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A Fresh Look at the South Carolina Upcountry

Much of what you read about the Southern Carolina region before 1721 is not completely accurate. This article is related to the history of the Shawnee, Lower Cherokee, Hogeloge-Euchee, Itsate-Creeks, Sokee, Wataree, Cheraw and Rickohockens.

The South Carolina Upcountry is typically defined as the northwestern corner of South Carolina that contains the Upper Piedmont, Blue Ridge Foothills and first tier of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Interpretations vary, but usually this region consists of Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, Pickens, Cherokee, Oconee, Union, Laurens, Greenwood, and Abbeville Counties. The region is traversed by Interstate 85, which connects Atlanta, Anderson, Greenville, Spartanburg and Charlotte.

Until 1721, there was only the Colony of Carolina. That year, it was split into northern and southern colonies. Until 1785, South Carolina claimed all of northern Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The only maps that showed otherwise were paid for by the Colony (or state) of Georgia. In the congressional negotiations of the 1780s, Georgia was somehow able to walk away with all the marbles – gaining the northern part of that state, plus initially owning all of Mississippi and Alabama that was then not claimed by Spain.

Map is oriented looking southward. 1676 map of the Colony of Carolina by John Speed, based on sketch map by Johann Lederer in 1669. Note that the only tribe shown actually living in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina is the Rickohockens.

Map is oriented looking southward.
1676 map of the Colony of Carolina by John Speed, based on sketch map by Johann Lederer in 1669.
Note that the only tribe shown actually living in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina is the Rickohockens.

Much of this region is a terra incognito for archaeologists these days. There was a rash of archaeological studies in the mid-20th century when a series of power generation reservoirs were constructed, but no major archaeological studies have been carried out since then. Unfortunately, several of the reservoirs were not adequately studied even back then.

Much of the reliable information on the indigenous peoples of this region comes from five sources; (1) the Hernando de Soto Expedition in 1540, (2) the Juan Pardo Expedition between 1567 and 1568. (3) the Johann Lederer Expedition in 1670, (4) several journeys by Dr. Henry Woodward in the 1670s and (5) the John Lawson Expedition in 1700. Key information from those expeditions was misinterpreted, altered or just plain ignored by late 20th century academicians to create a simplistic model of the Pre-European Period of the Upcountry. The problem was worsened by certain Southeastern anthropology professors, who didn’t know how to pronounce 16th century Spanish, plus had no clue about the meanings of Muskogean, Yuchi and Shawnee words.

Forgotten Colonists: In a research project carried out for Access Genealogy in 2013, we found numerous eyewitness accounts of Sephardic, Christian Turkish and African colonists traversing South Carolina and then colonizing the highlands of Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee throughout the 1600s, perhaps even the late 1500s. The closest routes from the Atlantic Coast to the mountains were via the Savannah River or the Ashley-Cooper River System. These colonists brought pathogens with them that caused a rapid decline in the Native population of the South Carolina Upcountry.

Native American Slave Trade: In 1661, the Colony of Virginia contracted with Rickohocken Tribe headquartered near present day Bedford, VA to provide thousands of Native American slaves. The colony agreed to provide them with harquebuses (matchlock fire arms) plus gun powder and lead balls.

Rickohocken is a Dutch word that means “High Kingdom.” Sephardic Dutch traders were working the Great Appalachian Valley soon after Jamestown was founded. Every uprising by the Powhatans can be connected with Dutch activities in North America.

William “the Butcher” Berkeley was a Royalist Governor of Virginia and also one of the eight Lord Proprietors of the new Colony of Carolina. The first action of the Rickohockens was to exterminate the sophisticated mound builders in the Shenandoah Valley so it could be opened up for colonization. They then moved south to depopulate the new Carolina Colony. Vast swaths of Carolina were depopulated by the Rickohockens, in the decade prior to the arrival of the first colonists at Charleston. The indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by the surprise attacks utilizing European firearms and steel weapons.

When Rickohocken slave raiders captured a village, they immediately tortured to death all adult males. Females past prime birthing age and children too young to walk back to Virginia slave marts were also killed. The elderly were either killed or left to starve. The Rickohockens primarily were interested in females of prime reproductive age and youth, who were not old enough to fight their captors. Thus, for every slave brought back to Virginia, 2-4 Native People were killed. This was one of the most blatant cases of ethnic cleansing in history, only surpassed that same century by the Turks in the Christian regions of eastern Turkey and northern Mesopotamia.

