Why the History of the Era is Confusing
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Many people of Creek descent, who are not professional historians, have written me over the past few months with questions about the Creeks during the English Colonial Period. They are totally confused by the conflicting information presented by web sites, books, tour guides and historical markers. The information seems to vary by state. I feel their pain! I was in the same boat for years! I will try to give complete answers to their questions with a six part News Update – rather than answering everybody individually.
I can’t emphasize enough that the most important source of confusion is the fact that the Southeast was a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups when Europeans began colonizing the region. The actual ethnic patterns bear little resemblance to the official “Native American Tribes” map of the U. S. Department of Interior. There were no tribes until the 1700s! There people speaking antecedents of modern Native languages, but they were not grouped together politically in tribes. Yuchi towns and villages were scattered all over the upper Southeast. The Chickasaw were around Chattanooga, on the north side of the Tennessee River in Alabama, in northwest Alabama, in central/western Tennessee, in southwest Georgia, while one band was in northeast Georgia. The ancestors of the Creeks, Alabamas, Choctaws and Koasati were organized into provinces. Many smaller ethnic groups in the Carolinas and Virginia no longer exist.
Here is an example of the confusing information. There is a state historical marker on Blood Mountain, GA, near where I now live, which describes the “Battle of Slaughter Gap.” The sign announces that there was “a great battle between the Cherokees and Creeks here in 1755, in which the Cherokees won all of North Georgia.” The sign cites as proof of this battle the supposed presence of thousands of arrowheads on the slopes of Blood Mountain. Actually, both the Creeks and the Cherokees exclusively used muskets in 1755.
There is another Georgia state historical marker in Ball Ground, GA near, where I formerly lived in NW Georgia, which describes the Battle of Taliwa, in which an outnumbered and brave army of Cherokees won, and therefore, won all of North Georgia, thus insuring truth, justice and the American Way for the region.
However, there is a historical marker in Hayesville, NC that describes the repeated sacking of Cherokee villages by Creeks from northern Georgia during the French & Indian War up until 1763. The sign says that the Cherokees were forced to leave the region because of the repeated attacks and burning of their towns.
There was a map prepared in 1756 by John Mitchell which shows all of the Cherokee villages in NE Georgia, and the lower half of western North Carolina, burned and abandoned. Creek towns in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina are shown to be intact.
Also, there is a sign in Tennessee which states that the Cherokee principal town of Chota was burned by Creeks from NW Georgia during the late 1750s and that afterward; the Overhills Cherokees switched sides and became enemies of the British and allies of the French & Creeks. However, there are books and historical markers in Georgia that describe the Creeks as being allies of the British during the French and Indian War!
So which version of history is correct? How could have the supposedly invincible Cherokees conquered all of northern Georgia, while losing most of their villages in the southern half of western North Carolina and their capital town of Chota in Tennessee? That will be just part of our discussion in this two part series of the news update. However, the frontier warfare included many, many more ethnic groups than the Cherokees and Creeks.
Confused Ethnic Identities
Nineteenth and twentieth century scholars tossed around contemporary tribal names such as Catawba, Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek to all sorts of events and archaeological sites that predated the formation of any of these tribes. They tended to ignore such formerly powerful peoples as the Chiska (Chickasaw,) Alabamu, Koasati, Yuchi, Southern Shawnee, Timucua, Apalachicola and Apalachee.
The Catawba formed an alliance of the remnants of Siouan, Muskogean and Yuchi ethnic groups in South Carolina. At one time, it was equally as strong as the Cherokee Alliance.
The Cherokees were composed of at least 14 bands speaking several languages and dialects. They were not a single political unit until Sir Alexander Cummings picked out their first “king” for them in 1730. Even after being pushed into a single political entity, individual Cherokee bands often acted independently in regard to issues of war and peace.
The word “Creek” does not even appear on the maps until around 1745. It was an alliance of towns speaking different languages and dialects that chose Muskogee as their diplomatic language;
The Yamassee was another Muskogean alliance that apparently chose Yama (Mobilian trade jargon) as its diplomatic language. The more powerful “Creek” provinces in northeastern Georgia and South Carolina initially formed their own alliances, and at one time were at war with the Muskogees. Historians often do not distinguish between Muskogean towns in the Creek Confederacy and those who were members other alliances.
The original Lower Creeks were Apalachicola’s who spoke a language that was a mixture of Hitchiti and Gulf Coast Choctaw. A “Muskogee Creek” living in Oklahoma today probably would find their extinct language unintelligible. Most of the Creeks along the Gulf Coastal Plain of Florida, Georgia and Alabama are descended from Upper or Middle Creeks who took refuge there in the late 1700s and early 1800s – many were Hitchiti speakers. Southeast Georgia was repopulated with Hitchiti-speaking Tallassee Creeks from the Smoky Mountains. Nevertheless, the state-recognized Creek tribes in the Coastal Plain areas call themselves Lower Creek-Muskogee tribes.
