Though the streams always connect me back to the One Mother, I really do originate from many waters. This tale begins at a convergence of ridges overlooking a bend of the Etowah River.
The Etowah is a contrary river in that it often tries to turn and run away from the nearest sea. After flowing past the large and ancient Native American Mound Complex in Cartersville it
eventually joins with the Oostanaula River to form the Coosa River in Rome. The Coosa also finally relents her stubborn ways and bends to the southwest, joining the Alabama River north of Montgomery before snaking down into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay.
My Grandfather Ben, or Papa Ben as I affectionately knew him, told me this story was told to him by his father, my Great-Grandfather Frank Hulsey, and now I tell you all true... as I know it anyway.
The encounter took place in the late 1920s. They lived close to Mt. Tabor Baptist Church though I am not sure they ever attended. Close by was an intersection of old country roads where part of the family farm was located.
While out cutting rows of earth in the front cornfield a group of six strangers approached on tired mules. It was close to sunset and the lighting bugs were starting to wink in the dusty twilight. Though they wore the common dress of cloth pants held up by suspenders over white button-up shirts, their skin matched the copper sunset of the hazy sky. For many years their kind had not ridden these hills.
Papa Ben told me his father had always whispered when he got to this part in the
story... “The Indians’ mules were gaunt and frothing as they kicked at the red road. Like the ol’ haints from Mema’s stories they came riding up the hill as the sun set over their backs... ”
Frank slowed his own mule, Bacchus, and dug the plow in before tying him off. He walked over to the small oaken barrel and dipped a ladle of warm water from the cask. After drinking and wiping the clay away from his hands and face he walked over to the strangers.
“Hot for a April... Too hot. May will feel like July at this rate if we don’t get some steady rain...” Frank said stepping over the neatly turned rows. He approached the men with caution.
“And what will July feel like, I wonder?” Spoke a man that wore long, unbound hair dark as ink, sitting in the center of the group. He was of middle age, his wrinkles growing longer on his face everyday. Still, the stranger’s eyes shined like a fox. Unlike the other riders he was unarmed. Frank had noticed even the oldest of the group wore a long knife and carried an ancient rifle.
“Well, I guess it will feel like Hell," Frank replied, studying the men.
Bacchus whinnied from the yoke of the plow out in the clay behind him, ready for the barn. The first bats snapped in spirals at the last of the dragonflies over the dusky roadway. A chuckle came from the oldest of the Indians. He wore a dark grey fedora with what appeared to be a pileated woodpecker feather rising from its sweat stained headband. His dusty blue blazer covered a beaded chest where a half moon copper gorget hung just below his throat. He sat straight and tall in his saddle, unbending. A louder laugh rumbled slowly from the other riders. The elder man spoke softly. “We thought we left Hell on the road behind us. Maybe we cannot escape it? Maybe it chases us?” He looked to the other men.
A bald redman in the saddle to the elder Indian’s left shook his head. Hawk, turkey, and heron feathers fluttered from side to side tied around a single black braid that attached to the top of his smooth, sun-red scalp. “We followed the kingfishers. They flitter upstream to this bend of river, then stop and circle back. The crow also says this hill is where to look. We are here, flood or feast, famine or frost. The seasons do not matter now...”
Frank eyed them with caution but sensed no meanness in their words. “Got some water in the barrel, there.” Nodding to over his shoulder. “There’s a trough up by the barn for the horses, if you like.”
“We thank you for those waters.” Said the long-haired Indian. “My name is Russell Grey Wind.” We are Cherokee and have travelled many weeks from the west of here. Frank noticed that they didn’t thank him for his waters and then shrugged it off.
“I’m Frank Hulsey and I reckon I’m just a son of a sod buster.”
They all walked in silence to the water trough. Frank leading Bacchus having left the plow out in the field for the sunrise’s early work.
When Frank returned from the barn one of the men stood waiting for him in the yard. A side purse slung to his right side was made from bobcat furs. It bulged with the man’s meager possessions. “Horses need water. We all need water. Keeps us clean, if it stays clean.” Two younger men, standing at each end of the party nodded but never spoke not a word. They stood next to their mules and rubbed them down. On their saddles extremely large caliber rifles peaked from their scabbards.
“Yep... It sure does.” Was Frank’s only reply as he continued to eye them.
“How many pieces of stone blades do find in that field?” The elder Indian interrupted the silence and stared out across the open hillside.
Frank looked at the tan wrinkled man. “I’ve found several stockings full.”
“Those are my peoples.” He turned back to Frank. Then shrugged. “Maybe...” The old Indian stared with his dark eyes. “There have been many here on this hill. Many before. Many after, I think.”
“Maybe...” Frank murmured and silence returned briefly. After thinking about it Frank continued, “Had a great-grandmother who came from a Cherokee mother they tell me. Her daddy was a Patterson from over at War Hill on the Chestatee River.
“Ches-T’ah-Tee...” The old Indian repeated back each syllable in reverence... Those are the land and waters of my people too... after the Great Battle, when my people took it that is...” his wrinkled lips smiled gently. He nodded over to the long-haired man and uttered something low in their own tongue. Russell Grey Wind nodded his head, took a step closer and spoke to Frank almost in a whisper.
“Frank Sodbuster, can you tell us... is there an old rock, large, that has been sculpted in tear drops?”
Frank turned and stared at the man perplexed. “Mr. Wind, I don’t think I ever found any rock...” It hit him suddenly, “well, wait now, large you say, as in long? Well yessir, there is the rock down by the ol’ crossroads. Big, heavy rock. Carved with all sorts of circles and holes. Head over that other field just over yonder and you’ll see it beside the road.”
