Atlanta's Ancient Trails

The 1821 Land Survey

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Tommy H Jones 2019


The early trails avoided rough or swampy terrain and dense undergrowth such as laurel thickets and cane brakes for the same reasons we would: ease of travel and protection of footwear and garments. These trails often followed ridgelines and other high ground, which typically offered firmer footing and fewer obstacles to travel, and they were usually less than two feet wide as people wound their way single-file through the area’s hilly and heavily wooded landscape. With the introduction of horses among the southeastern Indians in the 1690s, some trails were widened to four, five, or even six feet in width.

Figure 1. A typical early trail might have resembled this modern trail at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. (Author’s photograph, 2014)

The routes of trails were often dictated by the presence of convenient crossings of the area’s numerous rivers and streams, the most notable of which near modern-day Atlanta was Shallow Ford on the Chattahoochee River, eighteen miles north of downtown but now drowned by Bull Sluice Lake. There were also river fords near the mouth of Peachtree Creek and, ten miles downstream from there, at Buzzards Roost; and Rock Bridge on the Yellow River twenty-five miles to the southeast was an important landmark for early people as well. Other natural features were also destinations, including Soapstone Ridge, six miles southeast of downtown, where steatite was being quarried, worked, and traded as early as 3000 BCE, and Stone Mountain, where the trail up its western slope has been in use for thousands of years.

With the rise of agriculture, the human population grew, and settled villages became destinations in their own right. The falls of the Savannah River, near present-day Augusta, is the site of some of the earliest, more or less permanent human occupation yet documented in the southern Piedmont, beginning by at least 1500 BCE. A series of important, long-distance trails radiated from those falls, to the west forking and forking again into paths that, during the historic period, led to the Cherokee towns in northern Georgia and Tennessee and to the Creek towns on the lower Chattahoochee, Tallapoosa, and Coosa Rivers.

Interpretation of the region's system of pre-Contact trails is complicated by the fact that the routes of trails were not immutable; fallen trees or flooding from a beaver dam, for example, might precipitate permanent rerouting of a trail. In addition, trails were not so much a single entity as they were a braid of alternative routes, some of which might, for example, provide a shorter route but be impassable in wet weather, others longer but more reliable. Trails often went by different names, too, depending on one’s destination, much as a single thoroughfare in the modern city is known as Marietta Street to the west of Five Points and Decatur Street to the east. As the noted ethnographer John R. Swanton (1873–1958) cautioned, “there is, and always must be, considerable artificiality in the determination of what constitutes a trail, and where a trail begins and ends.” It is, he wrote, “largely a matter of convention which of two branches of a trail should be considered as the fork and which as the main trail.” [1]

Figure 2. W. E. Myers’s map of principle Indian trails across the southeastern United States. (“Indian Trails of the Southeast,” Forty-second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology: 747)

Figure 3. USGS map annotated to highlight waterways and delineate general routes of early trails in and around what is now the City of Atlanta. Dashed red lines denote the city’s corporate limits, solid black lines denote the trails delineated on the survey plats in 1821, and dashed black lines the approximate route of other important trails that are documented elsewhere
in the historical record. (United States Geological Survey, topographical map with author’s annotations, 2014)


These ancient trails were often used for travel over quite long distances, whether in trade or in war, and the Hightower Trail was one of the best known near what is now the City of Atlanta. It diverged from the Upper Creek Trading Path just west of the Oconee River in eastern Morgan County and led in a northwesterly direction via Rock Bridge to Shallow Ford. From there it continued to the great convergence of trails in and around Etowah near Cartersville, the site of a magnificent Mississippian mound complex. The exact route of most ancient trails is often difficult to determine, but the Hightower Trail was used in the Treaty with the Creeks in 1818 to define part of Georgia’s new western border. In 1821 when another treaty shifted the border even further to the west, the trail became the line between Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. Although the boundary has been adjusted in a few places, the original boundary between the counties, and so the location of the Hightower Trail and the Shallow Ford, can be readily identified in the boundary between the Sixth and Seventeenth Districts in north Fulton County. A segment of the route also survives west of Dunwoody Place and is still called Hightower Trail. [2]

Figure 4. Rocky Ford on Peachtree Creek, between Northside Drive and Howell Mill Road, where trails converged at the first good ford upstream from Standing Peachtree. (Author’s photograph, 2014)


