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Native American History of Chattahoochee County, Georgia
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Chattahoochee County is located in west central Georgia and is part of the Columbus, GA Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. It was named after the Chattahoochee River. Most of Chattahoochee County is occupied by Fort Benning, one of the U. S. Army’s largest facilities.
The county seat of Chattahoochee County is the town of Cusseta. Cusseta is the anglicized version of the name of an important division of the Creek Indian Confederacy, the Kvse-te; pronounced Ka(u-jzhe(-te-. Kvse-te is an Itza Maya word, written as Kaax’i-te in Mexico, which means “People of the Forested Mountains.” When Savannah was settled in 1732, the British Colonists called the Kvse-te, the Kashita.
The popular explanation of the meaning of Chattahoochee is that it is Creek word meaning, “River with the shining rocks.” This is probably not accurate. Until the late 1700s, there was a large Creek town with several mounds, where Six Flags Over Georgia is now located. In the Itsate (Hitchiti-Creek) language, it was named Cata-hvci (pronounced Chata-hawchee,) which literally means “Red River” in Itsate-Creek. The river at this town site is often clay red and contains no visible stones. When most of the Creeks were forcibly deported to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma,) they called a principal river through their lands, the Red River.
Chattahoochee County is bounded on the north by Muskogee County, GA. On the northeast, it adjoins Talbot County, GA. On the south, it is bordered by Stewart County, GA. The county’s western boundaries are formed by the Chattahoochee River, the Alabama State Line and Russell County, AL. On east is bordered by Marion County, GA.
Chattahoochee County is located in the Upper Gulf Coastal Plain, but also contains part of the Sand Hills Region that occurs from east central Alabama northeastward to North Carolina. The Sand Hills run parallel, and south of, the Fall Line, which is the Fault Line that defines the boundary between the crystalline and igneous rocks of the Piedmont, and the sedimentary rocks of the Coastal Plain.
The Sand Hills are located immediately south of the Fall Line. They are the remnants of barrier islands and sand dunes from the Miocene Era or about 20 million years ago. Because rain water drains rapidly through the sandy soil, this region is especially vulnerable to droughts. Only certain types of pines thrived in these regions. To early European settlers they were known as “pine barrens” or “deserts.” They were not desirable locations for permanent Native American towns because the soil was unfertile and the game was less plentiful. The Sand Hills did make good locations for winter encampments because the sandy soil quickly drained away winter rains and tended to absorb solar heat quicker than woodsy loam.
In the 20th century to the United States government, the Sand Hills were ideal locations for military bases and later, nuclear research facilities. The sandy soil was undesirable for farming and therefore, less expensive to acquire. Mechanized vehicles did not mire up in saturated clay or mud. Therefore, today there are a string of important military bases, such as Fort Benning, GA along the Sand Hills. The Savannah River Nuclear Research Plant was located in an uninhabited “desert” crossed by Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto in the spring of 1540.
The Gulf Coastal Plain is characterized by almost level terrain with sandy loam soils. The soils located in former Miocene, Pliocene and Holocene swamplands (25 million to 2,000 years ago) can be extremely fertile. Because of their sandy structure, they were particular attractive to Native American farmers, who only had crude stone and bone tools with which to till the soil.
All of Chattahoochee County drains into the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee enters the county in its northwestern corner then flows southward along its western boundary with Alabama. Large Native American trade canoes and sea craft could navigate the entire section of the river in Chattahoochee County.
In addition to the Chattahoochee River, Chattahoochee County’s major streams include Upatoi Creek, Hitchitee Creek and Ochillee Creek. Upatoi and Hitchitee Creeks flow directly into the Chattahoochee River, while Ochillee Creek flows into Upatoi Creek. Tributaries of Ochillee Creek include Clear Creek, Sally Branch and Hollis Creek. Little Hitchitee Creek is a major tributary of Hitchitee Creek. Hewell Creek and McMarrin Branch are major tributaries of Hitchitee Creek.
