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Native American History of Wilcox County, Georgia
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Wilcox County is located in south-central Georgia. It is named after Major General Mark Willcox (1799 – 1852) – a general in the Georgia Militia, legislator and Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. The second “l” was dropped from General Willcox’s name when it was applied to Wilcox County. Its county seat is Abbeville.
In 1818, Willcox was badly wounded in the head during the Battle of Breakfast Branch, which occurred in the future Wilcox County near the west bank of the Ocmulgee River. He was a Major General of the Georgia Militia during the Creek and Seminole Wars of 1836. His troops saw considerable combat in both southwestern Georgia and northern Florida. At that time, Creeks in Georgia who were members of the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy were called Creek Indians, while those Creeks who were not members of the confederacy were called Seminoles. Most of the autonomous Creek towns in Georgia were either Itsate-speaking groups (Hitchiti) or else were actually Yuchi’s. Few were closely connected with the Seminole alliance in Florida. The 1818 Creek War is discussed in the section on dispersed farmsteads.
Much of Wilcox County’s eastern boundary is defined by the Ocmulgee River. The county is bordered on the north by Pulaski County. Both Dodge County and Telfair Counties form portions of its eastern boundary. Ben Hill County is located to the south of Wilcox. Turner County forms its southwestern boundary, while Crisp County forms it western boundary. Dooly County is located to the northwest of Wilcox.
Wilcox County is located in the Atlantic Coastal Plain geological region. The Atlantic Coastal Plain is characterized by underlying rock strata that are relatively young sedimentary rock from the Late Cretaceous Period, when the shore of the Atlantic Ocean ran through present day Wilcox County. Here the terrain is much more moderate than in the Piedmont, varying from gently rolling hills to flat bottomlands. Many of the streams have permanent or season wetlands that parallel their channels. Wilcox County has several large springs where relatively large volumes of water flow out of underground channels in the sedimentary bedrock. The best know are Poor Robin Spring and Oscewichee Spring.
Wilcox County’s largest stream is the Ocmulgee River, which flows along the eastern side of the county. Other major streams include the Alapaha River, Brushy Creek, Bear Creek, Bay Branch, Ball Creek, Cedar Creek, Poplars Creek, Sagegrass Creek Hawpond Creek, Oscewitchee Creek and Mill Creek. Much of the drainage in the county goes into the Alapaha River.
The Ocmulgee River joins the Oconee River in southern Georgia to become the Altamaha River, which eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean. The Ocmulgee River in the vicinity of Wilcox County is deep enough to have been navigable by the largest of Native American canoes. During the 1800s steamboats plied this section of the Ocmulgee.
Ocmulgee is the Anglicization of the Georgia Muskogee-Creek tribal name, Oka-mole-ke, which means “Swirling Water People.” Georgia Muskogee was a mixture of the dominant Creek language, Itsate (Hitchiti) with the dialect of Muskogee spoken along the Tallapoosa River in Alabama.
Alapaha is the Anglicization of a composite Itsate-Creek and Itsate-Maya word, Vlvpa-ha, which means “Alligator River.”
Oscewichee is the Anglicization of the Georgia Muskogee-Creek word Vse-oe-ce, meaning “bearer of the Yaupon Holly water,” It was also the name of a Creek tribal town in Chattahoochee County, GA. The Yaupon Holley was brewed to make the Sacred Black Drink, a tea very potent with caffeine. The name possibly referred to the black color of the spring.
In the past, Wilcox County Native American populations were apparently concentrated along the Ocmulgee, Alapaha and the larger creeks that flow into this river. There is evidence that the complex system of meandering streams, permanent swamps and seasonal wetlands in the Ocmulgee and Alapaha Floodplains were the locations of some the earliest experiments in agriculture in the United States.
The region around Wilcox County was occupied by ancestors of the Creek Indians, when first visited by English traders in the late 1600s. However, linguistic evidence provided by the chronicles of the Hernando de Soto Expedition, when it passed through the region in spring of 1540, suggests that the occupants of the county were Taino Arawaks at that time. De Soto visited the town of Toa, which was located in the general vicinity of Abbeville in Wilcox County. The Toa were a name of a branch of the Taino near Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Toa also is the Arawak word for a stone griddle used to bake cassava bread. Toa has no meaning in contemporary Creek languages.
The people of the Toa province were called the Toasi by Itsate and Muskogee speakers. This word is seen in some early Spanish archives. Those Toasi who survived the waves of plagues and slave raids that decimated the lower Southeast, joined the Creek Confederacy. English speakers called them the Tawasee.
The Tawasee maintained their distinct ethnic heritage until the middle 1700s.They occupied one or more villages in the vicinity of Birmingham and Montgomery, AL. A Tawasee man lived among British colonists for awhile. Many of the words he spoke were written down. He spoke a hybrid language that was Taino Arawak, with some influence from Muskogee-Creek. After the American Revolution, the Toasi apparently became totally assimilated into Creek culture. Their ethnic identity was completely lost by the 1800s.
