The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Exploring The Mystery Forts

By Wally Kennicutt © 1985

Issue: March, 1985

Tumbledown stone walls stretch across some of the highest peaks of the Southern Appalachians, often nearly inaccessible except for a steep trail, always running from east to west, the remnant of structures it must have taken tremendous effort to build.

Who built them? When? Why?

No one knows for sure.

Even looking at the map points up a mystery. Start from a 20 foot high stone mound at Waleska, Georgia and draw a line due north to Berea, Kentucky. Three and one half degrees west of the line, you'll find Fort Mountain not far from Chattsworth, Georgia, while near Berea you'll find another fort about half a degree east of due north starting from Waleska.

Such a relatively straight compass line caused a good deal of speculation, but no one knows if it was deliberately measured or the result of coincidence.

Look at the map again and starting from Fort Mountain, move east to Montone, Alabama. Here the most damaged of the southern forts rests on a cliff near De Soto Falls.

On a line directly northwest of Fort Mountain (315 degrees by the compass) lies Old Stone Fort on the Duck River near Manchester, Tennessee, the most impressive, best preserved and most thoroughly studied of all such structures. Nearly due north of Old Stone Fort (allowing for compass deviation) you'll find Sand Island in the Ohio River said to be the last outpost of a 12th century Welsh colony, of which more later.

Similar stone walls near New Madrid, Missouri and Morganton, West Virginia form an irregular triangle with the apex at De Soto Falls.

Caves often surrounded the base of the mountains which have the stone walls on top, and local legends say Indians blocked the entrances of others, though no one knows why. Obviously someone lived in the shallow caverns near De Soto Falls; early explorers found layers of scallop shells on the floor.

A cave near the Tennessee fort has a map carved over the entrance which shows two passageways, but someone blocked the right hand tunnel long ago. Cherokees near Fort Mountain, Georgia sealed the entrances of at least two caves local historians recorded and no one has been able to get into them since.

Whatever the reason, it brought a good many people to the mountain. Rumors of gold sprang up and the search for it may explain at least some of the pits which mark the base of the walls. However, rocks from those same walls stretch out to encircle many of the depressions.

The builders remain a mystery. If they were Indians, say early accounts, they must have had a higher technology than any known tribe north of Mexico.

Might they have come from Mexico? The long-nosed trade god of the Aztecs shows up in carvings as far north as Missouri and more than a trace of Mexican influence shows up in the culture of the later Mound Builders. However, no one has suggested evidence the Aztecs ever crossed the Mississippi and anything indicating the presence of earlier Mexican tribes remains scanty at best. Besides, there are those who insist the stonework shows definite European influence.

At first historians suggested De Soto may have built the forts, but he had neither the time nor need and didn't even come near some of the places where stonework exists. John Haywood offered other strong evidence against De Soto in the book, Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee. He tells of a tree growing among the stones which was cut on August 7, 1819 and had apparently sprouted in 1483 or before.

Most of those who argue for the European origin of the forts say they were built by Prince Madoc of Wales, probably the most poorly documented of all pre-Columbian voyagers to America.

The first written evidence for Madoc appeared in 1586 and says on the death of his father, Owen ap Gwynedd, Madoc's brothers "fell at debate" over who should succeed to the throne. Madoc wanted no part of the argument and rather than submitting to Edward II, who soon conquered Wales, he fled west "to lands unknown." Upon finding the country pleasant, Madoc returned to Wales and brought colonists in ten ships.

In the year 1171, so legend says, Madoc landed at Mobile Bay, sailed by the Dog River, but was driven inland by Indians to Sand Island near Louisville, where the Welsh colonists made one last desperate stand. After the battle, the survivors buried their dead, turned away and vanished into the west.

For a group nearly exterminated in battle, the early Welsh proved remarkably prolific; no less than 12 real and 8 imaginary tribes were said to be of Welsh descent.

However, our concern here isn't to prove or disprove the existence of Welsh Indians (which would probably be impossible, anyway, unless new evidence comes to light) but to see why anyone should think they built the stonework. Once again John Haywood furnishes the necessary information: "The Cherokee tell us that when they first arrived in the country which they now inhabit, they found it possessed by certain moon-eyed people who could not see in the day-time. These wretches they expelled."

