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The Formation of the Yamasee, Creek and Seminole Confederacies

This is one of the largest newsletters that we have produced in recent years. However, it is necessary to provide a comprehensive description of what was going on in the Southeast 350 to 250 years ago, for the readers to get a grasp of the complex interrelationships between the many Native American provinces.

Between 1674 and 1855, Europeans purchased, persuaded, manipulated and militarily forced the Muskogean peoples of the Southeast from virtually all of their indigenous territory. During this period, in an effort to adapt to and survive the impact of European colonization, seven major coalitions were formed from remnant indigenous populations that included at least some Muskogeans. These were the Yamasee, Choctaw, Cherokee, Catawba, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole Alliances. All, but the Yamasee, are now federally recognized tribes. They were congealed from people, who originally spoke one of several Muskogean languages, or else Shawnee, Siouan, Algonquin, Iroquoian, Yuchi, Calusa, Caddo, Taino Arawak and probably some more tongues that have been forgotten.

In the approximately 18 decades since Southeast Indian Removal Period began, the majority of all of these federally recognized tribes, except the Catawba, has been concentrated in eastern Oklahoma, eastern Texas and Louisiana. During the period of living in these western regions, their multi-ethnic origins have generally become forgotten in a fog created by assimilation with the dominant culture of the United States. Because they were treated as distinct ethnic groups, the cultural memories of these tribal groups evolved to mimic the Europeans’ understanding of their history.

So today, very few, if any, Coushetta Indians in Louisiana and Texas realize that their tribal name is merely the French label for the Kvse-te . . . the Kusa People (Upper Creeks) in northwest Georgia that were met by Hernando de Soto in the summer of 1541.

Oklahoma Creeks would be surprised to learn that their ethnic name, Mvskoke (Muskogee) is about the same age as the U. S. Constitution. They would be doubly surprised to learn that their ancestors spoke many languages. This is why Creek and Seminole Indians show up with a wide variety of ancestries that include Arawak (Caribbean Basin,) Tupi-Guarani (South America,) Pima (Northern Mexico) and Maya (Central America) DNA markers.

The Catawbas once called themselves the Issa. Now they only call themselves by a Muskogean name, which scholars struggle to make into a Siouan word. The name Catawba comes from a large town in South Carolina and an ethnic group in North Georgia with the Creek name of Katvpa. The Katvpa may or may not have been true Siouans. They could have just been Creek members of the alliance formed by the Issa.

Seminoles would be shocked to learn that the same ethnic groups, who formed their core in the 1700s, also composed the original Lower Cherokees. They were both formed from Itstate Creek provinces, who were enemies of the Muskogee Confederacy. Only later did Muskogee Creeks flee down into southern Georgia and northern Florida to escape American settlers. The word “seminole” appears in archives around 1778, but does not appear on maps until the 1790s – and then was originally used for Itsate (Hitchiti) speaking towns in SW Georgia who refused to join the Creek Confederacy. Other Muskogean groups in SE Georgia or in Florida went by their own names for a couple more decades.

There is a reason why the Cherokees have no cultural memory before the early 1700s. They were created from several Shawnee, Muskogean, Iroquoian, Yuchi and Algonquian bands by the British between 1693 and 1725. At the same time the British were using the same political tactics in western Africa. These techniques had been polished during the subjugation of Scotland and Ireland.

The exact timing when the Yamasee, Creek and Seminole Confederacies formed is still unknown. Unlike the situation with the Cherokees, there is no conference recorded in the British colonial archives, where a British officer called together leaders from several bands and villages, offered them a treaty as a group, then “helped” them appoint a “king.” It was easier to obtain land by bribing a “king” than dealing with multiple autonomous bands.

It is possible to see the general evolution of into the Creek and Seminole Confederacies. We can look at the journals, chronicles and memoirs of various European explorers between 1540 and 1776 to obtain snapshots of the pre-European Muskogean societies in the Southeast into distinct tribes with shared ethnic identities. There is also valuable information from the traditions of individual Muskogean families.

Vestiges from the Past

When I was growing up, my mother’s family seldom talked about our Native American heritage. Oh, we knew that there were Indians in our ancestry. We looked it. We celebrated the Green Corn Festival as a family reunion on the full moon nearest the Summer Solstice. In a desk drawer next to my grandparents’ pot belly stove, were sepiatone photographs of family members in the 1800s, wearing turbans and long shirts – or else long, striped dresses. For a long time we thought that they were members of some group like the Shriners! Uncle Hal explained to us in the 1980s that these were the traditional clothes of the Creek Indians.