Shawnee: The Southern Shawnee have been erased by contemporary historians and anthropologists to match a myth created by propagandists. The earliest Colonial Era maps clearly show the Shawnee living in villages scattered around the western North Carolina Mountains, the South Carolina Foothills, the Saluda River Valley and along the Savannah River. These maps do not mention the Cherokees.

When I was director of the Asheville-Buncombe County Historic Resources Commission, we had multiple documents that described a very large and old Shawnee town with mounds at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers in Asheville. It existed until 1763, when the Shawnee were forced to leave North Carolina and the South Carolina Upcountry. Around 2001, North Carolina archaeologists began calling that archaeological zone, “the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation.” Contemporary anthropological texts and Wikipedia articles describe the Shawnee as late arrivers, who consisted of a few bands that moved south in the late 1600s. In truth, their presence in the Southeast predates both the Creeks and the Cherokees.

Lower Cherokee: Official US Department of the Interior maps show the upper third of South Carolina always occupied by the Cherokees and the identities of the rest of the indigenous peoples in South Carolina to be unknown. South Carolina historians certainly know the locations of many indigenous provinces in their state, but apparently no one in Washington, DC asked them.

The Lower Cherokees were at their maximum size of 1200 person, when first shown on the Beresford map around 1715. They occupied eight small villages in the extreme northwestern tip of South Carolina – north of the beginning of the Savannah River. They steadily declined in number throughout the remainder of the century, until they were almost extinct by 1776.

What about the Georgia branch of the Lower Cherokees? Maps typically showed 2-5 small hamlets until after the American Revolution. In 1776, the British surveyed the Colony of Georgia to determine the number of potential Cherokee soldiers, fighting on their behalf. They estimated that there were 25 Cherokee men of military age in the whole colony. All of the Cherokee villages in Georgia were destroyed by the Koweta Creeks in 1754. Apparently, most of the survivors did not return. Two Cherokee towns with Majorcan names in present day Stephens County, GA completely disappeared. The Majorcan Islands are off the coast of Spain.

There is a reason why a Miccosukee or Itsate Creek would have no trouble translating most Lower Cherokee words, while many Cherokee scholars say their surviving Lower Cherokee words are untranslatable. Those words are Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek words! The Lower Cherokees were originally a splinter group that refused to join the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy. The word for Splinter People in Mvskoke is Chora-ke.

Many history books state that the first trade between the Colony of South Carolina and the Cherokee Nation was in 1678. There was no Cherokee Nation and no South Carolina in 1674. Carolina trader, Henry Woodward, brought goods to the largest Chorakee village of Tamasee, Okone and Chauke. Those are Creek words that mean “Offsping of Tama,” the Okoni branch of the Creeks, and Black Locust. The capitals of the provinces of Tama and Okvte (Oconee) in Georgia were visited by de Soto in March of 1540.

In fact, the majority of principal Cherokee town names throughout North Carolina and Tennessee during the first half of the 18th century are Itsate Creek words. Only when the Cherokees moved into NW Georgia after the Revolution, were the majority of town names in a language that modern Cherokees can understand.

All Cherokee histories state that the first trade treaty between the Cherokee Nation and South Carolina was in 1684. Again, in 1684 there was no Cherokee Nation and no Colony of South Carolina. The participating towns in the treaty were Tamasee, Toxawe, Kiale (Keowa in English) and Okoni. Those are all Creek words. The mother town of the Kiale or Kiawa was on the Oconee River in present day Watkinsville, GA. Its direct descendant is the Kialeki (Kialegi) Tribal Town in Oklahoma. However, they also had a branch on Kiawah Island on the South Carolina Coast that later merged with the Cusaba and moved to the Chattahoochee River.

South Carolina archives state that in the early 1700s, when the villages in NW South Carolina began forming a political alliance with the Charakey of northeastern Tennessee, the chiefs in each region exchanged sons and daughters for marriages to cement political ties. It was at this point that the Cherokee language known today began evolving.

Hogeloge-Euchee: All history books and online websites label the town of Tugaloo as being an important Cherokee town in the 1700s. Tugaloo Island is located in the Tugaloo River between South Carolina and Georgia. Until just before the French and Indian War, all maps authorized by the Colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, including the 1715 Beresford Map, labeled Tugaloo the principal town of a Hogeloge Province. The Hogeloge were a branch of the Yuchi.

