Central States Archaeological Societies
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Chattanooga’s Citico Creek Mound

by Thomas Crowl

Central States Archaeological Societies 2019 July Journal

Georgetown, Kentucky

This is an excerpt from "Chattanooga’s Citico Creek Mound".

Read the complete 6 page column in the Central States Archaeological Societies 2019 July Journal which can be purchased on-line after March 2020

Citico Creek Mound
Figure 1.


Cincinnati photographer Isaac Bonsall traveled to Union occupied Chattanooga in 1864 to photograph soldiers and as an afterthought, the Tennessee River Valley. A mile or so upriver from the city where Citico Creek entered the Tennessee, Bonsall took several photographs of an Indian mound located on the river terrace above the east bank of the creek (Figs. 1,4,6). Local tradition held the mound to be an old Cherokee burial ground. Most recently, the twenty-foot tall mound had been used as a Union army signal station, but by the time of Bonsall’s visits, it was part of a recreational area serving convalescing Union soldiers. In 1864, a two-story octagonal wood frame structure sat atop the mound—possibly built by the signal corps, but now used as the office of the gardener of the United States Sanitary Commission, surrounded by a budding formal garden. Bonsall photographed the mound on two occasions with Union soldiers milling around, posing and waving for the camera.

In 1864, archaeology was more treasure hunt than science and little was known about the builders of earthen mounds. Historically, it was known that the Spanish passed through the Tennessee Valley in July 1540 and encountered Native Americans. At the time of the American Revolution, pro-British Cherokee occupied a village, known as “Citico” after a famous chief, on the Little Tennessee river near present day Knoxville. Pressured by the American militia, the Cherokee, under the leadership of Dragging Canoe, moved down the Tennessee to the mouth of Citico Creek ( the named is derived from the famous chief) and established a new town in 1776. This village was abandoned in 1782 when the Cherokee exodus southwest continued. A few natives had returned to the area by 1785. At the conclusion of the American-Cherokee conflict in 1794, the Citico Creek village was reoccupied, although it remained small and uninfluential in the Cherokee hierarchy. Cherokees remained in the area until removal in the late 1830s. In 1836, a Cherokee identified as Water Lizard farmed thirty acres of bottom land near the mouth of Citico Creek in the vicinity of the prehistoric

With the war winding down in early 1865, the Citico mound attracted the attention of Matthew C. Read, an Ohio agent for the United States Sanitary Commission, a relief organization for Union soldiers. Read was an attorney with a budding interest in zoology, geology and archaeology. The earthen mounds of Ohio, and now Tennessee, and their unknown creators piqued Read’s curiosity. Directly east of the mound and covering a wide area was what Read called “an ancient pottery and manufactory of flint.” Pottery sherds, flint chips, arrowheads, broken hammerstones, stone pipes and circular discs were readily found by local collectors, small boys and bored Union soldiers. Digging an unknown number of test holes eighteen inches deep in the field, Read discovered ashes, burned clay, bone fragments and more pottery sherds.

The ovoid, platform mound, its long axis oriented almost true north, was Read’s true interest. After determining that the mound measured 158 x120 feet at base, 82 x 44 on the flat top and was 19 feet tall, Read decided to dig a tunnel into it. As an excuse for his excavation, Read claimed that he was digging a cold cellar for the sanitary commission to store vegetables! Starting from the east side, Read tunneled toward the center at ground level. Carefully examining the tunnel walls, Read could see that the mound was composed of alternating layers of earth and thick layers of ashes, which he attributed to burned vegetation. At the level of edge of the upper platform, a row of postholes was uncovered. Two feet down, below grade, two skeletons were unearthed in a pit less than three feet in length. Near the center of the mound, another row of postholes was discovered along with the subsurface burial of a young woman and two children. Aside from pottery sherds, Read made no mention of grave goods.

Despite his lack of archaeological experience, Read has been credited with finding the human burials, recognizing structural remains, observing strata in the mound’s construction, finding “painted pottery” and accumulating a collection of typical Mississippian period village debris. Read’s investigations ceased when Chattanooga’s heavy cannon were fired to mark the Confederate surrender in Virginia causing his tunnel to collapse, burying tools and vegetables alike. Read suggested that a future explorer would find the buried tools and vegetables and consider them “as proof of the intelligence of the race of the mound builders.”


Read the complete column in the Central States Archaeological Societies 2019 July Journal which can be purchased on-line after March 2020