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Early History of the Chickasaw People

It is a close tie as to which Southeastern indigenous ethnic group has been most insulted by Eurocentric historians, the Alabama, Yuchi or the Chickasaw. The Chickasaws are the Native American tribe in North America most likely to have been the founders of Cahokia. They were the only Mississippian Culture People living in the former domain of Cahokia during the European Colonial Era (western Kentucky.) They also occupied the region around and north of Moundville, AL until the early 1800s.

The Chickasaw once occupied a vast region that stretched eastward from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains and as far south as southwestern Georgia. Their territory encompassed most of present day Tennessee, but today, the Chickasaws are barely mentioned by official State of Tennessee histories. One gets the impression that their domain consisted of a few villages in the extreme western part of the state.

The “Tennessee History for Kids” web site does not even have a complete sentence assigned to the Chickasaws and ignores the Koasati and Yuchi altogether. In contrast, this web site contains several pages on the Cherokees, even though the word “Cherokee” only appears for the first time in a 1725 map on the extreme eastern edge of that future state. The Overhill Cherokees were concentrated along a 36 mile long corridor of the Little Tennessee River, directly adjacent to North Carolina. The Cherokees had pretty much left Tennessee by 1819.

By the way, to hopefully put one myth permanently to rest: Tennessee is the Anglicization for the Creek name for an ethnic group, related to the Natchez, named the Taenasi. They were based along the Lower Tennessee, but had towns along the Upper Tennessee River, the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina, and in north-central South Carolina. Around 1684 the Colony of South Carolina sent an expedition to make contact with the Koasati and Taenasi living in present day eastern Tennessee. At that time, much of Western North Carolina and the South Carolina Mountains was occupied by villages speaking Creek dialects, so the South Carolinians used Creek guides. When the party returned to Charleston, the mapmaker used the Creek version of the Taenasi’s name rather than what they called themselves.

Chickasaw Map

Maps of the Chickasaw Territory

The real history of the Chickasaw People

The Choctaws and Chickasaws originally called themselves the Chahta and Chiska, after two brothers in the ancient past, who couldn’t get along and so separated into two territories. It is something like the story in the Torah about Israel and Ishmael. Over time, both tribes became known by their Creek Indian names of Choctaw and Chickasaw.

If you see the Chickasaws mentioned at all, it will be some brief comment like “formerly lived in western Tennessee.” Despite the fact that several Chickasaws have obtained national prominence in the 20th century, I imagine that like the Yuchi’s, they must pinch themselves each morning, upon rising, to see if they are not extinct. You would think so from reading contemporary history and archaeological texts.

We are going to explode some myths about the Chickasaws in this issue while exploring their probable role in Native American history. The problem is that university scholars have not shown much interest in them. Much of the orthodoxy about the Chickasaws today can be directly traced to the assumptions made by Tennessee frontiersmen in the early 1800s, not solid historical research.

The Chickasaws are the only Native American ethnic group, specifically mentioned by the chronicles of the de Soto Expedition, that are now a tribe recognized by the federal government. Chiloki is the Totonac (Mexican) and Creek Indian word for a barbarian. The people called Chiloki eventually moved to southwestern Georgia then either joined the Creek Confederacy, or moved to northern Florida.

Original territory of the Chickasaw People

Due to the scarcity of archeological investigations that were designed to link the Chickasaw with specific pre-European occupation sites, we must rely on linguistics, architecture and European colonial archives to interpolate their history. Pottery styles are not necessarily a good indicator of ethnicity. The Creek Confederacy was composed of many ethnic groups, speaking different languages and dialects. However, during Late Mississippian times, at least, these diverse provinces produced similar styles of pottery, stone implements and copper works. The situation could have well been the same for the ancestors of the federally recognized Chickasaw Indians. Locations of pre-European Chickasaw villages may contain artifacts similar to their non-Chickasaw neighbors.

Like most Southeastern indigenous peoples, the ancestors of the Chickasaw were not concentrated into one homogenous province. The individual Chickasaw-speaking provinces went by several names. Some names we know for certain. Others we don’t. Many of these provinces had disappeared before any English-or-French-speaking explorer stayed long enough in an area to record sample words.

Chickasaws typically lived in small, dispersed villages with either a few modest mounds or no mounds at all. They did not seem to have regional governments with large towns as capitals. Identification of ethnic Chickasaw regions is made even more difficult because Europeans would not have been impressed by small villages with modest architecture. Chickasaw villages typically consisted of an oval arrangement of rectangular wattle & daub houses. The interior of the village was an oval shaped plaza and stick ball fields. If mounds existed at all, they were also aligned with the houses in the oval ring.

