Changing the Hiwassee River Valley’s history to get a Cherokee gambling casino

My first Native American research project involved the Hiwassee River and its tributary, Brasstown Creek . . . and it occurred much, much earlier than any of you might imagine. Georgia politicians, one Georgia archaeological firm and a collaborating reporter on the Atlanta Journal Constitution staff, were trying to change history so a Cherokee casino could be built near Track Rock Gap, GA.

Part 30 of The Americas Connected series

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

(Above) May 2010 – Rob Roy, Angel and Mack frolic in the cool waters of the Hiwassee River.

Toms Brook, VA – July 1992 – Long long ago, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I was first exposed to Native American peoples of the Hiwassee River, which flows through Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. It was the summer of 1992 and the happiest six weeks of my entire life. Vivi, her 7 year old daughter Aimee and I were living as a family in my farmhouse on Toms Brook. I adored being both with a wife, who sincerely loved me and with a step-daughter, who called me Papa. Aimee also thoroughly adored playing with my herd dogs, goat kids and lambs.

In early June, my official wife had yet again for the umteenth time had asked for a divorce as she was departing to spend the summer in Atlanta. This time, however, I said yes. She then instructed me to prepare a list of all our property, so she could cash out on the marriage, when she returned briefly in August before starting a job in Georgia. What she actually planned to do was come home to accuse me of multiple flings with younger members of her “sisterhood” then demand that I turn over everything we owned jointly to her. To her friends, she would deny ever asking for a divorce, but I had secretly taped her several times . . . at Vivi’s suggestion.

When I faxed this information to Vivi in Paris, she and Aimee hopped on the next Concorde heading to the USA. They could only stay six weeks on a tourist visa, but Vivi planned to buy land in Northern Virginia for a winery so the next time they could stay indefinitely. She leased a townhouse in Alexandria and signed up Aimee for a bilingual licensed teacher in the fall.

The Brasstown Creek Valley . . . looking southward toward the Blue Ridge Mts.

An outrageous newspaper headline

In early July, my mother., quite outraged, sent me a letter with a clipping from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that announced, “Archaeologists prove that Cherokees have lived in Georgia for at least 1000 years.” The article was accompanied by a map that showed the Cherokees always living in Georgia as far south as Savannah, Macon and Columbus. The reporter stated that the important discovery opened the door for a Cherokee gambling casino at the state-owned Brasstown Resort (5 miles north of Track Rock Gap).

As a first step, the state had renovated a house on the archaeological site to be a shop to sell Cherokee art and handicrafts. A Ojibwe man and his Cherokee wife were being given the facility rent free to operate the shop. When the rent-free, renovation costs-free lease expired ten years later, the couple moved back home . . . it’s not clear whether that was Upstate New York or Cherokee, NC. However, they were rather bitter that Florida and Georgia tourists were constantly asking to buy Seminole and Creek art rather than being interested in Obijwe art being sold in a Cherokee-named store.

State-owned Brasstown Valley Resort near Young Harris, GA & Track Rock Gap.

In addition, the state was paying for an Atlanta archaeological firm to create a $250,000 permanent artifact exhibit at the Brasstown Resort, entitled, “10,000 years of Cherokee history in Georgia.” All of the artifacts are typical of the ancestors of the Creek and Uchee Indians or else date thousands of years into the past, when the ethnicity of their makers is impossible to determine . . . but certainly were not Cherokee . . . a tribe that originated far to the north.

My mother asked me what I thought of this ridiculous article and if there was anything that I could do about it. I telephoned her that night to learn more of what was going on. Vivi was snuggled up beside me. All went well until Aimee came into the room, speaking French. My mother heard her. I told my mother that it was just a movie.

That was a great mistake. My mother had instantly liked Vivi when they talked on the phone the morning after we first met on December 16, 1990. She cautioned me not to do anything before I was fully single that would tarnish Vivi’s reputation. I told my mother that we had just met that Sunday morning at my friends’ house and that I probably would never see her again. Had my mother known that Vivi and I were in a serious relationship and Vivi wanted to have several more children, she probably would have urged me to get a divorce ASAP – probably paid for it. LOL I certainly would have never been cut off from contact with Vivi by being Shanghaied at their home in South Metro Atlanta.

At any rate, I asked mother to get me copies of the three archaeological reports, mentioned in the article from the Department of Anthropology at the University of West Georgia. I also asked her to see if copies of Arthur Kelly’s archaeological reports for the Hiwassee River Valley were available.

