It was both a massive, 450 feet diameter observatory and the most sacred shrine of the Creek People. They honored the location of where they believed God had come down to earth, lived for awhile then suddenly disappeared. The place where their visitor disappeared was marked with an 18 feet diameter mound, on top of which was the white stone statue of an extraterrestrial man looking up at the heavens.
A large portion of what was once the most sacred of all land to Native peoples is now a public park and living history village in Jackson County in northeastern Georgia. The Hurricane Shoals County Park is about 25 miles north of the University of Georgia. The North Oconee River passes through the park. Interstate 85 runs along its southern boundary. The specific location of the ceremonial circle, defined by carved stones, is probably south of the park lands. This is not known for certain, because there has never been an archeological study at Yamacutah. Many of the stones are either buried under the soil now or have been pilfered for chimney construction during the past 225 years.
Like many Native American heritage sites in eastern North America, the public’s understanding of Yamacutah’s history is a mixture of fact and frontier speculations. The Hurricane Shoals web site tells people that their park was where the Talasee Creeks believed that “the Great Spirit” came down to earth. The Talasee are said to have built a great shrine out of stones to honor Readers are told that Yamacutah means “Tumbling Shoals” while other end of the sacred ground, the location of the public park, was known as Yamatrahoochee. This word is said to mean “Hurricane Shoals.”
Local histories tell readers that the terrain around the Yamacutah shrine was a so sacred that no blood could be spilled, either from war or hunting of animals. Many state that the shrine was on the boundary of the Creek and Cherokee Nations, but that warriors avoided combat near the shrine.
Investigating a mysterious past
The basic story about the Yamacutah shrine is so phenomenal that it is probably true. However, there are many discrepancies about the details of the history being told visitors to the region today.
During the 1700s, the American Indians, who lived immediately around the Yamacutah Shrine, were not ethnic Creeks or Cherokees. They were Timucua, who originally spoke a language that originated in South America. In fact, their tribal name, Tamakoa, was the origin of the Spanish ethnic label, Timucua.
French and English speakers called the Tamakoa, the Thamacoa or Thamagua. In 1664 they lived upstream on the Altamaha River from the short-lived French colony of Fort Caroline. They spoke a similar language of several provinces in northeastern Florida, all of whom the Spanish called Timucua.
At some unknown point in time between 1565 and 1776, the Tamakoa migrated upstream on the Altamaha to the head of canoe navigation on the North Oconee River. This location had earlier been designated the future site of the Capital of New France by Captain René de Laundonnère of Fort Caroline. This new location was within the original territory of the Higland Apalache Indians.
At least in their original home, the Tamakoa practiced human sacrifice as part of their worship of their sun god. In addition to the bloody sacrifice of war captives, the first born children were killed to honor their king. This could not possibly be the same people, who worshipped at Yamacutah.
The Yamacutah Shrine is not, at least today, a tradition among the Muskogee Creeks of Oklahoma. No Oklahoma elders contacted about Yamacutah recognized the name or really knew anything about northeast Georgia. The Muskogees have been gone from western Georgia since 1827. They never lived in the northern and eastern part of the state. These regions were always the domain of Creek provinces that spoke the Itsate language, not Muskogee. Descendants of the Talasee Creeks of northeast Georgia live among the Muskogee Creeks and Seminoles today, but their original language and cultural memories have pretty much been erased by immersion into the Muskogee Creeks.
The Talasee Creeks were nowhere around when the Yamacutah shrine was built. When Hernando de Soto journeyed through the southern Appalachians, the Talasee were living along the Little Tennessee River in the Great Smoky Mountains, west of present day Fontana Lake. In fact, their capital town of Tali was visited by de Soto. The Talasee did not move down into northeastern Georgia until the early 1700s.