All history books and online sites state that in 1715, the Cherokee Nation invited all of the leaders of the Creek Nation to a friendly political conference at the Lower Cherokee capital of Tugaloo. The Creek leaders were murdered in their sleep. Well, the word “Creek” would not appear in colonial archives for another three decades, so we really don’t know who the Cherokees invited to the neutral Yuchi town of Tugaloo.

It is quite possible that it was Koweta-Creek leaders that they invited. The Kowita originated in the North Carolina Mountains, east of Franklin and in NE Georgia at the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River. It was Koweta troops that singlehandedly defeated the Cherokee Nation at the end of the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War. At that time, Koweta took back all of the land that they had lost in 1715 and executed 32 Cherokee chiefs.

Tugaloo is the worst example of historians and bureaucrats ignoring history and archaeology that I have ever seen:

In 1957 and 1958, University of Georgia archaeologist, Joseph Caldwell, supervised a major excavation of Tugaloo Island in advance of Lake Hartwell’s construction. Caldwell found that the large town with eight mounds had been continuously occupied by the same Proto-Creek people from around 800 AD until at least 1700 AD. About that time, the entire town was burned. At some point in time soon thereafter, a small section of the original town was re-occupied by a much less sophisticated indigenous people, who built simple round huts and made more primitive pottery. Those huts undoubted belonged to the Yuchi, but the Yuchi didn’t necessarily sack the Muskogean town on Tugaloo Island.

Several years later, the State of Georgia erected historical markers next to Tugaloo Island, which stated that the Cherokees had founded the town and built the mounds around 1450 AD or earlier. Tugaloo is described as Georgia’s first Cherokee town in many books, web sites and tourist brochures.

What the eyewitnesses said

In 2010, former National Museum of American History director and National Park Service director, Roger Kennedy, periodically sent me checks to cover costs of camping, hiking and photographing the probable routes of De Soto and Juan Pardo through the Southern Appalachians. I did not spend much time in South Carolina, but began to view the edge of the mountains in South Carolina as early explorers would have . . . traveling up from the coast. We will now take a look at the eyewitness accounts of the South Carolina Upcountry:

Hernando de Soto (1540): De Soto’s chroniclers mentioned two provinces in the South Carolina Upstate, Chiliki/Chiloki and Xuale (pronounced Zshwä : le-,) Chiliki is the Totonac and Creek word for barbarian. The Totonacs and Itza Mayas used that name for the Chichimec barbarians of northern Mexico. The Chichimecs ran around mostly naked and lived by hunting, gathering and digging up edible roots. That is exactly how De Soto’s chroniclers described the Chiliki of South Carolina. Do you think that there might have been some close encounters of a third kind between Mexico and the Southeast?

Xuale or Suale was described as a modest town that practiced agriculture, but not at a scale to have large food reserves. The main province of Xuale was in northern West Virginia along the Kanawha River. They were a branch of the Shawnee, who were agriculturalists and culturally influenced by the Southeastern Mound Builders. Their word for corn was “tama,” which is the Totonac and Itsate Creek word for “trade.” Are we seeing a pattern here?

Unfortunately, the late 20th century team of Southeastern academicians, who attempted to plot the route of De Soto did not know about the Xuale in West Virginia, even though they are mentioned in John Swanton’s 1951 book on the American Indians. They speculated that Xuale was the same town as Joara, which is pronounced as Wä : rä in Spanish – then pronounced both town names to be Cherokee!

The professors thought that Joara was pronounced Jo- : ÄH : ra( and somehow also thought that this sound was similar to that of Xuale. Would you believe that the Xuale were arch-enemies of the Cherokees? That is how ignorant of anthropology, these anthropological authority figures were.

So . . . go to most references today like Wikipedia and you will read that Xuale and Joara were the same Cherokee town and that the visit by de Soto marked the first encounter between the Spanish and the Great Cherokee Nation. That statement, created these erstwhile scholars, forced de Soto to make a 300 mile detour through Burke County, NC, Asheville, NC and Knoxville, TN. However, go to the article on Xuale in Wikipedia, written by a West Virginia historian, and you will get the facts.

Juan Pardo (1567-69): Captain Pardo mentioned many towns and villages in the Carolinas. Only two were definitely described as being on the southeast edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Joara (Wara) and Tokee. Joara was the only indigenous community that Pardo’s chronicler named a city. Others were called towns, villages or places. WARA was described as having many temples, plazas and broad streets. It was at the foot of high mountains where four fast flowing rivers converged. It was the capital of the most powerful province in the region, we now call South Carolina. High stone cliffs surrounded the town.

