This gazebo-topped mound at the edge of the Nacoochee Valley near Helen is one of the most iconic and most-photographed locations in Georgia. But much of what you know about it may not be true. For starters, it isn’t the original mound, but a reconstruction completed after an archaeological excavation. There were at least a dozen such mounds in the Nacoochee Valley at one time, but as the land was converted to agricultural use, all but this one were destroyed. Traditionally, it was believed that this was a relic of the Cherokee, and a Georgia historical marker at the site still makes this case, but research now invalidates this. The confusion can likely be attributed to the long held myth of star-crossed lovers Sautee, a Chickasaw warrior, and Nacoochee, a Cherokee chieftain’s daughter. Supposedly, they fell in love after a chance meeting and sought refuge on adjacent Mt. Yonah. When Nacoochee’s father became aware of the relationship, he ordered Sautee thrown from the mountaintop while his terrified daughter was forced to watch. She then jumped to her death and locked hands with the dying Sautee at the bottom of the mountain. The legend maintained that they were buried together in the mound. Great story, but almost certainly a myth. Instead it is believed to have been used by a South Appalachian Mississippian tribe, between 800-1600 AD/CE.
If you’ve seen the mound, you might be surprised to learn that it’s nearly 40 feet in height. The average visitor sees it from the roadside and because it sits in the valley, it doesn’t seem that tall. The beautiful gazebo was placed atop the mound by James Hall Nichols after he purchased the property, probably circa 1870. And while a gazebo doesn’t belong on a burial site of this nature, Nichols’s interest in its proximity to the house he was building and the view it afforded likely saved it from the fate of the other mounds in the Nacoochee Valley. A 1915 excavation revealed that there were 75 burials in the mound, confirming the connection to the Mississippian culture. It’s also referred to at the Sautee-Nacoochee Mound.
Nacoochee Valley Historic District, National Register of Historic Places