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The Tamatli

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Little known today outside the State of Louisiana, the Tamatli branch of the Creek Indians apparently had a culture with substantial Mesoamerican influences. The Tamatli spoke a coastal dialect of Itsati (Hitchiti) which included many “pure” Itza Maya and Totonac words.  At least as late as 1763, one branch of the Tamatli in Tennessee used the Itza Maya word, “mako” as the title of their principal chief.

Like the Maya, Tamatli houses contained three rooms.  Their domestic and public buildings were plastered with white stucco, made with a combination of white clay, hydrated lime and crushed shells.  Spanish and English observers stated that the Tamatli buildings glistened like pearls. Unlike most branches of the Creek Indians, the principal temple mounds of the Tamatli faced south.  This was also the practice of the Apalachee Indians. Tamatli farmsteads were generally dispersed across particularly fertile areas of a province.  Most towns called either u’lamako’s (capitals) or talula’s (district centers) were located on navigable rivers.

The definite pre-European Contact locations of Tamatli provinces were along the upper Altamaha and lower Ocmulgee River Basins in what is now southeastern Georgia, plus the Valley River Basin between Murphy, NC and Andrews, NC.  There was a cluster of Tamatli villages on the Keowee River in South Carolina in 1680s, but these Tamatli may have emigrated northward from southeastern Georgia in response to Spanish colonization efforts. In the 1700s, branches of the Tamatli joined both the Creek Confederacy and the Cherokee Alliance. The Tamalki Clan was prominent among Georgia Creeks in the 1700s and early 1800s, but is no longer active among Creeks in Oklahoma.

Numerous references state that the Tomahita or Tomahitans were Cherokees living in Virginia. They, in fact, were the most northern branch of the Itsati-Creeks, who returned back to Georgia in the 1700s and became part of the Creek Confederacy.  Their actual name for themselves was Tama-hi-ti, which is an Itsati-Creek word derived from Totonac language of Mexico. The explanation can found in the section of this article on “origin of ethnic names.”

The only distinct Tamatli community in the 21st century is associated with the Apalachee Indians in Louisiana. The Tama Muskogee-Creek Tribal Town near Cairo, GA, in the deep southwestern part of that state, honors the name of Tama, but most tribal members are probably not descended from the actual Tamatli people. The Tamatli were Itsati-Creek and therefore, had different physical features than the Muskogees. The federally recognized Miccosukee Tribe of Florida is composed of the descendants of Itsati Creeks in Georgia and western North Carolina. Its members are closely related to the Tamatli.

Origins of ethnic names can be traced to Mexico

Currently, the meaning and origin of are Tamatli are speculative. Since the “tli” is a common locative suffix in Mexico, a Mesoamerican origin is a strong possibility.  “Tama” is a root word in the Totonac language for words associated with buying or trading.  Thus, the literal meaning of Tama-hi-tli in northern Vera Cruz would be “Place where one can trade.” Tama-hi-ti in Archaic Itsati meant “People who trade.”  This is the exactly the same name that the Tomahiti of western Virginia called themselves.  The Tomahiti are also discussed in detail in Swanton’s Early History of the Creek Indian.

In the Creek languages of Itsati (Hitchiti) and Mvskoke (Muskogee) Tama is written as Tvmv and approximately pronounced “tă-mău.” An alternative interpretation of Tama is that it is a word for a type of drum in the Itsati-Creek and several Maya languages. Taumau may also be derived from isolated Polynesian ethnic groups in Mexico, in that it is a common Polynesian word with several different meanings that vary with location.

The Altamaha River most likely gets its name from Itsa Maya. In both Itsati Creek and Itza Maya, Al-tvmv-ahv would mean “Place of the Taumau Lord.”   The Muskogean “V” is pronounces like a Maya “aa” and approximately like an English “au” or “aw” sound.

