Native American oral history generally cannot be interpreted verbatim. The stories have been passed down generation to generation by too many mouths. Details have been left out. Elaborations have been added. Nevertheless, these legends most likely originated with factual events that made a profound impression of those Native peoples, who eye-witnessed them.
The aftermath of this story could have easily been a novel written by Asheville, North Carolina’s favorite son, Thomas Wolfe. The author of “Look Homeward Angel” was fond of writing about that element of the Southern Highland’s population, who repeatedly created bizarre “tempests out of teapots.” Their frenetic actions, inflated far out of proportion to the original event, inevitably collapsed into nervous breakdowns.
A great capital on a high mountain
One of the better known Cherokee legends passed on to European settlers, was the “Legend of the Ruby-Eyed Serpent Idol.” It was about a great town on the side of a high mountain in Georgia, which the Cherokees claim to have destroyed. The last few paragraphs of the “Migration Legend of the Creek Indians” also mention this great town, but in this version, the Creek Indians took credit for destroying an enemy capital that was on the side of Georgia’s highest mountain.
The Native peoples of northern Florida called this great town, Yupaha, when they were visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition during the winter of 1539-1540. The town evidently still dominated the Southern Highlands during the 1560s through the early 1580s. Occupants from the Spanish colony of Santa Elena in present day South Carolina called it “Grande Copal” and dispatched several trading expeditions to there. It was the capital of an advanced Native culture in the midst of the Georgia gold fields. The people of this province were called Apalache by 16th century Spanish and French chronicles. The Appalachian Mountains were named after them.
According to Cherokee oral tradition there was once a long, three way war between the Cherokee, Shawnee and the Creek Indians. It was triggered by the Cherokees pushing southward into the traditional territories of the Shawnees and Creeks in the Southern Highlands. The Creeks were consistently able to block Cherokee expansion because their capital was on the side of a high mountain in Georgia that could not be captured. The Creeks also had magical powers given to them by a serpent idol with ruby eye inside a great temple near the top of their capital.
Certain aspects of the initial premise of the Cherokee legend could not possibly be true. The original capital of the Creek Confederacy was at Achese in central Georgia. The ruins of Achese are within the boundaries of Ocmulgee National Monument, next to Macon, GA. Its Great Spiral Mound was featured in the premier of the History Channel’s “Unearthing America.”
In 1715 the Creek capital was moved to the town of Koweta, near present day Carrollton, GA in the western part of the state. In 1825 the capital was moved to Kaweta in Russell County, AL across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, GA. None of the capitals were in the mountains or ever captured by anyone. Furthermore, the Creeks did not worship idols. They were monotheistic. However, the Itza Mayas are well known for their worship of a serpent god.
In this Cherokee legend, a Shawnee shaman decided to end the three-way stalemate by giving important intelligence to a Cherokee chief in return for a secret peace treaty between the Shawnees and Cherokees. He told the Cherokee chief about a path that led down to the great temple in the Creek capital. He promised the Cherokees that if they gained possession of the rubies in the serpent idol, they would become invincible.
Two brave Cherokee warriors slipped inside the Creek’s territory, only traveling at night. They climbed the high mountain then sneaked inside the temple and stole the ruby eyes of the serpent idol. The rubies were then hid inside a cave near the Tuckasegee River in North Carolina.
Now invincible, the Cherokees attacked the great city on a mountain and destroyed it. They quickly conquered their Creek enemies, then their Shawnee enemies, despite the previous agreement. Because their possession of the ruby eyes, the Cherokees have always been victorious in battle ever since then. Actually, in 1754 the Cherokee Nation was defeated catastrophically by the army from just one Creek town, Koweta, at the end of the 40 year long Cherokee-Creek War. However, the ruby eyed serpent story probably did make a great inspirational story to be told around campfires the night before young Cherokee warriors were headed into their first battle.
History comes to haunt the present
Although the Chattahoochee National Forest dates back to 1911, the U.S. Forest Service has made no effort to protect or preserve the probable site of the great town on the side of the mountain, where the ruby eyed serpent idol once perched. Logging activities during the mid-20th century severely damaged many of its lower stone terrace walls.
