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Florida’s Apalachee &. Apalachicola . . . some things just don’t jive

Forgotten Peoples of the Southeastern United States: Part Three

Of course, the Florida Apalachee have not been forgotten. Some of their former village sites are important tourist income generators for Florida. However, the Apalachicola People have been relegated to being a name on a list of members in the former Creek Confederacy.   Meanwhile, the Florida Apalachee have been caricatured into a few Wikipedia paragraphs. Their interrelationships with other peoples in the Southeast, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, remain an unsolved mystery.

Were the Apalache of North Georgia, the Apalachicola of the Chattahoochee River Basin and the Florida Apalachee originally the same people, but alienated by the rise of a non-Muskogean faction among the Florida Apalachee?  We will look at the facts.

Etymology of the words

We start in the year, 1920 – at the point when anthropologists began to go astray in regard to the Apalachee and Apalachicola. Smithsonian ethnologist, John Swanton, did not realize that both words had been Europeanized, but apparently he also smoked wacky weed immediately prior to anytime he tried to translate Muskogean words.

Very few of Swanton’s Muskogean translations are accurate.   Swanton said that Apalachee meant “People on the other side” in Hitchiti – say what-t-t-t? That word is Note-le in Itsate-Hitchiti and Vpvlhvmke in Muskogee. Use a dictionary, approved by tribal officials and scholars, for translating words, to insure accuracy.

Since then, no one has fact-checked Swanton’s original statements, but merely elaborated on them. This is Online Etymology’s updated version of what Swanton originally wrote: “Originally the name of the Apalachee, a Muskogean people of northwestern Florida, perhaps from Apalachee abalahci “other side of the river” or Hitchiti (Muskogean) apalwahči “dwelling on one side.”

The Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee by Jack Martin and Margaret Mauldin, does not contain either of those words. The word for river is “hvci” not “hci. “ Apala means “light or torch,” not “dwelling on the other side.”

The most likely translations of Apalasi and Apalasi-kola are “Children of the Light” and “Children of the Light – People.” The “light” in the name would have referred to sunlight or spiritual light.  It may have been an archaic word for the sun in the Apalache language.

In Itsate, “si” would be pronounced jzhē. In Muskogee, “si” would be pronounced “tshē.” Kola is the Gulf Coast Choctaw and Yama (Mobilian Trade Jargon) word for people.

Which leads us to an obvious question . . . at least linguistically, the Apalachee and the Apalachicola appear to be the same ethnic group. However, Wikipedia says that they were two different ethnic groups and were often enemies.

When a combined army of Apalachicola Creeks and South Carolina militia invaded Florida, one faction of Florida Apalachees joyfully offered to become their allies, while the other faction fought to the death. According to the report that Gov. James Moore made to the Carolina Assembly, most of the populations of seven villages joined his march voluntarily. The women and children survivors of those Apalachee villages, which opposed the British-Creek Indian invaders were marched to South Carolina slave markets. If the Florida Apalachee were one ethnic group or united politically, that story does not make any sense.

Charles de Rochefort wrote in 1658 that the Apalache (proto-Creeks) of Georgia were on good terms with their first cousins in Florida, whom the Spanish also called Apalache. The two related peoples continued to trade with each other despite the Florida Apalache being under the domination of the Spanish. In contrast, an anonymous author of the Wikipedia article about the 1704 British invasion of Florida, stated, “The Creeks were traditional enemies of the Apalache.”

Actually, the Muskogean confederacy in Georgia would not be called Creek Indians until the late 1740s. In 1704, they were called the Cowetas by the British. Nevertheless, insertions and assumptions by 20th century scholars has so distorted the Colonial archives, it is difficult to discern what the real situation was.

Eyewitness accounts describe particularly brutal behavior by the Cowetas, who accompanied the British force into Florida. Spanish priests and Florida Apalache combatants were tortured to death, if captured alive. The Cowetas were obviously seeking revenge for Spanish oppression that had occurred in the past. The specific instances remain unknown.

The Spanish fabricated the names of provinces

Very few of the tribes in the Lower Southeast called themselves the same name that Europeans labeled them. The 16th century Spanish typically took the name of one village and applied it to an entire administrative district. The Native peoples of the Tampa Bay area introduced the knowledge of a land of gold to the north, known as Apalache to survivors of the Narvaez Expedition. The survivors reached Mexico City in 1536.