Just west of Rock Bridge, another long-distance trail diverged from the Hightower Trail and led in a westerly direction. Often called the Sand Town Trail, it crossed the Chattahoochee River at Buzzards Roost, just downstream from the mouth of Utoy Creek, eleven miles west of downtown. From there, it continued on to the towns of the Upper Creek in Alabama. The main route of the Sand Town Trail appears to have followed what is now Rockbridge Road to Decatur and then MARTA’s East Line to Five Points in downtown Atlanta and southwest along the high ground between Utoy and Camp Creeks to Buzzards Roost, where the river could be forded. Part of the route of the Sand Town Trail is approximated in the block of modern Trinity Avenue west of Forsyth Street, Peters Street, and Cascade Road in southwest Atlanta. [3]

About a half mile east of today's I-285, the Sand Town Trail, now Rockbridge Road, met the trail between Stone Mountain and Standing Peachtree, near today's Memorial Drive, and continued in a westerly direction along a route approximated by today’s N. Decatur Road as it runs through North Decatur and Druid Hills, Rock Springs Road through Morningside, and part of Montgomery Ferry Road across Piedmont Heights into Sherwood Forest. The route westward from there is lost until picked up again with Collier Road through Collier Hills and on to DeFoors Ferry Road and the site of Standing Peachtree.

Figure 5. The Old Marietta Road, looking south, on the western edge of Crest Lawn Cemetery in northwest Atlanta, one of the city’s best-preserved early roads. First paved with asphalt early in the twenty-first century, it tracks one of the trails delineated in the 1821 land-lot surveys and would have provided a magnificent panoramic view of Standing Peachtree. (Author’s photograph, 2014)

Just east of what is now Briarcliff Road, the trail to Standing Peachtree forked, with the southern fork designated on the Seventeenth District plat of survey as the “Sand Town Path,” which was another strand in the braid of the larger Sand Town Trail and is shown crossing Morningside and the southeast side of Piedmont Park to Eighth Street near Argonne Avenue, where the Seventeenth District survey ended at the district’s southern boundary. The trail certainly continued in a southerly direction from there, but it was not delineated in the surveys for the adjoining Fourteenth District. Given topography and the route of other trails recorded in the 1821 surveys (of which more below), it may well be that the southern end of this segment of the “Sand Town Path” was also the genesis of what is now Peachtree Street south of Midtown. [4]

Finally there was what has been called the Peachtree Trail, which was a series of trails that followed the high ground paralleling the Chattahoochee River out of Tugaloo on the Savannah River in present-day Stephens County and the other Lower Cherokee towns in northeastern Georgia and western South Carolina. Passing Suwanee, site of a Shawnee village that had been abandoned before 1780, the Peachtree Trail continued southwesterly before branching just west of Duluth, with one branch following in a westerly direction the high ground between Long Island and Nancy Creeks, generally marked today by Spalding Drive, Mount Vernon Road and Highway, Glenridge Drive west of Johnson Ferry Road, Roswell Road between Glenridge and Mt. Paran Roads, and the latter and Ridgewood Road on to Standing Peachtree. Along the way, it intersected trails to Shallow Ford and others downstream between there and Peachtree Creek.

From the branching of the Peachtree Trail in what is now western Gwinnett County, the main route continued to the southwest to Standing Peachtree, with much of its path inside I-285 approximated today by the route of Peachtree Road north of W. Paces Ferry Road, where Henry Irby would establish his fabled Buckhead Tavern in the 1830s. Near there, a trail branched to the southeast, leading to fords in Peachtree Creekaround today's Lindbergh Drive, a predecessor to what became E. Paces Ferry Road. Another trail branched to the southwest to fords in the creek around today's Howell Mill Road. The northern end of the latter trail would evolve into modern Peachtree Road as it runs between W. Paces Ferry Road and Andrews Drive. From Buckhead, the main route of the Peachtree Trail continued to the west along what is now W. Paces Ferry Road before turning to the southwest at what is now Moores Mill Road, which it followed then to Standing Peachtree.



