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During the late 1600s and early 1700s, English explorers and colonists primarily stayed within the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Meanwhile, anonymous French traders and trappers were exploring the rivers of the Upper South then reporting back information to French officials in Quebec. The combination of expeditions sponsored by the French government and dozens of journeys by civilians, enabled France to map and claim all of North America from the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the headwaters of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. This vast province, France named La Louisiane – Louisiana.
An Early English expedition
In 1679 an expedition headed by Robert Holder was sent by Charleston to open up trade with the Tanasa-ke (Tanasqui in de Soto’s chronicles) on Hiwassee Island. Holder’s party passed over the Blue Ridge Mountains and then held trade talks with the native peoples of the Upper Tennessee River. At that time, the largest ethnic group of the East Tennessee region was the Koasati, who called their province, Caskenampo. The word means “many warriors” in Koasati. Holder also reported numerous Yuchi villages.
Holder used Itsati (Hitchiti) speaking guides for the journey because at that time the peoples along the entire route spoke dialects of Itsati. Koasati was originally a dialect of Itsati. The Tanasi also had a province in north-central South Carolina near the mountains, also called Tanasi. The South Carolina Muskogean guides called them the Tenesaw, and their province Tenesi. When the expedition returned to Charleston, the mapmaker recorded the name of the region as being Tenesy or Tenesee.
French exploration of Tennessee River Basin
When word reached France of a trade expedition sent into French-claimed territory on the Upper Tennessee River, colonial officials were ordered to solidify French ownership. Beginning in the 1680s French maps began to contain increasingly more detailed information about the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee River basins, including the names of indigenous ethnic groups and major towns. Although there is no record of French nobility leading large expeditions in the region, apparently civilian traders ventured up rivers and over traditional Native American trade paths to made contact with as many Native American towns as possible.
In the 1690s a French expedition paddled up the Tennessee River. It misinterpreted the confluence of the Tennessee and Little Tennessee River at Bussell Island. At that time, the Lower Tennessee River was called the Calimaco River, which is Maya for “throne of the king.”
The French explorers then paddled up the Little Tennessee into the Great Smoky Mountains of what is now North Carolina. The Upper Tennessee River was labeled the Caskenampo River, In the French maps between 1701 and 1763, all of the Lower and Middle Tennessee River Basin is occupied by the Chickasaws. The upper Little Tennessee River in North Carolina was found to be occupied by Shawnee villages.
First French Colonies
In 1699 a fleet commanded by Pierre Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville established a colony near what is now Biloxi, MS. The fort he built was designated the first capital of the French Province of Louisiana, His brother, Jean-Baptiste de Bienville, was named its first governor.
Biloxi proved to be a dangerous location for ships during hurricane season. In 1702 Mobile was founded on the Mobile River, just below the confluence of the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers. It was designated the new capital of La Louisiane. This location, probably the location of de Soto’s Mabila, was found to be endemic with diseases. In 1707, D’Iberville moved the capital downstream to Mobile Bay, where the City of Mobile is now located.
1703 Map of Mexico, Louisiana and Florida
The 1703 map of Mexico, La Lousiane and La Florida, produced by the highly respected French cartographer, Guillaume DeLisle, shows all of the Native American tribes along the Tennessee River from its confluence with the Ohio River to its source. There is no mention of the Charaqui’s (Cherokees) whatsoever. Western North Carolina is shown to be the domain of the Chouenon (Shawnee.) This is important information for timing the arrival of Cherokee bands in that part of North Carolina. DeLisle’s map shows a group known as the Chalaqui in the upper Savannah River Basin, but most of the River was occupied by Shawnee. Later French maps located the Chalaqui near the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia, and the Charaqui occupying the upper Savannah Basin. The Upper Hiwassee River Basin in Georgia and North Carolina was still show as being occupied by the Highland Apalachee.
In 1703, the northeastern corner of Tennessee and extreme western Virginia is shown occupied by the Tomahiti, a division of the Creek Indians. The Tongoria, a branch of the Yuchi, occupied the Cumberland Plateau, north of the Tennessee River. Mohawks and Rickohockens occupied northwestern North Carolina and the Roanoke Valley in Virginia.
DeLisle’s map also shows the Native inhabitants of northwest Georgia at that time, to be the Cohueta (Koweta Creeks,) the Coushetta (Kusa Creeks) and the Conchaqui (Apalachicola Creeks.) Apparently, in 1703, French explorers had not actually paddled up the Coosa River or its tributaries. DeLisle’s map only presents a vague, inaccurate arrangement of the Coosa River drainage system. In 1645 a Spanish army systematically destroyed Apalachicola towns in the region and along the Lower Chattahoochee River. The Apalachicola had fled to the Etowah River Basin in the Georgia.
In the regions closest to the first French colonies on the Gulf Coast, Delisle was able to delineate the geography of the landscape and its Native American inhabitants more accurately. The Florida Panhandle west of the Apalachicola River was occupied by the Choctaw-speaking Chatot.
The Alabamu (Alabama) occupied the Mobile, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Alabama River Basin. The Chahta (Choctaw) occupied much of central and southern Mississippi. The Chickasaw occupied northwestern Alabama and northeastern Mississippi. The Lower Mississippi River Basin was densely populated with such provinces as the Biloxi, Tunica, Natchez, Taensa, Chitimacha and Pascagoula.
Early struggles of the first French colonies
Very few, if any, French women accompanied the first Frenchmen to colonize the Gulf Coast. Men were forced to seek female companionship with native women. If marriages resulted, this cemented political ties between the two peoples. However, when Frenchmen forced their “affections” on Native women, or abducted forcibly to French settlements, wars could result.
The Le Moyne brothers sought to eliminate conflicts with local tribes caused by “women raids” by importing a ship load of French girls in 1704. It was a good idea, but their ship carried with it mosquitoes and passengers infected with yellow fever. Most of the girls recovered and thus became immune to the disease. However, many Frenchmen and Native Americans died from the tropical disease. In this way, an African tropical disease became established on the Gulf Coast. It eventually wiped out the few remaining indigenous ethnic groups along the coast.
Relations with Native peoples were particularly bad around the Biloxi colony. It had been settled by French nobility and soldiers, who did not want to do physical work. As described in Part One of this series, much of France’s middle class had been Huguenot Protestants, who were killed, forced out of the country or made into third class citizens in the late 1600s.
French planters in the Biloxi area sponsored raids to capture Biloxi and Choctaw Indians for slaves. This resulted in a fierce war that ultimately resulted in the extinction of the southern half of the Biloxi population. Those, who were not killed, were enslaved. French officials then began importing African slaves from the Caribbean, who were more resistant to yellow fever and malaria. Because of the constant exposure to African diseases, by the third decade of the 1700s, most coastal tribes were extinct or near extinction.
Part Three of the series on the Muskogeans of La Louisiane will examine the French and Spanish machinations leading to the Yamassee War.