CHATSWORTH, Ga. — Patty McMahon and 15 other archaeologists were already covered in red Georgia clay while the dew was still on the ground Thursday morning at a string of excavation sites a few hundred yards from the Chief Vann House Historic Site along Georgia Highway 52, historically known as the Old Federal Road.
Thanks to an upcoming state bridge replacement project in Murray County, Georgia, archaeologists are excavating near the historic sites known as God's Acre Cemetery and Springplace Moravian Mission.
They've been excavating along the roadside east of Chatsworth since June 1, two weeks after ground-penetrating radar and a magnetometer were used to determine where signs of human activity were present underground. The magnetometer detects metals, McMahon said.
The group, as many as 18 archaeologists at the beginning, is working to recover artifacts before construction starts later this year.
McMahon — field director for Stone Mountain, Georgia-based firm New South Associates — said the archaeologists have two weeks or so to finish excavating the sites before findings are turned over to the Georgia Department of Transportation. GDOT contracted the firm for the work as part of National Historic Preservation Act requirements to build on historic sites.
"We're [excavating] on the historic Moravian Mission to the Cherokee at Spring Place and that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We also did some work over at the Chief Vann House across the way," McMahon said with a wave north as she stood alongside fellow archaeologist, field technician Katherine Parker, who was practically upside down scraping away red clay from the side of a small pit, called the "wall," to prepare it to be photographed.
"They're both important listed sites and there's no way to avoid them during the road improvements, and portions of the site are going to be destroyed, so GDOT contracted us to excavate as much as we can beforehand so we can get all the information put into a report and do some interpretive stuff, as well," McMahon said. That "information" consists of artifacts of human culture.
GDOT district spokesman Joe Schulman said the archaeological work is being done well in advance of construction.
"It's a bridge replacement project and proposed construction of wider shoulders," he said Friday. The contract has not been awarded and the project is not likely to start until late fall, Schulman said.
VANNS AND MORAVIAN MISSIONARIES
Cherokee Indian Chief James Vann, known as the wealthiest Cherokee, built what was known as the "Showplace of the Cherokee Nation" in 1804, according to historical information from Vann House interpretive ranger Irina Garner. The house, which underwent some restoration in 2018, stands today near the crossroads west of Chatsworth where Vann gave land and his support to the first school for Cherokee children, the Springplace Mission and School.
During the 1790s, James Vann became a Cherokee leader and wealthy businessman, establishing the largest and most prosperous plantation in the Cherokee Nation, covering 1,000 acres of what's now Murray County and operated with the labor of more than 100 African slaves. Several of his businesses lined the road.
While the Moravians were primarily interested in bringing the Gospel to the Cherokee, Vann focused on the education of Cherokee children. Moravian missionaries were associated with the Moravian Church, established in 1457 in eastern Bohemia, according to historical information on the Moravian Church website.
The mission to the Cherokee was founded in 1801 by the Moravian Brethren from Salem, North Carolina. The Mission's cemetery, God's Acre, contains the graves of people believed to be missionaries who were sponsored by Vann. Some of the excavation sites are near the cemetery. "God's Acre," is a common Moravian term for "cemetery."
The relationship between the elder Vann and the missionaries was often rocky, his benevolence, appreciated when he was sober, was countered by his temper when he was drinking, according to missionaries' accounts.
After he was slain in 1809 at nearby Buffington's Tavern, James Vann's young son, Joseph, inherited the mansion and plantation, and also became a Cherokee leader.
The Moravian missionaries recorded diaries of activities and had this to say upon James Vann's death:
"Thus ended the life of one who was feared by many and loved by few in the 41st year of his life Vann had been an instrument in the hand of God for establishing our Mission in this Nation. Never in his wildest orgies had he attempted to harm us. We could not but commend his soul to God's mercy."
Joseph Vann's wealth even exceeded his father's, according to historical information on the Vanns. He would become known as "Rich Joe."
But in the 1830s, nearly all the Cherokee were forced west by state and federal troops on the infamous Trail of Tears. The Vann family lost their beautiful home and reestablished themselves in the Cherokee Territory of Oklahoma, according to state records.
According to historical accounts on plaques near the mission, one of the first actions that Georgia took in preparation of the removal of the Cherokee was to close all the mission stations. On Christmas Eve in 1832, the Georgia militia demanded that the Moravians close the mission. On Jan. 7, 1833, the missionaries bid farewell to their beloved Springplace, and the Georgia militia turned the mission complex into their headquarters during the Cherokee Removal.
By the early 1900's all the structures and gravestones had been removed or destroyed and most of the site, including God's Acre, was developed as farmland.
ADDING TO THE STORY
Anything found by archaeologists in the current excavation project likely "is going to reinforce the primary documents that we already know to be true," Garner said. "Our best primary source documents are the Moravian diaries that were written in the early 1800s by the Moravian missionaries. They have drawn the best maps we have, they have provided the best quotes from both the Vanns and the enslaved Africans who were here."
