Road trip: Chief Vann’s house

Just over two hundred years ago, craftsmen built the first brick home within the Cherokee nation. The owner, James Vann, was a prosperous Cherokee businessman, and one of the foremost leaders of the Cherokee Upper Towns. This gorgeous multi-story Federal-style building is often called the “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation.” It is now in Georgia’s Murray County, is certified site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and is the centerpiece of the Chief Vann House Historic Site.

Vann owned the Spring Place Plantation, which the house overlooks. As N. Michelle Williamson notes in the New Georgia Encyclopedia in a 2002 entry:

The bricks used in the construction of the house came from the red clay located on the Spring Place Plantation property. Handwrought nails and hinges came from Vann’s own blacksmith shop. In addition to the blacksmith shop, the 800-acre property around the mansion included 42 slave cabins, 6 barns, 5 smokehouses, a trading post, more than 1,000 peach trees, 147 apple trees, and a still.

The house also overlooks the what we now call the Old Federal Road, which roughly runs along an old trading path. This route lead from Euroamerican population centers in east and southeast Georgia, allowing  settlers access to the northwestern part of the state, and on to the Chattanooga area. Not only did Chief Vann own the plantation on the Old Federal Road, he also owned a ferry that crossed the Chattahoochee near the southeast terminus of the Road, where many settlers embarked upon the Road, near what is now Flowery Branch and now flooded by Lake Lanier. As the settlers traveled inland, they passed through what is labeled on the 1854 JH Colton map of Georgia as Coosawattee Old Town. This settlement’s location is also under a modern reservoir, Carters Lake.

Portion of 1854 map by JH Colton, obtained from the University of Alabama’s Alabama Maps project, showing the nexus of roads at Spring Place.

Without knowing more than what is presented above, how do you think Chief Vann attained his leadership position? Surely, you’d think, his wealth and landownership contributed to his high status. Also, you’d guess, he may have had some force of personality—leaders almost always do. But, did the location of his property along such a major thoroughfare also provide him with further leverage? Did he have more access to information, to rumors and government agents? Would it have been beneficial for a leader to live near a major transportation corridor?

For more on transportation networks and archaeology, read another Weekly Ponder, titled Thinking roads.

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