The description of Wara exactly matches Lake Jocasee, South Carolina, which incidentally was later the name of a Creek town in Alabama. Jocasee is the Anglicization of the Creek word, which means “Offspring or colony of Jokee or Sokee.” Most colonial archives spell their name as Sokee or Soque, but it was pronounced just like the Zoque people of Southern Mexico – Jzho- : ke-. The Soque River in northeast Georgia and Soco Gap western North Carolina were other places the lived.

Even though the Zoque of Mexico (Olmec Civilization) and the Soque of the United States pronounced their ethnic names the same, there has been no research done to study the connection. It may or may not be a coincidence.

If you dig deep enough in South Carolina’s anthropological literature, you will see the Sokee or Soque or Jokee described as the most powerful province in South Carolina when Europeans first began exploring the Carolinas. They had many “Mississippian” traits such as forehead deformation and construction of large platform mounds. They were greatly weakened by European plagues and slave raids by the time Charleston was founded in the 1670s. The remnants soon had to merge with the Cusabo and then later, with the Creek Confederacy. However, the existence of their name as geographical place names in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee suggests that some merged with the Cherokees. There was an small, autonomous Soque province on the border between the Creek Confederacy and Cherokee Nation in Habersham County, GA until 1818. Afterward they disappeared as a distinct ethnic group.

Unfortunately, the same team in the 1980s who decided that Suala was the same place as Joara, also decided that Joara had to be about 100 miles to the northeast of Lake Jocasee in Burke County, NC. This was necessary so that they could say that Hernando de Soto spent the night in Asheville, NC and then attended a University of Tennessee football game in Knoxville. The archaeological site they chose was owned by the family of one of the junior archaeologists in the team back then. It is on a plateau in the Piedmont about 12 miles east of the mountains. It has a single, three feet high mound and about 30 houses, at the most. Sixteenth or Seventh century European artifacts have been found there. Most recently a log palisade has been found there, which was immediately labeled as the walls of the Spanish fort at Joara. However, Native Americans also built log palisades.

The Burke County, NC site does not have four rushing mountain rivers, nor does it have high rock cliffs overhanging it. It also is clearly not a city or even a major town. Most likely, it is the village of Otari, where Juan Pardo built a small fort for a 16 man garrison. He also deposited a Jesuit priest with his teenage boy “assistant” to convert the locals to the true Spanish faith. The fort only lasted a few months at most, until all the Spaniards were massacred.

Johann Lederer (1670): Lederer was a well-educated German physician, who with a few companions, traversed the Blue Ridge escarpment from Virginia to approximately the Broad or Saluda River in South Carolina. This was done at the behest of Governor Berkeley, who wanted an eyewitness account of the lands for which he was governor and now, Lord Proprietor.

Lederer did not mention any towns or villages that were described in the chronicles of the De Soto Chronicles. He did pass through the village of Wataree on the Wataree River in South Carolina that was mentioned in the Juan Pardo Chronicles. His sketch map labeled the sole inhabitants of the mountains in SW Virginia and NW North Carolina to be the Rickohockens. He passed through the large town of Sara (pronounced Shä : rä.) The town or a similar, Zara, appeared on maps for several more decades. Lederer then returned by a route that was a little farther from the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

Many ethnologists have speculated that the Sara in Upstate South Carolina were one and the same as the Cheraw People in the Coastal Plain of the Carolinas. This may or may not be true.

It is possible that Sara is the origin of the word Cherokee, but it may also be a coincidence. Shara-ke means Sara People in Creek.

One fascinating detail on the sketch map that Lederer drew for his memoir is that it shows dams on several streams in the South Carolina Upcountry. This is an eyewitness account that Southeastern Native Americans built dams across rivers and creeks.

Wikipedia tells you that Lederer turned around in North Carolina, but that is impossible. This tidbit was written into the article by a North Carolina academician so they could say that the town of Sara was the same as the town of Xuale, which was the same as the great city of Joara. However, Lederer’s map shows that he went far beyond the Native village of Wataree in northern South Carolina and some distance beyond Sara. He turned around at the source of the Santee River, which is either the Saluda or the Broad.