Hitchitee is the Anglicization of the name of a major branch of the Creek Indians that was associated with many of the largest towns and mounds of the region. The Native American word is Itsate; pronounced I(t-zjha(-te-.
Ochelle is the Anglicization of the Coastal Itsate ethnic name Oche-le, which means “Hickory Nut People.” The “le” suffix originally was used by the indigenous people of Tamaulipas State, Mexico, but later was brought to Georgia by immigrants from Tamaulipas.
Upatoi Creek defines the border between Chattahoochee and Muskogee Counties, The word is the Anglicization of Yupatv (Yupataw) the Muskogee-Creek name of an Itsate-Creek Indian ethnic group that formerly live in the Georgia Mountains. The called themselves, the Yupa-te, which means “Horn People.”
There are numerous Native American prehistoric archaeological sites in Chattahoochee County. They are concentrated near major streams such as the Chattahoochee River, Upatoi Creek, Ochellee. One mound, district administrative centers were located near where the major streams joined the Chattahoochee River. The regional capital was located a few miles north of Chattahoochee County at the confluence of the Chattahoochee River with Bull and Yuchee Creeks.
During the Colonial Period up until the mid-1820s both British and French maps show the region around present day Chattahoochee County to be occupied by the towns and villages of the Creek Confederacy. Many of these villages had relocated to the Chattahoochee Valley for protection against slave raiders from other regions. One of the more important towns was Cusseta, capital of the Kashita Creeks. The town was situated where Lawson Army Airfield is now located.
Whatever the specific ethnicity of villages, the county’s archaeological record suggests that Muskogeans have lived within its boundaries from the time of their arrival in Georgia, which is now believed to have been around 4-300 BC. Chattahoochee County’s Creek Indians always enjoyed friendly relations with first the Colony of Georgia and then, the State of Georgia.
Throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, the Creek Indians were by far the largest tribe north of Mexico. However during the 1800s, they were repeatedly subdivided, assimilated, killed in battle or intentionally starved to death in concentration camps. Although they take a much lower profile than Cherokee descendants, there probably still many more people in the United States carrying at least some Muskogean DNA than any other tribe. However, the federally recognized Chattahoochee – Creek Nation of Oklahoma is only the fourth largest federally recognized tribe, behind the Navajo, Oklahoma Cherokees and Oklahoma Choctaws.
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Chattahoochee County for at least 12,000 years, perhaps much longer. Clovis and Folsom points, associated with Late Ice age big game hunters have been found in the upper Chattahoochee River Valley. During the Ice Age, herds of giant mammals roamed the river bottom lands. The mastodons, saber tooth tigers, giant sloths and other massive mammals died out about 8,000 years ago. The ethnic identity of the Clovis Culture hunters is not known. They were long presumed to be American Indians, but recent research by anthropologists have revealed many similarities with the big game hunters of Western Europe. An ice cap on the North Atlantic Ocean may have permitted early humans to move back and forth between continents by paddling, while gaining sustenance from hunting sea mammals and fishing.
After the climate warmed, animals and plants typical of today soon predominated in this region. Humans adapted to the changes and gradually became more sophisticated. They adopted seasonal migratory patterns that maximized access to food resources. Archaic hunters probably moved to locations along major rivers during the winter, where they could eat fish and fresh water mussels, if game was not plentiful. During the remainder of the year, smaller streams would have been desirable camp sites.
Chattahoochee County was an ideal location for bands of hunters and gatherers. The county’s network of creeks and wetlands provided a diverse ecological environment for game animals and edible plants. Native Americans learned to set massive brush fires in the late autumn which cleared the landscape of shrubs and created natural pastures for deer, bison and elk. The Georgia Piedmont had numerous Woodland bison until they were killed off by British settlers in the mid-1700s. Bison may have also lived on the Coastal Plain in earlier times.
