‘Indiana Jones’ explores 200-year-old church grounds in Georgia's Cherokee Nation


DAWSONVILLE, Ga. – A black Jeep Grand Cherokee made its way slowly along a narrow U.S. Forest Service road Thursday, bucking and jolting across washouts and fallen tree branches in a remote section of north Georgia, a canoe strapped to the roof.

Behind the wheel was Southern Baptist historian Charles Jones whose latest research project took him to a wilderness area along the banks of the Etowah River to look for telltale signs of one of Georgia’s earliest churches where some of the state’s original inhabitants worshipped two centuries ago.

For Jones, research most often involves visits to archives where he sifts through historical records, but on this day he’s walking the Georgia hills, keeping a sharp eye out for likely locations for the long defunct Tinsawattee Meeting House used by Christians within the Cherokee Nation.

Jones and longtime Georgia pastor Todd Gaddis, both  from Athens, unloaded a canoe loaned to them by Appalachian Outfitters in Dahlonega. They guided it into the Etowah in a spot that might possibly have been used for baptisms by the Cherokee believers.

They paddled upstream toward Amicalola Creek, envisioning the time when members of the Cherokee Nation might have done the same.

“I’ve always had an innate curiosity, and being here helps me to understand a bit about what it was like for the people who lived here, to understand the conditions in which they lived,” Jones said.

In his book Cherokees and Baptists in Georgia, Robert G. Gardner cited early church records that showed the Cherokee village near the junction of the Etowah and Amicalola had several buildings, including the meeting house, a double log cabin, smokehouse, corn crib, and stable.

Jones and Gaddis walked the property, looking for remnants of stone chimneys, rock foundations or other evidence to suggest where the buildings may have stood in the early 1800s when Baptist missionary Duncan O’Bryant was serving the Tinsawattee church of about 30 members.

They found a couple of sites where buildings may have stood, but they couldn’t be certain. Two centuries had effectively masked the sites.

The Native Americans had left the village when, as Gardner explained in his book, an influx of prospectors began crowding into the Georgia mountains as part of America’s first gold rush in 1829.

Facing almost constant harassment from prospectors, Jones said the Native Americans headed for present day Oklahoma. They did so, he said, several years before the government’s forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears.

Jones said Cherokee believers left behind the familiar land along the Etowah, where they fished, hunted, grew corn, and raised livestock, and marched toward the unknown.

Walking the land inhabited by the Native Americans who worshipped at the Tinsawattee Meeting House gave Jones a perspective he couldn’t get from documents. The documents couldn’t capture the sounds of the singing birds he heard here, nor the whisper of wind through the pines, nor the splash of fish breaking the surface of the streams.

Jones, an avid hiker, said being outdoors on Thursday was a treat for a historian who spends “hours upon hours” in libraries and archives examining records.

But he said the research he does is just as much fun for him.

“Sometimes you may go for hours and find very little helpful information in those places,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, you’ll find a gem, and it’ll be like, wow. It makes all those hours worthwhile.”

Gaddis likened Jones to Hollywood's Indiana Jones character, saying he's just as adept on adventures as he is in archives.

"His trail name is Atlas because he's a walking map," Gaddis said. "He doesn't get lost in the woods. He knows a lot about many things, especially as they relate to nature and history. He's a walking Bureau of Information. I tell people, 'instead of Googling something, I Charles it."