Living history replica of Indian village stands as testament to one man's obsession
by Hal Jacobs, for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Sunday, July 30, 2000)
In this Uchee Indian village, situated on a bluff overlooking Auchumpkee Creek in Middle Georgia, the palmetto-roofed huts, town square and council house are vintage 1540. Yet, here and there black roofing shingles peek out below the brown, fan-shaped palmetto fronds. Pressure-treated posts support the small storage houses that hold special cooking pots and ceremonial objects. And the dried red clay on the sides of several huts is actually Sherwin Williams paint.
The human skull that stares blankly into the surrounding pines and hardwoods from atop a wooden stake isn't some famous warrior's head. It was captured from a mail-order catalog.
This village was built by Maxwell Duke, a soft-spoken, blue-eyed, 57-year-old Fort Valley middle school teacher who spends much of his free time impersonating a 19th-century Indian agent named Benjamin Hawkins.
Welcome to Flint River Adventures, where one man's obsession is another man's living history center.
Duke isn't your typical amateur archaeologist. His days of collecting --- "pillaging and looting," he now calls it --- are over. Now he's into "preserving and educating."
What he's most concerned about preserving is the memory of Hawkins, a bona fide frontier leader who is largely overlooked in Georgia history. Hawkins was handpicked by President George Washington in 1795 to oversee all Indian affairs south of the Ohio River, which he did until his death in 1816. He represented the federal government at Indian councils, handled treaty negotiations, settled disputes between whites and Indians, regulated trading and kept the president and Congress informed on Indian affairs.
His Indian agency and model plantation were less than five miles from Duke's present-day camp. An educated gentleman, he was the voice of the Enlightenment on the wild frontier. He was audacious enough to suggest that, under the law, Indians and whites were equals. He went to live among the Creek Indians and preached the gospel of self-sufficient farming.
Before settling down to the permanent agency on the Flint River, Hawkins traveled around parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. He made notes, which he compiled in "Sketch of the Creek Country in the Years 1798 and 1799" and presented to Jefferson. The notes paint a glowing picture of future development prospects in the sparsely populated wilderness. Where the Bartrams saw natural-history wonders, Hawkins saw fenced-in settlements, peach orchards, mills, dams and canals. Later, his notes became a big hit among Georgia's early land speculators.
In the end, however, he was no match for Indian fighter and future president Andrew Jackson, who believed that the only good Southeastern Indian was one who was evicted from his native land and forced to live west of the Mississippi River.
Duke wonders if the reason Georgia history teachers have left Hawkins out of the classroom is because the Indian agent is seen as a loser.
For years, Duke has been on a one-man crusade to inform people about Hawkins' contributions to the region. He has written columns for the Macon Telegraph and the Fort Valley Leader-Tribune and periodically talks to local history societies about Hawkins. He produced and starred in a video about Hawkins' life on the frontier. Since 1988, he's also taken to the stump as a teacher of eighth-grade earth sciences and Georgia studies at Fort Valley Middle School.
The Ocmulgee National Monument gift store is currently sold out of Duke's video, which Sylvia Flowers, master park ranger at the Indian history site in Macon, describes as "home-grown." The movie gives a folksy account of Hawkins's life in the Middle Georgia frontier, as well as serves as a primer on southwest Georgia geography. Along with a cast of friends and students, Duke stars as the tall, soft-spoken, blue-eyed Indian agent.
Flowers knows Duke from years of attending the same archaeology-related workshops. When asked to describe him, she says with a chuckle, "I know he's a big fan of Benjamin Hawkins."
At his Indian village and archaeology camp, Duke logs more than 400 visits a year from fellow teachers, students, home schoolers, Boy Scouts, church groups and a wide range of organizations (the International Bamboo Association plans to visit in the fall).
It's not Disney World, or even Tifton's Agrirama. But it does show a unique part of Georgia history.
Duke's "show" begins in a folksy little pavilion that resembles a clubhouse from an episode of "Our Gang." But instead of Spanky and the gang, Duke --- dressed all in black, with a top hat and long coat --- walks in grumbling about his recent trip downriver and the heat, bugs, gnats and snakes. Sometimes he sits at the antique writing desk on stage and reads by candlelight a letter that he's preparing for the Czarina of Russia. He throws in frequent anecdotes that shed light on life in the 19th-century frontier.