It is a very similar situation with the Cherokees. The Cherokees did not appear in the northeastern tip of Georgia until 1725. Their southern boundary between 1725 and 1825 was 28 miles to the north of Yamacutah. For a couple of decades in the mid 1700s, there were no Cherokee villages in Georgia. After defeating the Cherokee Nation in 1754, the Koweta Creeks took back all the land they had lost in Georgia and North Carolina during 1725. It was returned in the 1770s, but even in 1776, the British counted only about 200 Cherokees living in the entire Province of Georgia. Their descendants have scattered to the winds.
The “Cherokees” living in northeast Georgia prior to the 1780s may have not been the same people that are called Cherokee Indians today. They certainly didn’t speak the same language. Their town names were either Creek words or derived from Creek words.
The same assessment can be made of the Bohurons, a branch of the Creeks living immediately south of the southern boundary of the Cherokees. There is very little information about the Bohurons. What primarily survives today are numerous names of peoples and horses in local histories. Although labeled “Cherokees” in several history web sites, they were definitely located in Creek territory and were under the governance of the Talasee Creeks. They probably moved southward in the late 1700s and joined the Seminoles. This is not known for certain.
Linguist and historian, Marilyn Rae, studied the surviving names of Bohurons and Cherokee Indians from local histories. Most were listed in “The Early History of Jackson County, Georgia.” She found very few names that were Native American in origin. Most words were common names found among Sephardic Jews, Spaniards, Portuguese, Turkish, Arabic, French and Dutch communities. The horses of “Native American” warriors had Arabic names. Rae's translations can be found in the recently published book, Nodoroc and the Bohurons.
The search leads to the Apalache
In 1564 and 1565, Captain René de Laundonnère of Fort Caroline dispatched several small parties of men to make contact with the Apalache People. The home province of the Apalache was in the most southerly section of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Piedmont of northeast Georgia. The Appalachian Mountains and a river near Yamacutah were after the Apalache. The Yamacutah Shrine was in the heart of that province. De Laundonnère planned to build the capital of New France in the general vicinity of the Yamacutah Shrine. The massacre of Fort Caroline ended those plans.
Both de Laundonnère and a British gentleman, who visited the Apalache in 1651, described them as being a sophisticated and religious people. They worshiped an invisible sun god, who was the creator of all things and was symbolized by the sun in the same sense that the rainbow symbolized YHWH (God) among the ancient Hebrews. The Apalache considered the shedding of any type of blood, human or animal, near their temples to be an abomination.
The Apalache also created very different public architecture than was typical of the other ancestors of the Creek Indians. They made extensive use of field stones as building walls and carved stones as altars. Carved stones were utilized at the Yamacutah Site. The Apalache apparently were the builders of this shrine, but this speculation is not a certainty.
The word, Yamacutah, was probably from the lost Apalache language. It was a Creek dialect, but not quite the same as the four surviving Creek languages. Whatever the case, Yamacutah does not mean “Tumbling Shoals in Creek” as stated by numerous local sources in Jackson County. The words for that phrase are entirely different in the three Creek languages used today: Mvskoke, Kvce, Koasati and Miccosukee.
A hint of the meaning of Yamacutah comes from numerous 18th century maps. They show an ethnic group named the Katvpa (Katawpa ~ Catawba) living in the region immediately west of Yamacutah. Apparently, there were once many more Katvpa living in Georgia than in the branch that gave rise to the Catawba Indians. The Katvpa were Muskogeans. Their name means “Place of the Crown” in Itstate Creek and Itza Maya. Apparently, their vassals were Siouans in South Carolina.
In contemporary Creek languages, “Yama” can mean a tribe that once lived on the Mobile River in Alabama, or the adjective, “gentle.” Yamacutah could be the Anglicization of Yamakvtv, which means either “Gentle Crown” or “Yama Crown.” The site’s name is just one of its many mysteries..
The first Anglo-American settlers to record a visit to the Yamacutah Shrine had the good sense to measure it and describe its architectural details. In Part Three, you will be amazed by what Jordon Clark and Jacob Bankston saw in 1784. On November 22, 1785 hundreds, if not thousands of Native Americans gathered at the shrine for one great, last ceremony. What strange event blocked out the sun? It was not an eclipse.