Standing Peachtree

The most important of the few Indian settlements around what is now metropolitan Atlanta was Standing Peachtree on the Chattahoochee River near the mouth of Peachtree Creek, six miles northwest of downtown. The river could be forded there at least part of the year, and the archaeological record suggests that the site was first inhabited during the Mississippian period, perhaps a thousand years ago. Clusters of houses amid fields of corn, beans, and squash were scattered on both sides of the river for several miles, but Standing Peachtree appears to have been the primary village. The State’s land surveys in 1821 show a convergence of trails around Land Lot 231, which encompasses the mouth of Peachtree Creek and the heart of Standing Peachtree. Just west of what is now Ridgewood Road, near the center of the land lot and encircled today by Coronet Way, there apparently was a large earthen mound; at least one more mound stood across the river, with still others further downstream. [5]

Figure 6. Detail from Eleazar Early’s map of Georgia, published in 1818 and the first to depict the most-recent Creek land cession. Although it is the earliest state map to show Standing Peachtree, the map is highly distorted, with Shallow Ford (lower left) far south of its actual location and Buzzard Roost and Standing Peachtree (just above center) on opposite banks of the Chattahoochee River upstream from Shallow Ford when they were themselves miles apart and downstream from the ford. (Historic Maps, Surveyor General, RG 3-8-65, Georgia Archives)


Standing Peachtree was a Creek town which they called Pakanahuili, with huili the Muscogee word for “standing,” an adjective often found in early place names such as Standing Boy Creek near Columbus and Standing Rock near Senoia. As for the tree, some have argued that it was not a peach tree at all, but a “pitch tree,” a great pine which grew on the hill on the north side of the creek and which the Indians blazed for its resin, or pitch. The most widely accepted explanation for the name, and one that is in accord with the historical record, is contained in an 1897 newspaper interview with noted Atlanta pioneer George Washington Collier (1814–1903). He had come to the area with his family just after the War of 1812 and delivered mail from the post office at Standing Peach Tree to Allatoona in what is now southeastern Bartow County in the early 1830s. He recalled that “[t]here was a great huge mound of earth heaped up there—big as this house, maybe bigger—and right on top of it grew a big peach tree.” That, Collier said, was the origin of the name.[6]

Peaches were introduced into the New World by the Spaniards in the late sixteenth century and were often cultivated by the Indians; the great naturalist William Bartram noted “old Peach and Plumb orchards” in his travels through the upper Savannah River valley in the 1770s. Mounds at Standing Peachtree and elsewhere in the vicinity of Atlanta have been obliterated, some within the last fifty years, but their presence around the mouth of Peachtree Creek is documented in the historical record. Although the most prominent of the mounds was destroyed when the city built the pumping station for its waterworks in 1893, it nevertheless may be true that a solitary peach tree, growing on top of an ancient Mississippian mound, gave rise to the name, “Standing Peach Tree.” [7]

The place name first appears in the historical record in a letter dated 27 May 1782 from John Martin, head of the Georgia militia, to an unnamed recipient but copied to Gen. Andrew Pickens. Martin had just returned from a meeting with friendly Muscogee chiefs and pleaded for assistance against the faction of the Creek Nation allied with the British in the colonies’ ongoing war for independence. He warned the general that “Mr. McIntosh [one of the principal Creek chiefs] with a strong party of Cowetas etc. were to rendezvous at the Standing Peach Tree the 26th of this month and they were afterwards to meet at the Big Shoal where to fall on the Okonnys on our Frontiers, therefore we have every reason to expect they will be in upon our back settlements in about 8 or 10 days at the farthest.” The outcome of that particular threat is not clear, but Georgia’s conflict with the Creek would continue for decades to come. [8]

Figure 7. Detail from 1821 plat of survey for the 17th District, showing the convergence in Land Lot 231 of the Peach Tree Road, now Moores Mill Road, from upper right; River Road, now Bolton Road, from lower left; and the Stone Mountain Trail, now DeFoors Ferry Road from lower right, at the heart of the village of Standing Peachtree. (Records of the Surveyor General, Georgia Archives)d


In August 1790, representatives of the Creek Nation signed a treaty with United States commissioners that, in addition to guaranteeing “perpetual peace and friendship,” fixed Georgia’s western frontier at the Oconee River, sixty or seventy miles east of today’s Atlanta. It did not remain there long. A treaty in 1805 pushed the boundary thirty or forty miles further west to the Ocmulgee and Alcovy Rivers and also provided that “the government of the United States shall forever hereafter have a right to a horse path, through the Creek country, from the Ocmulgee to the Mobile.” The Creek were irate, however, to discover that simple foot logs over the creeks for what was purported to be a post road, as stipulated in the treaty, had morphed into bridges and the horse path itself into a wagon road, all part and parcel of Gen. Andrew Jackson’s strategy to destroy the Creek confederacy. With these roads, one historian noted, “the palimpsest was scored again as the trading paths, post roads, and traveler’s routes were rutted with commissary wagons and heavy weaponry.”[9]