Fort Ancient Culture: The pre-European villages of Fort Ancient Culture in the Ohio Valley (c. 1000 AD – 1750 AD) were exactly like those of the Chickasaws when they were first visited by French and English traders. A branch of the Chickasaws, named the Paduka’s (Paducah, KY) occupied western Kentucky and the northwestern tip of Tennessee until the mid-1700s. Although most of Kentucky was occupied by the Shawnee during the 1700s, the Fort Ancient Culture may represent the northern extent of Muskogean influence. Muskogean and Chickasaw houses were rectangular. Shawnee houses were either round or oval.

Etowah I Culture: The villages of the Etowah 1 Culture in the Southern Highlands (c. 1000 AD – 1200 AD) were very similar to those of the Chickasaws in early colonial times. If they had mounds at all, they were very modest in scale. The Mvskoke (Muskogee) language strongly suggests that early Muskogee Creek Indians considered the Chickasaw to be the “pioneer” Muskogeans in the Southeast. Ciska (Chi(sh-ka() is the Muskogee-Creek idiomatic word for the base of a tree or the foundation of a building. There are no Muskogee verbs related to this noun.

What I suspect is that the elite of Etowah I villages were Itza Maya refugees, while the commoners were archaic Chickasaw. The blended cultures and languages became some of the branches of the Itsate (Hitchiti) Creeks.

Mouse Creek Culture: There are a cluster of Late Mississippian village sites between Chattanooga and the Ocoee River in Tennessee that have been labeled “Mouse Creek Culture.” Tennessee archaeologists decided to label them Yuchi sites, because there were some Yuchi villages in colonial times to the north along the Hiwassee River. Until the Yuchi’s were absorbed into the Creek Confederacy in the late 1700s, their buildings, plazas and towns were round. They were known as the “Round Town People” as a result. All buildings and plazas in Mouse Creek Culture sites are rectangular. The Mouse Creek Culture is most likely Chickasaw since it built few mounds.

Kapachi: After leaving northward from the land of a people now called the Apalachee, the first major town encountered by Hernando de Soto in late winter of 1540, was called Kapachi. Its people were called the Kapachikee. De Soto’s chroniclers noted that these people, like those ancestral to the Creek Indians farther north, built more substantial architecture and better planned towns that the Natives in Florida. Kapachi was located in a large swamp that appears to be the Chickasawhatchee Swamp near Albany, GA. When British traders reached the Chickasawhatchee Swamp region in the late 1600s, it was occupied by Native Americans speaking a dialect of Chickasaw, who were allied with nearby Itsate (Hitichti) Creeks. During the 1700s, Kapachiki was a tribal town of the Creek Confederacy. This strongly suggests that it was a Chickasaw province that became allied with the Muskogee-Creeks.

Chiska & Chikasa: In the European maps published after the de Soto expedition, the towns of Chicasa and Chisca are shown in close proximity. These two towns may have been one town, because European cartographers were confused by the use of both the Chickasaw and Muskogee words for Chickasaw. The proto-Creek Indian guides leading de Soto used the word, cikasv, (chi(-ka(-sha:) to describe a specific ethnic group in eastern Tennessee. The Itsate-Creek guides used the word ciska (chi(sh-ka() to describe the same people. The Chiska were known as ferocious warriors in the 1500s. That is EXACTLY the same reputation that the Chickasaws had in the late 1600s and 1700s.

Napooche: Both the chronicles of the de Soto (1539-1543) and de Luna Expeditions (1561) mentioned the Napooches (Napochi) People of the area around Lookout Mountain, both in Georgia and Tennessee. They were troublesome vassals of the huge province of Kvse (Kusa~Coosa.) It is fairly certain that they spoke a dialect of Chickasaw. They were also located in along the Black Warrior River near Moundville, AL during the European Contact Period. Napochi means “those who look out.” This is an obvious connection to their environs, Lookout Mountain. Perhaps they guarded the Chickasaw frontier from the heights of Lookout Mountain. There was a related province farther west along the Black Warrior River, known as the Napissa.

Ustanali: The memoir of Captain René de Laudonniére (French expeditions of 1562-1565) mentioned in several passages the powerful province of Houstanaqua (coa) which means Ustana People. This province was in the Piedmont of present day northeast Georgia. After Charleston, SC was founded in 1674, a Chickasaw-speaking people known as the Ustanali were contacted by traders in what is now northeast Georgia. The “li” suffix is the Coastal Istate (Hitchiti) word for “people or ethnic group.” The French encountered a Chickasaw people, they called the Oustanaule in extreme northwest Georgia. The two versions of this ethnic name were later Anglicized to Eastanolee and Oostanaula. The Oostanaula River is a major tributary of the Coosa River. During the early 1700s, the Ustanali Chickasaws lived south of Yonah Mountain, between Cleveland, GA and Toccoa, GA. This was the territory of the Upper Creeks until 1818, when it became part of Georgia. Another band of Ustanali Chickasaws lived along the Oostanaula River until the early 1780s, when that territory was given to the Cherokees.

