Topography, Trails, and Standing Peachtree

War Roads, Squatters, and the 1821 Land Survey

Wagon Roads, Railroads, and Atlanta

The Air Line Railroad

Formalizing the Peachtrees

Looking for the Road to Standing Peachtree

Sources of Information







The Georgia piedmont around Atlanta is a landscape of rolling, tree-covered hills cut through with several small rivers and numerous creeks and streams, all of which were among the factors that shaped the earliest trails across the landscape. With an average elevation of around a thousand feet above sea level, Atlanta is situated on the Eastern Continental Divide, which separates the watersheds flowing to the Atlantic Ocean and those flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. The divide drops into Georgia in Rabun County and meanders to the southwest through downtown Atlanta where it turns sharply to the south and southeast. The high ground along which Norcross, Tucker, Decatur, downtown Atlanta, East Point, Hapeville, and Morrow developed helps identify the divide's irregular arc through the metropolitan area.

Figure 2-1. USGS map encompassing the City of Atlanta and its northern and eastern suburbs, annotated to highlight the waterways and other natural landmarks that influenced where and how trails first developed. The red dashed lines delineate the modern city limits of Atlanta. (U.S. Geological Survey, annotations by author, 2014.)

Bounding the city on the northwest is the largest river in the area, the Chattahoochee, which originates in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia and grows into a substantial stream as it flows in a southwesterly direction across the piedmont. The course of the river generally parallels the ancient Brevard Fault Zone, but just north of Atlanta, the river abruptly changes course several times as it breaks through that zone, creating a series of palisades and shoals.

Perhaps the most prominent natural landmarks near Atlanta are Stone Mountain, fifteen miles to the east, an enormous granitic monadnock with an elevation 1,686' above sea level, and Kennesaw Mountain, twenty miles to the northwest, and its twin peaks, the highest with an elevation of 1,808'. Both mountains are visible from several points in the city, if one can get above the tree cover. In 1838, Aaron Cloud created the area's first tourist attraction when he built a wood-framed tower, 165 feet high, on top of Stone Mountain. An early visitor noted, "[t]he prospects we attained were wide and beautiful, having the single fault of being rather too monotonous. The eyes rest upon a vast continuity of forest." [1]

Figure 2-2. Foot paths criss-crossed the Georgia piedmont long before European settlement. Many of them were probably much like this modern trail at Chattahoo-chee River National Recreation Area. (Photograph by author, 2014)

People were walking the woodlands of eastern North America by at least 13,000 years ago, and perhaps long before that. The first were nomadic hunters and gatherers who followed game and the seasons in a subsistence lifestyle, stopping occasionally to build temporary and sometimes seasonal shelters or to take advantage of natural rock shelters, such as the sixteeen documented by National Park Service archaeologists along the Chattahoochee River between Buford Dam and Peachtree Creek.

People everywhere have always walked, "veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering," as author Thomas Clark put it. Long before European contact, the indigenous people of southeastern North America had created an elaborate system of foot paths, many following tracks worn by buffalo and other megafauna through eons of use prior to the arrival of humans. Crisscrossing eastern North America, these ancient trails were often used for travel over quite long distances, whether in trade or war or simply in maintaining contact with distant family members. [2]

The early trails avoided rough or swampy terrain and dense undergrowth such as laurel thickets and cane brakes for the same reasons we do, ease of travel and protection of shoes and garments. Often following ridgelines and other high ground, which typically offered firmer footing and fewer obstacles to travel, 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 widespread use of horses among the southeastern Indians in the early eighteenth century, some trails were widened through constant use to four, five, or even six feet wide.

Figure 2-3. Myers's map of major Indian trails across the southeastern United States. (William Edward Meyer, "Indian Trails of the Southeast," Forty-second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, 1924–1925, 727–854)


The routes of trails were often dictated by the presence of convenient crossings of the area's numerous rivers and streams. One of the most notable near modern-day Atlanta was Shallow Ford on the Chattahoochee River, which was eighteen miles north of downtown but now drowned by Bull Sluice Lake. There were other river fords downstream, including near the mouth of Peachtree Creek and, ten miles downstream from there, at Buzzards Roost. Rock Bridge on the DeKalb-Rockdale County line was a natural bridge of sorts over the Yellow River and an important landmark for early people. Other natural features were important destinations, including Soapstone Ridge, six miles southeast of downtown, where steatite was being quarried, worked, and widely 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, were the site of some of the earliest, more or less permanent, human occupation yet documented in 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 in southern Georgia and Alabama.

Most 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. In addition trails often went by different names, depending on one's destination. 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." In addition, he noted that it is "largely a matter of convention which of two branches of a trail should be considered as the fork and which as the main trail." [3]

The Hightower Trail was one of the best known of the ancient, long-distance Indian trails 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, the site of a magnificent Mississippian mound complex that was re-settled by the Cherokee in the eighteenth century. 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 what remains the line between Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. Although the Gwinnett County boundary is now eight or nine miles upstream, the original boundary between the two counties, and so the location of Shallow Ford, can still be readily identified in the boundary between the Sixth and Seventeenth Districts. A segment of the route also survives west of Dunwoody Place and is still called Hightower Trail. [4]

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, an island 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. Not until about 1814 did a band of Creek relocate from Alabama to the Chattahoochee River, where they established a small village known as Sand Town, apparently after the eponymous village they had left in Alabama. The main route of the Sand Town Trail appears to have followed what is now Rockbridge Road to Decatur and then to Five Points in downtown Atlanta and southwest along the high ground between Utoy and Camp Creeks to Buzzards Roost, where there was a good ford in the river. Part of the route of the Sand Town Trail is approximated in today's Cascade Road, Peters Street, and the block of Trinity Avenue west of Forsyth Street. [5]

Figure 2-4. USGS map annotated to delineate general routes of Indian paths and trails that existed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Red lines indicate the corporate limits of the City of Atlanta. Solid lines indicate the routes of trails delineated on the 1821 district plats of survey and/or the plats of individual land lots. Black dashed lines indicate the approximate route of other important trails that are documented elsewhere in the historical record. (U.S. Geological Survey, annotations by Tommy H Jones, 2014.)


