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Rare 1715 map reveals French fort in East Tennessee

A French presence in eastern Tennessee was completely left out of the history books.
A French presence in eastern Tennessee was completely left out of the history books.
Richard Beresford, Richard Thornton, Wikipedia

A Smithsonian Institute archaeologist probably found the fort’s remains, but they were later interpreted by other archaeologists as a garbage dump. This map significantly changes the history of the Yamasee War (1715-1717.)

During the late 1600s and early 1700s French cartographers produced maps of North America that showed an island in the Upper Tennessee River on which was the standard European icon for a fort. What few Tennessee historians and archaeologists, who noticed that symbol, probably presumed that it was the symbol for Native American village.

There were no words similar to Cherokee on these maps. Downstream was the word Hogelogee, which was a branch of the Yuchi People. Upstream from this island were town names mentioned by the chroniclers of the de Soto Expedition such as Tali and Tasqui. The island was named Caskenampo. Tennessee historians assumed that this was an ancient Cherokee word whose meaning was lost, since they assumed that the Cherokees had been in Tennessee for several hundred years. It was not.

Caskenampo is a Koasati word that means, “Many warriors.” This island was probably the location of Coste, which was visited by the de Soto Expedition in July of 1540. It is now called Bussell Island.

There has always been something inexplicable about the French maps of that period. According to history books, the nearest French trading post to eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina were supposedly about 450 miles away. Nevertheless, the French knew the names of tribes and the locations of specific Native American towns on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains at a time when the British had few clues what was beyond the mountain tops. The French Broad River in Asheville, NC was named the French Broad River because the French first claimed to discover it.

Nothing but a garbage dump

In 1887 Smithsonian Institute archaeologist, J.W. Emmert, was excavating Native American mounds on Bussell Island, where the Tennessee and Little Tennessee Rivers converge. He was surprised to find what he called “a third diamond-shaped mound” superimposed on the mounds containing Native American artifacts. These are the words that he wrote in his article to the 12th Annual Report of the U. S. Bureau of Ethnology, a division of the Smithsonian Institute:

“Mound No. 2, like No. 1, is on the northern end of the island, but it differs in one very important respect from any other mound so far observed in this region. It has annexed to it a broad and extended terrace of, (Mound) A being the mound proper and B the annex or terrace. It is termed "annex," because it is evident that the mound was first completed and the terrace added afterwards, and not built up with and as a part of the mound.”

Emmert had found a diamond-shaped earthwork on the north central edge of the island that apparently was not constructed by the builders of the mounds. From north to south, it measured 570 ft. From east to west the terrace measured 384 ft.

He found European artifacts near the surface of the terrace, but cast them aside because he assumed that they belonged to the 1800s or late 1700s. Then, he examined the edge of this diamond and came upon a surprise:

“The remains of quite a number of posts were found; these had evidently been set perpendicularly in the surface of the mound when the clay stratum formed the covering. Some of these were nearly or quite 18 inches in diameter, others not more than three inches. They were all about on the same level. The upper ends of all were charred, showing that they had been burned off; hence no estimate of their original height could be made.”

The edge of the diamond was defined by lines of timber posts. The palisade wall would have been inside some of the mounds. That did not seem to be the walls of a village. Emmert found a eight feet diameter hole that had been dug through the fill dirt of the terrace. It was filled with debris, charcoal and broken pottery. It seemed quite strange that the builders of the terrace would have dumped garbage in the middle of a plaza. He was perplexed, but went on to other mounds and graves to excavate. On Bussell Island were round graves in which the bodies were buried on their side and then curved around the grave walls. This custom seemed to have been only followed in the immediate area around the island.

In the decades that followed J.W, Emmert’s work, more sophisticated archaeologists occasionally examined his brief report in Annual Report No. 12. The same booklet was the first to report the controversial Bat Creek Stone. J. W. Emmert wrote that report, but did not personally claim to find the stone. The experts decided that the entire terrace was merely alluvial soil built of by the accumulated of garbage and debris over the centuries.

Dam builders

One of the first projects planned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) after its creation in 1935 was the Fort Loudon Dam. It is located on the northwestern edge of Bussell Island. A considerable amount of soil was disturbed on the island during construction. There were some archaeological surveys in advance of the filling of its reservoir, but most of those efforts were not on Bussell Island. The project was completed in 1940. An abundance of cheap electricity spurred an industrial boom in the region.

