The Cusabo of South Carolina
What were South American words doing in the South Carolina Low Country?
I was shocked when reading the opening pages of Captain René de Laudonniére’s “Trois Voyages.” The French explorer stated that the Native peoples around Port Royal Sound in present day South Carolina worshiped a deity named Toya, but also celebrated the Green Corn Festival at the Summer Solstice. Toya was a sun god worshiped in South America and by the Calusa Indians . . . who supposedly only lived in the southern tip of Florida. Just south of the Savannah River in the Wahale (Southerners) country of Georgia’s Coastal Plain, the French recorded an ethnic smörgasbård of standard Tupi-Guarani, Quechua, Muskogean, Arawak and Maya village names. They even saw cinchona (quinine) trees being cultivated along the Altamaha River. What in the world was going on back then?
The ethnic name Cusabo first appears in European archives about the same time that the Colony of Carolina was settled in 1674. Most South Carolinians remember them as tribe that once lived on the coast of the state. However, actually it was an alliance formed from several remnant provinces in the region between Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA. Members of this confederacy included the Asepo (Ashepoo,) Combahe, Kusaw (Coushaw~Coosoe,) Edisto, Etiwa (Etowah,) Eutaw, Kiowa (Keowee,) Sokee (Soque,) Stono, Wando, Wapoo and Wimbee. A band of the Natchez also settled in the Cusabo region in the 1740s. They Cusabo were also known as the Settlement Indians, because some of them continued to live among the South Carolina colonists into the mid-1700s.
The names of several members of the Cusabo Alliance appear in the earliest colonial archives. The French Huguenots at Charlesfort in Port Royal Sound mention “King Audesta,” ”King Macou,” “King Aresto,” and “King Ouede.” It is not clear if these are personal names or ethnic names. The High King of the region northeast of Port Royal Sound was named Chiquola by the French. Later Spanish colonists named his territory Chicora. French maps of Florida François show the Ashipou, Cousau and Etiwau living inland from Charleston Bay along the Ashely and Cooper Rivers.
The Spanish settled Port Royal Sound in 1566 after massacring the French colonists on the South Atlantic Coast in 1565. Initially, the local Natives, who they called Edisto and Oresto, cooperated. However, as the Spanish steadily tried to manipulate and force them into serfdom, they rebelled. The town of Santa Elena was burned and colonists were driven out in 1576. The Spanish returned in 1578 and punished the rebelling tribes. A smaller settlement was rebuilt, but it was permanently abandoned in 1587.
Little is known about the events along the South Carolina coast between 1587 and 1674. Anthropologists believe that horrific plagues swept through the Southeast, decreasing the population by as much as 90%. Along the coast, the effects of the plagues came much earlier. European ships would occasionally send landing parties to trade with coastal tribes, but leave behind deadly microbes.
The creation of the Colony of Carolina in 1659 marked the beginning of the end for South Carolina’s Native Americans. One of the Lord Proprietors of the planned colony was Sir William Berkeley, the newly reinstated Governor of Virginia. After packing the House of Burgesses with Royalist planters, Berkeley in 1660 pushed through bills which, for the first time in English history, institutionalized human slavery. Native Americans and Africans, who had been classified as bond servants, were now in perpetual slavery for all generations in the future. The Colony of Virginia also gave the Rickohocken Indians firearms and a contract to deliver as many Native American slaves as possible. Much of the new colony of Carolina was depopulated before the first British colonists arrived.
The Cusabo Alliance cooperated with early British settlers in the Low Country. They provided wild game and fish to the colonists in return for manufactured goods. As slavery became more prevalent in coastal plantations, the Cusabo functioned as slave catchers. Colonial authorities intentionally promoted hostility between the Cusabo and Africans so that they would not join forces. However, the archives are not clear as to what relationship the Cusabo had with Native American slaves. In 1710, twenty percent of the population of the Charleston Colony was Native American slaves, while forty percent was African slaves.