My grandmother’s oldest brother by 28 years had intentionally moved to Henryetta, OK in 1905 and taken a Creek allotment, to get away from racism in Georgia. Another older brother had moved to Tampa Bay Area in the 1930s, where his black hair and tan skin would blend in with the locals. He was a spitting image of Mikko Tomochichi, the Creek leader who befriended the first Georgia colonists. When my family vacationed in Florida, people would ask my mother if she and I were part Seminole. She would say no. I now realize that the Native portion of my heritage is pretty much identical to that of the Seminoles.

When my Uncle Hal started his career with the U.S. Air Force, he was classified as an American Indian. That started him on the road of unraveling our family’s past. He essentially became the Keeper of our family. In the 1970s, he paid an Oklahoma Creek historian to research our past. The lady was able to trace our ancestors back to 1752. There were several Muskogean and one Yuchee family lines in South Carolina and eastern Georgia. None were called “Muskogees.” Three men had been minor mikko’s who signed a treaty in 1774 with the British, giving away a chunk of east-central Georgia. These ancestors were labeled Oconee’s of the Wind Clan, but were grouped with men from other tribes that were all called Creeks by the British in the treaty.

Uncle Hal spent his retirement years near Indian Springs, GA where he continued to research Creek history. He became convinced that Indian Springs had far more significance to Native American history than what is currently credited. He suspected that it may have been the location where for many centuries or perhaps thousands of year, leaders of many towns and tribes from around the Southeast met.

So what we can see from these dim family memories is that until the late 1700s, the people who were to become the Creek and Seminole Indians, really did not think of themselves as Creek or Seminole Indians. Their ethnic self-identity was based on such ethnic names as Talwaposa, Achesee, Okonee, Sawakee, Kusate, Talasee, Koweta, Chiaha, Apeke, Kashita, etc.

The 1500’s

The chronicles of the de Soto (1539-1543) and Juan Pardo (1566-67) Expeditions provide glimpses of Native American societies in many sections of the Southeast. More details are available for Georgia and coastal South Carolina from the memoirs of the French colonists (1562-1565) or the Spanish colonists at Santa Elena (1566-1587.) The “Migration Legend of the Kashita People” also provides very important ethnic information.

There were many provinces. Only a few are described as being of a scale of size and sophistication to be approaching that of a nation-state. By interpolating the information, we have been able to put together a composite of these provinces.

Yama – This was a province that controlled the Mobile and Lower Alabama River. Its occupants probably spoke a hybrid Mesoamerican-South American -Siouan-Muskogean language that became known as the Mobilian Trade Jargon. Yama means “an agricultural clearing in the forest” in several indigenous languages of northeastern Mexico. Apparently, one or more ethnic groups migrated to southeastern Georgia, who spoke the Yama language or used the Mobilian Trade Jargon. Somewhere during the 17th century, these Yama speakers formed the core of the Yamasee Confederacy in southeastern Georgia and the extreme southern edge of South Carolina. Yamasee means “offspring of Yama.”

Mapile (Mabila in Castilian) – This province controlled the Tombigbee, Upper Alabama and Lower Coosa River Basins. Mapile was the arch-enemy of Kvse (Coosa ~ Coça) in 1540 when de Soto came through the region. Its occupants were probably directly ancestors to the Alabama Indians and some Creek Indians, who are descended from the Alabama.

Itsapa – This Itsate-speaking province composed most of the North Georgia Mountains, the Toccoa, Nottley, and Hiwassee River Basins in Georgia and North Carolina, plus the Georgia Mountains north of Blood Mountain. The word means “Place of the Itza Maya.” The region is now better known by the Cherokee version of the same word, Itsayi. Its capital was supposedly the largest town in the Southeast and located on the side of the highest mountain in Georgia. Indians in northern Florida called this great town, Yupaha (Horned Lord) while colonists in Santa Elena called the town, Grand Copal. The Kashita Creeks called the great mountain, Miramel.

The Cherokee Alliance absorbed this region between 1715 and 1725. Some of the people remained, while other migrated southward into Georgia and Alabama to join the Creek Confederacy. Some went further south and eventually became Seminoles. Those that stayed and intermarried with non-Muskogean Cherokees became known as the Valley Cherokees.

