Today, we're turning back to the very distant past: a state historic site in Mount Gilead that includes a reconstructed Native American village and burial site from more than 1,000 years ago.
Drive about an hour east of Charlotte and you'll find yourself in the town of Mount Gilead, sharing the road with farm tractors. Its history is like a lot of towns in the Piedmont. Cotton was king in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For much of the 20th century, Mount Gilead was a mill town. Now those mills are gone.
But it does have the Town Creek Indian Mound, the state's only historic site dealing with Native American history.
North Carolina has a rich history of Native American settlements – like the Cherokee, Lumbee and Catawba. In the case of Town Creek, it's a group identified as the Pee Dee culture, not to be confused with the Pee Dee in South Carolina.
What's A Mound?
Site manager Rich Thompson describes a mound as "essentially ... a pile of dirt." But at Town Creek, this dirt rises about 15 feet above the ground and made up of four structures that the Pee Dees built.
Construction began when they first moved to the area about 1,000 years ago. When the first structure collapsed, the group would add more dirt and build a new hut on top of it. When it collapsed again, they would bury it and keep repeating the process so that the mound would grow over time.
"The belief is that these people built this mound to elevate the structure," Thompson explains. "It housed the sacred fire, which was a sacred telegraph to the heavens. So it's special and they would want to protect it and show how special it was by elevating it above the regular world."
What stands today is a mostly reconstructed mound after archeologists excavated the original mound in the 1930s.
Saving The Mound
"This site was nearly lost to agriculture," Thompson says. "A lot of these [Native American] village sites were in great places to farm, so when the Europeans came over and they were looking for places to garden, these were the places they chose."
In the early 1900s, a farmer named Lloyd Frutchey moved from Louisiana to Mount Gilead to grow cotton. But he had one problem. Every year that he would till and plow his land, local relic hunters who heard about the artifacts would trample on his land in their search for artifacts. So he intended to tear down the mound to get rid of his unwanted visitors. But the Archeological Society of North Carolina convinced Frutchey to donate one acre of the land, including the Mound, in 1937. The state purchased another 50 acres when archeologists realized the historical significance of the land.
Inside the ceremonial center at the top of the mound, logs are piled up in the center where the sacred fire was kept burning. On the four walls of the hut, there's a picture of a beaver, a deer, a bear, and a wolf, representing the clans within the tribe. Political and religious leaders from the clans would gather and sit on their sides of the hut.
"It's little bit like a good luck charm for the entire society," Thompson says. "They believed that as long as this fire burned, everybody did well. You would have good luck with your farming, people would be able to get along, everybody would be happy. This fire is the earthly representative of the sun and the sun was the most powerful thing that they knew of in their world. And if the sun doesn't like you, it's going to be tough to grow corn, shoot deer and survive. Keep the fire going everything is fine. The fire goes out, we're going to have trouble."
Native American Burials
There are two other reconstructed structures on the site. One of them is a "burial hut" that includes an interactive exhibit, with manikins talking about the burial process.
"In reality, [the burial hut] was home," Thompson says. "This is where the people lived, ate, laughed, died, and they just happened to bury their dead essentially in the living room with them and you're putting it in the safest place in the world that you know."
Surrounding the site, there's a large circle of tree posts that mark the territory and acts as a fence to keep out animals and intruders. It makes the place look a bit like a fortress.
Since 1937, archeologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found more than 150 human burials here. Twenty-year-old student Joffre Coe was put in charge and supervised the excavation until he retired from UNC-Chapel Hill, as a professor, in 1987.
Pow-wows and spear-throwing demonstrations are sometimes held at the site. There's also camping and astronomy programs, but only in the fall and winter because of the humidity and increased number of gnats in warmer months.
Bruce Ball of Boone, first visited the Town Creek Indian Mound as a school boy more than 45 years ago. He decided to revisit the site on a trip down to Rockingham.
Ball says the site is "off the beaten path" and relatively small, so he recommends making it part of a larger trip. Fortunately, there's a short nature trail on the site, canoeing and kayaking opportunities and drive a few miles north and you'll hit the Uwharrie National Forest.
Rene Tarquinio from Calabash, NC visited and complained about the gnats -- and there are a lot of gnats on rainy days -- but she was glad she visited.
"It's a culture that a lot of people don't realize," Tarquinio says. "Like I had never even heard of the Town Creek Indian Mound, I didn't know what tribe that was. I had never heard of the Pee Dee. So I think it's just interesting to know our culture and where you know, how we all evolved in the history of North Carolina."
Thompson says he hopes the property will once again become an active archeological site. Artifacts have been found just a few feet outside of the main site. He says he's working to find the funding to bring back archeologists from UNC-Chapel Hill.
That was the Town Creek Indian Mound, in Mt.Gilead, about an hour-long drive from Charlotte. We visited the mine as part of our summer series, There And Back, exploring places you can visit in a day trip.