Native American History of Henry County, Georgia

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Henry County is located in central Georgia and is part of the Atlanta Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA.) It is named after Patrick Henry (1736–1799) – ardent patriot and twice governor of Virginia. Its county seat is McDonough.

Henry is bounded on the north by Rockdale and DeKalb Counties. On the east Newton County forms its boundary. Clayton County forms its western boundary. Newton County forms its eastern boundary. Butts County is located to the southeast of Henry, while Spalding County is located to the southwest.

Geology and hydrology

Henry County is drained by tributaries of the Ocmulgee River. Most of these streams flow into the South River. The Ocmulgee River joins the Oconee River in southern Georgia to become the Altamaha River, which eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean.

Henry County is located in the Piedmont geological region, which is characterized by underlying rock strata of igneous and metamorphicized igneous rock. The terrain consists of rolling hills and, stream valleys. Seasonal or permanent wetlands parallel many of its streams. These are relatively narrow bands of soggy terrain that provide ecological diversity for animal and plant life. The top soils are thin over most hills and steep slopes, while much deeper near streams. Short-sighted cultivation techniques in the 19th and early 20th century caused much of the best top soil to be eroded; thus exposing red clay sub-soil. Sandy loam can still be found near streams and there are some deposits of blue pipe clay (alluvial kaolin.)

Most of Henry County’s streams, except for the Flint River, flow from west to east or east to west. Because of the terrain, flooding is not usually a problem, but did occur around Lake Peachtree in 2009 because of record rainfall. Many of the county’s creeks were ideally sized for harnessing of water power by early settlers. Grist mills played a major role in the economic development of the county in the 1800s.

The county’s largest stream is the South River, which forms much of its eastern boundary. The source of the river is a spring in East Point, GA (Fulton County.) Much of is route along the edge of Henry is characterized by permanent swamps or seasonal wetlands. It is only navigable for canoes, row boats and small outboard powered fishing boats. However, because it has few shoals, would have been an ideal artery for Native American dugout canoes.

The Towaliga River originates from a cluster of springs in the southwestern corner of Henry County. It is really just a creek inside the county boundaries, however. Many fanciful explanations for the name were give by early settlers to the county, but actually it is just the Anglicization of the Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek word towalika, which means “a log that has been hewn into a bench.”

Other major streams include Big Cotton Indian, Little Cotton Indian, Walnut, Honey Macky, Tussahaw, Indian, Bear, Brush, Cane, Shoal and Kalves Creeks. Tussahaw is the Anglicization of the South Carolina Itsate (Hitchiti Creek) word for Blue Jay Creek – Tvsahaw.

Native American occupation

In the past, Henry County Native American populations were apparently concentrated along the South River and the larger creeks that flow eastward into tributaries of the South River. There are very few vestiges of its pre-European occupation and no large mounds. Some small, low mounds can be seen in Henry County. Few, if any, have been studied thoroughly by professional archaeologists, so it is not clear when these mounds were built. It is most likely that some are burial mounds from the Woodland Period (see below) while others were platforms for temples or district leaders that date to the period between 900 AD and 1600 AD.

Until the late 20th century, freshly tilled soil in Henry County often reveals pre-European artifacts, mostly spear and atlatl points, plus some simple pottery shards. True “arrowheads” are much smaller than what laymen typically label arrowheads. Once large scale agriculture began around 950 AD, native populations tended to shift to the bottomlands of rivers such as the Chattahoochee, South, Towaliga and Alcovy and Ocmulgee.

The region around Henry County was occupied by the Creek Indians when first visited by English traders in the 1700s. Its 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. Henry County’s Creek Indians always enjoyed friendly relations with first the Colony of Georgia and then, the State of Georgia. Surviving Native American place names suggest that the county was occupied by Itsate (Hitchiti) speakers, not Muskogees. The Muskogees were concentrated along the middle section of the Chattahoochee River.

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 Muscogee – Creek Nation of Oklahoma is only the fourth largest federally recognized tribe, behind the Navajo, Oklahoma Cherokees and Oklahoma Choctaws.

Native American Cultural Periods

Earliest Inhabitants

Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Henry 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 Ocmulgee 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.

Archaic Period (8,000 BC – 1000 BC)

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.

Henry 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. The landscape that European settlers encountered in the Piedmont 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.

