“De Soto hoped he was nearing a province that was a rich as the Aztecs in gold and silver. What in fact he had encountered were the ancestors of today’s Creek Indians.” – Richard Thornton
During the spring of 1541 AD, the conquistadors of the Hernando de Soto Expedition were marching through what is now central Georgia. They were searching for an advanced Native American civilization like the Aztecs, Mayas or Incas to conquer. The Apalachees had called this province, Yupaha, and directed him to go northward to the mountains. The expedition was composed of unpaid volunteers, who dreamed of becoming rich from their share of the gold plundered mythical cities in the mountains that supposedly had temples built of gold.
The Spanish had noticed distinct cultural changes after leaving the land of the Apalachee in the Florida Panhandle. The towns in what is now the State of Georgia were far better planned than those of the Apalachee. The people were much taller. In fact, the men averaged a foot taller than the Spanish. The Spanish called them “Indios Gigantes,” which means “giant Indians.” Unlike the Apalachee, these Natives did not worship idols, but made many statues of famous ancestors out of wood, stone and ceramics. All the people wore brightly patterned, woven clothes, while the men wore mustaches and turbans. Some of the female leaders also wore turbans.
De Soto hoped he was nearing a province that was a rich as the Aztecs in gold and silver. What in fact he had encountered were the ancestors of today’s Creek Indians. He was approaching the Ocmulgee River and the future site of Macon, Georgia.
The four versions of the de Soto Chronicles say very little about this American Indian town, whose ruins are now known as “the Lamar Village Component of Ocmulgee National Monument.” This is surprising, since the town figures prominently in Creek Indian history. In fact, the chroniclers could not even agree on the town’s name. The Gentleman of Elvas called the town, Achese. Other versions called it Ochese, Ichese and Uchese. English colonists, 200 years later, would call it Ochese. That name stuck.
Creek Indians today typically remember the town on the Ocmulgee River by its English name, not the words of their own language. The original name was Achese in the Muskogee-Creek language or Ichisi in the Itsa-ti-Creek language. In both languages, the words mean, “Children of Corn.” Achese is written as Vcése in the Muskogee-Creek language and pronounced, Aw-che–ze-.
This is what the Gentleman of Elvas, author of one of the de Soto Chronicles, wrote in his Eighth Chapter:
“The governor (de Soto) left Toali on March 24, 1541. At supper time on Thursday, he came to a little stream, where a footbridge was made on which the men crossed. Benito Fernandez, a Portuguese, fell off it and was drowned. As soon as the governor had crossed the stream, he found the village of Achese. Although the Indians had never heard of Christians (Spanish) they plunged into the river.
A few Indians, men and women, were seized, one of whom understood the youth, who was guiding the youth who was guiding the governor to Yupaha. On that account, the governor was more certain what the latter said for they had passed through lands having different languages,some of which, he did not understand.”
After the shocked leader of the village greeted the visitors from afar, he asked them who they were, what they wanted and where were they going? De Soto answered, through his translator, “that he was a son of the sun and came from where it dwelt. He was going through his province and seeking the greatest lord and the richest province. The caçicue (Native leader) said that a great lord lived on ahead; that his domain was called Ocute. He gave the governor a guide and interpreter for that province. The governor ordered the caçique’s Indians to be set free and departed from his town on the first day of April, marching through his land along a river with many villages.”
Archaeologists have determined that the capital of the province of Achese was a large town with two important temple mounds in 1541. One of the mounds was spiral shaped. It is the largest spiral mound in the Western Hemisphere. Being a capital, it would have contains many warehouses where food reserves, pearls, crystals and copper ornaments were stored. The de Soto Expedition typically stopped at such locations long enough to plunder them.
The lack of detailed description of this village, named Achese, suggests that it did not impress the Spanish very much. It probably was not the capital, but rather a district administrative center known as a talula in the Itsa-ti (Creek) language. However, it is also possible that the Spanish were so anxious to find a city the scale of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, that mere earthen temple mounds did not interest them.
Five hundred years earlier Achese had been a small satellite village for an acropolis that dominated the Ocmulgee River Valley. The hamlet was located on a horseshoe bend in the Ocmulgee River two miles downstream from the acropolis. The acropolis had been founded by newcomers around 900 AD. The oldest known archaeological evidence at Achese places its founding at around 990 AD. Its original occupants made a different style of pottery than those of the main town. This style of pottery is known as Etowah I because it is very similar to ceramics found at the contemporary settlement on the Etowah River in northwestern Georgia.
The main acropolis was abandoned around 1150 AD, but people continued to live at the hamlet that was to become Achese. For the first 100 years, it grew very slowly. Around 1200 AD, there was a massive flood on the Ocmulgee River, which caused the river to cut a new channel across the horseshoe bend. The site of Achese became an island that could be easily fortified and defended. From then on, the town grew rapidly until around the time of the de Soto Expedition.