YAMACUTAH: A sacred sky observatory in southeastern North America.


This observation taken from the writings of G.J.N. Wilson (The Early History of Jackson County Georgia, 1914, pp. 188-193, W.E. White editor) gives a remarkable account of a Native American Stonehenge-like construction as well as a description of the type conditions which prompted a gathering.

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Perhaps there are comparatively few people now living in the county who know that there is such a place in it as the "TUMBLING SHOALS." for more than a generation no road, public or private, has led within sight of them; and like most other things pertaining to the early settlement of this country by the Anglo-Saxon race, their history has never been written. They are about one mile below the well-known Hurricane Shoals, on North Oconee river, where the water goes whirling around one end of a solid rock dam built by the hand of nature, and then ripples over a series of minature falls in such a way as to seem that one wave rolls or tumbles over another. Hence the name, which comes from the Cherokee word, YAMACUTAH, signifying to tumble.

In 1784 Jordan Clark and Jacob Bankston, two enterprising and adventurous young men, came from Virginia to Wilkes County, Georgia. There they met with a roving band of Choctaw Indians who told them of a strange old camping-ground which they called Yamacutah. They said it was located on the banks of Etoho (Oconee) river, some two days' journey towards the setting sun; that the Great Spirit once lived there; and that since his disappearance Indians sometimes went to the place to walk the paths which God once trod, and then hastened away, as He had done, without leaving a trail to show which way they went.

Having their curosity aroused, Clark and Bankston at once resolved to go and see if the Choctaws had told them the truth. Late on the afternoon of April 22, 1784, they reached a series of small shoals, which they immediately recognized as Yamacutah. While the stream was small and the shoals modest, they were curious, and their surroundings were sublime and awe-inspiring far beyond anything known to the present inhabitants.

Trees of fabulous dimensions interlocked their ponderous branches, and the acorns and chestnuts of the previous year literally covered the ground. The glaring eyes and startling bound of the red deer, the wild chattering of a multitude of birds, and the warning signal of the rattlesnake, told the newcomers that such beings had seldom, if ever, been there before.

Distant some twenty yards, a great black bear was perched in the fork of a tree. As he moved his forepaws with the evident intention of descending, a ball from Clark's deadly rifle crashed through his head. Curious to say, as was afterwards learned, that bear's life was the first ever known to be taken at or near Yamacutah. After a "delightful supper of broiled bear ham," as the adventurers described it, they slept by turns, through most of the night, and with the rising sun began a careful examination of their surroundings.

About seventy-five yards from the west end of the natural rock dam they discovered a curious upright statue a little over four feet high. It was made of a soft talcose rock, 13 inches square at the bottom; but the top, from the shoulders up was a fair representation of the human figure. The shoulders were rudimentary, but the head was well formed. The neck was unduly long and slender. The chin and forehead were retreating. The eyes were finely executed, and looked anxiously to the east. It stood at the center of an earth mound (17) seventeen feet in circumference and six feet high. Around it were many other mysteries which will never be fully explained. Only a few of them may be mentioned now.

Four paths, doubtless the ones the Choctaws mentioned, led, with mathematical precision, from the base of the mound to the cardinal points of the compass. Though it seemed that no other part of the forest had been trodden by human feet, these paths were as smooth and clean as a parlor floor. The scrubby cane, which seemed to have been planted by design along their margins, was as neatly trimmed as if the work had been done by a professional gardener. And here, amid those gloomy solitudes the natives believed that our God, their Great Spirit, had walked as a man walks along his homeward pathway.

The statue was found to be the center of an exact circle about one hundred and fifty yards in diameter. Its boundary was plainly marked by holes in the ground three feet apart. The holes to which the paths ran in a straight line from the center were much larger than the intervening ones; and before them, inside the circle, were what seemed to be stone altars of varying dimensions. At the end of the path running to the north was a single triangular stone; at the east were five square stones and four steps; at the west, four stones and three steps; at the south, three stones and two steps. Upon the upper surface of all the stones except that at the north the effect of fire was plainly visible and doubtless had been used for sacrificial purposes.

All the paths terminated at the altars except the one running to the east. At this the trail parted, and, uniting beyond it, continued a short distance and then, much like an ascending column of smoke, disappeared, gradually. The account given by the Choctaws was verified. On the smooth surfaces of the stones were deeply cut both three and five-pointed half moons, whose horns turned in different ways.

