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New Understanding of the Apalachicola

Once considered by European map makers as the most important ethnic group in North America, the Apalachicola have been marginalized to the footnotes of history. Wikipedia tells us that they are extinct. The Apalachicola language IS extinct. It was not Muskogee. It seems to have been a mixture of South American, Muskogean, Maya and Aramaic words. (Yes, Aramaic as in Roman Period Jewish) This is a long Brainfood, but you will find it interesting.

By the late 1700s, the Apalachicola were being treated as an insignificant minority by the Creek Confederacy. Many Apalachicola never joined the Creek Confederacy. Instead, they immigrated to Florida, Louisiana or Texas. Contemporary anthropologists merely think of them as the name of a couple of Creek towns. Their real history is quite a bit more complex.

There is something very odd that apparently no historian or anthropologist has ever noticed before. The first river in all of North America to be fully mapped to its source was the Chattahoochee. It is the only river shown in its full length by the 1562 map of La Florida by Spanish cartographer Diego Gutteriez. (See end of article.) The source of the Chattahoochee is on the flanks of Brasstown Bald Mountain in Georgia. Obviously, there was a Spanish expedition in the mid-1500s that has gotten lost from the Spanish colonial archives.

Captain René de Laudonnière made contact with a band of Apalachicola living along the Lower Savannah River in 1565. Their capital was Chikoli. He was looking for food to feed his starving garrison. When Georgia was founded in 1733, Chikoli was part of the Muskogee Creek Confederacy. Its war chief presented the famous velum with a complete writing system on it. The town of Chikoli and the Palachecola Province continued to exist until the 1740s when the land was sold to the Colony of Georgia.

Close examination of Charles de Rochefort’s 17th century description of the indigenous peoples in the lower Southeast has resulted in a radical new understanding of the Native American history of that region. It was included in the second edition of his book, Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amerique, after De Rochefort interviewed an Englishman named Briggstock, probably Richard Brigstock, who had spent the better part of 1653 in that region. The primary focus of that chapter was the Apalasi of Georgia. As you will soon learn, they are one and the same as the Apalachicola.

De Rocheforte’s book was extremely popular in Western Europe during the late 1600s. His description of a Spanish gold-mining colony in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley, named Apalache, and a ruby-sapphire mining colony around Franklin, NC so intrigued early South Carolina colonial leaders that they sent an expedition to find these Spanish outposts. They found the colonies with the help of Native guides.

Impact of wars: These European colonies disappeared from the maps after Queen Anne’s War between Great Britain and Spain (1702–1713.) The Native kingdom of Apalasi also disappeared from the maps during the Yamasee War that followed (1715-1717.)

At the end of the Yamasee War we see a radically new map of the Southeast, in which two never before seen tribes called the Charakee and Coweta appear. At the same time, the Shawnee were pushed out of most of North Carolina, west of Buncombe County (Asheville.) The year 1717 also marked the beginning of the Creek-Cherokee War, whose initial phase saw most of the proto-Creek towns leaving eastern Georgia and South Carolina and settling on the Chattahoochee River.

Etowah River Apalachicola: According to the French maps, after the Yamasee War, the Apalachicola continued to live in northwest Georgia in the Etowah River Basin and on the Lower Savannah River. The French now called them Conchakees (Conk Shell People.) They had been mostly replaced along the Lower Chattahoochee River by Creek tribal towns originally from eastern and central Georgia and on the Upper Chattahoochee by the Coweta. There were some Apalachicola towns along the Apalachicola River, which is formed by the Chattahoochee and the Flint River.

Most of the Etowah Valley Apalachicola moved to Pensacola Bay between 1763 and 1776. Their towns were visited by William Bartram in 1776. One of those towns was named Oothlooga. That is also a river’s name in NW Georgia. Another Apalachicola town was named Ellijay. It is also the name of a river in north-central Georgia. Ellijay later moved to southern Florida and was known as a Seminole town. Georgia historians will tell you that Oothlooga and Ellijay are ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings have been lost.

Etymology of Apalachicola

Detail of the 1717 map of Louisiana by Guilluame Delilse

Detail of the 1717 map of Louisiana by Guilluame Delilse. This map followed the first round of the Creek-Cherokee War In 1717. It was one of the first European maps to use a name similar to Cherokee. The label Kofitachete (“Mixed Race People” in Itsate Creek) – found on earlier European maps – was changed to Charakee. The Kusate Creeks and the Yuchi were still on the Little Tennessee River, but they would be gone by 1725. The Tuskegee Creeks had already moved from the Smoky Mountains to the Coosa River. The Apalachicola no longer lived in north-central Georgia. The Little Tennessee River Shawnees had been pushed down to the Lower Coosa River. Still all of the Etowah River Valley was densely populated with Apalachicola villages. They would remain there until sometime between 1763 and 1776. Georgia archaeologists have consistently labeled their villages “Historic Cherokee.” DeLisle’s path for de Soto differs a bit from routes proposed by contemporary scholars.