Chiaha – This province was located in the Little Tennessee River Basin of North Carolina, roughly between the Tennessee State Line and the confluence of the Oconaluftee River with the Tuckasegee River. Chiaha is an Itza Maya word that can be interpreted as “Beside the river” or “Salvia River.” The capital of Chiaha was on a river island. The Spanish said that much salvia grew nearby. The Talasee were an Itsate people, who lived along the western edge of the Chiaha province.

The Cherokee Alliance absorbed this region between 1715 and 1725. Some of the people remained, while other migrated southward into southern Georgia. The Chiaha went to SW Georgia, while the Talasee went to the Okefenokee Swamp region. Those that stayed and intermarried with non-Muskogean Cherokees became bands of the Middle Cherokees. Both the Chiaha and Talasee eventually became core members of the Seminole Confederacy.

Apalache (Palache in Muskogee-Creek ~ Palachikola in Lower Creek) – The Apalache occupied the section of the Georgia Mountains south of Blood Mountain. In the 1500s they were heavily involved with the gold trade. The French gave their name to the Appalachian Mountains. The Apalache were apparently vassals of the occupants of the Itsapa Province, because they refused to give the location of the capital town of Grand Copal to the Spanish. They were Siouans with a Muskogean or Itza Maya elite. A small, isolated village of the Palache was located on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where the French called them the Biloxi. By 1730 many or all of the Apalache had relocated to southeastern Georgia, where they joined the Creek Confederacy.

Ustanoli (Estanolee) – This was a province visited by French explorers in the early 1560s. It was then located in northeastern Georgia between the Chattahoochee and Savannah Rivers. The location gave the province a major role in the gold, mica and greenstone trade. The people probably spoke a dialect of Chickasaw, because their survivors first moved to NW Georgia and then to the Chickasaw territory in western Tennessee.

Tanasa – This province was in the Upper Tennessee River Basin. Its leaders spoke a dialect of Itsate with the Spanish. However, the ethnic name suggests that the commoners of this province were originally from the region around Shiloh, TN where a people related to the Natchez originally lived. Both branches built round temples on round platform mounds. Tanasa’s largest town was on Hiwassee Island, Tennessee. The remnants of the Tanasa moved to Alabama in the 1720s and joined the Creek Confederacy.

Ichese – This is the Itsate Creek word for “Offspring of Corn.” They lived in the Ocmulgee River Basin. Their Muskogee name was Achese, which means the same. They were called the Mayacoa (Maya People) by the peoples of the Georgia coast. In Creek Indian tradition, the town of Achese was where the Creek Confederacy was formed. Achesee became known by its English name of Ochesee. It first moved to Florida. Some of Ochese’s people eventually became Seminoles, while others went on the Trail of Tears to the Indian Territory as part of the Creek Confederacy.

Okvte – This was an Itsate-speaking province in the Oconee River Basin in northeast Georgia, whose colonies extended northward to the Oconaluftee River in the North Carolina Mountains. The word means “Water People.” They were also called Okvni (Oconee.) According to their tradition, they originated in the Okefenokee Swamp. Okvni still lived in the environs of this swamp until the early 1700s. The Oconee towns in the Smoky Mountains along the Oconaluftee River (Okonee People – cut off) moved to Florida in 1764, where they eventually became a core member of the Seminole Confederacy. Those in NE Georgia eventually moved farther west to join the Creek Confederacy. The Oconee in NW South Carolina joined the Cherokee Alliance.

Tamatli – This was an Itsate-speaking province around the confluence of the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers in south-central Georgia, where the great Altamaha River is formed. The word meant “Merchant People” in the archaic Maya-Totonac of Tamaulipas State, Mexico. The Tamatli probably used more Maya and Totonac words in the 18th century than any ethnic group north of the Rio Grande. Apparently, they were originally arch-enemies of the ancestors of the Muskogees in western Georgia. The Tamatli were definitely arch-enemies of the provinces on the coast of Georgia in the 1560s, and apparently helped form the Yamasee Alliance in the 1600s.

The Tamatli (Tamasee) in NW South Carolina were original members of the Chorake (Lower Cherokees) which signed a treaty with South Carolina in 1693. The Tamatli near Andrews, NC became an important band of the Cherokee Alliance in the 1720s. After the Yamasee War (1715-1717) some of the main body of Georgia Tamatli moved west and joined the Creek Confederacy, while others went south and became core members of the Seminole Confederacy.