Colonial maps show that many distinct ethnic groups occupied northern Georgia even until after the American Revolution. There were Siouan Tokah-ke villages on the Toccoa River in NE Georgia and the Toccoa River in north-central Georgia. Some Catawba villages occupied the area around Gainesville, GA (foothills of the mountains.) There were Shawnee on the Chattahoochee River in what is now Gwinnett County (Metro Atlanta.) Chickasaws lived in Habersham and White Counties (NE Georgia Mountains.) Apalachees and Yuchi’s lived in Stephens and Hart Counties (NE Georgia Mountains & Foothills.) Yuchi’s lived in several towns along the Savannah from its headwaters to Augusta, GA. Apparently, these groups were allies of the Coweta & Okonee Creeks living nearby, but we don’t know that for sure. The Apalachicola occupied NW Georgia until 1763 when the region was given to the Cherokees by the British.
Confused Political Boundaries
Prior to 1763, France claimed all of the territories west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in what are now North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. From the perspective of Europeans, the French had a legitimate claim to the region because they had thoroughly explored and mapped it, while the English were largely ignorant of the trans-mountain region until after 1763. During this era Muskogee-Creeks were concentrated along the Chattahoochee River with a triangular corridor pushing eastward to Macon, GA. Most Creeks in Georgia spoke Hitchiti until the early 1800s. All of Georgia’s “Creek named” rivers are Hitchiti words. Most of Alabama was occupied by non-Muskogee speakers until after the French and their Muskogean allies (such as the Alabama & Koasati) departed in 1763.
Tennessee was part of North Carolina until 1792. Georgia didn’t exist until 1732. Until after the Revolution, South Carolina claimed all of northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi were part of Georgia until 1798.
Contemporary historians, in particular, get confused as to an actual location, when it is stated to be in South Carolina. The Native American town site or historical event could have been west of the Savannah River in what is now Georgia. There is also great confusion in the location of Creek towns before the Revolution because they now could either be in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee or Alabama.
Short Term Cultural Memories
The horizon of detailed cultural memories of the Southeastern Native American peoples is pretty much limited to the time of the American Revolution. The “big picture” of Creek oral traditions probably goes back at least 3000 years, but specific names of leaders, towns and historical events tend to be vague or non-existent.
The Cherokees have been moved around so much in the past 250 years, that their original heritage is virtually unknown. None of the Snowbird Cherokees I interviewed this past winter could name their great-grandparents, or even knew where they lived.
In Oklahoma, you have the trauma caused by the Trail of Tears. I have yet to meet an Oklahoma Creek, who can tell me much about their own family’s heritage before the Trail of Tears. The Oklahoma Creek’s situation is made more complex because of intermarriage between Creeks and other tribes. In the Southeast because of racial barriers, Creeks and mixed-blood Creeks usually married other Creeks or other mixed-blood Creeks until the 20th century. So at least, you do have some cultural continuity.
Creeks in southern Alabama & Georgia, plus the Florida Panhandle can usually go back to Indian Removal Period when their Creek ancestors took refuge along rivers and in swamplands. Most do not know where those refugees fled from. Poarch Band Creeks in SW Alabama and Creeks living in East-Central Alabama can usually go back to the War of 1812 with some family names. Creek descendants in NE Georgia and South Carolina generally can go back further, since their Creek ancestors received reserves for service in the American Revolution.
My family’s situation is typical of the last group. My grandfather had a vague memory that a Scottish ancestor was from Virginia, became an Indian trader and then married a Creek woman. All names were forgotten. My grandmother could trace her father’s Creek heritage to a freed Creek slave girl named Mary, who married a Scotsman in Fredericksburg, VA, and then returned to the Pee Dee lands in north central South Carolina, before immigrating to the “South Carolina” frontier west of the Savannah. We know the full names of all ancestors from that line going back to 1755.
On my grandmother’s mother’s side, family tradition was passed down that they were originally in a village just north of Savannah and were converted to Methodist Christianity by Rev. John Wesley, himself. The village moved to near Augusta and then to the Upper Savannah River. . We don’t have any family names before the Revolution. The first known names are three minor mikko’s who signed the land trade after the Revolution.
With virtually no specific names and places to go by prior to the American Revolution among Creek families, Creek history during the Colonial Period is limited to famous names, major towns and major wars. Thus, non-Creek historians can produce speculative interpretations of history, which can not be countered with specific cultural memories within the Creek people. I probably have some Yuchi heritage, but for all I know, some of my family could have been from those Apalachee living just north of where my maternal great-grandmother’s village settled. What we do know is that some of my grandmother’s generation were spitting images of Mikko Tomachichi, who was a friend of the Savannah colonists. Therefore, the tradition of the village being near Savannah is probably accurate.
