The planning and construction of New Echota in northwestern Georgia, was one of the most remarkable achievements of the Cherokee People. It was a true town, laid out in a gridiron pattern with public buildings, a newspaper office, stores, inns, houses, drainage ditches, an interdenominational Protestant mission, common pastures, a cemetery and camping areas for the multitude of tribal citizens, who periodically came to town to observe National Council meetings or cases at the Cherokee Supreme Court building.
The core of the town was laid out on about 100 acres of bottomland adjacent to the Oostanaula River. The site is about 35 miles southeast of Chattanooga, TN and about 65 miles north of Atlanta. New Echota was intentionally located astride an ancient trade route that interconnected the Tennessee River with the Chattahoochee River. It was about five miles west of another ancient trade route that ran along the edge of the Cohutta and Great Smoky Mountains.
The life of New Echota was tragically brief. It was constructed during the mid-1820s at the same time that Sequoya’s syllabary was being rapidly learned by the Cherokees in Georgia and bitterly opposed by the Cherokees in North Carolina. In 1824 after gold was re-discovered in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley, the state unilaterally declared the gold fields not to be within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. In 1832 the State of Georgia declared ALL of the Cherokee lands within its boundaries to be state-owned property and dispatched teams of surveyors into the Cherokee Nation to record all real estate improvements and divide the land into tracts for Caucasian homesteaders.
The State of Georgia devised a plan to make conditions for the Cherokees intolerable. Cherokees were offered a choice of either becoming citizens of Georgia or migrating to the Indian Territory – which is now the State of Oklahoma. A lottery was operated to assign 160 acre agricultural lots and 50 acre “gold” lots to citizens of the state. Those missionaries, who did not voluntarily leave the Cherokee Nation, were imprisoned. Soon settlers began arriving in the Cherokee Nation to claim tracts occupied by Cherokee families. By 1836 the Cherokee Nation was in chaos as its leaders desperately tried to stave off deportation, while more and more of its land was being occupied by Georgia citizens. The elected leaders were no longer allowed to meet in New Echota, or even in Georgia. In 1838 the remaining Cherokees were rounded up by Federal troops, imprisoned in temporary forts then dispatched out of the state two weeks later, in preparation for the march to the Indian Territory.
325 years of ethnological ignorance
The general public and most anthropologists think of the Cherokees today as a homogenous ethnic group. However, at least until the American Revolution, the Cherokee Alliance was composed of many ethnic groups with distinct heritages. For example, the first man that the British designated the “king” of the Cherokees was Attakullakulla. He was a full-blooded Erie Indian immigrant, who had risen to power because of his military skills.
The British Crown needed a Native American ally to do its dirty work in the on-going, often un-stated, wars between the colonial powers of Great Britain, France and Spain. After settling the coast of South Carolina in 1674, they found the loosely allied tribes and towns of the Carolina mountains to be more dependable military & trade partners that the ancient agricultural societies of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. The Muskogean farmers in South Carolina for unknown reasons resented their farm lands being stolen by Europeans. Through political persuasion and economic pressure, British envoys pushed the mountain peoples together and called them the Cherokees. The British appointed a “king” for the mountain alliance and called his domain, the Cherokee Nation.
However, the British were always woefully ignorant of the ethnic origins of their new allies and didn’t know much more about the lands the Cherokees occupied until the late 1750s when their allies became enemies. Thus, when a British officer recorded the name of a Tamatli leader in the Cherokee Alliance as Ostemako, he had no clue that “mako” was the Maya word for leader, and that Ostemako’s people built Maya style houses, and spoke the same language as the Tamatli-Creek Indians of southeastern Georgia.
One of the most powerful divisions of the 18th century Cherokee Alliance was the Mountain Tamatli Province. It was located in the beautiful mountain valleys between Murphy and Robbinsville, NC. The Mountain Tamatli also established villages on the Little Tennessee River.
The Tamatli’s main province was in southeastern Georgia. The Lowland Tamatli were ironically one of the founding provinces of the People of One Fire or Creek Indian Confederacy. The Tamatli’s ethnic name was Mesoamerican. Their language was a mixture of Muskogean and Itza Maya words. Charles Hicks, the brilliant Cherokee leader who guided the planning and construction of New Echota, had a Scottish father and a Tamatli mother. He had absolutely no Algonquian or Iroquoian heritage – but he definitely had Maya heritage!
The famous 19th century Cherokee family that produced leaders Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot (editor of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper) and Confederate General Stand Watie were descended from Natchez Tribe’s Bird Clan – immigrants who were allowed to settle at Pine Log, Georgia in 1730. If the Ridges had any Algonquian or Iroquoian heritage, it was minimal.
The new United States inherited Great Britain’s ethnological ignorance. However, by the end of the American Revolution, so many Cherokees had died from disease and chronic warfare that the survivors had been forced to relocate and assimilate with members of many Cherokee bands. The ethnic distinctions between the many Cherokee divisions were quickly disappearing. Two dialects of a Cherokee language were evolving into their modern forms.
Late 19th century ethnologists, and then 20th century tourism boosters created a mythical history of the Cherokees that represented them as an indigenous “master race” who were always more advanced than other native groups and therefore deserved special considerations that other Indian tribes (such as the Apache) did not deserve. Such achievements as New Echota and the Cherokee syllabary were therefore presented to the public as the natural course of events. Cherokee history has been so distorted by the fabrications of the past century that neither the general public nor the Cherokees themselves are aware of their true early history.
A good example of this widely believed fabricated history can be seen in the movie, “The Patriot.” The hero, played by Mel Gibson, reaches into a wooden trunk to retrieve his uniform and weapons from the French & Indian War. He grabs a tomahawk inscribed with the Sequoyah Cherokee syllabary. Sequoyah was not even born in 1755. A little later in the movie, a reference is made to the massacre of the French and Cherokees at Fort Loudon. Fort Loudon was a British fort, in what is now Tennessee, whose garrison was wiped out by their own Cherokee allies, after several Cherokee leaders were murdered in South Carolina.
Several hundred buildings built and occupied by the Cherokees still survive in northwestern Georgia. The author has been the Architect for the restoration of several of them. Prior to taking a tour of the surviving Cherokee buildings in and around New Echota, however, this series will provide an overview of what is known and not known about early Cherokee history. Enough of the past is known, however, to clearly show that the sudden cultural fluorescence of the Cherokees between 1817 and 1838 was truly a phenomenon of world history. In the next article of the series, we will examine the early accounts of the Cherokees in colonial archives.