Kofita – A Muskogean province dominated the Wataree and Santee River Basins. Two of its towns were named Talwamiko and Kofitachiki. Kofitachiki means “House of the Mixed People” in Itsate-Creek. The people of this region were decimated first by European plagues and then by English sponsored slave raids. When they rebelled against the new Colony of Carolina, the captives were sold by British officials as slaves. Some survivors joined the Catawba Alliance, while others relocated to southern Carolina to join the Cusabo Alliance. During the 1720s the majority of people in the Cusabo Alliance moved west to join the Creek Confederacy.

Soque (Sokee, Jocasee) – During the 1500s, the Soque controlled the most powerful and advanced province in what is now, South Carolina. They dominated northwestern South Carolina and the headwaters of the Savannah River. Although the media are saturated by statements that the Berry Site near Morganton, NC was the location of the city of Cuenca (Joara) mentioned by Juan Pardo, the little village site with its three foot high mound bears no resemblance the great city of Joara as described by Pardo. The location of Lake Jocasee in NW South Carolina, does in every detail. This location is in the heart of the Soque Province. Like the Kofita, the Soque were decimated by plagues and slave raids.

Some Soque were original members of the Chorake (Lower Cherokee) Alliance. Most joined the Cusabo Alliance and later moved to Alabama, where they joined the Creek Confederacy.

Kvse – The most powerful Native American province in North America during the 1500s was called Kvse (Coosa in English, Coça in Castilian.) The word means “Forested Mountains” in Itza Maya and “good” in Quechua. It has no known meaning in Muskogee. The conurbation around its capital was probably located under the present day Lower Reservoir of Carters Lake in Murray County in northwestern Georgia. It contained over 3,000 houses in 1541.

The occupants of the province of Kusa called themselves Kvse-te (ka(u-she(-te-,) which means “Kusa People” in Itsate-Creek. They were the direct ancestors of the Upper Creek Indians and original members of the Creek Confederacy. Their name was altered by the French to Coushete and then, Coushetta. The French name was anglicized by the English to Cusetta or Coosa.

In 1541 the territory of the province of Kusa extended from present day Childersburg, AL to Vonore, TN – about 25 miles south of Knoxville. That continued to be the territory of the Kusa or (later) Upper Creek Branch of the Creek Confederacy until the 1720s. During that decade, the Cherokees pushed southward to the Hiwassee River from their original territorial boundaries near present day Knoxville.

Not realizing that the Coushetta and Cusetta were the same as Kusa, Georgia anthropology professors wrote several books in the late 20th century which stated that the Kusa permanently abandoned northern Georgia in the late 1500s and were non-existent by the late 1600s. That is absolutely incorrect. All British maps show the Upper Creeks occupying all of northern Georgia from Brasstown Bald Mountain westward. To this day, descendants of Upper Creeks live along Coosa Creek and near Coosa Bald Mountain in north central Georgia. North central and northwestern Georgia was given to the Cherokees as a hunting ground by the United States government in 1785.

What happened in the 1600s?

This is funny! Until I was in my twenties, I did not even realize that the Muskogees were Creek Indians. Family lore had painted them as militaristic invaders, who had tried to conquer the Creek People in Georgia, but were defeated in a great battle by a grand alliance of Creek tribes in Georgia and South Carolina. I have learned of similar stories from Creek tribes in South Carolina.

Nineteenth century Cherokees had a similar stories, but with different players. In their version, the Cherokees defeated the Creek Confederacy and conquered all of north Georgia in 1754 in a battle fought at Blood Mountain or alternatively at a battle fought at Track Rock Gap in Union County, GA or alternatively in a battle fought at Fort Mountain in Murray County, GA. There were no such battles fought by the Cherokees. They lost a third of their towns in 1754 to the army of one Creek town, Koweta. Earlier that year, all other Creek towns had agreed to a peace treaty with the Cherokees.

However, the legends of about great battles caused me to look closer at what might have been going on in the 1600s. There is an enormous gap in the colonial archives between 1567 and 1674. Much of what can be put together is via deductive reasoning and speculation.

The Kusa Alliance had existed from the early 1400s onward. Perhaps the next to form was the Yamasee Alliance, in response to the establishment of missions on the Georgia coast in the late 1500s and early 1600s. It is known that the Okonee and Tamatli absolutely refused to allow Spanish explorers and missionaries through their territory after about 1601. The Koweta Alliance probably began forming after a Spanish force burned the towns around present day Columbus, GA in 1645. It is known that people speaking a true Muskogee language were originally concentrated in that region. The Itsate speaking provinces in Georgia and the Carolinas probably formed an alliance in response to aggressions by the Koweta and Kusa Alliances.