The Cusabo was the only Native Americans who initially supported the Carolina colonists when the Yamasee Alliance attacked colonists in 1715. After the ultimate British victory in 1717, many Cusabo relocated to the Chattahoochee River and joined the Creek Confederacy. Their name appears on maps until the mid-1700s. Other Cusabo continued to live in the Low Country in remote, swampy locations, where they essentially became invisible to government authorities.
Members of Cusabo Alliance Remain a Partial Mystery
Beginning with the work of the famous ethnologist, John Swanton, in the early 1900s, ethnological discussions of the Cusabo project a sense of great confusion by academicians. Only a handful of Cusabo words, recorded by European explorers and colonists, survive. Ethnologists failed to realize that the members of the Cusabo alliance were originally different ethnic groups, and so tried to discern a single language spoken by all the Cusabos. What one sees today, when the subject of the Cusabos is mentioned at all, is an attempt to fit them into the mold of a modern federally recognized tribe. Ethnologists compare the handful of surviving words from a dozen different provinces and try to match them with Muskogee-Creek, Catawba, Cherokee, Lenape (Delaware) or Iroquois.
An early colonial document stated that five of the member tribes of the Cusabo spoke a common language, but could that language actually been a trade jargon? The Yamasee Alliance used Yama (Mobile Indian language) as a trade jargon, while the Creek Confederacy used Mvskoke as a trade jargon. Each alliance was actually composed of several ethnic groups.
Much of the confusion can be traced to the assumption by anthropologists that Native Americans pronounced the ethnic names given them by Europeans exactly like contemporary alphabetic letters are pronounced in English. The English “bo” was actually closer to “po.” The English “ba” (as in Catawba) was actually “pa.” Both are Itza Maya and Itsate-Creek suffixes for “place of” or territory. The real name of the Catawba Indians was Katvpa (Kataapa on Georgia maps.) An internal “s” was pronounced “sh” by Eastern Muskogeans, while an external “s” was a “zjh” sound like in southern Mexico. Many “t’s” in Anglicized tribal names were actually pronounced closer to the sound of a “d.”
Someone in the past decided that the “bo” or “bou” suffix in South Carolina Indian names meant “river.” However, they never could figure out what language “bo” or “bou” came from. Someone else decided that the Westo’s were really Yuchi. Thus, the full name of late 17th century slave raiders, Westebo or Westobou was translated as Yuchi River. Weste or westo is a Muskogean adjective for “scraggly hair” that was applied by the Creeks as a pejorative name for the Rickohockens, who wore long, unkempt hair. Westepo means “Territory of the Rickohockens” in Itsate-Creek.
Let’s take a look at tribal names
Asipo (Ashipoo, Ashibou, Osebaw) – This is a Coastal Itsate name meaning “Yaupon Holly Territory.” Their original base was obviously on Ossabaw Island, immediately south of Savannah. They were Itsate Muskogeans, who spoke a hybrid language with many Mesoamerican words. Interestingly enough, early British settlers knew that Ossabaw meant “place of the Yaupon Holly,” but late 20th century scholars couldn’t figure out how the Muskogee-Creek equivalent of “place where the yaupon holly grows” could become Ossabaw. Muskogee can be very different than Itsate.
Combahee, Kampahechee, Kvmpahe – This province was located around Beaufort Sound when the first European explorers entered coastal South Carolina. Most died out or moved away during the 1600s. They are believed by anthropologists to have been a Muskogean tribe allied with the Cousaw.
Cousa, Coushaw, Coosa – This tribe was a branch of the Georgia Kusa, who settled in South Carolina. Their late 17th century presence in South Carolina might explain the cultural ties between the province where Kofitachiki was located and the capital of Kusa in NW Georgia.
Cusabo (Kusapo) – The name of the late 17th alliance has alternative interpretations. In Itsate, Kusapo literally means “Territory of the Kusa.” Kusa was actually pronounced Koushaw, so that makes sense. However, as will be seen below, there were peoples in South Carolina and Georgia with South American or Caribbean roots. Caçabi (Cashabe) is the Taino word for cassava bread. Kusa is the Quechua word for “good.” So Kusapo could be a hybrid word meaning, “Territory of the Good (People,)” This also makes sense because the title of many of the kings along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts was “parakusa,” which is of Peruvian origin. It means “water – good.”
