Muskogee or Mvskoke is generally translated as “people who have herbal medicine.” It nowadays is considered synonymous with “Creek Indian,” but did not appear on any maps until very, very late in the 18th Century. The most common name for the “Creek Indians” at that time was “Coweta.”
Although most Creek descendants today probably assume that the Creek Indians are an ancient, indigenous ethnic group, the federally recognized Muscogee-Creek Nation of Oklahoma is the current form of a political entity that is a few decades older than the United States. The ethnic label “Creek” does not even appear on maps until 1745. Until after the American Revolution, maps described locations of specifically named tribes within the geographical regions that were generally denoted as “Creek.”
Prior to the late 1700s, what is now the Southeast was a patchwork quilt of indigenous ethnic groups, speaking several languages and many dialects. The formation of all of the federally recognized tribes in the Southeast is a direct result of the colonization of the region by Europeans and Africans. During the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s indigenous survivors of a series of invasions, wars, plagues, slave raids and forced relocation, repeatedly formed alliances and settled new villages.
Over time they evolved mixed cultural traditions and adopted hybrid languages so that they could communicate with each other. This process of internal cultural assimilation among the Creeks continued even after the majority of traditional Creek towns were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. However, today most Oklahoma Creeks are not even aware that their ancestors once spoke many dialects and languages, plus practiced several distinct cultural traditions.
The archives from the earliest European expeditions and colonization efforts in the Southeast describe a very different ethnic landscape than observed by the waves of Anglo-American settlers in entered western Georgia and parts of Alabama in the early 1800s.
Creek scholars can identify the ethnic identities of the aboriginal peoples by the indigenous words recorded by the chroniclers of the Hernando de Soto in the early 1540s. All of the town names recorded in what is now, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, western North Carolina, the Florida Panhandle and South Carolina were Muskogean words. By Muskogean, it is meant that they were members of the language family from which modern Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee, Alabama, Itsati (Hitchiti,), Koasati, etc., languages evolved. However, a minority of these Muskogean words were from the Muskogee language. The statement should be qualified by the fact that some other Spanish expeditions encountered some people in South Carolina, who spoke non-Muskogean languages such as Siouan.
The original Muskogee towns were located in the middle Chattahoochee River Basin. They were probably not visited by Hernando de Soto. In the 1500s the majority of native towns in the State of Alabama had Alabama language names. The Apalachicola of southeastern Alabama (members of the Creek Confederacy) spoke a language halfway between Itsati and Choctaw. Southeastern Georgia was occupied by Arawak-speaking provinces. There was also a pocket of Arawaks in the vicinity of Birmingham. Peoples speaking dialects similar to Chickasaw occupied the Tennessee River Basin in northern Alabama. There were towns speaking dialects of Choctaw in west central and southeastern Alabama, and some small tribes speaking Siouan and Choctaw dialects along the coast. There were also Yuchi trading centers scattered around the Southeast
The geographic center of the original Creek Motherland was at modern day Macon, GA. It was here, at the ancient town of Achese, that representatives of many provinces came together in the late 1600s to form a political alliance to combat the horrific slave raids being encouraged by English planters, the constant incursions of Spaniards from the south and Native American invaders from the north. However, even the Muskogee region of west-central Georgia, the Muskogee they spoke was half way between Itsati and Alabama-Oklahoma Muskogee spoken today.
Early Colonial Period and the Plagues
There is archival and archaeological evidence that European diseases began to sweep through the Southeast as early as 1500 AD. A smallpox plague in the Yucatan spread across the Caribbean and then was carried to the Gulf Coast by Native American merchants. In the early 1540s, when the Hernando de Soto Expedition bullied its way through the Southeast, the Native provinces were still thriving in the interior. Most seem to have not been affected by the diseases that were ravaging communities on the Gulf Coast.
When Tristan de Luna’s foraging parties traveled from Pensacola up through the heart of Alabama, eighteen years later, the countryside was desolate. Survivors told de Luna’s captains that waves of diseases had followed in the path of de Soto, leaving many provinces under-populated. At this time, the Muskogees were living on the east-central edge of Alabama. They and the populous Muskogean provinces in the Southern Highlands apparently were less affected by the plagues.
