Native American History of Jasper County, Georgia
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Jasper County is located in central Georgia and is part of the Atlanta Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA.) It is named after Sergeant William Jasper, a German-American hero of the American Revolution, who was killed in action during the siege of Savannah in 1779. Its county seat is Monticello.
Johann Wilhelm Gasper (1750-1779) arrived in Philadelphia in 1767. There a British official changed his name to William Jasper. After working as an indentured servant for a few years, he moved to South Carolina. He joined the South Carolina militia in order to earn enough money to bring his Pennsylvania girlfriend down to live with him. He and Elizabeth married soon after her arrival, but then the Revolution in the South flared up. Jasper became a widely known as the hero of a series of battles around Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, SC. He died in 1779 leading a charge against the British breastworks at Savannah.
Jasper County is bounded on the northeast by Morgan County and on the south by Jones County. Putnam County forms its eastern boundary while Butts County forms its western boundary. Monroe County is located to the southwest, while Newton County is located to the northwest.
Geology and hydrology
Jasper 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.)
The county’s largest stream is the Ocmulgee River, which along with Lake Jackson forms its western boundary. All of Jasper County is drained either by the Ocmulgee or its tributaries. Other major streams include Murder, Cedar and Gap Creeks.
The Ocmulgee River joins the Oconee River in southern Georgia to become the Altamaha River, which eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean. Much of the Ocmulgee’s route along the edge of Jasper County 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 until it nears Macon, G,, would have been an ideal artery for small Native American dugout canoes.
Ocmulgee is the Anglicization of the Georgia Muskogee 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.
Native American occupation
In the past, Jasper County Native American populations were apparently concentrated along the Ocmulgee, plus the larger creeks that flow westward into the Ocmulgee .There are very few vestiges of its pre-European occupation and no large mounds. Some small, low mounds can be seen in Jasper County near the confluence of the creeks with the Ocmulgee. Few 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 Jasper 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 Ocmulgee.
The region around Jasper County was occupied by the Creek Indians, when first visited by English traders in the late 1600s. Maps of that era show the Ocmulgee – Creeks living around Indian Springs and the Upper Ocmulgee River, while the area around Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon is labeled “Ochesee” by the early maps of the Colony of Carolina. The Ocmulgee Creeks abandoned the Upper Ocmulgee River during the Yamasee War (1715-1717) and relocated to the Lower Chattahoochee River. Some returned to the Ocmulgee River Basin after 1732, when the Colony of Georgia was founded.
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
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Jasper 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.
Jasper 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.
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 Jasper 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 Jasper County would have been highly influence by 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 Jasper 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.
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. In Creek tradition the first capital of this alliance was at Ochese in what is now the Ocmulgee National Monument. However, from early on, Indian Springs was a favorite location for meetings of the Creeks National Council.
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 – 1802 AD
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. Part of what was to become Jasper County was ceded by the Creek Confederacy in 1802; the remainder in 1895. 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.
Creek descendants today
Relationships between the Muskogee Creeks and their Anglo-European neighbors along the upper 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.
Creeks who were married to Caucasian or African spouses often remained in the Upper 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. The families in Jasper County, who proudly remember their Creek ancestry, are descended from these mixed heritage marriages.