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The Mysteries of the Altamaha River Basin

The Altamah River is the third largest river on the Atlantic Coast of North America. The first “Mississippian Culture” town in the Southeast was established on one of its main tributaries around 900 AD or earlier. That initial trading village founded by newcomers eventually spread to a megapolis about 14 miles long. The first attempt by the Spanish to establish a colony in North America (1526) was probably at its mouth. It was first described and named by Spanish Explorer Hernando de Soto in March of 1540.

The river has many tributaries, most of which begin at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Georgia gold fields. They combine into the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers, which join in south central Georgia to flow to the Atlantic Ocean. The outlet of the Altamaha is at Darien, GA.

All European maps show the Altamaha River as the location of Fort Caroline, the first French attempt to establish a permanent colony in North America (1564.) René de Laudonniére reported that the Altamaha was the primary route that Appalachian gold, copper, silver, greenstone and mica was shipped by Native American traders. The Fort Caroline at Jacksonville, FL is a scaled-down facsimile built in the 1960s!

During the late 1500s, the French planned to build the capital of New France on the tributary that flowed nearest the gold veins, the Oconee River. The capital’s location would have been constructed roughly where the University of Georgia is now situated. The French never had the opportunity to do this.

La Roche Ferriére traveled up the Altamaha and Oconee to make contact with the Apalachee Indians around Dahlonega, GA. When he returned, his commander, René de Laudonniére, named the Georgia Mountains, Les Montes Apalachien, in the Apalachee’s honor. Pierre Gambie, who grew up in the household of French Admiral Cologny, volunteered to travel into the interior along the Altamaha, Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers to set up a trade network with the Indians. He was doing that when Fort Caroline was massacred by the Spanish. Gambie soon married the daughter of a powerful leader on the Altamaha, Olata Utina. Gambie eventually became king of much of the Altamaha Basin and established his capital on the island of Edalino. That large island is still visible in the Altamaha River just south of the confluence of the Ohoopee and Altamaha Rivers, just as René de Laudonniére described it.

The Spanish unsuccessfully tried to establish a mission system along Altamaha’s banks. Santa Isabela de Utinahaca was established somewhere in the vicinity of the town of Utinahaca on the Ohoopee River, visited by René de Laudonniére or perhaps on the Island of Edalino downstream.

The missionary efforts were a failure. It was along the Altamaha that the ancestors of the Creek Indians stopped the expansion of the Spanish Empire cold in its tracts during the 1600s. Even the missions on the better protected barrier islands were eventually abandoned. The mission Indians were essentially extinct by 1707.

During the 1600s and very early 1700s the Altamaha River Basin was the heart of the powerful Yamasee Alliance. It was an arch-enemy of the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy until very late. Yamasee means “offspring of Yama.” Yama was the language spoken around Mobile Bay and the Mobile River in Alabama. Yama is also the Totonac-Tamauli word for an agricultural clearing. Perhaps these tribes in southeastern Georgia originated in southwestern Alabama?

In 1776 explorer William Bartram made his most famous botanical discoveries along the Altamaha. Some of those plants no longer exist in the wild, but are commonplace in nurseries. Today, the Altamaha is the most primeval river entering the ocean from temperate North America. Canoeing down its dark waters was one of the most exotic vacations I ever took. It looks like a river in the Amazon Rain Forest. Yet . . . how many of you living outside the Deep South have even heard of the Altamaha? Probably not many.

Unfortunately, despite being the focus of some of the earliest colonial activities by European explorers, the Altamaha Basin has largely been ignored by archaeologists. Most of what we know about its Native American past comes from a few sketchy paragraphs by the chroniclers of Hernando de Soto and extensive discussions of the region by French explorer, René de Laudonniére, in his memoir, “Trois Voyages.”

Maya, Totonac, Arawak and South American words are found in southeastern Georgia

Meaning of river’s name

Altamaha is an Anglicization of the Tamauli place name, Al Tamau – ahau. It means, “Place of the Merchant Lord, Tamauli was a language spoken in the coastal plain of Tamaulipas State, (northeastern Mexico next to Texas) until around 1250 AD. This language mixed Itza Maya, Totonac, Huastec and some indigenous tongues. It appears to have been a trade jargon developed by Chontal Maya merchants, since “tama” means to trade or buy” in Totonac. The name of that Tamau province was Am Ixchel (Place of the Fertility Goddess) or Amichel in Spanish. Tamaulipas means “Merchant People – place of.”

Around 1250 AD Chichimec (Coyote People) barbarians swept through northeastern Mexico. Apparently, some of the refugees from Tamaulipas had not read late 20th century anthropology books. They violated federal law in 1250 AD by paddling their canoes for a few days up the Gulf Coast and becoming illegal aliens in the United States. When the Spanish arrived on the Gulf Coast in the early 1500s, the region between the mouth of the Mobile River in Alabama and the mouth of the Apalachicola River in Florida was also called Amichel (Am Ixchel in Itza Maya.) Apparently, remnants of Tamauli or “Tama” people established colonies in several locations in the Southeast. Their ethnic name can be found in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

Who lived along the Altamaha River?