A surprising portion of Native American history presented on state historical markers and in tourist guides has never been confirmed by thorough historical research, or is just pure malarkey. Unfortunately, too much of this malarkey has been replicated too many times, so that archaeologists and historians can sometimes assume it to be factual. Most of the inaccurate historical markers can be traced to the imaginations of the first European settlers to arrive in the region – often after all or most Native Americans had been expelled.
What we have also seen in recent decades unfortunately, is the intentional fabrication of un-documented history by some Native American tribes to either compensate for their cultural amnesia, or else, theoretically make their tribe seem more important to tourists. This sort of nonsense can be traced to inferiority complexes among the fabricators of the false history. American society as a whole can not hide its scoundrels and worse deeds, but these Native Americans seek to present a stainless image of a past that never was.
The answer to the initial riddle of the conflicting historical markers is this: In 1755 South Carolina “gave” all of northern Georgia (or western South Carolina from their perspective) to the Cherokees as a payment for fighting the French and also to nullify Georgia’s claim to the region. The Creeks and other Muskogeans in that region were allies of the Colony of Georgia. An Overhills Cherokee army DID surprise and burn Taliwa . . . mainly because the Creeks thought that the Cherokees, as allies of Great Britain, were also allies of the Georgia Creeks.
The following spring, an army of pro-French Upper Creeks under the Mikko Drummer, recaptured NW Georgia and held it until 1763 – when France lost the French and Indian War. The Upper Creeks used NW as a base to ravage Overhills Cherokee towns during the next two years . . . eventually forcing them to either surrender, become neutral, or else switch to the French side. Ostemako of the Tamatli Cherokees became an active ally of the French. Of course, the Tamatli were originally Hitchiti-speaking Tama-tli Creeks from SE Georgia, so they spoke a language similar to that of the Kusa Creeks.
The statement you read in all web sites that all of northern Georgia was a joint hunting land for both Creeks and Cherokees is false. Kusa (Upper Creek) villages still occupied the region between Blue Ridge and Blairsville, GA. The Catawba and Shawnee were south of them. That’s how Coosa Creek got its name. Middle Cherokee towns attacked these villages in 1755. They were thoroughly defeated. The Kusa’s, Catawbas and Shawnee of the north-central Georgia Mountains then began to systematically destroy all of the Cherokee towns south of the Nantahala Mountains of North Carolina.
The Middle Cherokee and Lower Cherokee towns attacked the Muskogean villages in NE Georgia in 1755. They were also defeated. There was no Cherokee victory at Blood Mountain. By 1756 every Cherokee village in northeast Georgia had been captured and destroyed.
In 1757 the Lower Cherokee towns in South Carolina were attacked by South Carolina militia and Redcoats as retribution for the Overhills Cherokees switching sides. The execution of several dozen Lower Cherokee hostages caused all the Cherokees to go to war against their former allies, the British. When defeated by the British, the Cherokees lost all of their lands east of what is now Murphy, NC.
Thus, the Cherokees did not “win” northern Georgia. The British gave them the lands that had been temporarily occupied by pro-French Creeks in northwest and north-central Georgia, but they had no territorial gains in northeast Georgia, which were “given” to pro-English Creek allies. This is probably when my grandmother’s ancestral village moved into that region. To compensate for their loss of NW Georgia, the Creeks were “given” all of the lands in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle that were formerly part of the French province of Louisiana. Many of the Muskogean allies of the French left Alabama in 1763 and relocated to what is now, the states of Louisiana and Texas.
The Upper Creeks of the Georgia Mountains
The location of the Kusa (Coosa) villages between Blairsville and Blue Ridge after 1763 is an unsolved riddle. Did they relocate to what is now northern Alabama or did they stay put? The evidence suggests that at least some Kusa families stayed where they were, and were absorbed by the Cherokees. It is known that there were at least 3000 Upper Creeks living in the Georgia Cherokee Nation in 1832.
There are many families in Murray, Fannin and Gilmer Counties on the northern edge of the Georgia Mountains, who have distinct Upper Creek features. I have dated some of their daughters! In the past, the past these families have usually called themselves Cherokees, but were always puzzled as to why they looked “Indian” but very different than Cherokees.
The Upper Creeks also look different from Muskogee and Hitchiti Creeks. Both the men and the women are extremely tall and lanky. It is very rare to see an obese adult these families, whereas obesity is today a serious health problem in many other Native American populations. These Georgia Upper Creeks have long, thin, raptor-like noses and thin ears. Most have “Creek knots” on the back of their heads. As the Creeks nationally have taken a higher profile in recent years, these families are increasingly now saying that their heritage was actually Creek . . . but they had heard that the Creeks were “mean” Indians. What can you say to that? <chuckle>
In the second part we will provide a chronological overview of the wars fought on the Carolina and Georgia frontier, which includes which ethnic groups were involved and what factors probably caused that war.