The missionaries' records are more rudimentary, but the artifacts might help fill in some blanks, Garner said. Structures lost to time show up in the archaeological work as "soil stains" that indicate only the structures' presence but not the details.
McMahon said the "information" archaeologists have collected are features and artifacts that largely consist of flakes from stone tool-making or tool-sharpening, nails, arrowheads, soil stains and tiny fragments of pottery, but so far the work hasn't produced any relics or significant finds.
The pottery fragments "are not very diagnostic," she said, because "they could be from 200 years ago, or 2,000 years ago."
But all of it adds to the story of the Cherokee and the native peoples who preceded them, McMahon said.
"From the flakes we know that there were people here in the past that were making or sharpening their stone tools," she said. "We also find Native American-made pottery, so we know that they were doing other activities here that were more intensive than just an overnight camp."
Cherokee-made pottery was used at the Moravian Mission to trade for European goods, she said. But some of the pottery fragments are older, dating to the Woodland and Mississippian archaeological periods.
The oldest artifacts show the site was an inviting place for human beings over the centuries.
"The spring is down that way, then part of Town Creek runs through here. It's a good land form, so people were on it even before the Cherokee were here," McMahon said, pointing out the locations as cicadas sang in the trees overhead. "There was a good source of water. A good place to live 2,000 years ago is usually a good place to live today."
Archaeologists also have been looking for signs of the mission structure but have had little luck so far, she said. The land all around the Vann House has been used as farmland throughout the decades and continues to be used for agriculture. McMahon said archaeologists would like to find evidence of the exact footprint where the mission stood, but plowing activities over the years disturb those kinds of signs.
Most of the original farm is in private hands and much continues to be used as farmland. Officials said excavations are being done on private property, all adding to the same historic story of the land.
That's what draws lifelong residents of the Spring Place community, Mike and Marie Ballew, into the story.
The Ballews own the property where much of the excavation is going on, with a couple of the excavation sites in their front yard.
"Mike was born in this house [the one they live in now] and I lived in the Vann House when I was a kid. It was owned by an old country doctor [named] Bradford and my dad worked for him and that was our rental house," she said.
Marie Ballew lived in the Vann House until she was 5, she said.
With the unusual scene splayed along the roadside, plenty of curious people, including "a carload of people from Ringgold," have stopped by to ask what's going on, she said.
The Ballews fill them in as they can.
"We're all for history," Marie Ballew said. "Mike's a big lover of history."
As the excavation work comes to a close, larger mechanical equipment may be used, Garner said.
"Near the end of the project, a backhoe will be used to strip away the top layer of soil from larger areas to help uncover possible feature areas," Garner said. "Excavations are expected to last through most of July."
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.
Springplace Moravian Mission & School
“The day at Springplace began with all students up and dressed and kneeling in prayer. After breakfast, school was in session until lunch. The students spent the hours until late afternoon helping with various tasks around the mission, with some time allowed for play. There was another session of school before supper followed by songs and prayer in the evening.” — Moravian missionaries’ description of daily life at the school
Chief James Vann and Charles R. Hicks encouraged the Cherokee Council in 1800 to allow a group of Moravian missionaries to open a school for Cherokee children. Chief Vann purchased this site for that purpose. However, except for this cemetery and the limestone spring that supplied its name, there is very little to remind visitors that the Springplace Moravian Mission once stood here.
In 1801, Vann’s daughter, Sarah, became the first student at the mission, making Springplace the first school in the Cherokee Nation. During its 32-year history, more than 100 Cherokee students began their education at the school. Instruction included religion, reading, writing, science, arithmetic, history, farming and housekeeping. Eventually, the mission complex grew to include a chapel, missionary residences, a dormitory, a “house for stranger,” farm buildings, several large fields and an orchard. When a young student named Dawnee fell ill and died while attending Springplace, the missionaries began a “God’s Acre,” a common Moravian term for cemeteries, at this spot, which was in the orchard at that time.
One of the first actions that Georgia took in preparation of the removal of the Cherokee was to close all the mission stations. On Christmas Eve in 1832, the Georgia militia demanded that the Moravians close the mission. On January 7, 1833, the Missionaries bid farewell to their beloved Springplace. The Georgia militia turned the mission complex into their headquarters during the Cherokee Removal.
By the early 1900’s all the structures and gravestones had been removed or destroyed and the majority of the site, including the God’s Acre, was developed as farmland.
Archaeologists using ground penetrating radar rediscovered the burial sites in 2000 and this two acre tract was donated to the State of Georgia in 2002 by Moses and Merritt Bond in honor of Ida Keith Treadwell and Thelma Treadwell Bond.
Source: Springplace Morovian Mission and School historical records and markers