Virtually all laymen references state that the Altamaha River was occupied by Muskogee-Creek Indians when Europeans arrived. That is not true. Archaeological textbooks state that the occupants of the Altamaha Basin were part of the Lamar Culture, inferring that they were all in one ethnic group that was the ancestor of the Creek Indians. The Creek Confederacy was composed of many provinces, speaking several languages and dialects. Some towns on the Altamaha eventually joined the Creek Confederacy. Some did not.

For unknown reasons, despite the legion of scholarly books published in the late twentieth century on the European explorers of the Southeast, none of these professors ever bothered to translate the Native American place names and political titles recorded by the explorers. In many cases, had they done this, their interpretation of artifacts, town sites and the chronicles themselves would have been quite different. For example, one professor proclaimed a three high mound on the Biltmore Estate in the North Carolina mountains that was visited by de Soto as the ancient capital of the Great Cherokee Nation. The town’s name has no meaning in Cherokee, but STILL is the standard Creek word for “southerners!” The mound turned out to have been abandoned for 1000 years before de Soto was born. In fact, all place names and political titles recorded by de Soto’s chroniclers in the Piedmont and Southern Highlands are modern Creek Indian words.

Sweetwater Creek Petroglyph

The Sweetwater Creek Petroglyph was apparently at one time worshipped as a shrine. Georgia Division of Archives & History

However, when we look at the portion of the Altamaha River System from Macon, GA southeastward to the ocean, things get very confusing. De Soto’s chroniclers got the ball rolling by recording the town name of Toa along the Lower Ocmulgee River. Its province’s name was Toasi, which English speakers spelled Towasee. Toa has no meaning in the Muskogean languages but was a prominent Arawak tribe around Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Guess what? About a hundred years ago, a stone stela was found in a hilltop shrine overlooking the Chattahoochee River southwest of Atlanta. The stela is now on display at Sweetwater Creek State Park. It is identical to Toa petroglyphs and stelae found near Arecibo, PR!

It gets more confusing. Upstream from the probable site of Toa is a large town site with 28 mounds. The houses in this town were not built like typical Itza Maya, Totonac and historical Creek Indian houses, which were called chiki in all three of those languages. They are like the square earth berm houses of northwestern Mexico. In fact, one of the ethnic divisions of the Creek Confederacy was a province named Kolima. That happens to be the same word as a state in northwestern Mexico!

Captain René de Laudonniére recorded several indigenous words within each province he visited along the Altamaha River, and also in South Carolina. The South American ethnic suffixes of koa, ko, qua and gua show up in all those regions. Coastal peoples around the mouth of the Altamaha River and around Port Royal Sound, SC used the Moche-Peruvian title for king, Paracus. Near the coast, place names appear to be of Arawak or Peruvian origin. However, as the Frechmen traveled inland, more and more Muskogean and Maya words appeared, while fewer Caribbean/South America words were recorded.

René de Laudonniére and contemporary anthropologists were fooled by the Utina People living along the Altamaha River and the Ohoopee River. De Laudonniére thought he was dealing with the king of the Utina. However, the man’s Creek title, Olata, indicates that he was just appointed middle level management. The Utina were labeled by anthropologists to be Arawaks, but the surviving Utina political titles are all Creek words.

The coastal Arawak (Caribbean) peoples called a powerful ethnic group located just south of present day Macon, GA, the Mayacoa. That means “Maya People.” The French explorers recorded the name of a powerful province in northern Georgia near the gold fields as Houstanaule. That is very close to the Chickasaw-speaking Ustanali who lived there in the 1700s.

The Altamaha River Basin appears to have been a melting pot where peoples of North America, Central America, the Caribbean Basin and South America blended. This is also true for much of South Carolina, and perhaps even the Southern Highlands. Very little is known about the chronologies of when these various people came and went – especially along the Altamaha. There has been so little professional archaeological work in that region of the country, almost anything one states beyond word translations would necessarily be speculative.

An important lesson gained from the linguistic analysis of René de Laudonniére’s memoir is the interpretation of Southeastern pottery. Whereas, at any one time period the pottery styles of the Altamaha River Basin appear to be fairly uniform, the memoirs of French explorers state that many ethnic groups lived in this region in the late 1600s.

Clearly, the traditional linkage made by Southeastern archaeologists between pottery styles and ethnic identities is not always reliable. Either pottery styles traveled from province to province like contemporary fashions, or else, the region became multi-ethnic when various bands of male invaders, killed off the indigenous men, then took their women as their wives, concubines and slaves. It was the Native American women who always made the pottery.

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.

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