Oketeyeconne . . . A 20th century Creek town on the Chattahoochee River
Never heard of the Creek town of Oketeyeconne? It somehow thrived on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, immediately south of the Mandeville Mounds Archaeological Site, from 1716 until 1950. It was about two miles north of Fort Gaines, GA and now one mile north of the Walter F. George Dam.
Had the community survived until 1976, it undoubtedly would be a federally recognized Creek Tribal Town today. Jimmy Carter grew up 48 miles northeast of Oketeyeconne. Between 1976 and 1980, the Carter Administration encouraged Creeks in the Southeast and Oklahoma to go public with tribal organizations. The Muscogee-Creek Nation was reconstituted and federally-recognized in 1979. In the Southeast, only the Poarch Creek Band has been able. so far, to obtain sufficient Congressional support to overcome the hostility of subsequent administrations toward federal recognition.
Oketeyeconne was one of at least two dozen rural, almost invisible, Creek communities in Georgia that were able to somehow maintain distinct identities, after the Creek Confederacy ceded all its lands in the state. They were mostly composed of Hitchiti-speaking Creeks and Uchees, who did not feel a strong affinity toward Muskogee-speaking Creeks. The Itstate (Hitchiti) speaking Creeks had originally been the vast majority in Georgia, but through assimilation and relocation to Florida, they had become a minority by 1800.
Throughout the 1800s, the largest of these Creek communities was inside the Okefenokee Swamp near Waycross, GA. As will be explained below, they could not hold legal title to their swampy islands. When a huge timber company from the Northeast filed quit claim deeds on their island farms in the 1890s, the “Ware County Indians” as they were called, were powerless to protect their property rights. By the time I was growing up in Waycross in the 1950s, these Creeks were called “Swamp Rats.” Their role in Southeast Georgia society was then “go-betweens” between African Americans laboring in the turpentine plantations and the white management. My mother was terrified that neighbors would find out that she was from a Creek family in Northeast Georgia. It is a world that has indeed, Gone with the Wind.
Oketeyeconne is the Anglicization of the Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek words Okvte Ekoni, which mean “Water People – Land of.” The Okvte were originally located on the Oconee River in Northeast Georgia. They were visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in April of 1540. The Spanish chroniclers called them the Ocute. Okvte is pronounced Ō: käu : tē.
Echete (word used on many 18th century maps) is the Anglicization of Itsate, which means Itza (Maya) People. Itsate is pronounced Ĭt : jzhä : tē. The word was further Anglicized in the early 1800s to become Hitchiti. Today, even Caucasian academicians, who present themselves as experts on the Hitchiti Creeks, are completely unaware that Echete and Hitchiti are English words, not Muskogean, which prove the partial Itza Maya ancestry of Georgia Creeks.
An ancient heritage
Oketeyeconne was on an ancient Native American town site that was first occupied around 1000 BC by people of the Deptford Culture. The Mandeville Site located there was merely the “downtown” of a cluster of single mound towns or smaller villages that were clustered together along this section of the Chattahoochee River. The occupants before 1700 are believed by anthropologists to be the ancestors of the Apalachicola Branch of the Creek People.
The town first appeared on Colonial maps in 1721. Colonel William Barnwell drew a map of the Lower Southeast that showed Echete (Itsate-speaking (Hitichiti) Creeks) at that location, while the Oconees (Okvte) were farther upstream in the vicinity of present day Columbus. Itsate is a language that includes Muskogean, Itza Maya, Totonac and Panoan (Peru) words. It was the predominant Native American language in what is now Georgia. A dialect of Itsate was spoken by the Okvte. Itsate is also what the Itza Mayas call themselves.
In 1799 Benjamin Hawkins, the United States Superintendent for Indian Affairs south of the Ohio River, described the settlement as being “a nice town settled on good land with room for livestock”. He considered it an ideal location for adopting European-American farming techniques.
The Okvte lost their lands on the Oconee River in the Treaty of 1805. By then, however, most were already living on the Chattahoochee River or in Florida. In 1812 war broke out between the majority faction of the Creek Confederacy, which favored continued alliance with the United States, and the Red Stick Faction, which had allied itself with the British and hostile Shawnees in the Midwest. Throughout 1812 and most of 1813, the Itsate Creeks in Southwest Georgia remained allies of the United States. In fact they furnished soldiers to an army formed by the State of Georgia, which invaded Red Stick territory in Alabama.
However, during 1813 the Itsate Creeks experienced an increasing number of raids on their farms by Georgia militia units and bands of Cracker bushwhackers. Livestock was stolen. Creek women were raped and farm buildings were burned.
In 1813, troops from Tennessee won victories against the Red Sticks and burned all Creek villages that they encountered. Refugees poured into the Itsate lands along the Chattahoochee River . . . especially after the Red Stick’s catastrophic loss at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. There were food shortages because of the refugees and raids on “Friendly Creek” farms. The leaders of the “Friendly” Creeks in Southwest Georgia appealed to Andrew Jackson for food and protection from bushwhackers, but Jackson refused to help.
