The Itza Mayas of Clay County, NC and Towns County, GA

Part 35 of The Americas Connected series

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

The tourist brochures of these two beautiful mountain counties state that they were the home of the Cherokee People for at least 10,000 years. However, their place names and the DNA of their remaining Native American residents tell a very different story. In fact, the “Indians of Towns County” will tell you that they are not Cherokees immediately . . . but this author seems to be the only person outside the county, who knows they exist.

Virtual reality image above: The large town on the Hiwassee River in Towns County, GA was called Etula by the Creeks, Etowah by the Cherokees and Hightower by white frontiersman and academicians. Etula is an Itza Maya word, which means “Principal Town.” Lake Chatuge now covers the town site.

The original Cherokee name of Brasstown, NC near the NC-GA line was Itsa-yi . . .Ĭt : jzhá : yē. The Creek name for the province, whose capital was in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia, but whose population extended to the Great Smoky Mountains, was Itsapa. Their ethnic name of this population was Itsate. White frontiersmen and contemporary academicians pronounce the word, Hitchiti. The author’s ancestors were Itsate Creeks.


During the 1820s, missionaries arrived in the Hiwassee Valley from New England with a very inaccurate Cherokee dictionary.  Of course, they assumed that all the place names were Cherokee, when in fact, none of the Cherokee villages had Cherokee names.  They thought that Itza meant “brass” and so also translated the Creek towns, named Itsate, in Georgia as meaning “Brass Town.”

Horse Manure Etymology in Wikipedia:  The name, “Brasstown,” was given to several historic towns in the Cherokee region, including this one. The name resulted from confusion in translating the Cherokee name, “Itse’yĭ” (meaning ‘New Green Place’ or ‘Place of Fresh Green Grass’) with “Ûňtsaiyĭ” (meaning “brass”)

Type in “New Green Place” in a Cherokee online dictionary and you will get, “adagei -yi”.   Not even close!  

Cherokee Place NameItsa’yi means Itza (Maya) – place of.

Creek Place Name: Itsapa means Itza (Maya) – place of in both Eastern (Itsate) Creek and Itza Maya.

Ingles Supermarket in Hiawassee, GA – just before I talked to a deputy.

Returning to a world, inhabited by sane people

Hiwassee, GA – Early June, 2010 – Crossing into Towns County, GA from North Carolina was like crossing from Russia to Norway.  Suddenly, the local law enforcement officers and US Forest Service Rangers were friendly, easy-going and service-oriented.  I waved down a deputy in the Hiawassee, GA Ingles Supermarket parking lot to ask if he knew of any camp sites, where my friendly dogs could be off a leash, except when other dogs were nearby.  

The sheriff’s car rolled into the parking lot a minute later.  He wanted to pet my dogs!  He said that growing up, he dearly loved a dog, named Shep, who looked just like my dogs.  The sheriff told me the perfect place to camp with my dogs.  It was also close to an Indian mound, he said.

The conversation shifted to Native American archaeological sites.  The deputies told me of several places where there were mounds or stone ruins.  All the law enforcement officers agreed that it would be good for tourism, if the sites were identified with signs and put on the Chamber of Commerce tourist map.

Had I been living in the Twilight Zone during the previous six months?  The difference that a state boundary made was surreal.

The Brasstown Creek Valley near Young Harris, GA

Brasstown, North Carolina

I couldn’t stand the harassment in North Carolina any further, but I had not finished my study of the Hiwassee River Basin.  The Hiwassee River begins on the north crest of Unicoi Gap in Georgia.  The Chattahoochee River begins on its south crest. The river then rushes down a steep-walled, narrow, but  fertile valley, where there are several known Native American town sites.  It then slows down and forms a wide flood plain with some of the most fertile soil in the Southern Appalachians.

In particular, I wanted see the broad, fertile bottomlands just downstream from the Lake Chatuge Dam, plus the floodplain of Brasstown Creek, which was a major tributary of the Hiwassee.   This area received some attention from professional archaeologists in the 1990s, because it contains several mounds.  The largest remaining mound is actually in the heart of Young Harris, GA . . . only about five miles from Track Rock Gap.   

