Chiaha . . . the Itza Maya province in Western North Carolina – Part One

How fictional Colonial Period history was bought in the late Twentieth Century

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

The capital of Chiaha was one of the few towns that were visited by both the Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo Expeditions during the mid-1500s. The chroniclers of both expeditions recorded extensive details of the geography of the province of Chiaha, plus descriptions of the capital and agricultural activities in the province.

The chroniclers of both expeditions clearly described the capital of Chiaha as being on a narrow island in a broad, shallow mountain river, which was at the bottom of a deep gorge with great mountains towering above it. Three fast-moving rivers, which could be crossed by horses and pigs joined the main river just upstream from the island. The deep gorge continued downstream from the capital about 20 Spanish leguas antiquas or about 52 miles.

View of Tuckasegee River near its confluence with the Little Tennessee River in October 2010. The horses of the two Spanish expeditions could have easily forded the river at this point.

The two volumes of The De Soto Chronicles were finally published in 1995, the same year that I finally gave up hope of ever returning to my beautiful farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Resigned to my fate of being stuck in Georgia with no goat cheese to make, I was hired as Principal Planner of Cobb County, but then also assigned responsibility for supervising all historic preservation and archaeological projects by the county. Cobb had an astounding inventory of historic buildings, Civil War battlefields and Native American village sites . . . most of which were about to be destroyed by development.

Not particularly liking the incessant traffic congestion that I was supposed to be making more congested by allowing more and more dense developments without rapid transit being constructed, I rented a spacious townhouse near Etowah Mounds in Cartersville in Bartow County – LOL and began reading The De Soto Chronicles. That townhouse soon became my first architecture office in Georgia, just in time for Hurricane Opal to devastate numerous historic buildings in Northwest Georgia . . . perfect timing, because of all of my experience with very old buildings in Virginia.

I was astonished that over a decade after I met with several of the professors, who supposedly wrote The De Soto Chronicles, they still had not realized their error of placing Chiaha in Tennessee. Its environs totally conflicted with what they had published in the book. Only later did I learn that most of the “leg work” on the De Soto book was done by students. Maybe the professors didn’t actually read the words, of which they were supposedly the editors.

View of the Stecoah Valley, Little Tennessee River Gorge and Great Smoky Mountains from by campsite on Cheoah Mountain in February 2010. Yes, there is a reason why Cheoah sounds a lot like Chiaha!


The professors never realized that Chiaha is an Itza Maya word meaning “Salvia River.” The name of the Mexican state of Chiapas means “Salvia-Place of.” That “chia” is one and the same as in “Chia Pet” . . . the endemic ceramic animal, given at Christmas, which is embedded with chia seeds that sprout into green hair. The word “chia” has great significance. The conquistadors recorded that they passed vast cultivated fields of salvia along the rivers leading to the the capital of Chiaha.

In the original Spanish text, the Capital of the province of Chiaha was actually written as Ychiaja. In English phonetics, this would be written as Echiaha. This variation totally confounded the professors on the De Soto Route Team. Well, they should have brought someone, who knew Itza Maya, Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek or Miccosukee. In those three Maya dialects, the “E” sound in front or after a proper noun indicated that it was the principal place with that name . . . i.e. the capital.

Thus, the word for town, tula, with an E in front became Etula in Itza Maya or Itsate Creek or Etalwa in Muskogee-Creek. The public knows that place as Etowah Mounds. By the way, Itsate is the Itza Maya word meaning, “Itza People.”

View of the Little Tennessee River Gorge near Fontana Dam, NC from my campsite in February 2010. The reservoir is drained every winter to allow capacity for melting snow water in the early spring.

Chiaha in references and literature

Google “Chiaha” and you will mostly see articles that begin like this: “

Chiaha was a horticultural Native American chiefdom located on Zimmerman Island in the lower French Broad River valley in modern Jefferson County, Tennessee, in the Southeastern United States. The word, Chiaha, means “high” in the Muskogee language and refers to the tall mountains around the town.  When Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo arrived at Chiaha in the mid-1500s, it was in a mostly uninhabited section of the Cherokee domain. Its chief was called an olamekko.”  Around the town were cultivated wide fields of corn, beans, squash and tobacco . . . etc.

For starters, the Muskogee-Creek word for “high” is hvhlwe. If it was a town in the Cherokee domain, why did have a Creek name?  Olamekko is the Alabama word for a king or high chief. Why would a Cherokee town have an Alabama title for its chief. The Muskogee equivalent to olameko is Talwamikko . . . so if the town had a Muskogee name, why didn’t its chief?  What is an Alabama word doing in the northeastern tip of the Tennessee River Valley?  There is no mention of corn, beans, squash and tobacco in the section of the chronicles of the De Soto and Pardo Expeditions about Chiaha, but they probably were grown in this province.  The chronicles do mention that the conquistadors saw vast fields of salvia growing along rivers and the people also raised honey bees. 