With that, all of the Cherokee strangers came alive with chattering. Even their horses seemed to trot with renewed spirit as they mounted up and rode over the nearby ridge.
Frank followed behind them to the ridge overlooking the rutted crossroads. Old Federal Road ran Northwest down to the Etowah River at the Old Scudder’s Inn. Matt Highway straightened out East to West over the top of two opposite ridgelines, while Mt. Tabor Church Road twisted Northeast back to Silver City. In a patch of blossomed blackberry brambles the old carved stone sat off to the side in the ditch.
As a child Frank had climbed all over the boulder with his brothers and sisters. Sitting atop they had watched countless buggies and carts as they lumbered up to the crest of the ridge where the crossroads met and descended once again down to Poole’s Mill nearby.
Concentric circles, carved in ancient times no doubt, covered the skyward facing sides of the rock, creating a patchwork of geometric shapes like a box turtle’s shell. They had used the deep indentions as foot holds to climb onto the back of the granite beast. The carvings, too many, and some too faded to count, resembled multiple eyes staring out from both sides of the triangular stone. The belly of the rock nestled firmly in the red clay underneath. A small slit or crevice was cut into one end of the stone, perfect for a little one to place their foot into and step up. Along the ridge top of the long slender stone, a series of small depressions cupped out the spine of hard stone. Frank remembered counting the dips... twenty-eight? Or was it less? It had been so long since he had gone to visit the old silent friend at the dirt roads...
The Cherokee gentlemen inspected the stone and pointed this way and that. In low voices they talked, shaking their heads. The sky was just a purple wound now where the sun had winked out over the river valley. After sometime the elder Indian looked back over his shoulder to the farmer and spoke to his people. They walked up and this time the elder man spoke first.
“Has that stone ever been moved?” He asked in a tired but resolved voice.
Frank looked at him. His energy had left the elder man once again and yet he noticed that the old Indian still stood straight and tall. Very tall actually. At least six inches higher than the rest of his party. “Well, yes it has been. Years back, they straightened out where the roads met. They moved the rock over to the side. Or so I’m told, it was before I remember. I was just a boy.”
The Cherokee men seemed disappointed and lost, particularly the old Indian. “Is there anything I can help ya’ll with?” Frank asked concerned.
In the darkness the first of the lightning bugs flittered. Dark lips finally parted and the Frank could make out the old man’s white teeth as he spoke. “My Mother’s Mother was from this hill above this river here. They lived all around this stone.”
“Did your people carve those circles... What do they mean?” Frank asked almost in a whisper.
“No. The First Ones made the shapes.” The elder man replied. “The old giants that walked the hills brought this rock here. When the rock was still soft. But my Father’s Fathers hunted them all until the men giants were gone. Before the last woman giant past from this land, she stood over this stone and placed her fingers into the top and knelt down and gave birth before her forgotten gods. Her tears fell onto the stone and made ripples like pebbles cast into a pond... My name is Gerald. Chief Gerald Weeping Stone. Last of my peoples.”
Frank stood in quiet darkness unable to move or speak.
Chief Gerald continued, “Less than a hundred years ago my peoples were again moved by force... Federal Troops sent us all out West to live in a land very different from this... a barren, dry country. Before my family left they hid all of their valued possessions, our ancestral connections, story beads, axe heads, metals including gold, in hopes it would not be confiscated by the troops that came to take us. The story of the carved rock, this very stone, and where to find it was told by my mother’s mother’s mother to each of us that came after so that we could someday come home and retrieve our memories...”
Chief Gerald Weeping Stone went on to explain that the stone was a marker that indicated the nearby location of family’s buried relicts. With the road department moving the stone around the directions had all been changed. The bearings now lost.
My Great-Grand Father, Frank, let them walk his farm for the next week searching every stone hill, old tree, or rock lined spring head. Nothing was ever found.
Before they left the sixth member of their party, from the Cherokee’s Potato Clan, presented him with what they called special corn seeds. And so they were. While other farms withered that year those corn seeds, adapted to drought tolerant conditions, saw my Great-Grand Father and his young family through the exceptionally dry and hot summer. In fact, enough was left over to distill a little of that corn and helped buy shoes for the kids during the Christmas that followed.
As for the Indian riders, “The Cherokee went away weeping once more on their trail back West.” Papa Ben always said with profound sadness caught in his throat.
The old farm house barely stands today, dilapidated and falling in… subdivisions are planted in the surrounding fields. The large stone with the petroglyphs was moved some years after the Cherokee had visited my family and was relocated over to Athens, Georgia to be placed in front of the Anthropology Department at Baldwin Hall. One can still go see it today. I’ve visited it many times over the years as I now raise my family not far from there along the Oconee River. The worn rock, tattooed in swirls and geometric patterns, always seems cast away and long forgotten though sits on Jackson Street in the busy North Campus of The University of Georgia. Just a football field away, the North Oconee River rushes over the Cedar Shoals Falls at the Old Easley Mill southward to meet the Middle Oconee and form the 238 mile Main Oconee River. Just north of Hazelhurst The Oconee entwines with the Ocmulgee River to form the mighty Altamaha and eventually terminate 136 miles downstream around Darien as it subsides into the Atlantic Ocean. Though I come from many waters, they always connect me back to the One Mother.
About Oconee Joe:
Eternal Student of the Oconee Land and Waters.
He has lived along the Oconee River for over 10,000 years. The River is his Mother, the Land his Father. You can continue to read about Oconee Joe, his guided trips, and explorations along our local river, here on Classic City News.