First There Were Indians
It is believed Hernando De Soto passed through this area around 1540 and a plaque commemorating this event is displayed near the courthouse in Clarkesville. Later in the 1500s, the French may also have built a fort here; the remains of it and what appears to be an old trading post are located on Alex Mountain.
However, long before De Soto made his journey and the French built their fort, this area was a part of the dominion of the Creek and later the Cherokee Indians. In fact, until the land was ceded to the government, anyone wishing to own property here had to buy it from the Indians.
The Cherokees, whose name means "Upland Fields," had a population of around 11,000 and several settlements in Habersham County. One of these was "Sakwi-yi" or "Su-ki," near where Clarkesville is today. The river of Soque ("Pig River") was named for this settlement. Another, in Cornelia, was called "Chenocetah" ("See all around"), the name now given to the mountain where Cornelia is located. Remnants of Cherokee influence can also be seen in the names of Sautee, Nacoochee, Tallulah, Currahee, Chattahoochee ("flowered rock" or "River of the Painted Rocks"), Yonah ("Sleeping Bear Mountain") and Toccoa ("beautiful"), as well as the names of most of the streams.
The Cherokees lived in houses and planted crops, the most important being corn, beans, pumpkins, squash and melons. Their "Beloved Old Men" chose carefully the time to plant so as to lessen the threat of marauding birds. When the right time came, usually all the inhabitants of a town would work together in sowing seed while listening to orators cheer them on with jests, humorous tales, and tunes beaten on drums made of earthen pots covered with deerskin. Lazy people were not tolerated -- they had to pay a fine or leave.
Once the crops started growing, the women and children protected them against wild birds and wild and later domestic animals. A colorful ceremony followed the harvest.
Any Indian could clear and improve land and pass it on to his descendants, but if the family moved away, the land was once again open for possession by any Indian who happened to want it. By the time the county was organized, there were many well-to-do Indians and half-breeds living here, some of them with farms and slaves.
Tallulah Falls was a hunting ground for the Cherokees and for white people who came up from other cities in Georgia. It was also home to "Council Rocks," the tribal courtroom, located above "Lovers' Leap Lookout" (see The Legend of Tallulah below). The 500-lb Council Chair of Grey Eagle, the last chief of the Cherokees in this area, can be seen on display at Tallulah Falls School.
Six miles southeast of Clarkesville stood an oak tree that became famous in the history of the early settlers. Several trails converged at the tree, and it was there that the Indians met and planned their next exploits against the whites. Because a gash was cut into the tree whenever a scalp was taken, the tree, which no longer stands, came to be known as Chopped Oak.
The End of the Indian Era
In 1828, under Andrew Jackson as President of the United States, the Federal Government changed in its attitude towards the Indians. This change was reflected locally when, late that same year, Georgia passed a law extending its jurisdiction over Cherokee country and refusing any longer to recognize Indian self-government.
The discovery of gold in the Nacoochee valley also brought changes to the Indians' rights with the passage of another law that prevented any Indian from bringing a lawsuit against a white man. The penalty for resistance was death or removal.
In 1832, a new law prevented the Cherokees from holding public meetings. Seeing the inevitable, in 1835 they accepted $5 million for their holdings in Georgia. The next year, in what is known in history of "The Trail of Tears," the Indians were forcibly removed to Cherokee, N.C., and to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi; only a few stayed behind in hiding.
The Legend of Sautee-Nacoochee
Sautee, a young Choctaw brave, fell in love with the beautiful young daughter of a Cherokee chieftain. The princess, whose name, Nacoochee, means "The Evening Star," returned his love despite the fact that their tribes were enemies.
One night, Sautee and Nacoochee eloped. Nacoochee's father quickly organized a search party of a hundred braves and set off in pursuit. After several days the search party found the pair hiding on the slope of Mount Yonah. The chieftain ordered his men to throw Sautee over the cliff, but no sooner had they done so than Nacoochee flung herself after her lover.
Sautee and Nacoochee were buried together on the banks of the Chattahoochee, and a mound was raised over them. The valley where Nacoochee lived was named after her, and a nearby valley was named after Sautee. The area, now known as Sautee-Nacoochee, is located in the counties of Habersham and White.
The Legend of Tallulah
A white hunter by chance found himself on a Cherokee trail in Tallulah Falls. He was found by the Indian maiden Tallulah, only daughter of Grey Eagle, chief of the Cherokees. She fell in love with him and led him to her father's camp at Council Rocks, where, due to the lateness of the hour, he was told he could stay the night.
Because it was a bad omen for a white man to be found in an Indian camp and because of jealousy, the young Indian men demanded the immediate trial and execution of the stranger. Grey Eagle was forced to pronounce sentence of death. The hunter was to be bound hand and foot and thrown over the cliff into the gorge, 900 feet below.
Tallulah begged her father not to execute the white man, but the chief would not change his judgement for fear of being considered a weakling. His daughter threatened to jump off the cliff if he carried out the sentence. Sadly, Grey Eagle did not believe her. Just as the young man was thrown over the cliff, Tallulah came running from the back of the camp and leaped from the cliff. From that time forward, the cliff is known as "Lover's Leap."
On the third day after the tragedy, Grey Eagle moved his camp two miles away from Council Rocks to a gap in the mountains between Tallulah Mountain and Hickory Nut Mountain, where he eventually died and was buried.