Brasstown is an unincorporated community located mostly within Clay County, North Carolina, United States, though roughly one third of Brasstown is within the adjacent Cherokee County. Its population was about 2,200 in 2010, but its population began declining rapidly after the Cherokee’s Valley River Casino was completed a few miles away in 2015.  It is now about 1,260. 

The populations of the nearby towns of Murphy, NC and Andrews, NC have also declined significantly in the past seven years. The primary cause is that family-based and young adult tourism have declined in that region in response to the influx of gamblers and drug dealers.  The folk art market has declined catastrophically, since I was in my 20s and early 30s, living in Asheville, NC.  Once the principal customers for folk art stopped vacationing in the region around Brasstown, resident artists were forced to move to more prosperous urban areas, where they could get jobs to support their love of art.

The John C. Campbell Folk School, dedicated to preserving and encouraging the folk arts of the Appalachian Mountains, is located in Brasstown. Prior to his death in 1917,  Campbell was President of Piedmont College in Habersham County, GA.  The school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The land for the Folk School was donated by Fred O. Scroggs, whom wanted to preserve the folk teachings of mountain culture.

Location of a former town site and mound in Brasstown, NC.
Fertile floodplain of the Hiwassee River near Brasstown, NC

No earthen or stone ruins were visible in the vicinity of Brasstown.  All of its modest mounds had been leveled by farmers’ plows, grave robbers or archaeologists.  However, the broad, fertile bottomlands of the Hiwassee River and Brasstown Creek were obviously an ideal place for Native American farmers to live.  I instantly recognized that Itsa-yi meant that Itza Mayas had once lived there, but assumed at the time that they were a band of refugees from southeast Georgia, who had fled the persecution of Spanish invaders.

The Towns County Sheriff directed me to a primitive camping area on Hightower Creek, where archaeologist Arthur Kelly had excavated a large Proto-Creek townsite in the 1950s. Our camp was adjacent to a large meadow, maintained by the US Forest Service as a foraging location for deer, turkeys, mountain grouse and raptor birds. The Three Canine Musketeers never had so much fun!

The Native Americans of Towns County

After eating supper at the campsite on Hightower Creek, I drove into Hiawassee to restock my cooler for breakfast fixings.   Ingles Supermarket was closed early for some remodeling, so I went to a nearby independent IGA supermarket.  There were very few customers there so I was able to chat some with the two young ladies at the checkout counter.  The history of the Southern Highlands was going to be changed as a result.

The two young ladies looked at a distance like the women in our family or Florida Seminoles.  Actually, they also looked just like the Highland Maya women in eastern Chiapas State . . . gracile and very pretty.  While waiting behind the next to last customer I heard them speaking with a Southern accent, so I assumed that they were Florida Seminole college students, working in the mountains for the summer.

They were friendly with me so I asked them immediately if they were Florida Seminoles, since I was a Georgia Creek and they reminded me of my female cousins.  The one working the cash register responded, “No, but we are NOT Cherokees, despite what the government people tell us. We’re Towns County Indians.” She added that in college, she had met Georgia Creeks and Florida Seminoles, and got along with them real well.  They had talked among themselves and wondered if they were really Creek Indians, even though the federal government said that they were Cherokees.

The other girl spoke up.  “Some of us did get membership in the North Carolina Cherokee tribe, but we are nothing like them. We have been here a long time before the Cherokees showed up.  My older brother married a gal from Qualla (main Cherokee reservation).  We couldn’t get along with her at all.  She would just go into a rage for no reason . . . like she had demons in her.   Thank God, he finally divorced her and moved to Atlanta.  He met a really nice Indian girl from Louisiana.  We really like her. She has a personality just like our family and is a hard worker.  They have a garden growing in their back yard, even though they live in the suburbs!”

Underwater location of a large Proto-Creek town under Lake Chatuge near Downtown Hiwassee

They had finished with my groceries and probably wanted to close down the store to go home.  So, I couldn’t ask anymore questions.  I had a lot of questions.   

