On July 4, 1776, the American colonies severed their political connections to Great Britain by declaring themselves independent. As any teenager learns, it is one thing to declare your independence, but quite another to achieve it. The Revolutionary War continued for seven more years, and, for all intents and purposes, the U.S. began its existence as a nation on Oct. 19, 1781, when British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. George Washington at Yorktown. That was 240 years ago.
Would it surprise you to learn that the first Europeans to set foot in Georgia did so about 240 years before that battle, and passed through Cherokee County?
These first visitors were Spanish, and they took a circuitous route, landing near Florida’s Tampa Bay in 1539. Approximately 600 men and 220 horses made landfall, and spent the winter of 1539-40 in what we now know as Tallahassee.
In March of 1540, they crossed into Georgia. Traversing the state by following rivers, they passed through what now is Macon, crossed the Savannah River at the future site of Augusta, and traveled into South Carolina. After passing through North Carolina and Tennessee, they entered Georgia a second time on July 15. The following day, they encountered the powerful Chief of Coosa at a spot now under Carters Lake. A month later, they headed south, making a stop in a Native American village before moving on to Itaba (what we today call the Etowah Indian Mounds), where they crossed the Etowah River. Eventually, they moved on through present day Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Their leader, Hernando DeSoto, died in 1542 in present-day Arkansas, and was buried in the Mississippi River by his men.
Their route covered a great distance, and was through continuous wilderness, so what drove DeSoto on? He was looking for gold and silver.
DeSoto already was quite wealthy; as a young man, he’d played a major role in the conquest of the Incas in Peru under Francisco Pizarro. Most would have retired to spend their wealth, but DeSoto was interested in nobility, seeking the title of marquis. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) granted him the right to explore and conquer “La Florida.” Off he went, hopeful of finding the riches that would earn him the title he wanted from the king of Spain, as it had for Pizarro a few years before.
DeSoto never found the gold he was looking for, although, ironically, it was there. He and his men traveled right through what today is referred to as the Georgia gold belt, which later would produce our nation’s first gold rush and the first U.S. Mint to stamp coins from Georgia gold. (If you missed my May article on this topic, visit https://townelaker.com/archives.)
Some 482 years later, you can walk in DeSoto’s footsteps at the Pine Log Creek Trail, which borders Cherokee County, just outside Waleska on Highway 140. Significantly, when the border was created between Cass (now Bartow) County and Cherokee County, it would have crossed straight through this land. In a nod to its significance, a small notch was carved in the border to ensure that it all would fall within the confines of one county, in order to manage and preserve it.
The 5 miles of trails at Pine Log are traversed easily, and are well worth the time spent, for the history of this place doesn’t end with DeSoto. It was there, in 1785, that Chief Yellow Bird signed the Treaty of Hopewell, declaring peace between the U.S. and the Cherokee Nation, which had befriended the British during the Revolutionary War. And, in the late 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps created a rock quarry there, still reachable from the trail and a fine place to enjoy a picnic lunch.
Want to Dig Deeper?
If you enjoyed last month’s article and want to learn more about the origins of Bells Ferry Road, as well as other ferries in the Atlanta area, visit https://bit.ly/3GJlCea.
For further research, check out:
- “Cherokee County Court records, 1835: Morrow, GA.”
- Larry Vogt, “Hidden History of Lake Allatoona: the Sixes, Cherokee Mills, Little River Area.” Dautzenlein Publications, 2013.
- GA records and Cherokee County Deed Book B, #251.
- GA records and Cherokee County Deed Book C, #110, p. 64-65.
- GA records and Cherokee County Deed Book O, p. 442.
– The Wanderer has been a resident of Cherokee County for nearly 20 years, and constantly is learning about his community on daily walks, which totaled a little more than 1,800 miles in 2021. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.