Ultimately, Duke challenges the audience to stump him on topics related to the Indians' life through the centuries. "What did Indians use for diapers?" Spanish moss. "Did Indians take baths?" Yes, every day. (If there was snow on the ground, it was permissible to strip naked and roll over in the snow seven times.) "What did Indians do about bad breath?" If one person in the house ate onions, then everyone did. "How did Indians keep the mosquitoes away?" Pass the rancid fish oil, please.
from Maxwell Duke email
One of my favorite things to do is challenge the audience to bring up topic related to Indians ... from toothbrushes to diapers.....
Salt substitute: Ashes from the fireplace (hardwood)
Menstrual cycle taboo: Women were not allowed to touch food. They had to stay in a small hut away from the village until the "curse" was passed.
Roles and identity: Men sometimes chose to become women - to take up their station in life, their clothing, their chores, and their intimate relationships with men.
Food taboo: It was evil to cook land creatures in the same pot with creatures from the sky or water.
Fire taboo: It was a punishable offense to spit or urinate in the fire.
To fire an arrow into the sky without having a specified target was evil.
Husband-wife respect: A husband or wife could not refer to their spouse in that manner...to say, "this is my husband" was grossly improper...instead she should say, "this is my old man."
"Maxwell can talk about the Indians' everyday life in a way that holds students' attention," says John Worth, director of programs at the Coosawattee Foundation in Calhoun. Worth, the author of several books on Southeastern Indians and a former anthropologist at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, met Duke at an archaeological conference in 1986. For the next two years, the two men traipsed through swamps as Worth researched his master's thesis on Indian sites in the Flint River region. Armed with strong mosquito repellent and Duke's knowledge of local people and sites, Worth eventually documented 113 sites that had never been recorded.
"I can't remember a time when I wasn't collecting arrowheads," Duke says.
As a young boy poking around the red clay on the family farms and peach orchards in Peach, Crawford, Houston and Taylor counties, Duke not only collected Indian tools and pottery shards, but he also kept detailed log books. He jotted down the dates and locations for everything he found, and he still refers to these early notebooks.
After a few hits and misses --- Duke was far from a model student --- he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1966 with a degree in education, taught high school history for two years and then signed up with the Department of Treasury. As a surveillance pilot for the department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, he learned to fly low and detect rural sites used by pipe bombers practicing to blow up local courthouses.
In the late 1970s, the ATF loaned Duke out to the Secret Service to guard Jimmy Carter (a celebrated arrowhead collector), George Bush, and Howard Baker.
All the while, Duke continued to sift through dirt and rock in search of clues left behind by Southeastern Indians.
In hindsight, Duke confesses that some of his activities at Indian sites amounted to looting. But after the death of a fellow artifact hunter and close friend, Duke changed his ways.
"Maxwell underwent a conversion from being a collector to an educator," Worth says.
The watershed year for Duke was 1981. He injured his back after stepping out of a New Orleans taxi cab and falling 8 feet through an open manhole. Also that year he fell into marriage (his second) with an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. Miriam Duke, among other things, prosecuted pillagers and looters of the Archeological Resources Protection Act.
Once Duke got back on his feet, he tried running his own restaurant, traipsed through swamps with Worth, then returned to the classroom.
"It's kind of accepted that Mr. Duke does some unusual things," says Virginia Dixon, principal at Fort Valley Middle School.
In the spring, Duke treated some 700 middle school students to barbecued and grilled oyster on the half shell, crawfish, alligator and buffalo. As he dished out the food, the popular teacher --- he was Peach County Teacher of the Year in 1993-94 --- shared snippets about Indian culture.
"Teachers talk about hands-on activities," Duke says. "This was a lips-on activity. It took me several days to get over that one."
In 1990, Duke bought 20 acres of land near the Flint River and Auchumpkee (pronounced "Oak-chunk") Creek and began building his Indian village with the help of family, students and friends. He also began to look for a historical character that would help him dramatize his knowledge of the Southeastern Indians.
As a devoted student of Indian history in his own time, Benjamin Hawkins filled the bill.
"Hawkins was a man of science and a man of detail," Duke says. "That's what interested me."
Hawkins was also a man of good intentions who became the federal government's instrument in leading the Indians down the slippery slope to removal. He was a Princeton alumnus, a North Carolina senator, and an old hand at negotiating Indian treaties. Like his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson, Hawkins was a dedicated dirt farmer and amateur horticulturist with a special passion for peach trees who believed that once the Indians saw the merits of a self-sufficient farming life, they would give up their impractical hunting and trading lifestyle. Then reds and whites would eventually assimilate and live together.