Dr. Henry Woodward (1670-1690): In 1666, Woodward became the first British settler in Carolina. He volunteered to stay for a year with the Cusabo in South Carolina to learn their dialect of the Creek language and develop trade relations with South Carolina’s Natives. While with the Cusabo, Woodward was captured by a raiding party from St. Augustine. He was treated well after falsely claiming to be Roman Catholic. He ultimately became the physician of St. Augustine, before being captured by pirates. He then became the doctor for a pirate fleet. Eventually, he was rescued by the first fleet sailing to America to colonize Carolina. Woodward’s knowledge of Native languages and the secret trading activities between the Spanish and the Natives in the Georgia Mountains proved invaluable to the young colony.

Online histories and many Cherokee history books dwell on the fact that Woodward mentioned the word, Chorakey in a letter about his visit to the Westo villages at present day Augusta, GA. This is true. However, most of Woodward’s trading activities were with the Savano (Shawnee), Yamasee and Lower Creeks living on the Chattahoochee River in present day Georgia. His memoirs say very little about the Native Americans of the South Carolina Upcountry. The Chorakey villages on the headwaters of the Savannah had a relatively small population when compared to the Yamasee and Lower Creeks. Therefore, he concentrated his entrepreneurial activities on the more populous ethnic groups.

John Lawson (1700): In 1700, Lawson and a few companions traveled up the Santee River of South Carolina to its source in the Blue Ridge Mountains then turned southwest along the Blue Ridge Escarpment till he reached the Keowee River. He then journeyed southward to the British colonies along the Atlantic Coast. Lawson found very few Natives living in the Upcountry. Plagues and slave raids had done their work well. The Wateree and Sara, visited by Lederer, were still there, but their villages were small. Even though the year was 1700, Lawson made no mention of the Cherokee Indians.

One of the most interesting comments by Lawson is concerning the indigenous languages. He stated that neighboring villages would often speak mutually unintelligible languages. His impression of the ethnic patterns of that region of Carolina was that it was a patchwork quilt. There were many distinct ethnic groups who migrated to South Carolina from many different places around the Western Hemisphere.

While at the farthest point of his journey, Lawson stayed with a Kiale (Kiawa) family. Apparently, even as late as 1700, the Native Peoples in the Upcountry were labeled according to their specific ethnic identity, not as being Cherokees. The Kiale man was described as taller than Europeans, plus wearing a turban and mustache. This is exactly how De Soto’s chroniclers described the men of “Okute” on the Oconee River in Georgia. The Okvte (Oconee) and Kiale (Kiawa) were neighbors in Georgia and essentially the same ethnic group.

Although his journey occurred four decades after the onslaught of Virginia-sponsored slave raids and 25 years after the founding of the Charlestowne Colony, Lawson’s description of the indigenous peoples of the South Carolina Upcountry is the most comprehensive and credible. He genuinely liked Native Americans and they generally liked him. He was seeking nothing from these peoples, but knowledge of their way of life and environment. His journal even compares the love-making styles of the young women of various ethnic groups! It is a great shame that someone like him did not traverse the region much earlier before the countryside had been virtually depopulated.

Although viewed as a friend to the indigenous peoples of what was to become South Carolina, a decade later, Lawson was hired to be a surveyor in the region that was to become North Carolina. He became viewed by North Carolina Indians as an enemy. The Tuscarora saw him measuring off lands that would soon been occupied by Europeans. They ambushed Lawson and tortured him to death.

The expedition of James Needham and Gabriel Arthur in 1674 is mostly about the Old World colonists and indigenous peoples of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. It does provide a small amount of information on the region that was to become South Carolina. Gabriel Arthur accompanied Native American parties on long trading and slave-raiding expeditions that went as far as Florida and the Midwest.

If interested in reading this fascinating story, be sure to access the original version as published by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The University of North Carolina version, written in 1991, inserts and substitutes words that were not in the original text. For example, it inserts the Cherokee town of Chota as their destination, when such a town is not mentioned in the original text. It substitutes Cherokee for Tomahitan (Tamahiti Creeks) and Tennessee River for Tamahiti River. It also deleted several references to Iberian, Middle Eastern and African colonists in northeastern Tennessee and the Carolinas. You get the gist.

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.



    Amazing historical account. Definitely it explains where history has been omitted or misunderstood. Thank you for this article.


    Like you I am fascinated by the indigenous peoples of SC Upcountry. I own properties there and would like a clear understanding of those who came before. I have seen many collections of arrowheads and relics from the area. Only a whisper remaining of those who trod the same paths as we today. We owe the past, present and future an accurate understanding and preservation. Thank you.

    • You are quite welcome . . . and welcome to the People of One Fire . . . celebrating our 10th anniversary this fall.


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