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Rare map shows Itza Maya town names in Southern Appalachian passes

The Otto Mounds site controlled a key trade route.
The Otto Mounds site controlled a key trade route.
Richard Thornton

Information from a rare 1721 map at the Yale University Library reinforces evidence that Itza and Chontal Maya traders established towns in mountain gaps and river confluences along Southern Appalachian Mountain trade routes. This is exactly how the Itza and Chontal Mayas established trade supremacy in Mesoamerica.

Although considered barbarians by the Classic Period Maya urbanites because they were illiterate, the Itza and Chontal Mayas of Tabasco and Chiapas in southern Mexico steadily expanded the geographical territory of their trading system into much of Mesoamerica. They eventually dominated trade throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Basin. When the large Maya city states evaporated between 800 AD and 1000 AD, the Itza and Chontal Mayas persevered. The linguistic evidence suggests that they looked for new markets elsewhere, including eastern North America.

Itsate Gap

Clayton, GA is located in extreme northeast Georgia near the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River. It is best known for the Fox Fire Tales book series and the movie,” Deliverance.” Some of the most fertile land in the Appalachians is located in the floodplain of this river between Clayton and the North Carolina line. This was also the location of an extremely important trade route that linked the South Atlantic Coast with the Tennessee Valley and Midwest.

Along the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River are a cluster of Native American town sites with mounds. Most of the mound and town sites are within Georgia, but some are in Macon County, NC, whose principal town is Franklin. They compose the traditional homeland of the Coweta Creeks, who by the 1730s had established dominance over the Creek Confederacy.

The real name of the Coweta was Kowi-te, which means “Mountain Lion People.” The “te” Maya suffix for people indicates that they spoke a language that mixed Muskogean and Itza Maya words. Memory of their presence in the North Carolina Mountains survives with the town name of Cowee and the Coweeta Mound in Macon County.

The original name of the mountain gap where the Coweta mother towns developed was Itsate Pass, pronounced ĭt : jzhă : tē. It is now known as Rabun Gap. It is a constricted, but gently sloped path through the Blue Ridge Mountains. A Native American canoe launched into the Little Tennessee River near Clayton could have been paddled all the way to Cahokia and beyond.

English-speaking frontiersmen Anglicized the word Itsate to Etchaty because there was no equivalent sound in English to the “jzha” sound of the Maya and Creeks languages. Since North Carolina archaeologists, who focus on the Historical Period Cherokees are not particularly knowledgeable of either Maya or Creek Indian Culture, they interpreted Coweta, Itsate and Etchaty as being “ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings had been lost.”

It is common knowledge that the Historical Period Cherokees called the region around Brasstown Bald Mountain and Track Rock Gap, Itsayi. Earlier, Creek Indians called the region, Itsapa. Both words mean “Place of the Itza,” but again, North Carolina archaeologists assumed that they were ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings had been lost. Itsayi is the only Maya root word that appears on the majority of 18th century British maps that describe the Southern Appalachians.

This ancient province has received very little study from either Georgia or North Carolina archaeologists. Most Georgia archaeologists have shown minimal interest in the mountains even though the famous archaeologist, Robert Wauchope, chronicled phenomenal archaeological resources in that region during his 1939 and 1940 survey of the region.

William Bartram visited this area in 1776. He stayed in a village that he called Echoee. It was in North Carolina, but directly adjacent to the Georgia line. The Cherokees had erected a council house on top of its largest mound. Today, this archaeological zone is known as the Otto Mounds Site. Only one large mound is visible from the nearby country lane, but others can be seen in satellite images.

During the late 20th century the Otto Mounds site was briefly surveyed during part of one day by a state archaeologist based in Asheville, NC. By digging test pits, she found artifacts that indicated that the town had been occupied at least from around 200 AD to 1600 AD; then again by Cherokees in the 1700s. There was Hopewell pottery from Ohio and Swift Creek pottery from northern Georgia. She also found a complete range of the pottery styles that Robert Wauchope associated with the Proto-Creek Etowah Mounds Culture of northern Georgia, but instead labeled them proto-Cherokee, apparently because the town site was immediately inside the boundaries of North Carolina.

There is something very special about the site plan of this ancient town on the Little Tennessee River. The main mound is five sided like the big mound at Etowah. The Otto Mound and its rectangular plaza are a mirror image of the five sided mound and plaza at Etowah, but approximately 1/10th the size. Both architectural monuments are aligned to the Winter Solstice sunset, which was the beginning of the Maya solar year. It is the same shape and size as several five sided mounds along the Chattahoochee River in the vicinity of Columbus, GA. The Middle Chattahoochee River Basin was where the Coweta Creeks concentrated in the 1700s.