This inattention came to a screeching halt in the spring of 2012 after a book was published on the Track Rock archaeological zone. After allowing a film company based in Asheville to film the site as a segment on haunted places, aired by the Travel Channel, film companies working for the History Channel and National Geographic Channel were refused permits to access the site. The denial stated that the agricultural terraces were burial monuments for great Cherokee warriors. The USFS said that Cherokee leaders did not want the public to take photographs of their sacred site. Track Rock Gap was in Upper Creek Indian territory until 1785.
On December 19, 2012 the Gainesville, GA office of the U.S. Forest Service invited Cultural Resource Planners from the Eastern Band of Cherokees and the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma to a conference to discuss the “Mayas In America” controversy, three days before the airing of “America Unearthed.”
The interpretation of the Track Rock site was led by two archaeologists of Germanic heritage, who are not from the Southeastern United States. USFS staff archaeologist James Wettstaed recently came to the Gainesville, GA office after working for 18 years in Missouri and Montana. Former South African, Johannes Loubser, is of Dutch Boer ancestry and is an expert on African petroglyphic art. Neither archaeologist has a background in Southeastern Native American or Mesoamerican architecture. Loubser admits that he has never been in Mexico.
The small group of Native American tribal bureaucrats was driven to a small parking lot about 500 feet from the lower end of the ruins, but did not see the ruins. The actual research done by Native American professors and professionals over the past ten years was not discussed. It was vaguely referred to as attempts by unqualified Whites to fabricate Native American history. The irony that the USFS presenters were Caucasians with no educational background in Southeastern and Mesoamerican architecture or professional experience in Maya terrace complexes, did not seem to dawn on the attendees. The Native Americans were filmed, standing in front of the Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone sign then driven back to the USFS office in Gainesville, GA.
The original USFS story about the Track Rock ruins being the burial monuments of great Cherokee warriors was not told to the Oklahoma Creeks. A version of this myth, discussed by Loubser in his 2001 report, was that the agricultural terraces were the burials of thousands of Creek warriors killed when Cherokees conquered Georgia. That never happened and certainly was not told to the Oklahoma Creeks. No mention either was made by the USFS personnel that both the Cherokees and Creeks have an oral history of another people occupying a great town on the side of Georgia’s highest mountain.
At the end of the day, five Native American tribal employees signed a USFS-prepared statement. Its major elements were that (1) the half square mile of stone ruins was not a town. (2) Native Americans are resentful of non-Native Americans repeated attempts to make appear that non-Native Americans were responsible for Native American cultural achievements. (3) Maya refugees did not migrate to Georgia. (4) The ancestors of the Cherokee and Creek Indians built the stone structures at Track Rock Gap.
USFS bureaucrats in Georgia paid for archaeologist Loubser’s presence and created an online video entitled “Maya Myth Busting In the Georgia Mountains.” This unbudgeted expenditure was done at the same time that their boss in Washington, DC, Tom Tidwell, is demanding a $100 million reduction in operating costs. The video features USFS, Cherokee and Creek bureaucrats standing in front of the Track Rock Archaeological Zone sign.
After a century of neglecting the half-mile square mileTrack Rock terrace complex, the USFS bureaucrats in Georgia describe themselves as being in a partnership with Native Americans everywhere to protect and preserve our nation’s archaeological resources. There appears to be some federal bureaucrats, who, indeed, seem destined for a Thomas Wolfean breakdown, if not already there.
At this point, many readers are probably wondering why the USFS bureaucrats are still spending taxpayers money on a cause that had no relevance to their job descriptions. Conventional wisdom is for bureaucrats in such situations to tuck tail and run to the nearest gopher hole. The answer is that this writer discovered in 2010, while camping in the North Carolina national forests, that some USFS employees (including law enforcement officers) helped conceal Olympic Games bomber, Eric Rudolf, while there was a $138 million FBI manhunt for him. The purpose was to make it appear that constitutional democracy is incapable of controlling terrorists. See the "Fires Creek" articles below, which were written from county library computers, while the author was homeless. Those readers who wish to ask Richard Thornton questions about architecture, urban planning or Native American history may email him at Native Question@aol.com .