Like Washington and Jefferson, both dedicated horticulturists, Hawkins was always trying to perfect a better grape vine, urge more strawberries from the berry patch, and was constantly giving away plants, in his case, peach trees. Like these small plantation owners, he was also a slave owner. One of his unpleasant jobs at the agency was to return Africans fleeing from slavery into the Indian territory. Those who made it to freedom often intermarried and blended into Indian society.
from email by Maxwell Duke
Peaches were of great interest to Hawkins. His horticultural interests were at a very high level of priority to him.... He sent and exchanged seedlings, and cuttings frequently with renowned people such as Jefferson.... Hawkins did establish the first peach tree nursery for the purpose of distributing large quantities of seedlings. Peaches were one of Hawkins' favorite "angles" with the Indians - they loved peaches - to encourage the Indians to take on an agricultural interest as opposed to being commercial hunters, he established the first horticultural center.… He produced thousands of peach tree seedlings that soon found their way up and down the Flint river and other parts of Georgia.
"The Indians had given up a workable way of life to become commercial hunters," Duke says. "Hawkins figured if he could get these hunters off these thousands of acres of land and get them to farm on less land, there'd be a lot less pressure on them for removal."
Despite Hawkins' heavy-handed attempts to change their culture, older Indian leaders still respected his fairness. While the Georgia governor went by the unflattering Indian name of "Always Asking for More Land," Hawkins was known as "The Beloved Man of the Four Nations (Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws)." Hawkins reciprocated with names for two of his seven children: Muscogee and Cherokee. Political animal that he was, he named his only son James Madison, his youngest daughter, Jeffersonia.
Around 1801, Hawkins chose a tract of land along the Flint River to build his permanent agency and small plantation. Situated on the southeast bank of today's Ga. 137 bridge (named after Hawkins), the site was an important east-west crossing for Indians (later the crossing would become part of the Federal Road, used by troops during the War of 1812 uprisings; later still, stagecoach travellers would know the trail as the Wire Road, so named for that ancient relative of today's fiber optics cable, telegraph wire.)
from "Travels in North America," Basil Hall, 1829 - in "The Rambler in Georgia," Mills Lane, editor, The Beehive Press, 1973.
"On the 28th of March we travelled onwards to the west, till we reached the Old Agency, a station on the Flint river, the first stream we came to which empties itself into the Gulf of Mexico. Till within these last six or seven years, the country over which we passed had been inhabited exclusively by the Creek Indians. For a considerable time the Flint river had been their eastern boundary, but they had recently been removed still farther to the westward, and, at the time of our visit, the Chatahoochie river was the dividing line between them and the Georgians. The detail of the proceedings, by which these aboriginal inhabitants of the soil were dispossessed of their property, and obliged to go in search of fresh homes, forms one of the most painful chapters in the history of America."
When Hawkins arrived on the scene, the Muscogee people --- called Creeks by Europeans --- were the most powerful tribe of the Southeast. Occupying far more land than their upland rivals, the Cherokees, the Creeks were famous for driving hard bargains against everybody who coveted their deer skins and land.
The land the Muscogees called home is located below the fall line - not so much a line as a zone - where prehistoric ocean waves once rolled over Georgia and pounded the ground like a Panama City beach. Above the fall line, the Flint riffles over shoals and boulders; below it, the river meanders back and forth like a big brown snake, carrying fresh loads of Georgia clay to the Gulf of Mexico.
Between the 1200s and 1400s, the Muscogee people, a loose confederation of tribes and family connections based on matrilineal ties, moved east from the Mississippi and settled this mostly unpopulated land with its vast stretches of uninhabitable pine forests. They chose to build their small villages along the creeks and swamps to take advantage of easy navigation and rich bottomlands.
By the time Hawkins arrived on the scene - over 250 years after DeSoto and his soldiers traipsed through the swamps searching for gold - the Creek Indians (as the Europeans renamed the Muscogees) were the most powerful tribe of the Southeast.
The era of the Creeks officially ended when Andrew Jackson forced leaders to sign the 1814 Treaty of Fort Jackson, in which the the federal government annexed 22 million acres of land -- one half of the Creek nation. In one swift blow, by treating friendly Indians the same as rogue outlaws, Jackson undid more than 18 years of Hawkins' work.