During the late Archaic Period, several trade routes developed in this region that interconnected the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Appalachian Mountains and Great Lakes. During this time, Native Americans began traveling long distances to trade and socialize. There was an important east-west trail that ran from the shoals on the Savannah River (now Augusta) to the Chattahoochee River in Coweta and Carroll Counties, Georgia; and then to the land of the Chickasaws in southwestern Tennessee. This trail approximately followed the route of Highway 54 in Henry County.

Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)

The Etowah, Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys were locations of some of the earliest permanent villages in North America. It is likely that permanent settlements in the upper Ocmulgee Basin followed soon afterward. 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.

Around 100 AD, the ancestors of the Creek Indians evolved to building permanent towns with horseshoe shaped plazas for playing ball games, near the Chattahoochee and Ocmulgee Rivers. This was known as the Swift Creek Culture. Swift Creek Style pottery is considered some of the most beautiful every made in North America. The Swift Creek People were also known for their finely crafted copper tools, weapons and ornaments. They built both ellipsoid shaped accretional mounds and some large pyramidal mounds for temples.

Muskogean town dwellers (900 AD – 1784 AD)

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 and below the Fall Line along the Ocmulgee River. Smaller villages located near creeks. Native Americans continued to live in what is now Henry County, but their populations were concentrated elsewhere.

One of the earliest “advanced” indigenous towns in the United States was founded on the Macon Plateau around 900 AD along the Ocmulgee River. Its founders were newcomers, who carried with them many Mesoamerican cultural traits. They may have been either Itza Mayas or the hybrid descendants of both Mayas and indigenous peoples. The language that most of the Creek Indians’ ancestors spoke in Georgia was Itsate (Hitchiti in English.) The Itza Maya’s also called themselves, Itsati. There are many Maya and Totonac words in the various dialects spoken by the Creek Indians that came from Mexico.

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 Henry County would have been somewhat removed from the cultural influence of regional centers such as the Ocmulgee mound complex in Macon, GA or the Abercrombie and Kyle mound complexes in Russell County, AL and Muscogee County, GA.

European exploration period (1540 AD – 1717 AD)

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 Henry County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens at least by the summer of 1540. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Georgia dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700 AD.

The Kingdom of Spain claimed all of the Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins, including Henry 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.

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 Muskogees and Itsati’s (Hitchitis) dominated the alliance. Muskogee 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 Muskogee language had became the spoken tongue of Creek citizens.

Dispersed farmsteads: 1780 AD – 1821 AD

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.

Redstick War: 1813-1814

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.” This vast territory included what is now Henry County.

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.

Indian Removal Period: 1817-1827

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 Henry County were included in this land cession. A local history book states that Henry County was created from lands ceded at the Treaty of Indian Springs in 1825, but by then it was already being settled by Europeans.

Prior to 1818, the European population in present day Henry County 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 the western and central Georgia Piedmont 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 Troup. In 1825, Troup, McIntosh and some white real estate speculators set up a partnership. Troup 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. His son, Chilly, was one of the few that got away from the execution squads.

Former Redsticks in Alabama then formed vigilante groups to raid Georgia Creeks. It was considered payback for the Georgia Creeks roll in defeating the Redsticks ten years before. The West Georgia Creeks were still being attacked from time to time by Georgia Crackers. Even up into the early 20th century a favorite tactic of Georgia hooligans was to rape especially pretty Creek ladies then hang them from a tree near a Creek community. Thus, the miserable Henry County Creeks were being attacked from both sides. A commentary of the time described them as being near naked, but until the mid-19th century, Creek women and all Creek young people normally went topless during the warm months.

The State of Georgia constructed a fort to protect the Friendly Creeks from Redstick raids. It was called Fort Troup. State militia units were assigned to the fort. It was located somewhere in Fayette County, probably in the southern tip near Senoia. No record exists of the fort being attacked, but its presence seems to have quenched the desire of Alabama Redsticks to seek more revenge.

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 Muscogee-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.

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?”




MLA Source Citation:

Thornton, Richard. People of One Fire. Web. Georgia. 2010-2013. Digital Rights Copyright 2010-2013 by AccessGenealogy.com. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 20 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/native-american-history-of-henry-county-georgia.htm - Last updated on Jul 1st, 2012


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