Chika-mauka: During the mid-and-late 1600s, Franciscan archives speak of horrific raids on the missions of the Georgia coast by Chichimecs. Scholars have long assumed that the terrified friars were confused and referring to the wild tribes of northern Mexico. However, it is more likely that they were referring to the Chika-mauka’s of present day northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama. The Chika-mauka’s were known to English colonists for the ferocity, surprise attacks and martial mentality. They are better known by their Anglicized name of Chickamauga. That’s right. Chickamauga is of Chickasaw origin, not Creek or Cherokee. During the Revolution, a band of renegade Cherokees took refuge among the Chika-mauka’s. As the “Chickmauga” War continued for the next two decades, so many Cherokees joined them that they became known to whites as the Chickamauga Cherokees.

Chika-mauka has two possible interpretations. It could be from the archaic Chickasaw words chiki and mauka, which mean “seat or place to look out.” However, the original name of the Upper Tennessee River was the Caskenampo, which is Koasati for “Many Warriors.” The original name of the Middle and Lower Tennessee River was Callimako, which is Itza Maya for “Seat of the King.” The Chickasaws may have encountered the ancient Maya name form of the river and interpreted it as meaning words in their own language. The same thing happened when the Angles, Jutes and Saxons encountered ancient Latin town and river names in Britain.

How the Chickasaws got dumped on by the Historians

When the American Revolution erupted, Indian trader and author, James Adair was in a quandary. He had friends on both sides. His new book on the American Indian was making him a ton of pounds sterling in Great Britain, and he had an Indian wife . . . a Chickasaw to be exact. To solve the problem, he moved his family to a no-man’s land between the Chickasaws and Apalachicola-Creeks in northwest Georgia. The farmstead was on Oothlooga Creek, which is an Apalachicola word. That location was just about five miles east of the Oostanaula River, which was Chickasaw territory.

After the Revolution, Adair and his wife went back home to Laurens County, SC to live. Their mixed-blood children had established prospering grist mills, lumber mills and farms along Oothlooga Creek. They stayed in the new land and attracted mixed-blood refugees from many tribes as neighbors, especially the Cherokees fleeing eastern Tennessee.

In 1785 northwest Georgia was taken from the Upper Creeks and Chickasaws then given to the Cherokees as “hunting lands.” In 1793, it was formally given to the Cherokees as their new home. The early water-driven industry established by the Adairs became the infrastructure to support large scale immigration of Cherokee refugees. The Adairs were allowed to remain, and in fact, made leaders of the Cherokees. Today, Adair is one of the most prominent names among the Oklahoma Cherokees and Creeks.

Flash forward to the mid-twentieth century. Somewhere in the past many Georgians got the idea that the Cherokees had always been in Georgia and had always occupied the northern half of the state. The Cherokees did not enter the state until after 1700; never at any time occupied the entire northern half of the state, and only about 5-15% of the state’s total land area at one time. In Georgia history books, Adair’s Indian wife became a “light-skinned Cherokee princess.” In their continuing logic, Georgians assumed that Oostanaula, Oothlooga and Eastanollee were Cherokees words, whose meanings had been lost.

Simultaneously, their first cousins in Tennessee forgot that Cherokee settlements in Tennessee were relatively short-lived and limited to a narrow strip along the eastern edge of the state. The Cherokee lands in Tennessee were eventually shown by 20th century historians to include a vast expanse of the Chickasaw territory that the British gave to the Cherokees in 1755, but the Cherokees didn’t dare step into. The Chickasaws would have roasted them alive. The gift of other peoples lands was a bribe for the Cherokees to send their soldiers north to fight the Native allies of the French.

In the late 1700s, the Cherokees gave the land that they never occupied to the federal government to settle debts. The Chickasaws, Upper Creeks and Yuchi’s who actually lived on this territory, were evicted at gun point. However, all three Indian tribes were known as being rather sober and non-submissive . . . so that was okay.

My bet is that the ancestors of the Chickasaws were the founders of Cahokia. They got the hell out of Dodge after a tyrannical elite showed up around 1000 AD and took over the town – hence, the appearance of the Fort Ancient Culture farther up the Ohio River. From then on, the Chickasaws wanted nothing to do with building big mounds, human sacrifices, or living under the thumb of arrogant Sun Lords. Remember Cahokia had only a few small mounds (if any) until after 1000 AD.

Y’all be ethnically correct, hear?

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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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