The landscape that European settlers encountered in the Chattahoochee Valley was not natural. It had been altered for thousands of years by Native Americans to create optimum environments for the natural production of food sources. Bottomlands were cleared to create agricultural fields. Each autumn, the Creeks intentionally set fires to burn out shrubs and forest undergrowth in order to create grazing lands for deer, bison and elk.
The Etowah, Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys were locations of some of the earliest permanent villages in North America. A sedentary lifestyle was made possible by abundant natural food sources such as game, freshwater mussels and chestnuts and the cultivation of gardens. Agriculture came very early here. Initially, the cultivated plants were of indigenous origin and included a native squash, native sweet potato, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, amaranth, sumpweed, and chenopodium.
The early villages were relatively small and dispersed. There was probably much socialization among these villages because of the need to find spouses that were not closely related. Houses were round and built out of saplings, river cane and thatch.
The Woodland Period peoples of the region built numerous mounds. Apparently, most mounds were primarily for burials, but may have also supported simple structures that were used for rituals or meetings. They were constructed accretionally. This means that the mounds grew in size over the generations by piling soil and detritus from the village over recent burials.
Archaeological evidence in the Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys suggests that the first Muskogean farmers entered northeast Georgia around 400 BC, after migrating from west-central Mexico. However, the region was probably was already occupied by ancestors of the Yuchi and Southern Siouans with languages similar to the Catawba. There may have been other ethnic groups whose identities have been concealed by time. Agricultural technology, cultural traditions and DNA probably blended between these peoples. Modern “Creek” Indians may represent a genetic mix of several indigenous ethnic groups.
Muskogeans carried with them advanced cultural traditions from Mexico and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The early Muskogeans eventually formed provinces that were governed by large towns. Prior to arrival of Europeans, there were no Indian “tribes.” The large towns were usually located in the bottomlands on major rivers such as the Chattahoochee. .
One of the earliest “advanced” indigenous towns in the United States was founded on Chattahoochee River across from Chattahoochee County around 900 AD. It is now known as the Abercrombie Mound site. Across the river in Chattahoochee County is the Kyle village site, which had one mound. The hybrid indigenous culture that developed on both sides of the river near the Abercrombie Mound is labeled the Abercrombie Culture by archeologists.
Throughout the Southeast, many provinces began to share common artistic symbols and agricultural lifestyles. Societies became more organized politically with elite families, non-agricultural specialists and local leaders. This era is known as the Southern Ceremonial Cult Period, Mississippian Period or Hierarchal Period. The “Mississippian” label came from a conference at Harvard University in 1947 which adopted the inaccurate belief that all advanced Native American culture originated north of the Mason-Dixon Line along the Mississippi River. Villages located in Chattahoochee County would have been less affected by the central control of regional centers such as the massive complex on the Ocmulgee River near Macon, GA.
There is evidence that European diseases began affecting coastal populations as early as 1500 AD Native American traders carried the microbes northward from Cuba and then into the lowlands near the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast. Shortly after the Hernando de Soto Expedition passed through Georgia in 1540, waves of European diseases began to decimate the Native American population. De Soto probably passed through or near Macon, GA in March of 1540. Thus, the indigenous people of Chattahoochee County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens within a year due to traders. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Georgia dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700.
The Kingdom of Spain claimed all of the Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins, including Chattahoochee County, from 1567 until 1745. This claim was based on the Juan Pardo Expedition and a surveying expedition authorized by Governor Don Benito Ruiz de Salazar Vallecilla of the Province of La Florida around 1647. The surveying and gold prospecting expedition followed the Chattahoochee River to its source at Unicoi Gap. The Governor then established a trading post in the vicinity of the Chattahoochee headwaters. The Spanish explorers and traders definitely passed through the future Chattahoochee County on many occasions.