In what is now downtown Decatur, the Sand Town Trail crossed an important north-south trail connecting Flat Shoals and Indian Springs to the Shallow Ford, its route still traced in parts of Candler, Clairmont, and Shallowford Roads in DeKalb County. A mile or so northwest of downtown, the trail to Standing Peachtree forked from the Shallow Ford Trail in a westerly direction, its route partly recalled in today's Clairmont and Shallowford Roads. A trail to Standing Peachtree left the Shallowford Trail a mile or so north of the Sand Town Trail, trending in a westerly direction along a route approximated by today's N. Decatur Road as it runs through Druid Hills, Rock Springs Road through Morningside, and 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 Standing Peachtree at the mouth of Peachtree Creek. [6]

The State's land surveys in 1821 show the trail to Standing Peachtree forking just east of what is now Briarcliff Road, with the southern fork designated on the surveys as the "Sand Town Path," another strand in the braid of the Sand Town Trail. That "path," a term used more or less interchangeably with "trail," is shown crossing the southeast side of Piedmont Park but ending at 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 Fourteenth District. Given topography and the route of other trails recorded in the 1821 surveys (of which more below), it may be that the southern end of this segment of the "Sand Town Path" was also the first incarnation of what is now Peachtree Street south of Midtown.

Finally there was what has been called the Peachtree Trail, which may have been part of a series of trails that followed the high ground along the southeast side of the Chattahoochee River from Tugaloo in present-day Stephens County and the other Lower Cherokee towns in northeastern Georgia and western South Carolina. Passing Suwanee, site of a Shawnee settlement that had been abandoned by the end of the eighteenth century, the Peachtree Trail continued southwesterly before branching just west of Duluth, with one branch following the high ground on the north side of Nancy Creek, the other following the ridge on the south, and Standing Peachtree being the destination of both.


Standing Peachtree

The most important of the few Indian settlements around what is now metropolitan Atlanta was Standing Peachtree, located on the Chattahoochee River near the mouth of Peachtree Creek, six miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, where the river could be forded at least part of the year. The archaeological record suggests that the site was first inhabited during the Mississippian period, perhaps a thousand years ago. There were clusters of houses amid fields of corn, beans, and squash on both sides of the river for several miles, but Standing Peachtree appears to have been the primary village. At an early date it also emerged as an important post for English trade with both the Creek and the Cherokee, who occupied the northwest side of the river. [7]

Figure 2-5. Detail from Eleazer Early's Map of the State of Georgia, published in 1818 and the first to depict the most-recent Creek land cession and the first to show Standing Peachtree; but the map is highly distorted and locates Shallow Ford (lower left) far south of its actual location and Buzzard Roost and Standing Peachtree (center) on opposite banks of the Chattahoochee River upstream from Shallow Ford when they were themselves miles apart and downstream from the ford. (Georgia Archives)


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, was a large earthen mound, and there was at least one more mound across the river. Still others could be found further down the river. The surveyor marked no trails for that particular land lot, but the trace of some of the trails delineated in the surrounding land lots survives in the tangle of roads in and around the present waterworks and industrialized Bolton.

The place first appears in the historical record as "the standing Peach Tree” in a letter dated 27 May 1782 from John Martin of the Georgia militia to Gen. Andrew Pickens, who led the South Carolina militia, pleading for assistance against the Creek who were allied with the British in the ongoing American war for independence. Martin warned the general that "Mr. McIntosh 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 [Oconees] 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." [8]

The Creek called the place 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. [9]

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 still may be true that a solitary peach tree, growing on top of an ancient Mississippian mound, gave rise to the place's name, "Standing Peach Tree."

Figure 2-6. Google Earth view of the site of Standing Peachtree in 2013. All trace of the ancient site has been obliterated by modern industrial development, except for that which lives on in the jumble of roads that grew out of the confluence of trails in and around the ancient village.



1 Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. 1 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1954, facsimile reprint 1969, 1982 printing), 159.

2. Thomas Clark quoted in Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 13. Louis DeVorsey, "Indian Trails," New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 5 April 2014. On the ubiquity and character of early trails, see William Edward Meyer, "Indian Trails of the Southeast," Forty-second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, 1924-1925 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1928), 739, 743.

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

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

5.  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.

6. 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.

7. The history of Standing Peachtree has long been an object of study for local historians. See 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; 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, 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."Mitchell notes the mound on the site of the waterworks pumping station on the south side of the creek. Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. 1 (University of Georgia Press, 1954, facsimile reprint 1969), 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 opposite today's Campbellton.

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

9. 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.


This and associated web pages are an expanded version of a paper presented at the Preserving Historic Roads Conference 2014 in Savannah, Georgia. They are presented here for your amusement and edification and not for commercial use.

Tommy H. Jones, Atlanta Georgia, December 2020.