Native American History of Telfair County, Georgia
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Telfair County is located in south-central Georgia. It is named after Edward Telfair, an important leader of Georgia during the Revolution and early days of statehood. He had just died when Telfair County was created from ceded Creek lands. The county seat is McRae.
Edward Telfair was born in Scotland in 1735 and died in Georgia in 1807. After immigrating to Virginia to be an agent for a Scottish mercantile firm, Telfair first moved to North Carolina and then settled permanently in Georgia. He immediately began assembling large tracts of land in St. Paul’s Parish, what was to become Burke County, GA and also held a significant amount of real estate in Christ Church Parish (Chatham County, GA.) In 1768, he was elected to the Commons House of Assembly. By 1774 he was an active revolutionary, being one of the original members of the Liberty Boys. In May of 1775 Telfair joined other Liberty Boys in the theft of 600 pounds of gunpowder from the Royal Magazine. The next month, he was elected to the Council of Safety, which was Georgia’s government during the Revolution.
During the American Revolution, Telfair was a member of the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1783. He was named by the British Parliament as a person guilty of high treason and had a bounty on his head. After the Revolution, he was a signer of the Articles of Confederation. Telfair was governor of Georgia in 1786 for a one year term. Much of his energies were applied to mitigating the new state’s financial crisis and negotiating with the Creek Nation to prevent an outbreak of war. At that time the Creeks far outnumbered Europeans in Georgia and had the military strength to drive white residents of the state into the ocean.
Telfair was elected governor again under the new state constitution for three terms between 1790 and 1793. Again, much of his energies were required for preventing a major war with the Creek Nation. The cause of the hostilities was repeated encroaches onto Creek territories, which were then followed by punitive raids by small bands of Creek militia, operating without sanction from the Creek National Council.
After leaving office, Telfair continued to be heavily involved with public affairs. He played a major role in the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits citizens of one state or nation from bringing litigation against another state government. Telfair also played a major role in persuading the Creek Nation to sell its lands east of the Ocmulgee River in 1805. Telfair County is located on those ceded lands.
Much territory within the original Telfair County was “cut out” to create Dodge County in 1870. Until that time it was Georgia’s largest county. The southwestern boundary of the county is defined by the Ocmulgee River. The county is today bordered on the northeast by Wheeler County and the northwest by Dodge County. Coffee County forms its southern boundary. Jeff Davis County is located to the southeast while Ben Hill County is located to southwest. Wilcox County forms its western boundary.
Geology and hydrology
Telfair 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 Telfair County. Here the terrain is much more moderate than in the Piedmont, varying from gently rolling hills to flat bottomlands.
Telfair County’s largest stream is the Ocmulgee River, which flows along the southwestern side of the county. The Little Ocmulgee River joins the Ocmulgee River near Lumber City in Telfair County. Other major streams include Alligator Creek, Smokehouse Branch, Hurricane Branch, Boney Creek, Boggy Branch, Sugar Creek, Horse Creek, Lime Sink Creek and Turnpike Creek.
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 Telfair 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.
Native American occupation
In the past, Telfair County Native American populations were apparently concentrated along the Ocmulgee, Little Ocmulgee and the larger creeks that flow into these rivers. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish archives describe a chain of major towns that appear to have been in present day Telfair, Wilcox, Bleckley and Dodge Counties. There is evidence that the complex system of meandering streams, permanent swamps and seasonal wetlands in the Ocmulgee floodplain were the locations of some the earliest experiments in agriculture in the United States.
The region around Telfair 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 western part of the county were both Taino Arawaks and Itsate Creeks 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.
The eastern part of Telfair County was probably Muskogean and part of either the Tama or Okute Provinces. The De Soto Chronicles mentioned that the boundaries between the Toasi, Okute and Tamatli Provinces were about a day’s march inland from the Ocmulgee River. However, the confluence of the Little Ocmulgee and Ocmulgee Rivers may have been the boundary between the Tamatli and the Toasi. The Tamatli spoke a language containing many Totonac, Tamale and Itza Maya words from Mexico. Tamatli means “Merchant People” in the Totonac language.
Archaeologists with the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta and Georgia State University have studying Native American village sites along the Ocmulgee River in Telfair County since 2005. The archaeologists have found the remains of several large Native American structures and definite proof of Spanish cultural contact in the region.
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 Telfair 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.
Telfair 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.
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 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 northwest 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 Telfair 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.
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.
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 Telfair County would have been highly influenced by the cultural influence of regional centers such as the Ocmulgee mound complex in Macon, 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. Hernando de Soto’s expedition probably passed through or near present day Telfair County in March of 1540. Thus, the indigenous people of Telfair 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.
Dispersed farmsteads: 1780 AD – 1825 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. 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 Telfair County was opened to settlement by Europeans.
Creek descendants today
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 Telfair County, who proudly remember their Creek ancestry, are descended from the mixed heritage marriages with their European and African neighbors.