Agricultural advancements: Almost immediately after Spanish missions were established on the coast of Georgia in the late 1500s, the ancestors of the Creeks were growing European fruits and vegetables in addition to their traditional crops. A Spanish expedition in 1600 observed peaches, pears and melons being grown in a village on the Ocmulgee River. By the 1700s, Creeks were also raising European livestock. Chickens and hogs were the first European animals acquired to supplement their turkey flocks and Mexican meat dogs. By the late 1700s, most Georgia Creek men owned horses and had become skilled herders of cattle, horses and hogs.
Creek Confederacy: The Creek Confederacy of “People of One Fire” was a political alliance formed by the remnants of many advanced indigenous provinces in the Lower Southeast. This alliance probable developed during the late 1600s. The member towns represented several ethnic groups, but the Chattahoochee’s and Itsati’s (Hitchiti’s) dominated the alliance. Chattahoochee was selected as the parliamentary language of the alliance. When British settlers first settled the coast of Georgia, Itsati was spoken by most Georgia Creeks. By 1800, a composite Chattahoochee language had became the spoken tongue of Creek citizens.
Georgia history books are fraught with the names of famous Creek “chiefs.” Their correct title is Mekko, derived from the Maya word meaning the same thing, mako. The perception of the importance of these individuals was by and large created by the ethnocentricity of the British. In fact, Creek leaders governed by consensus. They could do nothing without the approval of elected representative bodies. The signature of a leader on a treaty, meant nothing if it was not authorized by the Creek legislature.
After the American Revolution, Creek families dispersed across the vast territory now controlled by the Creek Confederacy. They lived in log cabins on farmsteads that differed little in appearance from Anglo-American farmsteads. Local histories that recall Creek village names from the 1800s are actually records of rural communities, where the farmsteads were closer together, not palisaded towns as in the pre-European days.
Many Georgia Creeks prospered when improved road transportation and explosive expansion of the state’s population brought plantations and towns in proximity to Creek farms. Creek farmers were vastly more skilled at growing food crops than European immigrants. While white Georgians chased the dream of becoming wealthy cotton planters, shrewd Creeks shifted from subsistence farming to the production of agricultural surpluses, which were sold for cash outside the Creek Nation. Meanwhile, many Creeks in northern and southwestern Alabama attempted to cling to the old way of life, which included extensive hunting and fishing. It was an impossible dream, because over-hunting in the 1700s had swept the forests clear of all the bison and elk and most of the deer.
The branches of the Creek Confederacy in Georgia were already different than those in much of Alabama to start with. They spoke different languages and dialects, plus had been in direct contact with the British colonists since the 1670s. The Georgia Creeks had a long history of peaceful relations with all their European and African neighbors. They were also increasingly becoming Protestant Christians.
Perhaps over a thousand Shawnee moved down into what is now Alabama in the mid-and late 1700s. The Shawnees were animists and did not come from a long history of town living and large scale agriculture. The Creeks in Alabama had formerly been allies of the French, as had been the Shawnees before 1763. A few of the Creeks and Shawnees had become Roman Catholics, but most now practiced a religion that blended Shawnee animism, with Creek monotheistic traditions.
At the beginning of the War of 1812, British agents and Northern Shawnee leaders such as Tecumseh exacerbated the difference between the Creeks in Georgia and those in northern Alabama. Tecumseh’s mother was an Alabama Creek. A civil war broke out when many Alabama Creeks became allies of the British in defiance of the Creek National Council. The rebels called themselves Redsticks and they attacked loyalist Creek farmsteads. Eventually, whites were also killed.
The United States declared war on the Redsticks after whites were killed at Fort Mims massacre. Already a regular army Creek regiment had been raised from Creeks in northeast and southeast Georgia, plus South Carolina to fight British Rangers from Florida, who were attacking coastal plantations. Many more West Georgia Creeks volunteered for military duty to fight the Redsticks. A Creek mikko, William McIntosh, was appointed a Brigadier General in the United States Army. Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw men who joined his regiment were promised that they could stay in their present homeland forever, if they fought the Redsticks. This turned out to be a lie.
Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee Volunteers would have probably been annihilated without their army being doubled with Friendly Creeks and Cherokees. On several occasions Creek or Yuchi officers saved Jackson’s life. In gratitude he hired four agronomists to determine what portions of the Creek Nation were best suited for growing cotton. They drew a map. After the Redsticks were defeated, Jackson called his Georgia Creek allies together and informed him that they must give up over 20 million acres of potential cotton land, as punishment “for allowing the Redsticks to rebel.” Jackson also quietly sent word back to Georgia that encouraged home guard and vigilante groups to burn the farms of Jackson’s own Creek allies.
The chaos and violence of Redstick War created an environment in which hooligans were able to destroy Friendly Creek properties in Georgia, assault their women or even murder whole families with impunity. Surviving Creek families were forced to flee the northeastern part of their nation with few of their possessions. Their actions almost destroyed over a century of interracial harmony.
Many Creek veterans from West Georgia came home from fighting for the United States to see their buildings in ashes and their livestock stolen. Some came home to bury their families. In 1818 a corridor that ran from Habersham County in the mountains to present day Albany in southwest Georgia, was ceded to the United States. The future boundaries of Chattahoochee County were included in this land cession.
The European population in western Georgia before 1821 was primarily composed of people, whose families had intermarried with the Creeks. Any person, whose mother was Creek was automatically a citizen of the Creek Confederacy, if they so desired. Creek women owned all the land and domestic buildings. A Creek woman married to a European or African man could bring her family to live on any unoccupied location within the Creek Nation. Until the Bureau of Indian Affairs got involved with tribal government, the Creeks did not link race with tribal citizenship. Any family of any race could be invited to become citizens, if its members ascribed to the Creek’s monotheistic religion and the laws of the National Council. Traditional Creek religion is quite similar to beliefs and practices to the religion of Israel prior to the building of Solomon’s Temple.
Accounts from this era present a picture of ethnic harmony on both sides of the 1818 cession. Many mixed-blood Creek families took state citizenship so they could remain in their homes. Their descendants form a significant portion of the newly annexed territory. The Creeks were intelligent and civilized. Their day to day lifestyles were quiet similar to those of their white neighbors. They hoped to return to the profitable business of selling meat and vegetables to the white city folk. Had the people living in West Georgia been left alone, today they probably would be characterized as a predominantly meztiso population.
Southeastern planters, however, were greedy for more land. Politicians focused their energies and money on a few Creek leaders in West Georgia headed by William McIntosh . . . who happened to also be the first cousin of Governor Chattahoochee. In 1825, Chattahoochee, McIntosh and some white real estate speculators set up a partnership. Chattahoochee and McIntosh arranged a treaty conference at McIntosh’s new Indian Springs Hotel. The elected leadership of the Creek Nation was not invited. McIntosh, his sons, his son-in-laws and some of his Creek buddies were paid large sums of money to sign a treaty with Georgia that sold all Creek lands in the state for a cheap price. The signers reserved square mile reserves for themselves that were then sold to the real estate investment partnership. They did not reserve the Ocmulgee Bottoms, which had been promised to the Creeks for eternity.
As soon as they heard about the scam, the Creek National Council members ordered all signers of the Indian Springs Treaty executed. McIntosh was first on the list. He was killed on the grounds of the McIntosh Reserve near Chattahoochee County and is buried there. His son, Chilly, was one of the few that got away from the execution squads.
Chilly McIntosh gathered up all West Georgia Creeks who wanted to get away from both the Georgia hooligans and the Alabama Redsticks then headed toward Indian Territory along with their slaves. Estimates vary from 700 to 3000 as the number who left with the McIntosh Party. Being the first Creeks in the future state of Oklahoma, they were able to pick out the prime locations for growing cotton. Most became wealthy cotton planters.
