stayed in the region and were among the 2400 Creeks living in the Cherokee Nation, who avoided being marched to Oklahoma, because they were not on “the pickup list of Cherokees.” Many of their tall, slim Upper Creek descendants live in the region today.

Loubser’s archaeological reports on the Terrace Complex (2002) only compares the potsherds at Track Rock Gap to Pre-Columbian archaeological sites located between the 68 and 126 miles away in North Carolina.

Spanish Traders:  After being captured during the 1586 destruction of St. Augustine, Florida by Sir Francis Drakes raiders, Pedro Morales and Nicholas Burgiognon gave sworn depositions to historian Richard Hakluyt, representing Queen Elizabeth I.  Both men described covert, but frequent, trade between Santa Elena on the South Carolina Coast and Grande Copal, a great city on the side of a mountain in northern Georgia. Its temples were on the upper part, overlooking the terraces.  Both men stated that what is now northern Georgia was the realm of the Apalache . . . which is what the Creek Indians called themselves until the late 1740s. Morales stated:

“There is a great Citie, sixteene or twentie dayes journey from Santa Helena, Northwestward, which the Spaniards call La Grand Copal, which they thinke to bee very rich and exceedinglie great, and have been within sighte of it, some of them. They have offered in general to the King to take no wages of all of him, if he will leave to discover this citie, and the rich mountaines around it. He saith also that he have seen a diamonde which was brought from the mountaines that lye west up from S. Helena. These hils seem wholy to be the mountaines of Apalatci, whereof the Savages advertised of Laudonnière.”

View of Track Rock Gap from Testnatee Gap

Eyewitness Account by William F. Stephenson:  In 1834, Virginian William Stephenson traveled to the Georgia Mountains to offer his services as a gold assayer, but also to mine himself.  On September 3, 1834 Stephenson and some friends traveled northward from his cabin in the Nacoochee Valley. Their journey is described in Stephenson’s published pamphlet, Enchanted Mountain [1838 & 1855].  The handful of Native Americans in the Nacoochee Valley sold their lands to a North Carolina real estate speculator in 1821 and moved to the Creek Nation in Alabama. Stephenson’s party quickly passed through the boundary of the Cherokee Nation after leaving the Nacoochee Valley.  They rode over Tesnatee Gap and along the Nottely River to reach Enchanted Mountain (Track Rock Gap).  They camped overnight at the gap. 

Stephenson described the entire journey as being through “pristine wilderness.”  He never mentioned seeing a Cherokee or even seeing a Cherokee farmstead.   Track Rock Gap was wilderness land.  Stephenson’s account mainly focused on the petroglyphs, but he did vaguely mention piles of stone in the woods across the trail from the petroglyphs. In other words, there were no Native Americans either living in Track Rock Gap or farming its terraces.

Thar’s something fishy going on in Tahlequah, Oklahoma

I first became aware that something really bizarre was going on in the spring of 2012.  The Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina mass emailed an announcement around the country . . . Tribes join together to fight the theft of Native American heritage! Inserted were emails from the Cherokee Nation’s Tribal Heritage Preservation Office to their counterparts in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Chickasaw Nation, Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.  Noticeably missing were letters to the federally-recognized Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe in Florida.  The latter two are direct descendants of the Itsate Creeks, who built the terrace complexes in Georgia.

The letter announced to the other tribes that a white man in Georgia was trying to steal a Cherokee Sacred Heritage Place and that it was time for all tribes to band together in order stop the continued theft of Native American heritage.  It later explained that the white man was claiming that the Mayas were buried in stone marked graves at Track Rock, rather than Native Americans.  You have to understand that the North Carolina Cherokees claim that the agricultural terrace walls are actually the burial markers of great Cherokee warriors.

Duh-h-h Cherokees . . . the Mayas are Native Americans!

The Oklahoma Choctaws and Chickasaws applauded the Cherokees’ efforts and wished them the best, but then didn’t have time to get involved.  The staff at the Oklahoma Muskogee-Creek THPO responded, “Oh Massa Cherokee, how can we help you to steal our ancient cultural heritage?” The Eastern Band of Cherokees agreed to be the main talking heads for protesting the planned invasion of Mayas into their empire.

As alluded above, the federally-recognized Muskogean tribes, who lived closest to Track Rock Gap, were left out of the information loop.  The Florida tribes were descended from the people, who actually built the terrace complexes in northern Georgia.  The Muskogee-Creeks NEVER lived in northern Georgia and western North Carolina.  That was the domain of the Upper Creeks (Kusate), Apalache Creeks (Apalachite), Itsate Creeks and Soque (Miccosukee today). 

Until I was in my twenties, I didn’t realize that the Muskogees were real Creeks.  Our family lore remembered the Muskogee-speaking tribes as barbaric, warlike invaders, who we fought us to a standstill, because they had firearms and who then joined into a confederacy with us and the Upper Creeks.  Seminoles are really just Creeks, who have the same feistiness that all Creeks had, when they lived in Georgia.

Both portray a dancing priest or priestess of the god, Kukulkan.

Rolling in the floor laughing

Some modern history is due the reader.  Right after graduate school, I was an architectural and land planning consultant to the Qualla Housing Authority in Cherokee, NC.  At that time, tourists were handed a brochure, which stated that the Cherokees arrived in Southern Appalachians about the same time that Charleston, SC was founded.  The Cherokees never built mounds, but since western North Carolina was almost uninhabited, the Cherokees built their council houses on top of the mounds of the former inhabitants . . . the mound builders.   They never used the word Creeks to the public, but Chief Arneche, the head of the housing authority, gave me a tour of former Creek mounds on the reservation.

