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How the Peruvian Lightning God Became the Hillabee Creeks

How the Peruvian Lightning God Became the Hillabee Creeks

Today, the Hillabee Creeks are little known outside of Alabama. However, in the 1700s, they were a major player in the Creek Confederacy. In truth, unfortunately, they cannot sing “Sweet Home Alabama.” They are Natives of the Palmetto State!

The Indigenous Peoples of the South Atlantic Coast – Part Five

Many suns ago, I was working on the first Comprehensive Plan for Charleston, SC (yes, really). For some unknown reason, my strongest visual memories of that period are cracks in the buildings from the 1886 Earthquake and a large group of South Carolina Native Americans dressed as Sioux Indians!

A very young Mayor Joseph P. Riley invited South Carolina Indians to Charleston for the state’s first South Carolina Indian Festival. I happened to be in Charleston that day and wanted to meet the Pee Dees. They were some of my ancestors.

SiouxcoupleI was shocked to see the Pee Dees, really most of the tribes there, dressed like Chief Red Cloud and Princess White Buffalo Calf Woman.  Several of the older men had massive Lakota-Sioux war bonnets and carried fancy Lakota ceremonial pipes.

I asked one of the younger Pee Dee men why they weren’t dressed like Creeks. He looked puzzled. I don’t think he even was sure what a “Creek” was. An older man beside him, wearing a war bonnet said, “They’re in Alabama. We are South Carolina Indians. A professor from the University (of South Carolina) came to talk to us, when we formed our tribe. He said that we were Sioux Indians like the Catawba and Waccamaw.

Okay . . . whatever.

The Hillabee Creeks

One of my ggggg-grandmothers had been a Native American slave in Fredericksburg, VA. King George II freed all Indian slaves in 1752, in the same proclamation that legalized African slavery in Georgia. A couple of years after being freed, Mary married a Scotsman off the boat and moved back to her homeland on the Pee Dee River in northeastern South Carolina. A few years later, the couple moved to Lexington County, SC which had been the homeland of the Sawakee Creeks. There, the first of five generations of girls named Mahala (teacher in Creek) was born. A few years later they moved to the Sawakehatchee (Raccoon People River) River on the west side of the Savannah River in what is now Northeast Georgia. The Sawakehatchee is now known as the Broad River.

At this particular time both South Carolina and Georgia claimed North Georgia with most mapmakers siding with South Carolina. The area where Mary’s family went had been more or less designated as a relocation zone for South Carolina Creeks and mixed blood Indians. A 1717 treaty had given all land west of the Savannah River to the Creek Confederacy. There were no county governments.

On maps of that period, one can see the word “Hillapees” around the Sawakehatchee. After the 1773 land cession, most fullblood Hillapees moved to the Etowah River Valley in Northwest Georgia, while most mixed bloods stayed in what is now Hart and Elbert Counties, GA and Anderson County, SC. Between 1785 and 1790, the Hillapees realized that their land had been stolen by the United States in a secret treaty and given to the Cherokees. The Hillapees then moved to what is now Clay and Calhoun Counties, Alabama.

On November 18, 1813 an army commanded by Major General John Cocke and composed of over 1000 Tennessee Volunteers, plus 300 Cherokees, were looking for Creeks to kill. Cocke was supposed to go immediately to Andrew Jackson’s headquarters to the west, to get oriented to the Redstick War. Instead they attacked the people, who were now known as the Hillabees to whites. The Hillabees did not have any look outs because they were expecting soldiers from Jackson to arrive at any time to co-sign a peace treaty. Hillabees wanted to clearly state their disassociation from the Red Sticks.
Instead they were massacred.

Far more friendly Hillabees were murdered that day than the combined deaths of Cheyenne at the Sand Creek and Washita Massacres out West. Of course, Hollywood only remembers the massacres of Plains Indians.

Some of the Hillapees wisely moved from Northeast Georgia to deep South-Central Georgia. Their tribal town was named Ilapa. The river flowing past the town was known to Creeks as the Ilapahaw. Haw is the Itza Maya word for river. Haw was also used for naming rivers in several parts of South Carolina. The South Georgia Hillapees were founding members of what became known as the Seminole Confederacy. They later moved down into Florida, but that river is still called by its Cracker name of Alapaha.