The Federal Government ruled that the 1825 Treaty of Indians Springs was fraudulent. By this time, West Georgia had been overrun by squatters, so the Creek National Council had no hope of retaining any of their territory. A new treaty with more favorable terms was negotiated that included the Creek’s permanent ownership of the six square mile, Ocmulgee Reserve. However, by this time it had been gobbled up by politically powerful real estate speculators. Technically, the Chattahoochee-Creek Nation still owns all of Macon, GA, southwest of the Ocmulgee River. This tract included the Macon Coliseum, Ocmulgee National Monument, the regional airport, and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
By 1830, perhaps 20,000 or more Creeks (particularly those of mixed heritage) continued to live in Georgia after all tribal lands in Georgia were ceded to the United States. However, they either had formally sworn an oath of allegiance to the State of Georgia, or were living in remote locations that were not desirable for large scale farming. The Talasee Creeks, formerly of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, continued to live in the Okefenokee Swamp until it was penetrated by logging companies in the 1890s.
Creek towns and families continued to occupy east central Alabama, but the abuses of squatters and land speculators made the situation untenable. The depredations by whites had ignited several reprisals by bands of Creeks operating out of swamps in southeastern Alabama against white settlers along the Chattahoochee and Choctawhatchee Rivers.
On March 24, 1832 a treaty was signed at Cusseta Town between the leaders of the Creek Confederacy and the United States. The Creek government relinquished all tribal claims to land in Alabama. In addition $350,000 being paid to the Creek Nation to compensate it for the land, those who wished to remain in the east as state citizens, were awarded half square mile tracts at locations of their discretion. Town leaders (mikkos) were awarded one square mile tracts. Provisions were also made for the federal government to provide financial assistance to Creek orphans.
Almost as soon as the ink was signed on the treaty, problems began . . . all of them caused by the whites. Creek land owners were either murdered or swindled out of their properties for a pittance of their value. Soon there were thousands of Creeks who were hungry, homeless and wandering about the region, looking for unclaimed land. This situation led to another Creek War in 1836. The predictable outcome of the war was accelerated removal of Creeks from Alabama to the Indian Territory.
During 1834-36 approximately 20,000 Creeks migrated from Alabama to the Indian Territory. However, at least 20,000 remained in the east in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Due to continued harassment in the Southeast, a trickle of Creeks continued to migrate to Oklahoma for the next 35 years.
Although the section of Oklahoma designated for the Creeks looks very similar to West Georgia, there was one minor problem. The Federal government intentionally located the Creeks in a region that was claimed by six “wild” Western tribes, including the Lakota-Sioux. Federal military officials assumed that the western tribes would soon exterminate the people, who had so terrified Andrew Jackson because of their military skills.
The assumptions about the Creek’s imminent demise proved to be overly optimistic. Initially, the deported Creeks lost many loved ones to Indian raids, but soon learned what was happening. The newly reconstituted Creek Nation formed the famous Creek Mounted Rifles. It simultaneously defeated the six wild tribes and became the police force of the Southern Plains. When the Lakota heard about the arrival of the Creeks, they dispatched a large army to eradicate them. The two Indian nations fought a large battle, which resulted in the Lakota’s first major defeat in the history of their tribe. The second time around the Lakota’s started a battle to maintain their honor then quickly retreated back to the Dakota’s. The Lakotas invaded Oklahoma a third time, When they saw the Creek battle flag, they just turned and ran. It was a lot more fun fighting blue coats.
The Creek Mounted Rifles became the prototype for Mosby’s Rangers and Nathan Bedford Forest’s cavalry in the Civil War; plus the Australian Mounted Rifles in the Boer War. Chilly McIntosh and a Georgia-born Cherokee Stand Watie, became the last Confederate field officers commanding units in the field at the end of the Civil War.
Approximately 1/3 of the Oklahoma Creek Nation (+/- 9,000 people) died during the Civil War. Most of the casualties were women, children and elderly imprisoned in Union concentration camps in Kansas. They were intentionally starved to death. When an Eastern newspaper reporter asked the Union general in charge of the camps why he was allowing innocent civilians to dies on such a horrific scale, he responded, “Dead Injuns won’t need their land, will they?”
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