The Hernando de Soto Expedition embarked three years later. The Spaniards encountered the first agricultural peoples in North-Central Florida. The village was called Palache in the original Spanish text, but Apalache or Apalachen in the English translations of the various versions of the De Soto Chronicles . . . but was it?  Did the De Soto Expedition make up the name of the village along with giving its name to the province?  We may never know.

It was also the Spanish, who called the proto-Creeks living on the Lower Chattahoochee, Apalachicola. Was that name originally what they called themselves?  Cola is a Mobila Trade Jargon and Gulf Coast Choctaw suffix.  We don’t know, but since they were a province of the Kingdom of Apalache (North Georgia), it is likely that they just called themselves Apalache . . . or maybe they called themselves Konchakee’s. We just don’t know for sure. Very few of the Apalachee village names that are quoted in the De Soto Chronicles, appear as Apalachee mission villages a century later.

What we do know is that in 1658 French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, wrote that the Florida Apalache did not call themselves Apalache, but rather used the Itsate Creek words, Tula-hawalsee, which mean, “Offspring or colony of highland towns.” The Muskogee Creeks, who arrived in the region a century later, assumed that the word was Talwa-hasi, which means “Town-old.”

According to De Rochefort, the original Florida Apalachee People were colonists from North Georgia, who had eventually intermarried with a different ethnic group and as a result, their language had changed.   His book never told the reader what the other ethnic group was.   However, their relationship with the original Apalache was still friendly.

Apalachicola People

The Apalachicola People originally did not only live on the Apalachicola River, as John Swanton assumed, but were the builders of a chain of large towns with mounds from near present day Columbus, GA southward to the Gulf of Mexico. Muskogee-speakers were nowhere around when these towns were built.

Charles de Rochefort said that the people on the Lower Chattahoochee River were Apalache and part of the confederacy ruled by the High King of Apalache. They spoke the same language as the Apalache in northeastern Georgia and along the Etowah River.

As seen in the map below, the French called the Apalachicola, the Conchaque. That means “Conk Shell People” and was meant to distinguish Spanish allies from French allies.  The province of Apalache-Bemarin in this French map was called Ochese and Coweta by the British officials in Charleston.  Emperor Bemarin in French became Emperor Brim in English.

Note below that in 1703,  the entire Little Tennessee River was occupied by branches of the Creeks and Shawnees.  There were no Cherokee villages shown on this map.


Section of 1703 map by Guillaume De Lisle

The capital of the Apalachicola Province along the Chattahoochee River until 1717 (end of the Yamasee War) was Vitacuche. It was probably located at Roods Landing, but this is not certain.  Many of the Apalachicola town names had a definite South American “ring” to them. After the Yamasee War, Vitacuchi’s name disappeared. The Apalachicola towns on the Chattahoochee River ether moved southward or to northwest Georgia. They were replaced by a string of Muscogee and Itsate-speaking towns.


Were the 17th century Florida Apalachee  the mound-builders?

All standard references, written by anthropologists, describe the Apalachee encountered by the Spanish as Muskogean Mound Builders. The same articles list several mound centers near Tallahassee, Florida as proof. No reader is the wiser.

These same articles state that the Apalachee villages were clustered in the Red Hills region of the Florida Panhandle and had an estimated population of 50 to 60,000. Say what? That’s 2 ½ to 3 times the population of Metropolitan Cahokia on far less fertile ground. Who made this estimate? What were his or her qualifications in demographics and urban planning?  The accuracy of the statement is irrelevant, since it has been replicated in so many locations that it would be impossible to remove from the internet.

Then one gets to the fine print. The Apalachee Mound Centers had pretty much been abandoned when the De Soto Expedition came through in 1540. Florida Apalachee Mounds were about the same size of Lamar Culture mounds in the proto-Creek cultural region to the north. The Apalachicola were still occupying and building mounds on the Chattahoochee River. The Lamar Culture Mounds in Georgia were still occupied in 1540.

By the time that the Spanish began establishing missions in the western part of Florida, all the towns visited by De Soto’s men were abandoned. The mounds had already been abandoned in 1540. Thus, the people proselytized by the friars, were culturally different than the sophisticated society that had constructed the mound centers, 200 years before.

There is linguistic riddle associated with the ethnic identity of the Colonial Era Apalachee. Relatively few of the Apalache village names can be translated with Muskogean dictionaries (Muskogee, Itsate, Koasati, Choctaw or Alabama). Even those that can be translated, it was assumed that the Spanish somewhat misunderstood the phonetics of the words. Several of the village names, including the capital, contain common Arawak or Tupi-Guarani suffixes.

