Could this be Georgia’s first national park?
If approved by Congress, the park at Ocmulgee Mounds would be co-managed by the Muscogee Nation—the tribe forcibly removed from their ancestral lands more than 180 years ago.
Thousands of years ago, the site now known as Ocmulgee Mounds, in central Georgia, was a thriving Indigenous center. Artifacts found there date as far back as 8000 to 1000 B.C. In the 18th century, it was the hub for some 60 villages that made up the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Now, the Muscogee—one of the largest tribes in the United States—and local partners are leading an initiative to declare Ocmulgee Mounds the first national park in Georgia. If successful, Ocmulgee will also be the first national park co-managed by a removed tribe, one of the five forced from their lands in the summer of 1836 in a tragedy that history recalls as the Trail of Tears.
Although Congress has yet to schedule a vote, the bill has drawn bipartisan support. For the Muscogee, national park status is a way to ensure Ocmulgee’s future.
“We never know what’s going to happen through administration changes and we want to make sure that this land is forever protected,” says Tracie Revis, director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative (ONPPI) and a citizen of the Muscogee Nation.
Here’s what to know about this long-inhabited area—before the national park groupies arrive.
The land of bubbling water
The earthen mounds were built by hand around A.D. 900, with water brought from the nearby river, giving the site its name. (Ocmulgee is the Hitchiti word in the Muskogean language for “bubbling water.”) Early Mississippian people used these mounds for a variety of significant purposes, including as funerary sites containing a hundred graves, and the village chief’s residence on the tallest mound.
The arrival of the British in 1690 attracted more Europeans, all wanting to stake a claim to the traditional Muscogee territory. In time, the Muscogee and other tribes were forced to relocate to Oklahoma, where the Muscogee set up its modern capital of Okmulgee. Their ancestral home was sold off to local families.
In the ensuing decades, what remained of the site degraded. In the 1870s, the Central of Georgia Railroad cut through the Funeral Mound and plaza, displacing the graves of the ancient Mississippians to make way for tracks connecting Macon to Savannah.
Then in the 1920s, artifacts and graves were uncovered spurring the largest archaeological dig in American history. From 1933 to 1941, archaeologists unearthed three million items, including pottery and tools.
(At the crossroads of the Trail of Tears, Little Rock reckons with its history.)
Protecting a prehistoric site
Shortly after the artifacts were discovered, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a frequent visitor to the polio treatment center in nearby Warm Springs, worked with Congress to set aside 2,000 acres for a national park. “He just felt that this was a very spiritual place,” says Revis. But by the time the bill was signed into law on June 14, 1934, it was instead designated as a national monument, protecting only 678 acres.
Locals are now hoping to revive the effort. In 2019, a feasibility study was undertaken to determine if Ocmulgee Mounds meets the criteria for national park status, including its historical and cultural significance as well as logistical concerns like access. Legislation is expected to make its way through Congress this year, finally determining the site’s future.
National park status will expand Ocmulgee’s footprint and open recently acquired land to the south, including parts of Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, to the public. Visitors will be able to camp and even hunt in a preserved section, unusual for a national park.
(See America’s parks with Indigenous peoples who first called them home.)
“The preserve side is for attracting those sportsmen who travel the world for these unique outdoor, recreational experiences,” says Seth Clark, ONPPI’s executive director. “Inside the proposed boundary are some of the best hunting and fishing land in the Southeast.”
If the bill passes, Clark hopes more people will appreciate a cultural wonder in America’s southeast: “Seventeen thousand years, that's a considerable amount of history here.”
What to know
Plan your trip around the Ocmulgee Indigenous Celebration, an annual event in the fall that gathers Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and other tribes for a weekend of lectures and demonstrations of crafts and dances.
During Macon’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring, rangers lead lantern-lit interpretive tours of the park.