A catastrophic change occurred around 1585. An epidemic began in the highlands of central Mexico then apparently spread across the Southern Highlands of the future Southeast. It was a hemorrhagic fever that often killed its victims within a day – even hours. The disease is said to have been spread by fleas that parasitized rodents living in cool, temperate mountains. The plague did not affect the sweltering Gulf Coastal plains of Mexico or the Southeastern United States, but was endemic in the Southern Highlands. At least 80% of the indigenous people of the Mexican Highlands died in 1585. At least that percentage or more died in the Southern Highlands. Anthropologists know this because construction in all of the major towns in northeastern Alabama, northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina ceased after that time. Some villages have been found with unburied skeletons scattered across the landscape that show no signs of physical violence.
Spanish efforts at colonization first concentrated on the South Atlantic Coast in 1526. That colony was abandoned within 6 months. A much more successful town was established at Santa Helena (SC) in 1563. Given the scarcity of Iberians willing to immigrate to the New World, colonization efforts shifted to mainly establishing mission stations and small forts along the coast. Later, the Franciscans developed a chain of small missions on the Chattahoochee River as far north as Columbus, GA. However, that mission to the Muskogees lasted only a short time.
Various European diseases continued to periodically sweep through the Southeastern Indian settlements for the next 200 years. It has been estimated that by 1800, the Native American population of The Southeast was somewhere between10% to 2% of its level in 1492. Most of the ancestral Itsati-Creek and Alabama mound builders was apparently wiped out by 1600 AD. Thus, the descendants of the people, who once built the great towns at Moundville and Bottle Creek, the Alabama Indians, were reduced to being a minor ethnic group, which was often forced to merge with other peoples in order to withstand attacks from their enemies.
Between 1600 and 1800, the more fertile lands in The Southeast were often reoccupied by ethnic groups from other regions. After 1585 Disease Holocaust, many of the surviving Kusa (Coosa Creeks) moved from northwestern Georgia to the Childersburg, AL area. Some Hilapi (Hillabee or Pee Dee Creeks) began a migration from South Carolina through Georgia and then to the region just north of Auburn, AL. The Sawakee (Creeks) moved from South Carolina and the NC/GA mountains to west-central Georgia and east-central Alabama. Saugahatchee Creek in Lee County, AL is the Frontier English way of saying “Sawakee- hachee = Raccoon People River. Several other ancestral branches of the Creeks from eastern Tennessee moved downstream along the Tennessee River into northern Alabama.
The Kowita (Creeks) began moving out of the North Carolina & Georgia Mountains into the Chattahoochee River Basin in the 1600s. The Kowitas still occupied most of the Blue Ridge Mountains until that region was given to the Cherokees in 1763. Meanwhile, Chickasaw towns from northwest Georgia, northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee began drifting westward toward the Mississippi, or southward into what is now considered “Creek” territory. Some Chickasaw bands in Georgia joined the Creek Confederacy and eventually spoke Muskogee-Creek.
The English were largely ignorant of the Southeast’s interior until after the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763. English colonial maps contained very little detailed information about the landscape west of the Chattahoochee River or north/west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, they were familiar with the landscape of Georgia, east of the Chattahoochee,
After the founding of Charlestowne (SC) in 1674, the English developed a brisk trade with the ancestors of the Creeks living in South Carolina and Georgia. The Eastern Creeks quickly began using iron pots instead of pottery. By the eve of the American Revolution, traders based in Augusta, GA were ranging throughout most of the Southeast, but the Creeks in what is now Alabama, still tended to be more traditional in lifestyle, than their brethren in Georgia and South Carolina. Of course, back then both Alabama and Georgia were in the Colony of Georgia.
English sponsored slave raids followed by a 40 year long war with the Cherokee Alliance are the primary reasons that the ancestors of the Creeks concentrated their villages along the Chattahoochee River in the general vicinity of Columbus, GA. The local language was Muskogee. The Muskogee language became the diplomatic language of the Creek Confederacy.
Over time, branches of the Creek Confederacy that had formerly spoken Apalachicola (Lower Creek,) Itsati, Koasati, Yuchi, Shawnee, Yuchi, Catawba, Kusapo (Cusabo) and Sokee, switched to dialects of Muskogee. However, this transition in the 1700s began before the word “Muskogee” became commonly known to European colonists. It is not even known if the Muskogee Creeks called themselves the Mvskoke before the end of the 18th century. Much of Creek cultural history from this traumatic time period of constant inter-tribal warfare has been lost, and may never be re-discovered.