The 1721 Hamerton Map

In 1721 cartographer William Hamerton hand-drew a detailed map of southeastern North America based on a manuscript by South Carolinian John Barwell. It is the first British map to use the word “Charakee” although a 1717 map by Frenchman Guilliame Delisle introduced the tribe’s name as “Charaqui.” The map provides names of hundreds of Native American towns throughout the lower Southeast. By the time that the next map of the Cherokee Nation was printed, several of the Cherokee villages with Maya names had disappeared or their names had been changed to Cherokee language words.

Unfortunately, this special map was never lithographed for mass printing. Yale University Library owns the original hand drawn map. A digital copy can be downloaded from the library web site.

The names of many smaller Native towns on the Hamerton Map are blurred on the standard download version. However, the Yale Library provided the People of One Fire researchers with a high resolution version in which all names are legible. This version can now be read on the Access Genealogy website.

There were many surprises when researchers viewed the details of the Hamerton map. Towns named Itsate or with Itsa as a root popped up all along the Little Tennessee River and in key mountain gaps in Georgia. Hamerton, the cartographer of this map, wrote the Muskogean-Maya “s” sound as a “tch”, but the connection was obvious. In addition to the area around Brasstown Bald Mountain, the map labeled the Cherokee province around the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, Etchayi (Itsayi. Itsate was also the name of a large town in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley, which is on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. (See link below.)

The Hamertown map also displayed several village names along the Little Tennessee River between Rabun Gap and the Tennessee River that were obviously Itza Maya words. Chiaha means “Salvia River” or possibly “Salvia Lord” in Itza Maya. Chichiwe means “Dog People.” Talula means “small town” in both Itsate Creek and Itza Maya.

The town that William Bartram visited was labeled Itchoe on Hamerton’s map. The Itza Mayas added an “e” prefix or suffix to a town name to indicate that it was especially important. “E” was added to the front of their word for town, tula, to name the large town that we today we call Etowah Mounds. Some Cherokees continued this tradition. The principal town of Itsao became known as Itsaoe. Bartram called it Echoee.

A pattern emerges

The Cherokee towns with Maya names were located in North Carolina and Georgia counties in which the 2102 People of One Fire DNA study found substantial Maya DNA among test subjects of presumed Cherokee descent. This region was known as the Valley Cherokees. (See link below.) These Valley Cherokees had very different genetic profiles than those Eastern Band of Cherokees members living on the Qualla Reservation. The reservation is being surveyed by DNA Consultants, Inc. In addition to Maya DNA, Cherokees in Towns County, GA also carried substantial levels of South American DNA. Interestingly enough, the Towns County, GA “Cherokees” also carried much higher percentages of Asiatic (Native American) DNA than the Cherokees surveyed on the Qualla Reservation.

The province of Itsapa was defined on all sides by tall mountains and interlaced by improved paths. According to Creek tradition, a wide trail, paved with shells and white stones and known as the Great White Path, was constructed along a route that is now the US 129 Highway. It ran from the Creek town of Talasee on the Little Tennessee River and Great Smoky Mountains in Graham County, NC through present day Murphy, NC and Track Rock Gap, GA through Neels Gap and Dahlonega, GA to the head of canoe navigation of the Oconee River in present day Athens, GA. Talasee or Talassee is now a common place name in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

At every one of the gaps in these high mountains there are Early Mississippian town sites with either five sided or truncated mounds. (See link below.) A town named Itsate with the massive, five-sided Kenimer Mound guarded the eastern entrance to the Nacoochee Valley, while Nokoshe guarded the west. Itsapo was where Helen, GA now sits, guarding the Unicoi Gap, which was where both the Chattahoochee and Hiwassee Rivers had their sources. There was a large town at the base of Andrews Gap in Cherokee County, NC and another town with Tallula mound guarding the other side of the gap in Graham County, NC. Tali guarded the Little Tennessee River Gorge through the Unaka Mountains. Chiaha was on an island in the Little Tennessee at the mouth of Nantahala Gorge. A town with mounds of unknown name was situated on Cane Creek in Lumpkin County, GA where it flowed out of Neels Gap.

Regional organization of town locations and maintenance of regional trade routes is strong evidence that the indigenous people of the Southern Appalachians were led by a political structure that was substantially more sophisticated than typical of what anthropology labels “chiefdoms.” Many Southeastern tribes have a tradition that immigrants from the south introduced this political sophistication. They were called “sun lords” . . . hene ahau in Itza Maya. The official title of the Second Chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation is henehau (henehv). There must be a connection.

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