Tamasee, as in Tamasee, SC and Tamasee, AL means “children of Tama.”  The “si” or “see” suffix was added to the names of Muskogean mother towns to label a satellite village or colony.  Entire provinces could also be labeled “Tamassee” if the inhabitants considered their mother town to be Tama.  Villages named Tamasee can be found among both the Creeks and the Cherokees. English explorers spelled Tamatli towns within the territory assigned the Cherokees by the British as Tamatly, Tomatla and Tomatly.  Spanish authorities in Florida labeled Tamatli villages as Tamale and Tomale.  Tama-le is a Coastal Itsati label of these people that was used by the Waha-le (Guale.)

The Tamatli in Colonial Archives

According to the Gentleman of Elvas, on the 10th day of April, 1541 the army of Hernando de Soto passed through a town, was called Altamaca. Rodrigo Rangel stated that the expedition arrived in the large town of Altamaha on April 4, 1541.  Garcilaso de la Vega   (the Inca) called the town the expedition visited, Altapaca. Luis Hernandez de Biedma, the king’s agent, stated that the expedition arrived in the Province of Altapaha four days after leaving (A)Chusi.

Apparently, during the late 1500s there were several small expeditions into the territory of the Tamatli and their cousins, the Ocvte that have been lost to known archives. French Huguenots explored the North Georgia and western North Carolina Mountains in 1562. Their route passed through Tamatli territory, but no record of their expedition is known to have survived the French Revolution.  The French Protestants apparently got along well with the Creek Indians.  After the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, they have secretly taken refuge among the Muskogeans of the Southeast.

Records of known expeditions in the early 1600s state that the Tamatli bragged that armed Europeans had come through their territory on horses and been massacred.  These same Spanish colonial archives state that Native American contacts had repeatedly reported Europeans living in the mountains of what is now, northeast Georgia.  At the time, there was no royal colony in the region, but the settlers may have been either Spanish Sephardic Jews, who were hiding from the Inquisition, deserters from the chain of forts erected by Juan Pardo in 1567, or French Protestant refugees.

After de Soto the next documented expedition into the Tama Province was headed by a Spanish officer named Gaspar de Salas. He and his squad accompanied two friars in 1597 in an effort to establish a mission among the Tamatli and Okvte. The two missionaries were Fr. Pedro de Chozas and Fr. Francisco de Verascola.  As required by Creek law and tradition, the visitors were shown hospitality by the Hene-mako (Great Sun) of Tama.

Castilian arrogance eventually wore out the Tamatli’s patience. Totally ignorant that the Itsati practiced a monotheistic religion quite similar to that of Israel before the building of Solomon’s Temple, the friars treated the Tamatli’s and Okvte’s as ignorant heathen and peons.  The predictable Creek Indianss response was a harjo (fury) that came close to removing the two missionaries’ scalps.

In 1602 Juan de Lara, a Spanish officer with 34 years of service in La Florida, led a small expedition back to Tama to investigate rumors that Spanish on horses had been seen in what is northern Georgia. The Spaniards this time recorded the name of the capital town as Olatama, which would be in Itsa-ti, U’la-tvmv = Capital of Tama.  By this time, U’la-Tama had been designated the frontier of the Muskogean provinces.  The Spanish were treated with hospitality, but told that no Europeans on horses had been seen, and that if the foreigners ventured north of “Olatama.”    It is quite likely that there were Europeans in the Georgia Mountains, but they were being protected by their Creek Indian friends.

The Spanish Crown continued to hear rumors of Europeans living in the Southern Highlands.  The rumors were accurate.  There is a Landino (Sephardic Castilian) inscription on a boulder at 5,400 feet above sea level at Hoopers Bald in the Smoky Mountains, which reads, “PRE DARMOS CASADA – SEP. 15, 1615.”  It means “Prayer we will give – married September 15, 1615.”  The Iberian Jews were still living in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia in the 1690s, when they were observed by British officers.