In June 1812 war broke out between the United States and Great Britain, just as the Creek Nation was descending into civil war. The so-called Red Stick faction of the Creek was more than ready to fight on the side of the British, and their raids on the Georgia and Alabama frontier culminated in a dreadful massacre of white settlers, militia, and their Indian allies at Fort Mims in Alabama on 30 August 1813. By October, the federal agent for the Creek reported to the commander of the Georgia Militia that the Red Sticks were threatening to destroy all of the Lower Creek towns and “then take the post road, enter Georgia, ravage all before us out round Hog Mountain,” in what is now northern Gwinnett County but was then the westernmost point on the Georgia frontier. The state militia’s fort at Hog Mountain, known as Fort Daniel, was soon rebuilt and its garrison strengthened as state and federal forces, along with their friendly Indian allies, combined to put down the Red Sticks.


Peachtree Road

The genesis of Peachtree Road lay in the logistics of supplying the main United States military garrison at Fort Mitchell, in Alabama ten or so miles downstream from where Columbus, Georgia, would be founded in the 1820s. Using the Federal Road proved daunting, and the army decided to build a palisaded, log fort on the Chattahoochee River at Standing Peachtree. Below that point, the river was navigable by shallow-draft flatboat, which the military intended to use to supply Fort Mitchell, a hundred miles to the southwest. In early January 1814, Maj. Thomas Bourke of the Army Quartermaster Corps blazed a road from Fort Daniel to Standing Peachtree, reporting to his superior in a letter dated 11 January 1814 that he found eighteen miles of the proposed forty-mile route “had been made use of by Waggons already.” He hired local contractors Robert Young (1760–1851), Isham Williams (1776–1852), and William Nesbit (1789–1863), who in turn engaged crews to actually clear the remainder of the road. It is thought that the new road incorporated ancient trails, but precisely where the route might have deviated from the earlier trails remains uncertain. In some places the surveyors are likely to have identified a new route better suited for a wagon road as they worked their way to the southwest along the high ground between Peachtree and Nancy Creeks to Standing Peachtree. By the spring of 1814, the road was more or less complete.[10]

Figure 8. Detail from 1821 plat of the 8th District in Gwinnett County. Fort Daniel sat near the intersection, lower right, of the “Hawkins Line” and the headwaters of the Alcovy River. The parallel dashed lines delineate the eastern end of the route of Peachtree Road as it wound in a northwesterly direction from the fort toward Suwanee. Most of the route delineated here remains in use today. (Records of the Surveyor General, Georgia Archives)


Sometimes designated “the road to Standing Peach Tree,” that designation initially depended on the direction of travel. From the perspective of the Georgia frontier pushing to the southwest, it was “the Peachtree Road,” but anyone returning from Creek territory would probably have been looking for the “Hog Mountain Road.” Locally it was almost always “the Peach Tree Road,” typically contracted to Peachtree Road by the 1840s. Although sections of the original road were largely obliterated by construction of the Air Line Railroad in the 1870s and by interstate highways a hundred years later, its route is documented in the State’s 1821 district plats of survey, and much of it can still be traced in a series of modern roads running through landscapes rural, suburban, and intensely urban.

Figure 9. Detail from 1821 plat of survey for part of what is now DeKalb County, with parallel dashed lines delineating “Road to Standing Peach Tree” running from the Hightower Trail and the Gwinnett County line, upper right, southwest toward the Fulton County line, lower left. Much of this route remains in use today. (Records of the Surveyor General, Georgia Archives)


At the same time, the War Department extended a “River Road” from Standing Peachtree south to Sand Town. Like the Peachtree Road and other similar military roads in Georgia and Alabama, it facilitated the United States’ slow-motion invasion of the Creek Nation. Until 1821, the Peachtree and River Roads remained the only wagon roads in what became the City of Atlanta.