Honey bees?  Almost all references state that the honey bee is native to the Old World and was not raised in the Americas until imported by European colonists.  Dig a little, though, and you will find out that the Mayas DID domesticate an indigenous, stingless honey bee, whose taste is superior to that of the Old World honey bee. So if Chiaha was in the Great Cherokee Empire, why did its people live in a province with a Maya name and raise Maya honey bees?

If one hikes and camps through the beautiful rivers valleys of Western North Carolina as I did many times, it quickly becomes obvious that the valleys were densely populated when the Spanish explorers passed through in the mid-1500s. Even at its peak population in the 1720s, the Cherokee occupation of the region consisted of small villages and hamlets, separated from each other by wide expanses of wilderness. So the situation was just the opposite of what references are now telling people.

There is a bigger problem, though.  Except for being an island,  the environs of Zimmerman Island, Tennessee bear no resemblance to the description by both the De Soto and Pardo Expeditions of the Province of Chiaha.  Hasn’t some PhD in Anthropology figured that out since a group of Southeastern professors published The De Soto Chronicles in 1995?  This first article will later explain what happened.

Photo of the Zimmerman Mound in the 1930s. At 30 feet tall, the Zimmerman Mound was one of the tallest mounds in Tennessee prior to being inundated by Douglas Lake. Very little archaeological information is available about the mound and surrounding Native American town sites. It had been under water for 43 years, when The De Soto Chronicles two volumes were published. Thus it made an ideal location to practice “speculative archaeology.”

Zimmerman Island, Tennessee

An archaeologist, employed by the WPA excavated test pits on Zimmerman Island prior to a dam being erected immediately downstream in 1942. If there was an archaeological report, none seems to have survived. This was not a comprehensive archeological investigation, which sought to determine the earliest occupation of the island and what cultural strata are visible. It was merely a cursory survey that primarily determined who lived there last. Its last occupants appear to have been part of the Proto-Creek Dallas Culture, but on the northern extreme of its territorial occupation.

The contents and age of the mound remain unknown. In size and form the Zimmerman Mound closely resembles the Arnold Mound on Amy’s Creek in the eastern end of the Nacoochee Valley in northeast Georgia. Late Swift Creek potsherds abound in the town site around the Arnold Mound. This suggests that the town was occupied by people from southwest Georgia, who originally lived in the town, now called Kolomoki Mounds.

There are a few artifacts from Zimmerman Island in the possession of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology. Since the WPA archaeologist basically took random samples of locations near the surface of the island, these artifacts are only representative of its last occupation. Late 20th century radiocarbon analysis of some excavated decomposed wood and charcoal, excavated at Zimmerman Island suggests that it was abandoned by about 1500 AD.

Construction of the Douglas Dam quickly inundated Zimmerman Island, since it was near the dam. The dam is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built the dam in record time to meet emergency energy demands for war-related industries near Knoxville, in particular for the operation of the Alcoa Aluminum Plant in Maryville, TN.  Construction of the dam was begun on February 3, 1942, only 2 ½ months after Pearl Harbor, yet begun operation on February 23, 1943.  The needs of a nation, suddenly thrust into a worldwide war, explains the lack of archeological work and records. Exactly the same situation occurred in the construction of the Nottely and Hiwassee Dams in the northeast Georgia Mountains.

This 1935 US Geological Survey topographic map shows that Zimmerman Island was quite large and flanked by both smaller islands and large expanses of relatively level land. It is on a horseshoe bend in the French Broad River, not at the bottom of a deep mountain gorge, dominated by tall mountains. There are no three mountain rivers entering the river, immediately upstream. Most importantly, there was no deep gorge downstream, stretching for around 50 miles to the west. Instead, one enters the broad Tennessee River Valley. In short, there is no way that Zimmerman Island could have been equated with the island where the capital of Chiaha was situated.

This is an old US Soil Conservation Service aerial photo from the late 1930s. Here it is completely obvious that the island was at least a mile long and much wider than the island described by Spanish chroniclers. One can easily see that there were level cultivated fields on both sides of the French Broad River, not the steep walls of a mountain gorge.