A glossary of supposed Apalache words survives. They were written by a friar at one of the villages. However, it turns out that the village he served, Tamale, was composed of Catholic converts, who originally lived among the Tamale Creeks of South Central Georgia. So, the language spoken by this particular priest’s parishioners, may not be representative of all Apalache villages.

Below is the seemingly conflicted evidence.  What do you think was going on in Northwest Florida 4-500 years ago, when North America was first being invaded by peoples from the Old World?

1. The Great White Path (Nene Hvtke Rakko) was constructed in Pre-Columbian times to interconnect Chiaha in the Smoky Mountains with the Apalache towns in the Georgia Mountains, the major mound complex and towns in Ocmulgee Bottoms, the towns around Tallahassee, Florida and the towns at the mouth of the Suwannee River on the Florida Gulf Coast. Great White Path is also the Maya words for a major highway that interconnected towns.

2. Florida Apalache Royal compounds (mound centers) were first occupied around 1150 AD, when the acropolis of Ocmulgee was abandoned and then themselves abandoned prior to 1538, when De Soto arrived.

3. The pre-Hispanic name of the Florida Apalachee’s was Tula-halwasi, which means “Colonies of Highland Towns.”   These colonies eventually mixed with another ethnic group, which introduced Meso-American deities into the Florida Apalachee culture.  The Apalache’s in Georgia remained monotheisitic, worshiping a single, invisible sun goddess.

4. Florida Apalache mounds were low, linear earthworks that faced the south. Identical mounds were constructed by the Tamatli Creeks along the Upper Altamaha River in Georgia and in along the Valley River between Murphy, NC and Andrews, NC. Most other proto-Creeks built pentagonal mounds that faced the Winter Solstice Sunset or oval mound that faced the Summer Solstice Sunrise.

5. A majority of Apalache village names, both in 1539 and in 1700 cannot be translated by a Creek or Choctaw dictionary. Many names contain Caribbean or South American suffixes.

6. Several of the Florida Apalache villages that defected to the British during their 1704 invasion had Muskogean names.  The other names of villages may also be Muskogean, but their Muskogean meaning is not readily obvious.

7. The Florida Apalachee villages, which moved to the Savannah River Basin,  were soon absorbed into the Creek Confederacy and lost their separate identity.

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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.



    Richard, Apalachee, I believe the European, which is part Basque and Welchian Celt, is the best way to linguistically approach this mystery. The caverns under De Sota falls in Alabama already have a Prince Madoc connection, as well as the 855 foot serpent effigy atop Fort Mountain. Somewhere either threw a bloodline or transmission of knowledge the Apalachee was formed. Possibly meaning ‘Humble River” in relation to the Nottely…

    • Actually not. The Apalache Culture is directly descended from the Swift Creek Culture (100 AD – 600 AD) There were many South American traditions among the Apalache, but no European ones.


        Possibly a divergence of cultures somewhere along the line. I think it’s far too early to assume we know much of anything about what The Apalachee were practicing in the N. Georgia mountains.

        If we take de Rochefort’s account to be true, we’re talking about a race working crystal Magic atop an ancient volcano in an astronomical observatory where only Priests where allowed to go.

        The sacred serpent was the goddess aspect of the moon in Celtic tradition. You find this in the two effigies at The Track Rock Terrace Complex. There’s also a curious throne like rock facing backward to the 855 foot serpent effigy and carved in crescent form on the other Fort Mountain. Now possibly monolithic stone work is being uncovered?

        Anyway, enjoy your writing and research involved here. Possibly we’ll never know truly in this modern age what ancient practices where going on there, but I’m in it now and look forward to what remains to be uncovered…


          The Moon Eyed People myth is a fascinating avenue in all this. Tying in all kinds possibilities to a mysterious race. I mean we’ve got tales of Giants roaming the mountains and leaving mysterious carvings….


    Of the 3 mounds I have located on family property 2 have an elevation 107 feet and one has what appears to be a moat dug around the base of the mound. It looks as if someone had started to excavate one side of the mound. Any theories about the 107 feet. Also, these mounds are below where the pre-columbian dug out was found. Its located in the Washington Co. (Alabama) courthouse museum in courthouse basement. Thanks for all the research.


      Richard, if you have even a passing interest in European linguists, I’d suggest Henri Boudet’s “The True Celtic Language and The Stone Circle of Rennes-les-Bains.” For it’s morphology of language in relation to primitive stonework of prehistoric and Neolithic origin…


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