One Step Closer to Preserving the Story of Georgia's Ocmulgee
In the early 2000s, Chris Watson was working at the Center for Remote Sensing and Mapping Science while attending the University of Georgia. His team received a project from the Wilderness Society to produce a map of Georgia’s wildlands. Some sites were well known, such as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. But one corridor, in the middle of the state, caught Watson’s attention—the Ocmulgee River Corridor in Macon, Georgia.
“I uncovered this fascinating story about this place,” says Watson, whose research became his doctoral dissertation. “It’s extremely unique from a cultural perspective, based on its Native American history and archaeology and from an ecological perspective. It’s a migratory flyway, a major biological corridor, and it has a unique black bear population.”
In 1934, part of this area became designated as the Ocmulgee National Monument. But pressures from urban sprawl have been slowly encroaching on the historically and culturally significant site. In March of 2019, President Trump signed the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park Boundary Revision Act as part of a large package of public lands bills. The legislation designates the site as a national historical park and expands its present 702 acres to nearly 2,800.
Each year, thousands of visitors climb up wooden ramps and stairs to reach the top of several large, grassy, earthen mounds at Ocmulgee. They date to around the A.D. 900s—long before the arrival of any European settlers—and were constructed by members of the Mississippian culture, who settled along the Macon plateau along the Ocmulgee River. Today, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, now residing in Oklahoma, is descended from these earlier Mississippian people and still maintain their historic ties to their original homelands in Georgia. They remained in the state until the 1830s, when they were pushed out and sent to resettle in Oklahoma.
Efforts to protect the culturally, archaeologically, and ecologically significant site have been ongoing for decades. One of the most recent pushes to protect Ocmulgee dates back to the 1990s, when a highway was proposed that would cut right through the mounds. With help from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, the highway was successfully diverted. During that process, they were able to identify the area as eligible to be a Traditional Cultural Property. A rarely used designation, this considers the cultural importance of a site to a particular group. The Traditional Cultural Property-eligible area included thousands of acres, much bigger than the size of the current park.
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If the land that holds significance is thousands of acres, one may wonder why only 702 acres has been preserved up until 2019. When Ocmulgee became the Ocmulgee National Monument in the 1930s, the Great Depression prevented the government from allotting funds to the park. Congress also made a stipulation that the government had to donate it to the community. The community, however, was unable to preserve more than those 702 acres—the ceremonial center for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, where the major mounds are located (there are more mounds along the river corridor).
“It’s very spiritually significant to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation,” says Watson, who now works for the National Parks Conservation Association, one of the groups that has been involved in advocating for the site's expansion. “They still perform ceremonies at the mounds.”
In 2003, the National Trust placed Ocmulgee on its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. (The National Trust also made it a National Treasure in 2016 and assisted with legislative efforts.) About seven years later, the surrounding community of Macon began raising money for the National Park Service to undertake a boundary study that would examine the possibility of expanding the park. They raised half the money, and the Park Service supplied the other half. The study started in 2012 and lasted two years.
“There was a groundswell of support [by the locals],” explains Watson.
That groundswell included local landowners whose land once belonged to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The National Park Service met with many landowners who were willing to sell their land now or in the future to protect Ocmulgee.
“All of the properties included in the expanded boundary [of 2019] were properties whose landowners were willing to be included,” Watson says. “That’s pretty rare.”
The new law now protects Native American sites that were previously unprotected. Changing the name of the site from a national monument to a national historical park will hopefully bring in more tourism. Lastly, the law authorizes a study of the river corridor to investigate options to preserve its resources (and allow the public to enjoy them, too).
The recent expansion and designation of Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park is a big step in ensuring that culturally, archaeologically, and ecologically significant sites such as this are preserved in perpetuity.