I had run into a family of full-blooded Native Americans five years earlier, deep within the rugged mountains of southern Towns County.  That was back before it was so dangerous for me to take long hikes with my dogs.  The man was quite hostile to me and got especially angry when I insulted him by asking if he was a Cherokee.

The full-blooded Towns County Indian family lived in complete isolation from modern civilization. They were connected by a narrow wagon trail to a narrow, rarely graveled US Forest Service “Jeep Trail.” The only vehicle that I saw was an old “mule” wagon. A mule and a horse were in the pasture. There were no electrical or telephone lines. I was not invited inside, so I don’t know if they heated/cooked with a wood stove or a fireplace. I had a strong suspicion that the kids did not attend school anywhere . . . hence the reason that the father was so hostile to strangers.

Their cousins . . . the Highland Mayas

The Tamatly Cherokees of North Carolina and the Hiwassee Indians of Towns County, GA strongly resemble the Highland Mayas of eastern Chiapas, who speak a dialect of Itza. The physical appearance of the women in these tribes is quite different than most Cherokees on the Qualla Reservation.  The women are gracile, medium height with oriental faces and a widows’ peak like most Creek women.  Most Algonquian and Cherokee women have a recessive hair line on their forehead.

Highland Maya teacher

While visiting a FLN guerilla training camp in eastern Chiapas, under the ruse of being a reporter for the Great Speckled Bird Newspaper, I was assigned a recent college graduate in Education from the University of Tabasco as my 24 hr. companion. We got along well, because I was completely sympathetic with the Maya’s complaints and her same age. She was very much opposed to the practice then of Maya girls marrying before age 18.

The cashier at the IGA supermarket in Hiwassee strongly resembled her.  My FLN companion was teaching rural Maya young people English and Maya history, so they could get lucrative jobs as tour guides. She was NOT a guerilla soldier.

The FLN was populist and friendly with the United States and Canada. It is not Marxist, and in fact, its leadership is hostile to the Cuban Marxist regime. The FLN is now known as the Zapatistas.  They control much of eastern Chiapas and have good relations with the current President of Mexico.

Fast forward to 2012

The answers would come in 2012, when I began receiving letters to my column in the Examiner about the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  They were coming from the Native Americans of Towns County, GA, Clay County, NC and the Andrews Valley area of Cherokee, NC.   They were quite angry that bureaucrats in the Cherokee tribal offices in Qualla had taken sides with the US Forest Service bureaucrats in Gainesville, GA.  The federally-funded propaganda programs was called “Maya Myth Busting In the Mountains.” The Tamatly Cherokees in Clay County were especially angry when I wrote back that Tamatli is a Northern Chontal Maya word meaning, “traders.”

You see, all of the people had received DNA test reports saying that they had NO Cherokee ancestry.  All of their Native American indigenous DNA was southern Mesoamerican . . . Peruvian (Arawak or Panoan)  . . . or a combination of southern Mesoamerican and Peruvian.  The latter is exactly what my mother’s family carries.  Although, I now realize that the Sami, Finnish, Karelian and Basque DNA is actually Uchee ancestry.

However, in June 2010, I was full year away from stumbling upon the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  For now, I was keeping a daily journal of everything that I experienced, while homeless in an Appalachian Wilderness . . . just like exactly 40 years earlier, when I had been on a fellowship in Mexico.

The following is a collection of my favorite photographs that were that I took while camping across the Southern Appalachians in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.


  1. Like Nana would say, Was den freek? According to Nana, her ani Tsilaki (our word for Cherokee) ancestors came east from the Rockies MAY have reached the Midwest 5,000 years ago, but she doubted it. Shawnee, yes. I heard stories of Mound builders and a war with them. that would have been over 2,000 years ago. It was there that Cherokee had a civil war with the rest of the Iroquois hord and fled south, along the Mississippi and then were forced east by the Peoples in the area. One thing teachers (American Indian but registered as white or black) tried to teach me was, keep shut the mouth! You do not talk injun in an uber liberal hellhole like Penna or as Arizona once was. I didn’t listen and have the scars to prove it. niio


  2. Have you seen the articles on the building of Carters dam? They have the history all wrong.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone


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