Overview of the De Soto and Pardo Expeditions

Part Two of this series will contain key passages from the chronicles of the De Soto and Pardo Expeditions in order to determine the true location of Chiaha. However, for now, the reader will be given an overview. De Soto’s conquistadors passed through the capital of Chiaha, heading west, in June of 1540. They were allowed by the king to camp out on the rim of a river gorge downstream from the island capital in order to let their horses graze and regain their health after the ordeal of crossing steep mountain ranges.

Pardo’s party approached the capital from the west in the summer of 1568. He and his men were offered great hospitality then headed southwestward in attempt to visit Kaushe (Coosa) but had to turn around, when warned of a planned ambush. They returned to Chiaha for awhile . . . building a fort somewhere in the province. Pardo left a small garrison at the fort then departed southward through a deep river gorge on his way to reach the Spanish colony of Santa Elena on present day Parris Island, South Carolina.

View in mid-October of the confluence of Nantahala Gorge and the Little Tennessee River Gorge from the crest of Albert Mountain. The low-level clouds mark the locations of the gorges.

The fudging of Chiaha’s location

Readers may recall in my introductory article on the mounds of Western North Carolina, I described being an eyewitness to the fudging of Native American history in the 1980s. The only reason that I was at the meeting was because City Manager Ken Michelove* asked me to host it. The subject of where some Spanish conquistadors went five centuries ago seemed totally irrelevant to anything I was professionally concerned with.

*I became the first director of the Asheville-Buncombe Historic Resources Commission after the Downtown Asheville Revitalization Program entered the marketing phase.

The professors came to Asheville, armed with state highway maps, marked with masking tape . . . and not a whole lot of factual information. They had marked certain points on the highway maps as where the Spanish slept, but did not have a single item to prove their claim. It was all I could do to keep from bursting out in uncontrollable laughter. They were so full of themselves, yet so woefully lacking in the technical skills necessary for producing accurate maps. Instead they filled their diatribes with long Latin-based words and clunky grammar in order (in their minds) to impress the mere commoners around them of their superior knowledge . . . when, in fact, there was none.

I was immediately impressed with how out of touch with mountain topography and Mother Nature, these archaeology and history professors were. My impression was that not one of them had actually hiked where they said that the De Soto Expedition traveled in the mountains. They were thinking two dimensionally in a four dimensional universe.

Their taped up state highway maps showed the De Soto Expedition crossing over the mountains near Rosman, NC then paralleling the French Broad River all the way to its juncture with the Holston River in northeastern Tennessee, which is considered the beginning of the Tennessee River. What I remember most about the meeting is that these PhD’s in Anthropology presented themselves as experts on Spanish colonization efforts, but they didn’t know how to pronounce Spanish words and didn’t have a clue what the Native American words meant.

Two state archeologists told the professors in the De Soto Route Group that Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo couldn’t have possibly come through the French Broad Valley during the mid-1500s because there were no occupied “Mississippian Culture” towns in the valley at that time.  Furthermore, the professors were told that no 16th century Spanish artifacts had been found in the French Broad River Valley, while several had been found in extreme Western North Carolina. 

Charles Hudson balked at our statements and then began to belittle the state archaeologists.  Being government employees, they couldn’t fight back, but did explain in more detail their reasoning.  They stated that radiocarbon dating consistently showed that all Mississippian Culture towns and villages along the French Broad River, including those near Zimmerman Island, Tennessee . . . where Hudson placed Chiaha . . . showed the settlements being abandoned around 1500 AD.  They didn’t know why this occurred, but the findings were so consistent as to be accepted as fact.  One of the state archaeologists informed the professors that he had dug test holes near the Biltmore Mound and only found Woodland Period artifacts, which predated the De Soto expedition by at least a thousand years.

Basically, the professors responded that “we know much more about this subject that you do. You three young men are nobodies that we don’t have to listen to” . . . then they left.

The professors had made a presentation to the Asheville Chamber of Commerce at breakfast session, earlier that morning.  In the afternoon, they gave a press conference at the Biltmore House, announcing that the dinky three feet high mound in a pasture on the Biltmore Estates was the site of Guaxule, “the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation.” 

The next morning’s Asheville Citizen-Times contained a feature article about the press conference. Above the text was a photo of professor Charles Hudson of the University of Georgia, speaking at a lectern.  Behind him was mounted a giant check from the Biltmore Estate for $25,000 (equal to $72,000 today).

The article stated that he had been given a check earlier in the day from the Chamber of Commerce for $500 ($1440 today) and was to receive funding from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  It did not say how much the Cherokees were giving him.  The article also emphasized that Hudson was a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

This was a major marketing theme for Asheville from 1982 to 2002.