During the early 1800s, there was a concentration of mixed-heritage Creek families on the west side of the Ocmulgee River, even after the region was ceded to the State of Georgia. When the region was within the territory of the Creek Nation, there was a trading post and dock on the Ocmulgee River near Abbeville in extreme eastern Wilcox County.
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.
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Wilcox 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.
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.
Wilcox 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. The landscape that European settlers encountered in the Coastal Plain 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. The inhabitants regularly burned the undergrowth to create meadows for grazing animals.
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.
The earliest known pottery in the Western Hemisphere has been discovered by archaeologists in the middle Savannah River Valley and in middle Ocmulgee Basin. The makers of this pottery were probably hunters and gatherers, who spent significant portions of the year along the major rivers of eastern Georgia. It is known as Stallings Island pottery after Stallings Island near Augusta, GA. Archaeologists believe that the Stallings Island people first began experimenting with ceramics around 2,500 BC. This is slightly earlier that the first pottery produced in Mexico; in the Pacific Coast State of Guerrero. Most of Mexico would not have ceramics for at least another 800-1000 years.
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 Ocmulgee Basin followed soon afterward –possibly at the same time. 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. Most had ovoid or circular footprints.
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, Ocmulgee and Oconee 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.
There are several probable village or town sites in Wilcox County along the Ocmulgee and Alapaha Rivers. Amateur historians, Native Americans and artifact collectors have reported finding village sites, containing low mounds and extensive deposits of Swift Creek, Macon Plateau and Lamar style pottery shards on several islands within riverine swamps along the Ocmulgee River. These sites have not been studied thoroughly by archaeologists. It is quite plausible that such villages existed, but without professional analysis, they cannot be described as definite Native American settlement locations.
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.
One of the earliest “advanced” indigenous towns in the United States was founded 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, Itsate. There are many Maya and Totonac words in the various dialects spoken by the Creek Indians that came from Mexico.
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 and towns located in Wilcox County would have been highly influenced by the cultural influence of regional centers such as the Ocmulgee mound complex in 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. Hernando de Soto’s expedition. probably passed through or near present day Wilcox County in March of 1540. Thus, the indigenous people of Wilcox County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens immediately. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Georgia dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700 AD.
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 probably developed during the late 1600s. In Creek tradition the first capital of this alliance was at Achese (Ichesi~Ochesee) in what is now the Ocmulgee National Monument.
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.
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.
Almost immediately after the United States formed a permanent government, the Creeks were pressured to cede more and more land to the State of Georgia. By 1805 all land east of the Ocmulgee River had been ceded except of six square miles around the Ocmulgee Old Fields. Ocmulgee National Monument is now located in part of this reserve. At this point, all of what is now Wilcox was opened to settlement by Europeans.
A civil war erupted between traditionalist (Red Sticks) and majority factions of the Creek Nation in 1813. Most of the Creeks in Georgia were strongly supportive of a continued alliance with the government of the United States. In fact, the lifestyles of Georgia Creeks were quite similar to those of their Caucasian neighbors. The Creeks were master farmers. They were thriving from the cultivation of crops and raising of livestock that were sold to towns and plantations east of the Ocmulgee River. During the War of 1812, Creek families on both sides of the Ocmulgee River in present day Wilcox County patriotically sent their sons to fight the British in Florida and on the Georgia Coast and later, the Red Stick Creeks in Alabama.
In 1818 Itsate-speaking (Hitchiti) Creeks along the Flint River in southwest Georgia attacked farmsteads in present day Pulaski, Wilcox and Dodge Counties. Dodge County was then part of Telfair County. In some cases their victims were mixed-blood Creeks associated with the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy. The Flint River Creeks had been allies of the United States during the War of 1812 and Red Stick Creek War. However, Georgia militia units committed atrocities against friendly Creek villages while the men were away fighting the United States’ enemies. The Itsate Creeks were outraged when a Muskogee Creek, General William McIntosh, gave away their lands to the United States in the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814) but not Muskogee-Creek lands to the north.
In 1821 the Creek Nation ceded a large tract of land west of the Ocmulgee River. Wilcox County was eventually created from this land cession. Several Creek families in Wilcox County opted to be given fee simple allotments and take state citizenship, rather than re-locating westward.
Relationships between the Muskogee Creeks and their Anglo-European neighbors along the Ocmulgee River in the late 1700s were generally good. There was much intermarriage. However, there had been some violence along the Upper Oconee River during the late 1780s and early 1790s, between other branches of the Creeks and encroaching settlers. These problems ended with the 1802 and 1805 land cessions. The raids on the Ocmulgee River Basin in 1818 were by Creek Indians who had lost their lands in southwest Georgia at the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814.
Creeks who were married to Caucasian or African spouses often remained in the Ocmulgee Basin after it was ceded to Georgia. Some of their mixed heritage children remained in the region, while others moved to live among the Creeks. Also, some Creeks married African-American slaves then bought their freedom. The families in Wilcox County, who proudly remember their Creek ancestry, are descended from the mixed heritage marriages with their European and African neighbors.
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