Apparently, during the late 1500s and early 1600s the Muskogean provinces were terribly weakened by plagues. Most of the large towns with mounds were abandoned. They surviving towns coalesced into three warring super-alliances, the Itsate, the Kusa and an emerging Koweta Alliance. Originally, the Koweta were Itsate speakers. Their original name was Kowi-te, which means, “Mountain Lion People.” Their original territory was around the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, but in 1733 they were concentrated along the Chattahoochee River from present day Columbus, GA north to Clarksville, GA.

Perhaps Blood Mountain was where the Itsate Creeks and Kusa Creeks stopped the advance of the Koweta Alliance, or perhaps where the Itsate towns stopped the Kusa’s before the appearance of Europeans. It remained a boundary between the three major divisions of the Creek Confederacy until 1785. We do know that the contemporary Cherokee language distinguishes between these three groups. They are called the ani-kusa, the ani-itsate and ani-koweta.

Apparently, at some point in the late 1600s the three super-provinces realized that the war was causing them to be vulnerable to external enemies. Most towns joined an alliance that chose Muskogee as the parliamentary language. Itsate-speaking towns in the Little Tennessee Valley, western North Carolina, South Carolina and eastern Georgia refused to join this alliance. It is remembered in Muskogee-Creek tradition that the Yamasee were ethnically different than them, and often their enemies.

When the British put together the Cherokee Alliance to thwart expansion of the French trading activities in eastern Tennessee, northwestern Georgia and western North Carolina, apparently Itsate towns in these regions opted to join in with the towns now labeled Cherokee. Minority factions in these towns, probably the traditionalists and elite, were forced to leave the region. They set up towns with the same names in Alabama and Cherokee.

Maps and archives of the era suggest that the Confederacy did not approach being a tribal government until the early 1700s when Emperor Brim, the War Mikko of Coweta town, established his influence over many Muskogean towns. It was the Europeans who called him emperor. He was neither an emperor, king or even a formally elected national leader. By this time, Alabama villages in present day southeastern Alabama either voluntarily joined the Creek Confederacy or were forced to join because of military pressure.

The Yamasee’s were thoroughly defeated in the Yamasee War between 1715 and 1717. Survivors of this alliance either went south, eventually becoming Seminoles, or else joined the Creek Confederacy. It is known that by the time the Colony of Georgia was founded in 1733, virtually all of the territory within that future state was occupied by peoples now called Creeks.

The word “Creek Indians” does not appear on British maps until the 1740s. Over twenty years elapsed from the first mention of the Cherokees until the first mention of the Creek Indians. Until that time, probable members of the Creek Confederacy were labeled with town names. The major exception was that the word “Coweta” and “Cusseta” may be found at several locations in Georgia on maps of this period.

After the American Revolution mapmakers only labeled the largest Creek towns and instead labeled vast regions as Creek. It is also during this period that the word, Muskogee, begin appearing on maps. The word Seminole did not appear on maps until the early 1800s. Initially, Seminole is a label for Itsate-speaking towns in southwest Georgia that were originally in the North Carolina and Tennessee Mountains. They still did not want an affiliation with the Muskogees!

The Creeks did not have a formally recognized national leader until the 1780s. The Seminoles never had a nationally recognize leader while they were all in Florida. Osceola was not a national political leader. He was a Yahoola who served the sacred black drink to warriors, and later, a war chief.

Alexander McGillivray, the son of a Scottish trader and a Creek mother, took advantage of educational opportunities among British settlers to propel himself to central leadership of the Creeks. Treaties written by the U. S. Government designated him as the king of the Creeks. Most Creek leaders grudgingly accepted his authority, but he was never formally elected the “high mikko of Creek mikkos.”

After the traditional Creek and Seminole decentralized divisions of political power were jumbled up by the forced move to Oklahoma in the early and mid-1830s, the authority of the central tribal governments steadily increased. Creek and Seminole tribal towns continued to act independently in most matters well into the 19th century. The organization of the Creek in Oklahoma really could not be called a “tribe” or “nation” until constitutions was adopted in 1867 that made the tribal government preeminent over tribal town governments. The Seminole Nation did not have a similar constitution until 1997. During the intermediary period between the dissolution of tribal governments in 1905 and reconstitution in 1997 (Seminoles) and 1974 (Creek) their principal chiefs were appointed by the President of the United States. They basically held only ceremonial powers during this era.

And now you know . . .

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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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