Finding evidence of American Indian remains on a business property is rarely cause for celebration for owners or developers, but it's not really very unusual in this region.
Still, a few years ago when an Amnicola Highway food manufacturer learned the property he'd just bought contained one of Chattanooga's oldest Indian mounds, he was surprised. So Kenny Wilhoit listened intently to local American Indians when they called him, seeking a conservation easement on the mound.
Then he did something very unusual -- he welcomed visitors to what they told him was a very sacred spot.
"It means something to them, and it's not hurting me," said Wilhoit, president and owner of Atlantic Distributors Inc. on Amnicola.
The story resonates for the tri-state region, which has thousands of mounds.
Meg Lockhart, spokeswoman for the Division of Archaeology in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said there are 900 mound sites recorded to date across Tennessee alone.
Tom Kunesh, a Chattanoogan and member of the Advisory Council on Tennessee Indian Affairs, calls the Amnicola mound "the oldest thing in Chattanooga that humans made."
And recently, Kunesh, two archaeologists from Nashville and a handful of other Chattanoogans interested in the region's earliest and American Indian history celebrated Sacred Sites Day at the mound on the summer equinox of June 20. In the ceremony, they honored Wilhoit, along with the ancestors buried there.
"He's been great to work with," Kunesh said. "He's allowed us access, and we've been out maybe four times in the past year, cleaning it up. It's like cleaning up a cemetery."
The new friends renamed the mound. What had been labeled 40HA66 in the state Division of Archaeology is now the Chickamauga Mound.
The name is intended to reflect the mound's American Indian origin rather than the Euro-American name it sometimes carried: the Roxbury mound, because the Roxbury textile mill had been built nearby in the 1970s.
Kunesh said the name "Chickamauga" is an English mispronunciation of the Cherokee mispronunciation of a Muskogee word meaning "Upper Chiefdom."
Mark Tolley, of Nashville, was the first to contact Wilhoit and talk to him about the mound on his 25-acre plant site.
Wilhoit said he always thought it was just a small tree-covered hill.
"He [Tolley] filled me in that this was an Indian mound -- 2,000 years old," Wilhoit said. "And Tom [Kunesh] came in and spent hours with me, talking to me about it and its history."
Tolley's day job is running a car dealership, but his passion is mounds and other ancient archaeology.
He is the president of Tennessee Ancient Sites Conservancy Inc., a nonprofit group he organized in 2001 to protect and preserve ancient Southern Indian sites "that exist in many of our own backyards," he said.
Wilhoit said what he heard about the mound on his property touched him.
"We know it is a sacred site. We know it's not to be disturbed," he said.
Kunesh and Tolley, who grew up in Chattanooga and went to college at Sewanee, said the mound was probably built between the years of 600 and 900. They said an unknown band of American Indians, probably Yuchi, buried several respected leaders and elders in a grave near Chickamauga Creek slightly upstream of the creek's mouth on the Tennessee River.
As time passed and leaders changed and respect for the ancestors grew, generations of Indians began adding more dirt on top of the mound. Later they would add more burials and more dirt to create the mound, archaeologists believe.
"Unfortunately, most of these wonderful sites are gone today," Tolley said, noting that thousands of similar mounds in the Southeast have been leveled for road and dam building or for development.
The larger Citico Mound in Chattanooga served in 1864 as a recreational facility for convalescing Union soldiers during the Civil War. It was leveled for the construction of Riverside Drive in 1914.
Tolley said he became fascinated with American Indian history and archaeology as a child, finding arrowheads on the Tennessee River's edge in Hixson.
"Anywhere there's water, there were Native Americans," Tolley said. "It's all fascinating, and it's all right under our feet."
Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at 423-757-6346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.