The aftermath

I must emphasize again that in the 1980s, I did not feel professionally involved with the findings of the De Soto Route Group and therefore did not closely follow activities and issues related to it until 1995, when as Principal Planner of Cobb County, GA I was also assigned supervisory responsibility for all historic preservation and archaeological activities of the county government. However, during the few remaining years that I lived near Asheville, I observed with amusement how a poorly researched speculation by some academician quickly wormed its way into orthodox history . . . and then when it was blatantly proved false, still is in all the references as fact.

  • The Asheville-Citizen Times immediately ran a feature article in which a reporter interviewed Cherokees in western North Carolina, whose ancestors remembered meeting with the members of the De Soto Expedition. Never mind that all the towns visited by De Soto in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia had either Creek or Maya names . . . oh, and both rivers flowing through the Cherokee Reservation have Creek names. The Cherokees were in Canada until 1650.
  • The State of North Carolina erected an historical marker on Biltmore Ave on the southern edge of the Downtown, announcing “Hernando de Soto in Asheville.” It stated that the 3 feet tall mound marked the site of an important Cherokee town, named Guaxule, where the De Soto stayed one night. The sign didn’t tell people that Guaxule is the Spanish spelling of a Creek word!
  • The Museum of the Cherokee Indian added a display, which portrayed the Great Cherokee Chiefs of the Great Cherokee Nation, meeting with De Soto in Guaxule. The next summer, that scene was added to the famous Cherokee outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills.”
  • In 1987, C. Clifford Boyd and Gerald F. Schroeldl, highly respected anthropology professors at the University of Tennessee, published a scholarly article in “American Antiquity,” entitled “In Search of Coosa.” [American Antiquity Vol. 52, No. 4 (Oct., 1987), pp. 840-844 – Published by Cambridge University] The very scholarly article severely criticized the De Soto Route Group for speculatively locating the route of the De Soto Expedition then demanding it be carved into stone as official history without any archaeological investigations to justify their speculations. The professors specifically challenged Hudson’s locations for Chiaha and Guaxule for all the reasons mentioned in this article. They questioned the validity of many other towns on the route, because they all hinged on the location of Chiaha. The paper was ignored by the De Soto Route Group and by their peers in general.
  • In 1995, The De Soto Chronicles was published by the University of Alabama Press. For about a decade, the two volumes were considered the final word on the subject. However, ever so slowly as the authors of the project retired or died, researchers here and there began to protest various parts of the route, which were not adequately researched. On the other hand, some locations have been confirmed with archaeological work. That was not to be the case for Asheville, NC.

In 1998, University of Georgia Press published Charles Hudson’s Knights of the Cross, Warriors of the Sun, which was billed as “the definitive work on the Hernando de Soto Expedition.” In several locations, Hudson’s route differed from that agreed upon by the group. In this book and a later one, Hudson strangely equated the routes and town names of places visited by De Soto and Pardo. Pardo’s chronicler never stated that they were trying to take the same route as De Soto to any given place. Their starting points were also quite different.

The De Soto Expedition traveled through much of the Lower Southeast between 1539 and 1542. The expedition took approximately12 days to reach Chiaha from the present-day South Carolina line. It rested for 30 days downstream from Chiaha, but there is very little information about those 30 days. It took them five day from their resting point to reach Kusate (Coste) on Bussells Island, where the Little Tennessee joins the Tennessee River . . . yet incredibly, by far the largest chapter in the books was entitled “De Soto Among the Cherokees” and it was written by a Cherokee graduate student at the University of Georgia.

In Cherokee student’s version of history, after visiting Guaxule, De Soto makes a 230 mile detour northward, in only five days. Seven days were required just to cross over the mountains to reach Guaxule from the Carolina Piedmont, so this version is ludicrous.

She wrote that he returned back to the Carolina Piedmont then journeyed northward to Joara . . . “a great Cherokee town” . . . then continued northward to the northwestern corner of North Carolina Mountains . . . crossed these rugged mountains, where there are no known trade trails then turned south to reach Chiaha. There is no mention of Joara in any of the versions of the De Soto Chronicles. It was a town visited by Juan Pardo.

Hudson’s version of the De Soto route took the conquistadors on a 230 mile detour to the north through rugged terrain.

The Berry Site in Burke County, NC which Hudson labeled Joara has a three feet tall mound and a total of 25 houses built during its entire existence. In any given time, it may have had only a dozen houses. The Old Fort – Lenoir – Morganton – Burke County area of North Carolina was always occupied by Uchee (Yuchi) villages until after the French and Indian War, when white settlers began coming in the area.