My mother had received her Masters and Six Year degrees from West Georgia. She was a part-time instructor there and a member of the UWG Alumni Council. A year later, she would be named to the UWG Alumni “Hall of Fame.” The profs couldn’t say no! Yep! Everything that I requested arrived via Priority Mail three days later.

The Peachtree Mounds Archaeological Site is on the Hiwassee River about 14 miles NW of Brasstown Resort.

The archaeological malarkey began three decades ago

The State of Georgia was utilizing several federal grants from the USDOT, Department of the Interior and the Appalachian Regional Commission to renovate the US Hwy. 76 Corridor. Three agencies within the State of Georgia bureaucracy hired their own archaeological consultants.

Two of the firms complained in their reports that they had been under heavy political pressure to label the artifacts uncovered as being Cherokee. The firms refused to do so and concurred with archaeologist Arthur Kelly’s conclusion there in the 1960s that these artifacts were typical of the ancestors of the Creek Indians in northern Georgia.

A third firm from Atlanta, sub-contracted their archaeological work to a team of recent graduates and current students in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel. That typifies the weird attitudes that many Georgia archaeologists have toward Native American sites in Georgia’s Mountains. They act like that the region is in another state. The archaeological zone was 330 miles from UNC-Chapel Hill, but only 90 miles from the University of Georgia!

The UNC-authored report concluded with this brilliant analysis. The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law in 1976 that all Native American artifacts found in western North Carolina must be labeled “Cherokee.” The Young Harris, GA archaeological site was only three miles south of the North Carolina State Line, so all levels of occupation should be labeled Cherokee.

In July 1992, I assumed that I would never live in Georgia again and probably never even drive through Western North Carolina again. I was only two months away from an exciting new lifestyle in which my new, growing family would split our time between the farm in the Shenandoah Valley, our townhouse in Alexandria. Vivi’s apartments in Paris and New York City then Vivi’s farm and winery in Champaign-Argonne, France. Revealing professional hogwash in Georgia was not a priority of mine.

I typed a letter to the AJC reporter for mother to sign. She eventually received a photocopied response that thanked her for sending him a letter, but said nothing else.

Forgetting the scandal down in Young Harris, GA became even more expedient after I received a bank statement that covered the first 3 weeks of my estranged wife’s stay in the Atlanta Area. She had pretty much cleaned out our checking account with cash advances and a bank debit card. There were at least $945 in restaurant and bar tab payments on the debit card. That is equivalent to over $2000 in 2022! Since she was living at her mother’s house, it is quite likely that many of the cash advances were also for restaurant and bar bills. For most of the marriage I had pretended that infidelities had not been going on, but it was hard to ignore not being able to pay the mortgage. For the rest of the summer, I deposited my architecture checks in a separate account.

Back in 1992, I never dreamed that 30 years later, I would be devoting much of my time to research and writing articles on Native American culture, which would be read around the world. Life is indeed a box of chocolates.

During the era between 1990 and 2012, when the powers-that-be were blatantly trying to change Georgia history, “somebody” in the state government or US Forest Service authorized the inclusion of this manikin in the Brasstown Bald Visitors Center to portray the Creek Indians. Oh, there was no mention of the Creeks, per se. It was labeled “A Moundbuilder”. The new myth being pushed by North Carolina archaeologists was that no one knew who built the large towns with mounds in Georgia. The sign for this manikin stated “A mysterious people called the Mound Builders lived in North Georgia for about 200 years . . . built several large mounds then disappeared.” Supposedly the Cherokees were always living nearby during this period. At the entrance of the Brasstown Bald Museum was a tall manikin of a Caucasian man standing erect atop a three feet tall pedestal. He was spray-painted a golden tan, which was labeled, “A typical Georgia Cherokee.” These manikins were my first target, when the premier of America Unearthed finally gave me some credibility. Both were eventually removed as more and more citizens of Georgia found the obvious political symbolism offensive then complained to USFS administrators.

This is what a Northeast Georgia Itsate Creek “moundbuilder” looks like. It’s a painting of my gggg-grandfather. We have modest, straight noses like our Highland Maya ancestors, deep-set eyes, small Oriental ears and a protruding chin.

In our next article of this series, we will visit the Quanasee Archaeological Zone near Hayesville, NC and listen to an archaeology professor spin a tall yarn.

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