For 15 years, hordes of shoppers have streamed into the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Canton.
The hilltop along I-575 is a prime commercial location in Cherokee County, a fast-growing community with one foot in metro Atlanta and another in the North Georgia mountains.
What few customers know is they are walking on land that was a hub for Native American life for 10,000 years. At different times, the patch of high ground overlooking the Etowah River has been a village, a fort, a trading center and, finally, home to a cluster of Cherokee families desperately trying to co-exist with the white man.
During the summer of 1995, a large crew of archaeologists and their assistants unearthed a trove of artifacts that told a story of the land’s ancient inhabitants. The property, known as the Hickory Log Site, yielded 48 graves and thousands of artifacts that filled 120 boxes. The discovery offered one of the most detailed looks ever at the life of Native Americans in North Georgia.
Local officials hope to exhibit the findings — ranging from 10,000-year-old spear tips to a rifle used by the Cherokees — at The Funk Heritage Center at Reinhardt University.
“It’s a rare chance to educate people [about] what happened,” said Paul Webb, the archaeologist who headed the 1995 dig and returned to Cherokee County last week to finally speak about his findings and lay the groundwork for the artifacts to return home. “It’s one thing to know this is Cherokee County and another thing to have this tangible evidence of Native American and Cherokee life.
“It remains one of the major projects in North Georgia in size and scope and in what we found. Hickory Log has probably seen 10,000 years of occupation,” he said. “You have high ground overlooking Hickory Log Creek and the Etowah River. It had ample water, rich farmland below. It was a good place to live with access to transportation.”
In essence, what made for a good hub for Cherokee County’s Native Americans later made for a perfect Wal-Mart location.
Last week, Webb walked the site and pointed to spots where the ancients once roamed. The hill leading to the reservoir pond is where the Cherokees settled. What is now the Wal-Mart gardening department was the site of a fort 1,000 years ago.
Billy Hasty, a Canton attorney whose family owned the land and sold it to the Wal-Mart developers, used to hunt dove there. Hasty had long wondered what happened to the artifacts. About a year ago, he spoke with Joseph Kitchens, director of the Reinhardt museum, which the Legislature named Georgia’s official Frontier and Southeastern Indian Interpretive Center. Museum officials had always hoped to bring the artifacts home to Cherokee County, so Hasty and Kitchens tracked down Webb.
After the dig, Webb had spent a couple of years cataloging and researching the artifacts, but the grant money ran out. So, for the past few years, he had continued the project on his own time in North Carolina.
“I think he was waiting for us to call,” said Hasty, who attended Reinhardt, as did his father, and is the university’s chairman.
Recently, Hasty and Kitchens drove up to Chapel Hill, N.C., and spent an afternoon excitedly digging through the boxes of artifacts.
In a lecture with Cherokee County residents Thursday Webb ticked off the importance of what was found during the $500,000 excavation. The items are from four archaeological periods spanning a 2,000-year period and help provide insight into the people who came and went but left no written record.
From 200 B.C. to A.D. 600, Indians of the Woodland period started building a village in what is now Canton. The ruins found in 1995 are the largest such group of structures from that era ever found, Webb said.
Around A.D. 900, farmers tilled the floodplains there. But they feared for their safety and built a log fort, which is “the most completely excavated Woodstock [era] fortification.”
Once again, around 1300, in the Mississippian period, a group of people probably tied to those who lived by the Etowah mounds downstream built a hamlet of wooden post homes. They and their descendants were there for about 100 years.
Finally, in the late 1780s, Cherokees, who had been forced westward, settled along the Etowah River. The inhabitants incorporated many European items into their lifestyle.
“These Cherokees were living a mixture of lifestyles,” said Webb. “They’re using metal tools but also making traditional pottery. Their kids could have been going to the Baptist school down the road.
“They had horses and pigs but were also eating deer, turkey and fish like they had for millennia. It was a real dynamic time,” he said. “Things were changing really quick.”
Ultimately, they left in the early 1830s, no doubt pressured to go. It was a few years before the mass removal in 1838, known as the Trail of Tears.
The site was then taken over by white settlers.
“A lot of the places settled after the American Revolution were settled by Euro-Americans who burned out the Cherokees,” said Tyler Howe, the tribal historic preservation specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee, which is based in Cherokee, N.C. “You see that throughout the South.”
Hasty said he was struck by the fact that, through the centuries, people were drawn to the same spot.
“They would come in, hunt and farm the land until it wore out and then would abandon it. And then, years later, another band would come in and start over again. You know it’s a good spot; people keep coming back.”
The excavation found the skeletal remains of at least 48 of the people who lived on the site. One was the full skeleton of a girl who was surrounded by toys and personal items.
The remains, too, were returned home. Two years ago, in a ceremony overseen by Cherokee descendants, they were reburied in the Canton area.