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Apalache, the lost kingdom in Northeast Georgia

The Apalache elite once gazed across stone walls that are now concealed by trees.
The Apalache elite once gazed across stone walls that are now concealed by trees.
Engraving for Charles de Rochefort's book ~ Photo - Richard Thornton

Sources of Fort Caroline’s “red gold” and “brass-like copper” are found near Dahlonega, GA. Apalache elite wore brightly colored clothing in 1653 that were almost identical to traditional Seminole clothing in Florida today. The Georgia Mountain’s fabled “cities of gold” were created by applying mica flakes to gold colored clay plaster.

Native American researchers, working with local historic preservationists, the GIS Department of Jackson County, Georgia’s government and a student at the Institute for Environmental and Spatial Analysis at the University of North Georgia, have identified several complexes of pre-European stone structures along the headwaters of the Oconee River, Apalachee River and their tributaries. For the past 130 years the region has been generally ignored by the archaeology profession, apparently because it did not contain any large earthen mounds. The Highland Apalache People were generally not mound builders, but builders with stone.

Very soon after beginning their surveys of the Florida Peninsula in the early 1500s, Spanish explorers began hearing stories of a powerful indigenous people called the Apalache, who lived to the north in the midst of a landscape containing much gold. The Florida natives said that the Apalache buildings were coated in gold. This story sparked a legend among Spaniards of the Seven Cities of Gold in North America’s interior.

In 1528 Pánfilo de Narváez led an expedition northward from Tampa Bay in search of this kingdom. His expedition marched about 200 miles and encountered a Native people, who were more sophisticated than those around Tampa Bay, but saw little or no gold.

In 1538 the expedition of Hernando de Soto also started out near Tampa Bay, but followed a route into the north-central part of Florida. The small army then turned west and soon encountered a village named Apalache or Apalachen. He saw no gold. The Spaniards spent the winter in the capital of this province, which was called Anhaica. Prior to departing Anhaica, the de Soto asked the locals where there was a province with much gold. They told him that a city called Yupaha, about 2-3 weeks march to the north in the mountains, had much gold.

De Soto headed north about half that distance then turned eastward toward the town of Kofitachiki. The reader never hears more about either Apalache or Yupaha.

There is something very odd about Spanish maps after the de Soto Expedition. The 1562 Diego Guttierrez map of the Americas shows both the Chattahoochee River and the Suwannee River. The source of the Chattahoochee River is in the mountains. Immediately above the source of this river is the word Apalachen. The Suwannee River is correctly shown to flow from the interior of present day southern Georgia into the Gulf of Mexico, north of Tampa Bay. There obviously was an expedition up the Chattahoochee and Suwannee Rivers, whose record is missing from the Spanish Colonial Archives.

Shortly after starting construction on Fort Caroline near the mouth of the May River in 1564, its commander, René de Laudonnière, was told by a local native king, that the Kingdom of Apalache had an abundance of gold in its land. He was shown gold chains and gold foil fabricated there. De Laudonnière was informed that to reach Apalache, he must paddle up the May River in a northwestward direction to Lake Tama, then northward to the head of navigation of the river, which was near the mountains. The gold fields were a two days walk from that point.

There was a tribe about 21 miles upstream from Fort Caroline, named the Thamagogan. By the mid-1700s that same tribe was located in present day Jackson County, GA, near the source of the Oconee River, a major tributary of the Altamaha. It became the original name of Jefferson, GA, the county seat of Jackson. This is one of the many details of De Laudonnière’s memoir that clearly places Fort Caroline on Georgia’s Altamaha River. There were no Thamagogans, mountains or gold deposits in Florida.

De Laudonnière dispatched a small expedition to visit the Kingdom of Apalache. They returned several weeks later with what De Laudonnière reported to be yellow gold, red gold, brass-like copper, a little silver and crystals. They described the Apalache people as being very advanced culturally and desirous of a trade relationship with the French. The Frenchmen were enchanted by a beautiful waterfall and a small lake at the head of the river’s navigable waters. This waterfall was dutifully drawn on European maps for about a century then disappeared.

In his memoir, de Laudonnière claimed to have named the Appalachian Mountains after his new allies, the Apalache. However, because of the 1562 Guttierez map, it is obvious that the Spanish first named them.

De Laudonnière postponed making a personal trip up the May River to the source of its tributary, the Oconee River, because of a mutiny. He planned to establish the capital of New France at the head of navigation on the Oconee as soon as Captain Jean Ribault arrived with 600 more colonists. Instead, when Ribault arrived, De Laudonnière was relieved of his command. A few days later, most of the French colonists either died in ship wrecks during a hurricane or were killed by a Spanish army under the command of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

Almost a century later, French Huguenot ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, described a small English expedition into the Georgia Mountains during 1653. De Rochefort provided extensive details about the Apalache People of northern Georgia. The gold-like appearance of Apalache buildings was achieved by applying mica flakes to gold-colored clay plaster.

