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Column: Native American legends change over the years
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Because the Cherokee lived in what is now North Georgia for many years, Native American legends are as colorful as the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall.

Some may be based on fact. Others are fantasies. Many have been embellished as they have been passed down through the generations.

The most familiar in these parts is the story of Sautee and Nacoochee. The Indian Princess Nacoochee flung herself off Yonah Mountain after her lover Sautee was thrown over the cliff by Cherokees because he was a rival Choctaw, Chickasaw or whatever tribe.

There are lesser known stories. George Walton Williams was a Charleston, South Carolina businessman and banker who spent his younger days in White County’s Sautee-Nacoochee Valley and returned as an adult. 

He was most interested in the history of that area and the Native Americans who inhabited it over the decades. He probably was the most prolific storyteller of the lore of Nacoochee Valley and Yonah Mountain.

In his book, “Sketches of Travel,” he wrote about people who lived in the valley before what we now called Native Americans. According to Williams, the Cherokee who lived in the valley could not explain ruins of fortifications and artifacts found there.

Albert Hardy Sr. of the Gainesville News in the 1930s, wrote that he believed three distinct races of people had occupied the valley. He referred to Williams’ writings that concluded, “The strongest fortifications lie between the Chattahoochee (River) and Sautee in the eastern portion of the valley …”

Williams also wrote about Native American relics found in the area, including a spectacular find gold miners unearthed. That was the “buried city,” a legend that circulated long before Williams’ time in the valley. He died in 1903.

“In 1834, the miners, while searching for gold,” Williams wrote, “disinterred a subterranean village, numbering some 40 houses, which had been buried, judging from the forest trees which covered the city of the dead a century or more. The logs were hewn and pitched as at the present day; warlike instruments were found in the buildings.”

Supposedly a mountain landslide buried the city.

Williams also told of a discovery on the L.G. Hardman farm, at the time operated by Capt. James H. Nichols. The farm that was in the Hardman family for years, is now a Georgia historic site. 

Williams wrote about a farmer plowing near the famous Nacoochee Indian Mound, which uncovered a tomb that contained numerous skeletons. One was described as that of a giant. Also in the tomb were conch shells, pipes, tomahawks and a piece of copper work that the author speculated predated the Cherokee.

Because of the legend of Sautee and Nacoochee, many have assumed over the years that the two lovers were buried in the Nacoochee Indian Mound. Williams flatly stated they were buried in another mound near where Sautee Creek and the Chattahoochee River merge. He excavated a part of it. He found a peace pipe with seven stems, but apparently no evidence of Sautee and Nacoochee.

Perhaps the most thorough research and history of the various legends was by Emory Jones in his book “Distant Voices, the Story of Nacoochee Valley Indian Mound.” He notes the various versions of the history of the valley and the Nacoochee Indian Mound, quoting previous sources that the valley once contained several mounds that were built by Native Americans or their predecessors.

One story about the Native American lovers was that Nacoochee jumped in front of Sautee just as an arrow spun toward him. The arrow went through Nacoochee and pinned her to Sautee, and they both fell over the cliff. Another version has an arrow each for the lovers.

Still, another legend has Nacoochee falling off Yonah while she danced at her wedding festival. One story has her being rescued after almost drowning in the Chattahoochee River.

The most recent story, however, of Nacoochee, as “pretty as the evening star,” and Sautee falling from Mount Yonah, seems to have stuck, and it certainly is the stuff of which legends are made.

In a poem by Letitia Green, she names Sautee’s rival Red Fox, and suggests he knocked them both down the mountain. 

She writes: In the vale of fair Nacoochee / This side gurgling Chattahoochee / Stands a grand old Indian mound / In whose heart far underground / It is said there may be found / The remains of the hapless lovers / Who buried side by side / In this sweet and peaceful valley / Where they lived and loved and died / Or not.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, vardeman1956@att.net or johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.

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