A good representation of the rising sun and other curious characters were deeply cut on the eastern altar.

Outside the circle were many ash heaps, beaten hard by the heavy hand of time, and over some of them were growing gigantic oaks and towering pines, as if to mark the grave of the dead past.

Having studied these and other features of the vicinity, the adventurers went back to their starting point with a determination to return and make a permanent settlement at Yamacutah.

For an unknown period of time the immediate territory on both sides of the river and for about one mile below, and to the Hurricane Shoals above, was neutral ground, claimed by neither Creek nor Cherokee, the lords of the adjoining territory.

For reasons already given it was considered Holy Ground: the Indians' Palestine. If on the war path, they went around it; if enemies met there they became friends as long as they remained there; by mutual consent of all the tribes the life of neither beast or bird, nor any living thing, should ever perish there. It was ever to be a place of refuge and never to have upon it the stain of blood. The killing of the bear by Clark was the first breach of law in the Holy Ground, and led, a few years later to open hostilities between the red and white men who lived in this part of the country .

On the 20th day of the following June Clark and Bankston returned to Yamacutah and began the first permanent settlement of white people within the present limits of Jackson County. They were accompanied by John Harris, a nephew of Nancy Hart, of revolutionary fame, and who became extensively known as Black Harris. He was a skillful workman in both wood and iron, and of almost unlimited resources in strategy and cunning.

A small cabin, which at once became dwelling-house and work-shop, was soon completed. Here such articles were made as seemed necessary to their simple wants. I now have a cupboard which was made by John Harris in that shop in 1785. It was made of boards split from a huge pine tree that grew upon an ash heap near the eastern altar. Though one hundred and twenty-one years old, it is still solid in all its points, and no modern mechanic can excel the workmanship.

This ancient "dresser," as the maker called it, together with a curious cluster of pine cones that grew upon the tree of which is was made; an acorn which fell from an oak that reached its ponderous branches far over the talcose statue; and some other things, I keep as mementoes of the shadowy past. When in want of curious mental food, or a desire to leap at a single bound from the present back to the long-gone past, I look at these relics of a former age. and with the old Saxon poet who, after his failure to penetrate the future, cried out: "ROLL BACK! ROLL BACK! Oh, wheels of time, roll back ! and let me realize something of the difference between then and now. "

The following year, 1785, was a memorable one. In May there came a cold wave which killed many large trees. The bird family was almost exterminated, and a large eagle, accidentally feeling the warmth of the cabin, became domesticated and remained a pet for several months, when it left wearing a bell which John Harris had fastened around its neck with his name and date engraved upon it. In 1790 this romantic bird was killed in the vicinity of Augusta. Even so large and hardy animals as wolves and panthers were found dead in the forest, and many fish were frozen in solid ice.

But the most remarkable phenomenon of that, or perhaps of any other year since the crufixion of the Son of God was the Dark Day on November 24th. It has never been explained, and the splendid illumination of the 20th century casts no light upon the cause of the darkness. Though the sun was visible all day long, and appeared to be much larger than usual, it omitted no light except such as may be seen while passing through a dense fog at night. The whole of animated nature on the Western Hemisphere was astonished on that day, and all who had ever heard of the final judgment listened in anxious expectation of hearing the long-drawn blasts of Gabriel's trumpet to wake the sleeping dead.

But only that which took place at Yamacutah concerns us now, and the tenth of that can not be told here. Even such strong and heroic men as Clark, Bankston and Harris were anxious, talked in whispers, and sat by their cabin all day. Various animals passed by in utter confusion, and several opossums and raccoons crouched near them, and though they sat with rifles across their knees, not a gun was fired the whole long day.

During the day many Indians came, and seating themselves around the mystic circle, gazed steadfastly towards the central figure. This they continued all day, and perhaps all night; for when next morning they saw the sun rise bright and golden as ever, they arose as one man, went inside the circle, and solemnly walking along the path to a step as regular as the beating of a healthy heart, they disappeared beyond the eastern altar as already indicated.

This was the last time this curious performance ever took place at the Tumbling Shoals, or anywhere else so far as I ever heard. What did it mean? Was there any more in it than a mere heathen ceremony ?


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