Ethnologist John Swanton accomplished many admirable things in his life, but we could have done without his translations of Southeastern place names. Almost all are wrong. He started with words Anglicized by frontiersmen, used inaccurate dictionaries and then didn’t have a clue how Natives pronounced the Anglicized spellings of their words. Unfortunately, we are stuck with his bogus translations. One of them is Apalachicola. Swanton speculated that the word meant, “People across the river.” The boo-boo continues show up in all references.

Any time that you see a “che”, “tchee” or “chee” at the end of a Muskogean or Cherokee word, the chances are that it was really something like a “jzh” or “sh” sound. The internal “s” of Eastern Creek and Cherokee words is spoken in this manner. So Aplachee was really “Apalasi” or Apalashee (phonetically.” Itsate became Echetee on 18th century maps and Hitchiti in 19th century books on the Indians.

Cola is the Gulf Coast Choctaw word for “people” or “tribe.” The Apalachicola apparently had “cola” added to their name because Spanish explorers encountered Choctaw speakers before encountering true Apalachicola – or else wanted to distinguish between their Apalachee serfs and the Highland Apalache. The Florida Apalachee did not originally call themselves by that name. The Spanish confused the Apalache in the Georgia Mountains with a village named Apalache or Apalachen in Florida.

Apala now means a flashlight in Hitchiti, but formerly meant light or torch. The sun was a gift from their god, but was not the actual god. The “si” suffix means “children of,” so we have “Children of the Light” – probably referring to the enlightenment coming from their deity.

Connection of De Rochefort with archaeology

De Rochefort stated that the Apalasi originated as a distinct people in the region near the Lower Ocmulgee River in central Georgia. They claimed that their ancestors migrated from Mexico long before the Sun Lords (Itza Mayas) arrived from the south. Apparently, the Sun Lords became the Apalasi elite. The mother province was known as Amana. At that time, there was a large, shallow body of water named Lake Tama there. Their villages ringed the lake. Lake Tama shrank into being a swamp in the 1700s. It is now known as the Little Ocmulgee or Gum Creek Swamp. Apparently, the ancestors of the Apalasi were progenitors of the Swift Creek Culture.

The population of the Apalasi in early times expanded northward and then into the upper Chattahoochee River Valley. Finally their capital shifted to a location near the mountains. This territory described by De Rochefort exactly matches the region where Napier Style pottery is found. The capital of the Apalasi moved around to several locations in northern Georgia.

During this period, the wealth gained from the control of greenstone, copper and gold mines near present day Dahlonega and Blairsville, GA eventually enabled the Apalasi to expand their political influence to create a massive multi-ethnic kingdom that stretched from southwestern Virginia to the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, where the Apalachicola River begins. Few demands were placed on the subordinate provinces other than converting to the Apalasi monotheistic religion. This region described by De Rochefort exactly matches the territory of the Lamar Culture. Individual provinces were somewhat autonomous with their internal affairs, but the High King of Apalasi had final word on all matters. He settled disputes between member provinces.

Origin of Florida Apalachee: According to De Rochefort, the Apalasi established a colony on the Gulf of Mexico. They built a road to connect the mountains with the Gulf. Over time, the colonists intermarried and became influenced with other peoples. Their language changed some. Nevertheless, the mother people and the colonists continued to be allies and trade partners. That colony is obviously the Apalachee of the Florida Panhandle. De Rochefort’s explanation matches the belief by archaeologists that the Apalachee came there from elsewhere during the Mississippian Cultural Period.

By the time of European Contact in the 1500s, the ethnic Apalasi were concentrated in the Upper Piedmont, Blue Ridge Foothills and most southern range of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia. They are called the Palache in the “Migration Legend of the Kashita People.” The foothills towns were the trade reps for the mysterious Apalasi elite, whose capital was on the side of the region’s highest mountain. Its buildings were constructed of stone. This town was called Copal by the Spanish, because its priests burned copal incense from their temple high on the side of the mountain. Both the Spanish and Creek descriptions of the capital sound identical to the Track Rock Terrace Complex.

In collaboration with Spanish eyewitnesses, Briggstock told De Rochefort that the Apalasi priests in 1651 still burned incense constantly from their mountainside, mountaintop and hilltop shrines. They believed in an invisible sun god who abhorred blood sacrifices. No human or animal blood could be shed near an Apalasi shrine. This is exactly the tradition associated with the Yamacutah Shrine in Jackson County, GA. Yamacutah is a real place. We found it with LIDAR in November 2013.