Etiwa, Eutaw (Etalwa) – These are obviously Anglicized versions of a major division of the Creek People, the Etalwa. Etowah, NC near the SC line was originally called Etalwa. It was a Creek town.
Edisto and Oresto – These people worshiped a deity named Toya. Their king was called a parakusa. Their roots are obviously in South America. They probably were Calusas, who moved north sometime in the past. In fact, one of the kings that René de Laudonniére encountered inland from the Atlantic Coast was name Calusa. The “to” suffix probably means “people” or “territory” but cannot be translated with either a contemporary Quechua or a Tupi-Guarani dictionary. The “to” may be derived from the Itza Maya and Itsate Creek suffix “te,” which means “people.”
Keowa, Kiowa, Kiule, Keowee – There was a small branch of this ethnic group living on Kiawah Island until around 1678. This Muskogean tribe was primarily located in northeast Georgia and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in present day South Carolina. Their mother town was located at a cluster of mounds on the Oconee River near present day Watkinsville, GA. Most moved to Wetumka, AL and became known as the Kiale-ke. One town helped form the original Chorakee Alliance in NW South Carolina in 1693. Coastal Kiawa Indians were given a reserve on the Combahee River in 1743,
Sokee, Soque, Joki, Joqui, Jocasee, Soco – This ethnic group once was one the most powerful provinces in present day South Carolina. They dominated the region around the headwaters of the Savannah River. Early English explorers noted that they had many advanced cultural characteristics that today would be labeled Mesoamerican. These included the flattening of foreheads. Their name was pronounced exactly like that of the Zoque in Mexico. This fact may, or may not, be significant. No Sokee words are known to survive, although they may be some of the town names mentioned by Juan Pardo.
Because they lived in large towns, the Sokee were severely debilitated by European plagues and then by English-sponsored slave raiders. By the late 1600s most became allied with the Cusabo and eventually moved with them to present day Alabama, joining the Creek Confederacy. Some remained in NE Georgia and North Carolina, while others migrated to the Tennessee Valley and joined the Overhill Cherokees. The last, ethnically distinct, Sokee town lasted until 1818 at the eastern end of the Nacoochee Valley, where Clarkesville, GA now stands.
Stono – The Stono were originally located on the southwest side of Charleston Bay and on Johns Island. Possibly, their real name was Este-ono. Little is known about them, other than they were culturally associated with the Cousa and Etiwa Indians. They are presumed to have been Muskogean. Their few survivors eventually joined the Creek Confederacy.
Wando – This Native American group lived along the Cooper and Wando Rivers, northwest of Charleston Bay. There real name was probably Oue-an-to, meaning roughly, “swamp water people” in Muskogean. They may or may not have been true Muskogeans, even though they were allied with definite proto-Creek tribes to the south. Ceramics found along the Cooper and Wando Rivers suggest that the Wando have been in South Carolina at least 1200 years. They may be indigenous Siouans, who fully absorbed Muskogean culture when Muskogeans moved into the region. Alternatively, they may represent the first wave of Muskogeans to arrive in South Carolina.
Wapoo (Ouepo) – This was an extremely small Muskogean tribe living on the west side of Charleston Bay. There name would mean “Place of Water” in a Coastal Itsate Creek dialect. Little is known about them other than that they joined the Cusabo Alliance.
Wambee (Wampe) – This is another forgotten small tribe of Natives, allied with the Cousa and later, the Cusabo, who disappeared in the 1700s. The river that they lived along was originally called the Coosahatchee, so the probably is high that they were either Muskogeans or had absorbed Muskogean culture via a Muskogean elite. Little else is known about them.
The archives of early French and Spanish explorers suggest that South Carolina was once the home to some of North America’s most advanced indigenous peoples. There was obviously a broad diversity of ethnic groups. Unfortunately, their populations were almost wiped out by the time that English settlers arrived on the scene. Undoubtedly, South Carolina’s archaeologists, ethnologists and historians have many decades more work to go before their rich Native American cultural heritage is fully understood.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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