De Rochefort's detailed description of their houses and timber palisades were confirmed by late 20th century archaeologists. His description of the bright colored clothing of the Apalache seemed identical to traditional clothing of the Seminoles in Florida. However, his description of agricultural terraces and public buildings built of field stones seemed implausible to 19th and 20th century historians. Anthropologists "knew for a fact" that Southeastern Indians didn’t have cloth until it was introduced by European traders. De Rochefort’s long forgotten book now sits in the “Fantasies and Utopians” bin of the Brown University Library.

The ruins of stone structures like de Rochefort described have been found now at eight archaeological zones in northeast Georgia by the People of One Fire. Several were documented by Archaeologist Robert Wauchope in 1939 then completely ignored by subsequent generations of Georgia archaeologists.

The town of Apalache continued to be shown on English, French and Spanish maps to be in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley until the end of the Queen Anne’s War in 1607. Late 20th century anthropologists assumed that de Laudonnière’s and de Rochefort’s descriptions of Apalache were fantasies, and so excluded that culture from the description of the region’s Native American heritage.

For unknown reasons, all of Georgia’s archaeologists over the past 75 years have ignored Jackson County. In 1939, Robert Wauchope carried out a thorough archaeological survey of northern Georgia, except that he skipped Jackson County. The omission is even more inexplicable because some of Jackson County’s stone ruins are only 6 miles from the University of Georgia. Wauchope was the first archaeology professor at this university.

Collaboration with geography and geology

The sources of the Oconee River, a major tributary of the Altamaha River, are in the eastern suburbs of Gainesville, GA. The possibility of canoe navigation on the Oconee River abruptly ends in Jackson County, GA at the foot of a mile and half long series of waterfalls, shoals and rapids. The tallest waterfall was the one remembered by the French explorers in 1564.

US Highway 129 now follows the route of an ancient Native American trail that connected the shoals with Dahlonega, GA – the center of Georgia’s Gold Rush. The distance is 30 miles. The distance between the head of navigation and Auraria, GA, a major center of gold mining is 24 miles. That would be an easy two day walk for the French explorers.

Academicians have long scoffed at de Laudonnière’s description of “red gold” and copper in the Georgia Mountains. The joke is on the professors. The staff of the state-operated Dahlonega Gold Museum was asked if there was such a thing as “red gold.” Julia Autrey, a curator there, smiled and said, “Of course, there is yellow gold, red gold and silver gold. We have yellow gold around here. You can find the red gold around Gainesville and some other places. It has a trace of zinc in it.”

The staff at the museum provided another surprise. Just north of Dahlonega is a large, now-abandoned copper mine. It produced some of the strongest copper ever found in North America. Traces of zinc and gold in the copper made it look and perform like brass. Georgia archaeologists seem to be totally unaware that brass-like copper nodules were found on the surface by Indians living near Dahlonega.

The Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville, GA was queried about the presence of “red gold” mines in their county. None of the staff members were familiar with the term, “red gold” but one employee remembered that back in 1961 a bulldozer fell into an ancient gold mine at a shopping center construction site on South Enota Drive. The mine still had gold nuggets in its walls. It appeared to have been hand dug and looked much more primitive than even early 19th century mines. Rumors spread that it was a “secret Cherokee Indian mine.” However, very few Cherokees ever lived near Gainesville and then it was only for about three decades. Supposedly the Cherokees were not interested in gold.

Collaboration with archaeology

For about two years, Watkinsville, GA historic preservationist, Mac Jones, has attempted to get anthropology professors at the nearby University of Georgia interested in the many stone ruins in Jackson County. The last time he was rebuffed because the professor “did not want to be linked to the Mayas in Georgia thing.” He then contacted the People of One Fire. A team from that organization surveyed the Sandy Creek Terrace Complex in southern Jackson County in February 2013. They have continued to intermittently study other sites in the county.

On March 8, 2014 a team of POOF Creek Indian researchers from Florida, Georgia and Texas studied a massive archaeological zone adjacent to the head of navigation of the Oconee River. It is dominated by a large hilltop terrace that is very similar in size and shape to the Old Stone Fort Woodland Period enclosure in Manchester, TN. However, the Jackson County site has many more stone structures than the one in Tennessee.

The man-made features at the Oconee River site include a pre-European Era stone quarry, rectangular stone foundations of buildings, stone mounds, small earthen mounds, a U-shaped earthen structure that looks like a small ball court, stone cairns, stone altars, stone steps and the ancient stone walls of a agricultural terrace complex. All man-made features were mapped. Each man-made feature was measured for latitude, longitude and altitude. This information will be provided to archaeologists when funds are obtained to thoroughly investigate the archaeological zone.

There are four other known stone structure archaeological zones in Jackson County, which have not been surveyed. County officials have requested that because of the highly significant structures found on the March 8 survey, no information be released to the public about the archaeological zone’s specific location. It can be stated with confidence, though, that before the arrival of European settlers, Jackson County contained a very dense and culturally sophisticated indigenous population.

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