The Indians around De Soto Falls were even more explicit; they said bearded white men once lived in the caves. Since the Cherokees probably didn't arrive in the Southeast until the 13th century, this seemed good evidence, someone, not Indian, lived in the area at an earlier date - Welsh colonists, Madoc's defenders insisted.

So far, archaeologists have furnished only negative information; investigators found no signs of battle and very few artifacts.

Warren King Moorehead dug at Fort Mountain in 1925, but found only one projectile point - and nothing else. He drew no conclusions, but speculated someone may have used the area for ceremonial purposes. After all, the walls simply weren't high enough (5 feet) to serve for defense, they block one side of the mountain and the nearest spring is almost a quarter of a mile away.

De Soto Falls offers no such problem. A wall across the cliff very effectively cuts off any possible entrance, and the narrow path which leads down the bluff to the caves could be defended for a long time with very little effort. However, by the time the state of Alabama claimed the land, local residents had torn down the walls and used most of the stones to build their own houses.

Old Stone Fort in Tennessee suffered no such fate; the Tennessee Department of Conservation moved to have the area made into a state park before anyone could destroy it. All the stone walls, some 20 feet high remain standing.

Despite such weighty evidence, who built the walls remains a mystery and has since the time of the early explorers. The pioneers simply couldn't believe Indians could have built the elaborate stone walls on mountaintops across the South.

Reports of slag iron near Old Stone Fort drifted in and the Nashville Banner once reported the discovery of a runestone nearby. Rumors of bronze armor and Roman coins around the forts also persist, but so far no one has been able to verify any of these accounts.

The University of Tennessee finally sponsored excavations at Old Stone Fort in 1966 and discovered something that could be dated with reasonable accuracy: a few specks of charcoal. When tests were completed, the specks proved to be 1,400 years old - too early for either Welsh or Norsemen. However, those who thought the forts must have been built by someone other than Indians pointed out we have some evidence both Irish and Chinese travelers visited America long before Columbus - but even if they did (and the question isn't settled yet) neither group came near the locations of the old stone walls.

One other bit of evidence exists: Fort Ancient in Ohio, known to have been built by Indians - to be exact, the Hopewells, that remarkable people who built up a trading empire reaching from the Atlantic seaboard to the western plains and from the Great Lakes to the highlands of Guatemala. Even though this particular structure was built of earth, it bears a strong resemblance to the southern forts and portions of Fort Ancient's walls were originally faced with limestone. While none of this seems to have been as elaborate as the stone work of the Appalachian forts, it still disproves the statement you'll occasionally hear that the Hopewell Indians never built any structures of stone.

More than that, the Hopewells did indeed build outposts along their trade routes, often near sources of mica or to serve as rest stops for traders bringing conch shells from the Gulf. Their disappearance adds to the mystery: around 600 AD the Hopewell culture suddenly vanished. No one knows just why, but invasion of hostile tribes is thought to be at least part of the reason.

At least, Tennessee archaeologists think Old Stone Fort was a Hopewell outpost - or possibly the outpost of some people influenced by the Hopewells. Maybe the stone walls served two purposes: the first "forts" might well have been ceremonial, but the later and higher stone walls may well have been used as actual forts. Yet the people who built them apparently couldn't withstand the onslaught of Mississippian tribes, and later the Cherokees. In fact, they seem to have been so disastrously defeated, they left only their monuments.

An analogy might be helpful here, simply in the fact the Hopewells are sometimes called "the Romans of the New World." Suppose the Roman Empire had left no written records - then might not, say Hadrian's Wall or the aqueducts of Spain seem insolvable mysteries?

Early white settlers who asked about the stone walls probably heard vague garbled accounts from later Indians, who were, in effect, descended from "the other side" and by that time were probably unable to separate fact from legend. It's also possible the Cherokees, for instance, played on the pioneers' love of mystery and tried to make the stone forts seem even more uncanny.

Even so, no one has all the answers, and everyone admits a good deal more research needs to be done before any firm conclusions can be reached. Even then the mysterious atmosphere surrounding the forts will probably linger for some time to come.