The Apalasi elite wore brightly colored clothes that look in the 17th century drawings very much like the traditional clothing of the Seminoles. While the elite lived in mountainside houses with stone foundations, the commoners lived in towns in the valley that are described by De Rochefort as being identical to Lamar Culture towns. De Rochefort accurately described every detail of the proto-Creek architecture built by the commonoers, while archaeologists did not figure out post-ditch houses and the construction techniques for town palisades until the late 20th century.

Spanish kept away from Apalasi capital: It was no accident that Hernando de Soto was steered by Native guides in a circumferential route to reach Kusa. A direct route would take him through the hidden valley where the Apalasi elite lived. The same was true for Juan Pardo. His exploration was stopped by rumors of an ambush, when he was about to take a trail (now US 129) that would have brought him through Track Rock Gap and into the Nottely Valley. During the late 1500s, most Spaniards who attempted to reach Copal over the gaps at Blood Mountain, Tesnatee Mountain and Cartacay Mountain were killed. That is why early European-American settlers found old Spanish armor and weapons at these locations.

European immigrants: Between the late 1500s and 1650s de Rochefort stated that there were changes in the Apalasi society. Six survivors of Fort Caroline were given sanctuary by the King of Apalasi. They married local gals and became advisors to the king. The king became a Christian. When a ship load of English colonists were allowed to settle in the Nacoochee Valley, the king also permitted them to build an English Protestant chapel. Most of the commoners refused to convert to Christianity and began returning to their traditional religious practices before being absorbed into the kingdom. Simultaneously, the Apalasi kingdom dissolved into a loose confederacy in which the High King was only a ruler of the Apalasi people. To other provinces, he functioned more like the Dalai Lama, or perhaps the pope.

Some English and French Protestant settlers were allowed into the Nacoochee Valley region, while Englishmen, Spaniards and others were allowed to settle in the remote northern sections of the Apalasi Kingdom. This is exactly what 17th century eyewitnesses from Virginia tell us. Some Englishmen and many Sephardic Jews, speaking Spanish or Portuguese were living in northeastern Tennessee and certain mountain valleys in western North Carolina.

Late Spanish influence: At the time of Briggstock’s visit in 1651, the Spanish had gained the ascendancy of political influence on the King of Apalasi. In 1645 they burned several Apalasi towns on the Lower Chattahoochee River that were hostile to a newly established mission. In 1646 they were allowed to build a road from St. Augustine to the Nacoochee Valley then erect a fortified trading post. According to Briggstock the Spanish were allowed to build a mission near the Apalasi capital. However, the Spanish-speaking people in the mountains were not hard core Roman Catholics. Most were probably of mixed heritage by then. The Spanish-speaking gold and precious stone miners in the Georgia Mountains were quite hospitable to Mr. Briggstock, even though he was a Protestant.

The disappearance of the Apalasi

The last High King of Apalasi was named Mahdo . . . which happens to be the phonetic sound for the Creek word for “thank you.” Something happened between the publishing of De Rochefort’s book in 1658 and 1717 when the words Charakee and Coweta appear. Was it European diseases, the invasion of the Cherokees or Virginia sponsored slave raids?

Cherokee tradition is that they destroyed the capital of the Creek Indians during a three way war between the Creeks, the Cherokees and the Shawnees. The Creek capital was described as being on the side of a high mountain and built out of stone. The Muskogee Creek Confederacy never had a capital in the mountains and did not construct any buildings out of stone in the 1700s. Furthermore, the Cherokees never even got close to the Creek capital of Koweta. Could the vague cultural memory of early 19th century Cherokees really be a war with the Apalasi, not the Muskogee Creeks? We may never know.

For about 15 years after 1717, the old home territory of the Apalasi, the Georgia Mountains, were called the Apalache or Appalachian Mountains and not part of either the Muskogee Creek or Cherokee Confederacies. Then in 1738, the Georgia Mountains were shown to be the territory of the Upper Creeks. That map was one of the first uses of the word “Creek Indians.” By then the Apalachicola were living in a few towns near the border between British Georgia and Spanish Florida. It is very likely that the “Cherokees” of Towns County, GA and Clay County, NC . . . with their mixed South American and Mayan DNA . . . may be the last direct descendants of the Apalasi to live in the mountains. We may never know what actually happened to the others.

What we do know is that the most sophisticated indigenous people that ever lived north of Mexico became a footnote in 20th century history books.

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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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