"The only thing humanitarian about Jackson was that he did not order the extermination of the Southeastern Indians...." (Charles Hudson)
"The Muscogee people were doomed to eradication by the nature of the fact that they weren't European," says Tracy Brooking, who wrote his master's thesis on Hawkins at Valdosta State University in 1999 and lives in Atlanta.
Brooking has little doubt that Hawkins had a genuine affection for the Muscogees, "but it was a condescending fascination." Hawkins was blinded by the "noble savage" myth of his generation, Brooking says. The Indian agent saw the Indians as part of the landscape --- and thus expendable once the landscape was made safe for peach orchards and grist mills.
from follow-up email by Tracy Brooking
I'm not sure Hawkins saw the Muscogees as expendable per se; although, in retrospect, I can see how my thesis might be construed that way. Certainly, there was an element of--let's call it cynicism if we are to be unkind--underlying many of Hawkins's actions. I think Hawkins would have been repulsed by such a reckoning. In my view he was guilty of a sort of willful blindness concerning matters touching his agency, blind to both the Muscogee intentions and actions as well as the American. The situation was, of course, untenable at best. The matter of representation is always a touchy one in post-colonial literatures. It is difficult in the best of times to recognize the sway prevailing currents of thought have on one's sensibilities.
"Ironically, Hawkins dies just as it becomes apparent his vision is utterly destroyed," Brooking notes. "His estate burns to the ground a week later. Epic stuff here."
A new generation
All that remains of Hawkins' presence near the Flint River is a marked gravesite on a hill southeast of the Ga. 137 bridge. After years of neglect, a marker was erected in 1931 by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. As for who is buried beneath the marker, both Duke and Worth agree that somebody is buried there - and it might as well be Hawkins - but it could also be a misfortunate traveler who was passing through the agency and stopped longer than he intended.
Meanwhile, a new generation of Hawkinses hosts family reunions that keep alive the memory of Benjamin and his Indian wife, Lavinia Downs. Tentative plans call for the next reunion to be held in Valdosta. Cathleen Barker, a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Hawkins' who lives in Falls Church, Va., hopes to be there. She also wants to make a couple of side trips, first to see the bust of her relative on display in the state Capitol --- he's one of 19 Georgians in the state Hall of Fame --- and then to visit Duke's camp.
The current generation of Hawkins is still busy with the question of Benjamin's frontier wife, Lavinia Downs, and their hastily arranged "deathbed" marriage.
At the April 1999 reunion of the Hawkins family, guests received a big surprise when family member and novelist Janice Windle (who used the family history to write "True Women," which later became a two-part TV miniseries), invited Vonnie McCormick, the first woman chief of the Lower Muskogee Creeks.
Bringing out tribal records, McCormick offered proof that Lavinia, sometimes said to be a white housekeeper, was actually the Indian-born Queen of the Tuckabatchee. According to McCormick, Lavinia proposed to Hawkins three times before he finally accepted - but only when he believed he was on his deathbed. Supposedly, Lavinia aided Hawkins's recovery with the help of yapon, which, as a medicine woman, she never left home without.
"It's exciting," she says, "to know that someone thinks enough of our ancestor to portray him."
Duke promises to roll out the red carpet for her visit. He'll be waiting in his top hat and long coat, with alligator sizzling on the grill, ready to serve up an authentic slice of Georgia history.
Flint River Adventures is open by reservation only. Options range from individual tours to overnight camping for large groups, with fees ranging from $10 per person for an overnight stay to $400 for renting the entire campground for the weekend. Special programs include walking tours and a number of hands-on activities, from making blow guns to creating pottery. Check out www.hom.net/~stringer/ to see all the options available, or call 912-825-3713 or 912-836-2697.
After retiring from the classroom, Duke intends to spend more time at his Indian village. He forsees more visitors (by reservation only) arriving to sample his authentic Southeastern history, which also includes a 19th-century, candlelight dining experience with a certain Benjamin Hawkins impersonator (the latter at a price best suited for one of those Wanderlodge luxury motorcoach owners returning to the nest at the nearby Blue Bird manufacturer in Fort Valley).
Never one to rest on his palmetto fronds, however, Duke plans to offer visitors new educational opportunities after he digs a cave beside the creek that would offer an authentic look at the world of Paleolithic Indians. Inside the cave would be a diorama of a large Indian town built to scale. Visitors would stroll through the scale model, which Duke says would be "just terrific". With the dirt left over from tunneling out the cave, he can build a Mississippian-era Indian mound topped with a temple.