Back in 1826,  Principal Chief Charles Hicks said something similar in his History of the Cherokee People. His version said that an epidemic in the 1690s greatly weakened the mound builders in western North Carolina so that the Cherokee were able to invade the region.  He added, “We killed or drove all the mound builders then burned their temples and, in their place, built our town houses on top of their mounds.”

Beginning in the late 1980s, North Carolina archaeologists and Cherokee decided that they wanted to be bigshots . . . aka the mound builders, who they had killed or driven away.  They re-labeled Muskogean towns in North Carolina as being “Proto-Cherokee Pisgah Culture People,” and labeling the Cherokees as “major participants in the Mississippian Culture.”  The first decade of the 21st century saw the North Carolinians pushing things to the absurd.  In 2003, Cherokee artisans began claiming that the Cherokees were the first people to make pottery, plus “invented” Swift Creek pottery (Macon, GA) and Etowah Complicated Stamp pottery (Cartersville, GA). 

Later that year, the University of North Carolina Press published Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which at the end claimed that the Cherokees were the first people to cultivate corn, beans and squash.  In 2006, a delegation of Cherokee officials and professors traveled down to Cartersville, GA to demand that all references to the Creek Indians be removed from the Etowah Mounds Museum and that it become a Cherokee museum.  That year marked the high tide of the Cherokee Delusional Empire.  Georgia officials rebuffed them.  Well, you get the picture.

As speakers dispatched by the Eastern Band of Cherokees warned people of the pending invasion of Mayas into the sacred lands of the Cherokees,  someone decided that the logo of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Historic Preservation Office needed sprucing up.  Some Cherokee artist really liked a certain shell gorget that was unearthed in 1925 in Mound C at Etowah Mounds.  In their mind, having a logo from an artifact at Etowah Mounds would prove that the Cherokees built.

You guessed it.  They picked one of the gorgets mentioned in my book and later in the premier of American Unearthed, which contains art almost identical to that in the city of Chichen Itza.  Nevertheless, they continued to tell anyone, who would listen, that the Mayas didn’t come to Georgia.

Federal bureaucrats as hawkers of trinkets and beads

I first noticed that the US Forest Service office personnel did very little actual work.  No one was interested in buying hardwood trees in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  The Bush Administration had pressured the USFS to lay off much of its blue-collar personnel, who for decades maintained the gravel roads and campsites, used by campers, hunters and fishermen. Ideologues in the Bush Administration imagined that the “private sector” could do the work cheaper, faster and better.  They therefore severely pared the USFS maintenance and repairs budget.

What actually happened was that maintenance, repair and construction contracts were typically awarded to big-city corporate contractors, who had donated large sums to Republican candidates.  For example, I noticed that the bulk of the road-grading contracts in 2012 went to a large grading construction contractor about 200 miles (322 km) away in Charlotte, NC.  That contractor charged about 12 times as much as it used to cost for paying part-time local mountain men to maintain the roads.  As a result, many USFS roads became impassible to anyone, except hikers and the owners of a trail bikes!

I was also amused by the propensity of USFS personnel to give awards to each other.  For unknown reasons, the Public Relations lady in Gainesville, GA often included old emails describing awards she had given fellow workers.  Sally Kuykendall got an award for being on time for two weeks. Ranger Jay Slidell got an award for having the cleanest USFS Ford Explorer . . . ad nauseum.

The sad thing is that things really have not changed much since the Colonial Era. What one saw over and over again was federal bureaucrats using small grants or free trips to conferences as a means of manipulating tribal bureaucrats or even entire tribes.  It was the old trinket and bead thing.

Two employees of the Muscogee Creek Nation were awarded a week of free wining and dining in the Atlanta Area in return for saying and doing things that were essentially treasonous to the Creek People.  They were collaborative in allowing USFS bureaucrats, who knew nothing about Creek cultural heritage, to establish fictional history and in the long run, reduce the flow of federal grants, which would be coming to the Muscogee Creek Nation.

The public never saw any of this. What they saw was carefully worded false or misleading statements to be dutifully recorded in local newspapers and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The local TV stations didn’t consider the question of whether a North Carolina Indian tribe built some obscure piles of stone, 100 miles north of Atlanta . . . newsworthy.

The good news is that by 2012,  many people had stopped reading newspapers and relied on local TV news instead. Meanwhile, because of the introduction of text messaging and quick bites of internet news, the majority of newspaper readers quickly forgot what they had read.


Right at the tail end of the second Obama Administration, the US Forestry Service and three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes (all located outside of Georgia) pulled off a semi-covert agreement that would have caused unimaginable outrage by the general public in Georgia . . . had they known. The three tribes were given complete control of all archaeological sites in the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests in Georgia. The Oconee National Forest stretches down to the Fall Line. They could determine who visited these sites and if tourists were allowed to photograph or film them. It was clearly stated in Cherokee media and web sites that they planned to ban all photography and filming of anything that they considered to be a Cherokee burial.

All of the sites predated the arrival of Cherokees in Georgia. Most were proto-Creek or Uchee, but some near me were built by 16th and 17th century European gold miners. Some extremely ancients sites contain a writing system used in Bronze Age Sweden. In a remarkable display of testosterone deficiency, the Muscogee Creek Nation stood by and said nothing.

Fortunately, the Secretary of Agriculture, appointed by Donald Trump, was former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue. Perdue quickly recognized what a bombshell this would be in the Republican heartland of Georgia, so quietly let the agreement “cease to exist.” Actually, it would have been equally unpopular in Democratic areas of the State. Let’s be glad he did.

And now you know!

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