At this time, William and Thomas Perryman became leaders of the war faction of the Lower Creeks and Seminoles. Their settlement, known as Perryman, on the Chattahoochee above the Flint, became headquarters for the Hostile Creeks in Georgia. Their relative, James Perryman, was chief of Oketeyeconne. Simultaneously, the British were planning an invasion of the Southeastern States via the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers. The first section of the river system was under Spanish control and the remainder of the river was mostly in Creek territory, with the headwaters being in Cherokee territory.
Meanwhile the War of 1812 was not going well for the United States. Napoleon had been defeated and crack troops from the Iberian Peninsula Campaign were now available for service in North America. Washington, DC had been burned and British rangers were able to strike a will along the poorly defended coastlines of the United States.
The Itsate Creeks grievances and denied request for aid suggested to the British high command a strategy of using groups such as Indians, slaves, and pirates in the Gulf region to divert American forces from Canada. The Creeks indicated that contact could be maintained with Four Nations – Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees – from Apalachicola Bay. Thus the Chattahoochee became central to British invasion plans. Upon arrival with munitions at Apalachicola in May 1814, the British found many starving Red Stick refugees, who had come there following their defeat by Jackson at Horseshoe Bend in March.
Men from Oketeyeconne were prominent among those being armed. Benjamin Hawkins reported: “They (the British) gave four kegs of cartridges of 100 lbs each to Oketeyeconne and Tuttallossee and some arms, short rifles and others.” Andrew Jackson already had in his possession a map drawn by four agronomists, which recommended the Lower Chattahoochee River Basin as an ideal location for cotton plantations. Receiving such reports, Jackson demanded a huge land cession, mostly from his Lower Creek allies, with the line strategically located just south of Oketeyeconne.
Oketeyeconne never was actually involved in warfare with United States troops. Its Itsate (Hitchiti)-speaking citizens did not really want to be part of the Muskogee-dominated Creek Confederacy. When all remaining Creek lands in Georgia were ceded in 1827, the majority of Oketeyeconne’s residents requested to become citizens of Georgia. They were granted allotments in their community.
During the Civil War, the residents of Oketeyeconne were divided in their affiliations, siding with both the CSA and the Union. The majority of the town’s residents were descendants of people who had requested become state citizens in exchange for being allowed to stay. The remainder were mixed-blood Creeks, who had moved there to be around their own people. The Muskogee-speaking Creeks generally sided with the Union during the Civil War. Descendants of the Itsate-speaking majority bore grudges from the brutal treatment of their Seminole relatives in Florida by the US Army, during the Seminole Wars. They tended to side with the Confederacy.
Throughout the the remainder of the 19th century and until World War II, the anonymous Creeks and Uchees living in “Indian friendly” rural communities around South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida would travel to other Creek-Uchee communities in the region to find spouses, since they were often closely related to their neighbors. My own ancestors in Ruckers Bottom on the Savannah River, time and time again, traveled as much as 165 miles to another Creek-Uchee community, when it came time to find a wife or husband. They quietly maintained their Muskogean identity without appearing to be a threat to the white majority.
Forced removal . . . yet again
White politicians in Georgia’s various state capitals never allowed the people of Oketyeconnne to incorporate. However, they were generally accepted by the other residents of Clay County, where they lived. In the eyes of the United States government, the Creek People of Oketeyeconne became full citizens of the United States and Georgia in 1827. Georgia’s planter aristocracy saw things differently. Until newly elected Governor Jimmy Carter demanded their removal in 1971, there were still laws in the Official Code of Georgia, which forbade American Indians from voting, holding public offices, being in law enforcement, attending public schools, owning real estate, being in a licensed profession or testifying in court on their own behalf.
After World War II, the federal government announced that the bottomlands, where the Oketyeconne Creeks lived, were going to be purchased in advance of the construction of Lake Walter F. George flooding that section of the Chattahoochee Valley. Following authorization by Congress for land acquisition and dam construction in 1947, the federal government began pressuring Creeks living on the Chattahoochee River north of Fort Gaines to accept paltry sums of money for their property.
From the early days of the Roosevelt Administration, it was the policy of the Federal government to relocate and rebuild existing towns from the areas that were to be flooded by federally-funded reservoirs. Even cemeteries were carefully relocated to dry land. That was the policy followed in Georgia . . . except for the several Creek and African-American villages located in river bottomlands. Their residents received minimal payments for their property and were expected to find a place to live and a farm to work on, as best they could. Transplanted whites got new land, new houses and new barns.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers did not actually start construction of the dam at Oketyeconne until 1957. The dam on the river about a mile south of the community. Between 1957 and 1962, 46,000-acre Walter F. George Lake was developed north of the dam by the same name. The lake opened for use in 1963.
A state historic marker on dry land remembers the presence of Oketeyeconne, but its former residents have scattered to the winds. Some moved across the river into Alabama, where their descendants are now members of the state-recognized Eufaula Creek Tribe. Ironically, Eufaula Town was originally not Muskogean, but a Satipo (Panoan-Peruvian) town on the Atlantic Coast near present day Brunswick, GA. Life moves on.
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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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