In vain the Creek Nation tried to define and protect its borders, but regardless of any treaty guarantees, the invasion of their nation by a flood of white settlers continued unabated. With little opposition from the State of Georgia, the newcomers flouted federal and tribal law by hunting, fishing, growing crops, and establishing large plantations inside the boundaries of the Creek Nation. Federal troops were sent to destroy farms, burn houses and remove the “intruders,” but as soon as the soldiers were gone, the squatters were back. Col. Hugh Montgomery, the federal government’s Indian agent, was “at a loss what to do” and bemoaned in a letter to the governor, “The prevailing idea in Georgia (especially among the lower class) . . . [is] that they are the rightful owners of the soil, and that the Indians are mere tenants at will; and indeed, Sir, there is only one point on which all parties both high and low in Georgia agree, and that is, that they all want the Indian lands.” [11]



1. John R. Swanton, "Preface" to William Moyer, "Indian Trails of the Southeast," 42nd Annual Report of Bureau of American Ethnology (1924-1925), 731.

2. John Goff, "The Hightower Trail," The Collections of the DeKalb Historical Society 1:2-4 (Decatur: Ga, 1951).

3. John Goff, "The Sandtown Trail,” The Atlanta Historical Bulletin 11, no. 4 (December 1966), argues that "Sand Town" originally referred to a large Creek town in Alabama. After 1814, some of its inhabitants moved east and settled the eponymous area near the prehistoric settlement of Buzzard's Roost in what is now south Fulton County. Also see Marion R. Hemperly, Historic Indian Trails of Georgia (Atlanta, GA: Garden Club of Georgia, 1989), 30-31.

4. The plat of survey for the Seventeenth District and the land lot surveys name the "Sand Town Path." State of Georgia, records of the State Surveyor General, Record Group 003-03-024, District Surveys, 1821, Georgia Archives.

5. The history of Standing Peachtree has long been an object of study for local historians. Anthony Doyle’s Standing Peachtree Revisited: A Cold Case of Native Provenance (Atlanta, GA: privately published 2011) is the most thorough examination of available documentation, including archaeology. Older studies remain useful, including Eugene M. Mitchell, ‘The Story of ‘The Standing Peachtree’,” Atlanta Historical Bulletin 1, no. 2 (January 1928): 8–19; Wilbur G. Kurtz, “Standing Peachtree,” Early Georgia 1, no. 2 (Fall 1950): 30–42; and Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. 1 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1954, facsimile reprint 1969, 1982 printing), 8. Also N. Finegan and W. E. Merrill, map, Atlanta & vicinity: compiled from state map and information (Chattanooga, Tenn. : United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, 1864) notes a shoal in the river between the small island and the mouth of Peachtree Creek and that it was “fordable in summer.”

6. John Goff, Placenames of Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974, paperback edition 2007), 171-2. Collier quoted by Robert Adamson, "'The Oldest Inhabitant'--Came Here a Full Generation before Atlanta was Started--An Afternoon with the Pioneer at Home," Atlanta Constitution, 25 April 1897, microfilm at Atlanta-Fulton County Library.

7. Mitchell, “The Story of ‘The Standing Peachtree’,” notes the mound on the site of the old waterworks pumping station on the south side of the creek. Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. 1, 8, notes the presence of another mound on the west side of the river. A mound is thought to have been destroyed when Six Flags Over Georgia was built in the mid-1960s. Dylan Woodliff, “Revisiting Anneewakee Creek (9DO2),” Society for Georgia Archaeology, accessed 26 March 2015, discusses a recently destroyed mound on the west side of the river in Douglas County opposite Campbellton.

8. Quotation in Kurtz, "Standing Peachtree," 31.

9.Angela Pulley Hudson, Creek Paths and Federal Roads: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves and the Making of the American South (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 113.

10. James D'Angelo, Ph.D., R.P.A., "A New Take on an Old Story: Fort Daniel, Fort Peachtree, and the Road that Connected Them," Gwinnett Historical Society Heritage 43, No. 1 (Spring 2014), 6-8. D'Angelo has directed archaeological research on the site of Fort Daniel and has also done extensive archival research in state records to document the origins of the forts and the road between them. His conclusions challenge some of the traditional accounts of those early events. See "The Fort Daniel Foundation, Inc." accessed online at <http://www.thefortdanielfoundation .org/History.htm, 6 June 2014>. For the traditional story, see Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. 1, 13-16; and James C. Flanagan, History of Gwinnett County Georgia 1818-1943. Vol. 1. (Lawrenceville, GA: 1943, facsimile reprint by Alice Flanagan, 1995), 16-18.

11. Montgomery quoted in Sarah Blackwell Gober Temple, The First Hundred Years: A Short History of Cobb County in Georgia. (Marietta, GA: Cobb Landmarks and Historical Society, 1997, reprint of 1935 edition), 18.


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The 1821 Land Survey