Native soil

Peace cuts across a neighborhood via an old Indian trail

To the untrained eye, there’s no “trail” to be seen near the intersection of Clairmont and North Decatur roads near Emory University.
But obscured beneath centuries of fallen leaves and rotting trees and, somehow, so far averting scrapes with backhoes and bulldozers, lies evidence of a path that some archeologists believe Indians walked before Rome became an empire.
In that time, conflict, even violence, erupted occasionally along the Standing Peachtree Trail. But, earlier this month, a skirmish of the more modern variety skirted that remnant of the pathway and helped to secure a reminder of its place in history.
Richard Sams, who teaches a course about the history of Druid Hills as part of Emory University’s Evenings at Emory series, says the Standing Peachtree Trail is simply a depression in the Earth now. Trees have grown in it. A slight rise on either side of the bed is discernable. But Sams says an appreciation of such clues to the past can help neighborhoods and developers come to a better understanding of how to treat the land in the future.
“There’s a lot of interest in Native American history,” Sams says. “And even prior to the Cherokee Nation and the Creek Confederacy, this trail was being used as a trading route, possibly as early as 3,000 years ago. It gives us insight into early man, and I think people appreciate that.”
Before the first Europeans came to the area, the trail extended more or less east to west from Stone Mountain to the Chattahoochee River where it joined the Hightower Trail, which ran from the present location of Augusta to what is now Memphis.
Its history has not always been peaceful.
Historian Gordon Midgette says Andrew Jackson and his Cherokee Light Horse battalion visited the trail. Jackson was charged with enforcing treaties between the United States and the Cherokees. To aid him in this, Jackson employed Cherokee warriors.
In 1821, they rode the trail posting signs on trees warning white settlers that they were encroaching on Cherokee lands and should turn back.
At one point, Jackson and his battalion burned out settlers who violated the treaty. Midgette got his information from accounts written by descendants of John B. Stewart, an early DeKalb County settler who was burned out by Jackson.
Midgette believes historians have shied away from discussion of the trail not only because it paints a painful picture of Jackson’s betrayal and the abuse of Native Americans, but also because the trail was used to smuggle slaves to freedom.
“Until after the 1950s, this state has had a long history of favoring states’ rights,” says Midgette. “Jackson’s role in our history represents unwanted federal intervention, and that’s not something historians have wanted to talk about.”
It wasn’t talked about very much at all until September, when the Pacific Group, an Atlanta-based development company, purchased two acres just west of the Clairmont-North Decatur intersection. The company announced plans to build five $800,000 homes on the site, which includes a remnant of the trail.
Bill Albright, a neighbor who also happens to be an amateur archeologist, rallied the Druid Hills Civic Association to protect its piece of heritage.
Association members and some historians met with Harold Cunliffe, president of Pacific Group, earlier this month and forged an agreement to preserve the trail and place a marker on it — something Cunliffe believes that will add to the cachet of his development. Albright believes it’s critical to preserving the area’s history.
“There’s almost none of the trail left,” says Albright. “I think this is one of the only parts that hasn’t been developed-over.”
Albright’s house, formerly Houston Chapel church, was built in 1904. Already hidden from the view of motorists on North Decatur, the house will be further obscured by the houses Pacific Group will begin building in January 2001.
With the prospect of houses going up so nearby, Albright is considering selling his house to Emory, a plan that would require the structure to be moved to a lot next to a historic African American cemetery on campus. But the truce between the neighbors and the developers has left him with another option.
“You know, $800,000 homes coming in means one thing, definitely,” he says, smiling and motioning upward with his thumb. “The people in Druid Hills are pretty happy about that.”