Thirty years after the completion of the Fort Loudon Dam and eighty years after J.W. Emmert explored Bussell Island, the TVA was trying to persuade Supreme Court judges to set aside a court suit that was trying to stop construction of a second dam at Bussell Island to impound the waters of the Little Tennessee River. The suit claimed that the snail darter, a minnow living in the Little Tennessee River, would be made extinct by the dam. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the snail darter. “Snail darter” became a household word throughout the Carter Administration.

Numerous bills were submitted to Congress in an effort to get around the Endangered Species Act. In order to strengthen its “environmental” position, the TVA funded extensive archaeological studies in the proposed reservoir basin. The Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee entered its glory days as these projects were carried out. Very little attention was given Bussell Island because the mounds had long been excavated and the “terrace mound” was assumed to be a garbage midden.

In an effort to improve his popularity in Tennessee during his campaign for re-election, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that made a special exception for the second dam. Lake Tellico began filling with water in late 1979.

A long forgotten map

Marilyn Rae is a direct descendant of the last hereditary principal chief of the Cherokees, Pathkiller. She is leading a research project in the People of One Fire, which is trying to determine the true origins of the Cherokees and when they arrived in the Southern Appalachians. Recently she stumbled upon a obscure map from South Carolina that was hand drawn in 1715 by Richard Beresford, just as the Yamasee War was beginning. It is currently the oldest known map to mention the Cherokee Indians. The map appears to be a census of Native American warriors among the tribes of the Southeast and a description of the major trails that they would use to travel on.

Many of the names of the Cherokee villages listed on the Beresford Map are untranslatable in modern Cherokee. Quite a few are not even seen in a map of the Cherokee Nation made in 1725. There were two other, very big surprises on this map.

Where the French maps had shown a fort symbol on the Upper Tennessee River, WAS a French fort. The map states “French fort, scene of war.” The isle is labeled “Cusatees Island.” The Cusate were the same ethnic group that occupied the great town of Cusa in northwest Georgia, which was visited by Hernando de Soto’s Expedition in July of 1540. The chroniclers of that expedition called them the Coste. Archaeologists have always assumed that the town of Coste was on Bussell Island. The town may have been on another island in the Upper Tennessee, but Coste and Cusate are very similar words.

On that island are 150 Cusatee warriors. That was not a good match for the 700 Charakey warriors living upstream on the tributaries of the Tennessee River in what is now northeastern Tennessee. Probably, the Cusate were willing to have Frenchmen build the fort because it would provide them protection from the new Charakey Alliance.

The existence of a war between the French, their Cusate-Creek allies and the Cherokees has been completely left out of the history books. Of course, the existence of the fort has also been omitted from America’s cultural history. It explains the detailed knowledge that the French had of the Southeast’s interior. Cherokee histories claim that the Cherokees had been living on the north side of the Hiwassee River, 40 miles south of Bussell Island for a hundred years, when the Yuchi’s on the south side of the river misbehaved. In this legend, they massacred the Yuchi towns in 1714 to punish them. Obviously, the real story was something different.

Tugaloo surprise

The other big surprise on the map is 100 miles to the southeast of Bussell Island in northeast Georgia. The famous archeologist, Joseph Caldwell, excavated the massive town of Tugaloo on an island in the Tugaloo River in 1957. He found that the large Muskogean town had been burned shortly after 1700 AD and soon replaced by a small village with crude round houses. Nevertheless, the Georgia Department of Archives and History put up historical markers in the 1970s and 1980s that proclaimed Tugaloo to be Georgia’s oldest Cherokee town and that the Cherokees built the mounds.

There is another legend connected with Tugaloo that is grounded in historical fact. In late 1715, the Cherokees invited all the leaders of the “Creeks” to a diplomatic conference at the Cherokee town of Tugaloo, then murdered them in their sleep. This precipitated a 40 year long war. The story was already problematic because the word Cherokee first appeared on maps in 1715, while the word, Creek Indian, would not appear on European maps for another three decades.

Now there is an even bigger problem with the official history. The Richard Bearsford Map of 1715 labels the town of Tugaloo and the region around it as being Tohogelogee (Yuchi.) It places the nearest Cherokee village far to the north on the South Carolina-North Carolina. Now the question is, “What really happened in Tugaloo?”

One of Winston Churchill’s favorite sayings was: “The victor gets to write the history books.” Twenty-first century research is proving him right over and over again.