Uncovering Native American History In DeKalb County

From Stone Mountain to the Weelaunee/South River, what is now DeKalb County contains many significant Native American archaeological sites. 

Today’s DeKalb County and Atlanta would’ve looked very different when Native Americans ruled the land. For millennia, what are now called Arabia, Panola and Stone Mountains defined the lives of those who lived around them. The word for these unusual geological formations―solid rock masses―is “monadnock,” a native Abenaki term. Indigenous peoples used local stone from the Piedmont region for tools, bowls, petroglyphs, animal effigies, fortifications and other structures. They also used local waterways for transit and trade.

Landmarks Then And Now

From roughly 800 AD to 1600 AD, much of the South was part of the mound-building Mississippian Culture, which stretched from Texas and Oklahoma to the Atlantic Coast. After the collapse of this society, what is now DeKalb County and Atlanta would’ve become a cross-section of Cherokee and Muscogee (or Creek) territories. Villages thrived along the larger rivers such as the Chattahoochee and Flint with smaller settlements and temporary hunting camps along the streams and tributaries. Stone Mountain, the region’s most prominent geographic feature, served as a ceremonial center for native populations with a stone wall (since destroyed) and likely other structures constructed on top. It’s possible that Arabia and Panola Mountains would’ve held a similar significance.

The South River, which flows southeast through the Heritage Area is called Weelaunee by the Muscogee people, meaning “green water” for the surrounding greenery and forests. This river served as an important boundary between the Muscogee and Cherokee. An incredible amount of trade also flowed down its waters, which at one point would’ve teemed almost like a highway with indigenous dugout canoes. An earlier archaeological report of the Heritage Area found human activity up to at least 6 thousand years ago. Sites of considerable significance were also identified, including evidence of what appears to be an undefined cultural complex. The location of these places in the Heritage Area is kept secret for their protection.

An 1823 Map of Cherokee and Creek land in Georgia and Alabama.

Big Trade In A Local Stone

Soapstone would’ve been one of the primary things traded in the region. Further upstream the South River, just outside of Arabia Mountain NHA, is Soapstone Ridge. Although partially developed, this area remains one of the largest and best preserved indigenous soapstone quarries in the Southeastern United States. An archaeological study of Soapstone Ridge found native remains dating to the Archaic Period (3000 BC to 1500 BC) on more than 100 sites. A 140-acre site located near River Road was even placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The interest in soapstone was in making bowls, small tools, carvings, pipes and gorgets. Evidence of bowl carving out of soapstone can be seen today at Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve in southeast Atlanta. These local bowls and other soapstone objects were apparently highly prized in their time and have been located as far away as the Georgia coast, northern Georgia mountains, and in other settlements as far west as the Mississippi River Basin. This same study also identified five categories of native archeological sites in the area: quarries, workshops, camps, villages and fish dams, with quarries being the most prevalent. The histories of Arabia Mountain and the Heritage Area are intrinsically tied to the local quarrying industry, which sold granitic gneiss cut from Arabia Mountain from the 1850s to the early 1970s. It’s exciting to imagine that hundreds of years ago, before the arrival of colonialists, the land that is now south DeKalb County had its own indigenous quarrying industry focused on soapstone. 

Native Cultures Erased

The arrival of Colonial powers had a devastating impact on native populations, permanently disrupting cultures and ways of life that had thrived for generations. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the new State of Georgia saw the Cherokee and Muscogee as impediments to the expansion of plantation slavery. Through various treaties, briberies and other pressure points, the state dispossessed the native peoples of their homelands and then lotteried those lands to settlers and slaveowners. What remained of the Cherokee and Muscogee people were marched west on the Trail of Tears.

While there were and are many indigenous groups living in Georgia, today the State officially only recognizes three tribes: Cherokee of Georgia, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, and the Muskogee Creek. Our forebears in the United States attempted to erase the native people, their history, culture, knowledge and sacred sites. However, native people have kept their cultures alive. Since 2001, local tribes have brought their heritage back to the land they were exiled from, holding the Native American Festival and Pow Wow at Stone Mountain.

The Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance is currently working to install more Native American interpretive signage along the South River and throughout the Heritage Area. These signs are expected to go up in 2024.