Yet, in the early 21st century, a PBS documentary and later North Carolina TV documentaries would introduce the hamlet in Burke County as an important Cherokee town and major center of the Mississippian Culture, which was visited by both Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo.


In the year 2000, the Appalachian State University Department of Anthropology received grants from the State of North Carolina, the Biltmore Estate and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to excavated the fabled, now 18 inch tall, Biltmore Mound near the Swannanoa River . . . heart of the great Cherokee capital of Guaxule and the place where the De Soto Expedition spent the night. The project was heavily covered by the Asheville Citizen-Times, while the Museum of the Cherokee People sent out frequent national press releases that announced the progress on this massive archeological undertaking. Their press releases were dutifully made into feature articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution . . . without fact-checking. It was speculated in one press release that this was the location where the Cherokees became the first people to cultivate corn, beans and squash. A stupid reporter in the AJC repeated that ludicrous statement without comment. Then suddenly there was silence . . . no more press releases.

The Swannanoa River near the Biltmore Mound

Eventually, if one “dug” deep enough on the new-fangled internet, one would find out that the mound was actually the ruins of a traditional Creek chokopa . . . i.e. an industrial sized teepee, originally used by peoples in southern Mexico for worshipping Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl). The artifacts found in and around the mound were Middle Woodland Period . . . somewhere in the range of 200 AD – 450 AD. A team came back to the site a second season in hope of finding 16th century Spanish artifacts, but only found more evidence of a Middle Woodland occupation.

The anthropology program at Appalachian State has an excellent reputation, so to save face all parties involved issued a final press release announcing the discovery of the oldest known Cherokee architecture. (Yes, they really did that!) Only trouble is the Swannanoa is derived from the Muskogee-Creek words, Suwani Owa, which means “Shawnee River.” There was a large Shawnee town a mile away at the Biltmore Village until 1763.

The Asheville Chamber of Commerce stopped calling Asheville, the Ancient Heart of the Cherokee Nation. Soon, the state removed the historical marker announcing “De Soto in Asheville,” If Guaxule was not in Asheville then Chiaha couldn’t possibly been on the French Broad River in Tennessee and Charles Hudson’s book could not be the ultimate statement of the De Soto Expedition.

Yet, such is the nature of Native American anthropology in the Southeast today. Wikipedia and most other references still tell you that Guaxule was in Asheville and Chiaha was on Zimmerman Island in Tennessee. Look up Knights of the Cross, Warriors of the Sun on Amazon. The book is still presented as the most accurate book on the De Soto Expedition and Hudson is presented as the most reliable source on Southeastern Native American history.

My handmade ceramics work was not shabby!

2003 – A slam-dunk on Professor Hudson!

I was at the annual Southeastern American Indian Art Festival at Ocmulgee. I was selling hand-made Creek and Maya style pottery and a booklet about my architectural and planning analysis of Ocmulgee National Monument.

Professor Charles Hudson, wearing a wind breaker, came up to my booth with a grin on his face. He was leading a group of about a dozen junior professors and graduate students. He introduced himself (without a name) as a flea market vendor, who sold Indian artifacts. He said that he needed someone to identify the artifacts so he could get more money from them. He obviously did not remember me from being in my Asheville office two decades earlier.

I told him that I was an architect and professional ceramicist, not an archaeologist. He pulled out a plastic bag of potsherds anyway and dumped them on my table. It was a no brainer. I pointed at each potsherd and said, “Uh-h-h-h – Swift Creek Complicated Stamp, Napier, Etowah Complicated Stamp, Woodstock check stamp, Lamar Incised, Ocmulgee Redware and-d-d Deptford Cord-wrapped.

Hudson looked stunned. The archaeology students had anticipated having a good laugh on the stupid thrall at the booth, but it didn’t happen. Red-faced, Hudson pulled out a bag of stone projectiles and said, “Okay, how about these arrowheads?”

I responded, “There are only two arrowheads. The rest are atlatl points, spear points or tools.” The faces of the student and professors dropped in dismay. I didn’t know the English names for the artifacts, but I did guess correctly their use and all the cultural periods. The students started drifting away with a sad look on their face. Their human god had been shamed.

Hudson stood there alone, stunned, then he walked away. Standing on the sidelines were six members of the Muskogee-Creek National Council. Their leader came up to me and asked, “You’re Creek aren’t you? Hey Richard, your booklet is fantastic and you obviously know more than those idiot profs. How would you like to do work for us? We need some heavily illustrated textbooks like this one.” The rest is history.

Now you know!

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