At least five military expeditions were sent into the interior from St. Augustine, between1624-1628; in search of the Europeans, but no records of these expeditions survive, and there is no evidence that the settlers were found. One briefly documented journey by an Ensign Adrian de Cañisares & Osorio traveled into the territory of the Tamatli to investigate mines where lead, gold and silver were found.  This could not possibly be the home province of the Tamatli since it was located on the sedimentary rock of Georgia’s Coastal Plain.  There are some silver, zinc and lead deposits in the Snowbird Mountains of North Carolina where the Mountain Tamatli lived.  Apparently, the Spanish officer did not know of this second Tamatli territory, and went home empty handed.

The last documented Spanish expedition into the Province of the Tamatli occurred between 1627 and 1628. Reports reached Spain in 1625 that a band of about 50 horsemen with brown or blond hair had reconnoitered the Southern Highlands.  By this time the population of Virginia had grown far beyond the number of Spanish inhabitants in Florida. Spain was getting very nervous.  Two expeditions under the command of Ensign Pedro Torres containing 10 Spanish soldiers and 60 Indians was sent to search the Provinces of Tama and Kofitachiki for Englishmen.  The first one was turned away by the leaders of Kofitachiki.  The second was granted permission to enter Kofitachiki and found the capital still thriving.

Spanish friars continued to make efforts to convert the Tamatli to Roman Catholicism through out the first quarter of the 17th century. However, they were forbidden to build a mission in the Tama Province.   The Mission Santa Isabel de Utinahica was built in 1610 on the northern tip of Timucua Indian territory at the confluence of the Altamaha and Ohoopee Rivers. This location, the original “Forks of the Altamaha” is about 52 miles south of where Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum sponsored an expedition to find the mission. Apparently, there were some converts from the southern frontier of the Tama Province, but Spain found it necessary to relocate the Tamatli converts about 123 miles away from the Timucua mission in 1625. The new mission was Santa Cruz de Cachipile. It was located at the Georgia Welcome Station south of Valdosta, GA.  A second Tamatli mission, La Purificacion de Tama, was constructed in the Florida Panhandle in 1633.  Because of repeated attacks by hostile Creek Indians, the Cachipile Mission was abandoned in 1657.

In 1673 the Tomahita or Tamahiti were a major tribe in the Virginia Mountains.  An exploration party sponsored by Abraham Wood visited one of their main towns, which was apparently in the Great Appalachian Valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Mountains in SW Virginia. After an incident in which one of the expedition leaders was killed, an apprentice stayed with the Tamahiti for a year.  He accompanied them on trading and military expeditions that ranged as far south as Florida and as far north as the Great Lakes. In the early 1700s the Tamahiti moved to Georgia and joined the Creek Confederacy.

The Tamatli were still living on the Altamaha River, when Charlestown was colonized by the English in 1674. They were listed on colonial maps as being part of the Yamasee Alliance. Yvmvse (Yä-mäh-see) is the Itsati-Creek word for “civilized.”  In 1684 Tamasee and Keowah Creeks of northern South Carolina signed a trade agreement with South Carolina. Within thirty years, these people would come to be known as Lower Cherokees.

In 1702 a combined Spanish-Apalachee force attempted to invade South Carolina through the Tama Province.  Roughly, 500 of the 800 Spanish soldiers were either killed or captured on the banks of the Flint River by a Creek Indian army that included Tamatli.  All remaining Spanish missions were destroyed by a combined Creek Indian-English invasion of Florida in 1704.

The Tamatli Province, in what is now southeastern Georgia, was a leading member of the Yamasee Alliance in the Yamasee War against South Carolina between 1715 and 1717. The Creek Confederacy joined the Yamasee in this war.   After inflicting severe damage to the colony, the Yamasee army was ultimately defeated.  The tides of war changed because the Lower Cherokees, which included a large number of Mountain Tamatli, switched sides and murdered all the Creek leaders in their sleep.  So many Tamatli were killed or enslaved in this war that afterward, the history of the Tamatli has merged with one of the polities the survivors joined; either the Creek Confederacy, the Apalachees or the Cherokees.

The Tamatli also includes the spellings of: Altamaha, Tama, Tamathli, Tamale. Tomale, Tamasee, Tamalke, Tomatly, Tomatla, Tamahiti, & Tomahita.


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