Juan Pardo slept here

In the chronicles of the Juan Pardo Expeditions (1567-1569) Juan dela Bandera described a explorative journey that Pardo and his soldiers took in a northeasterly direction from Santa Elena. The Spaniards passed through the province of the Vehedi in which there was a large town named Ilape or Ilapa. Both the ethnic group and the town are mentioned several times by the Spanish archives, but neither word is seen in the early maps of the Province of Carolina. In the place of Vehedi are words similar to Pee Dee.

The Vehete were a very powerful province of mound builders that built several large towns along the Pee Dee River, eventually reaching as far north as the south-central Piedmont of North Carolina at Town Creek Mounds.  North Carolina archaeologists have recently removed all references to the Creeks at the Town Creek Mound Museum and replaced this ethnic label with “Appalachian Summit Culture People” –  using them thar sofiskated words to say that the Cherokees, the Tar Hill State’s own Master Race, occupied the town, while they were inventing mounds, corn, squash, beans, Swift Creek pottery, gun powder, Rice Crispies, transistor radios and slot machines that don’t pay gamblers any money.

A long time subscriber to POOF in Northern Virginia, is an archaeologist, who grew up on the Pee Dee River. She told me that she is convinced that Ilapa was the name of a massive town site with at least 24 mounds on the Pee Dee. She said that most South Carolina archaeologists are either not aware of this archaeological zone, or don’t like to discuss it, because the town is obviously a Muskogean site that made Georgia Creek style pottery, in the middle of a region that their profession has officially agreed was Siouan.

All references in South Carolina state that the Pee Dee people are Siouans. That’s because some professor, who didn’t actually have a clue what words they spoke, thought everyone in the upper half of South Carolina were Siouan and no one dared to challenge him. No way José!

The word Pee Dee is the Anglicization of  Vehide (Vehete in Itsate Creek). Vehite is a Creek word that means “Spear People,” “Bow and Arrow People” or “Archers.” In modern Muskogee it means “People who have weapons or “Armed People.” However, during the 1700s, Low Country Carolinians slurred Vehidi to Pee Dee and Ilape to Hillapee, after drinking too many mint julips. In other words, the Pee Dee’s are the same people as the Hillabee Creeks. They were hybrid Peruvians- Itzas– Muskogeans, who were militarily aggressive.

While the word Vehite or Vehidi can be found in Creek dictionaries, Ilapa cannot. The authors of these dictionaries have floundered when trying to explain the etymology of Hillabee. They only refer to towns with that name in Oklahoma and add that the meaning has been lost. The alternative Muskogee and Hitchiti (Modern Itstate) words for Hillabee are Hvlapa, Helvpe, Kvnete, and Helvpe-Keko-Pvtake.  One can see the obvious connection between Helapa and Ilapa.

IlapaFor several years, the etymology of Ilapa/Ilape (Hillabee) also frustrated me. I could find no similar Muskogean word. Then while recently researching the pre-Inca deities of the Andes Mountains, I stumbled across the name, Ilapa. He was the God of Thunder, Lightning and Weather. Ilapa or ilape means “lightning” in several Andean languages. He was also the consort of the goddess, Atoya, who ruled over the mountains. Together, they produced the vital rains, which made agriculture possible in the Andean regions.

It might be a coincidence that the capital of the Vehite (Hillabee) was the same word as the Peruvian God of Lightning. However, there is an obvious symbolic connection between spears, arrows and lightning.

Should I mention that the fieldstone serpents, that one finds in many locations around the Southern Highlands, symbolize an Itza Maya Lightning God . . . also known as the “Sky Serpent?”

The truth is out there somewhere.

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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.



    Could this possibly be where the word Hillbilly came from? Probably not, but it is interesting.


      That does seem an interesting possibillity!


    Very interesting article, you know that group of creeks were kin to John Ridge and he begged them for support concerning the Treaty of New Echota, he was of course turned down; I think mainly for their support of jackson during the Creek War. I think they were the Coosa Creeks from that Hillabee area.


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