Origin of the Hillabee and Pee Dee Creek Indians
The Hillabee and Pee Dee Creeks were some of the first contemporary branches of the Creek People to be mentioned by 16th century Spanish explorers. However, Caucasian scholars today give them very little attention, and generally misstate their ethnic identity. Like the Tamatli, Tamahiti, Okonee, Kusa and Kusabo Creeks, surviving 16th century words and modern place names clearly link the Hillabee and Pee Dee with a dual Muskogean-Itza Maya ancestry. They were an Itstate-speaking people, who lived in northern South Carolina and the North Carolina Piedmont in the 1500s and 1600s . . . or may have in fact, originated in Georgia or Florida.
Authoritative sources in Alabama and Oklahoma label the Hillabees as a former, minor division of the Muskogee Creeks’s. South Carolina scholars label them a Siouan tribe. North Carolina maintains a Pee Dee culture’s talula (district administrative center in Itsate) as its only state-owned mound center. The site on the confluence of the Little River and Town Creek is now called Town Creek Mound State Historic Site. Georgia scholars don’t write about the Hillabee Creeks very much, even though they lived much the longer in their state than the Cherokees.
We first hear about the ancestors of these modern tribes in the chronicles of the Captain Juan Pardo Expedition, written by Juan de la Bandera. The Spanish colony of Santa Elena was starving, because everybody wanted be a hidalgo and have serfs do all their physical labor. In 1567, Pardo headed north up the Wataree River then due east to the Pee Dee River Basin, in an attempt to persuade the advanced native people there to give food to the Spaniards. Pardo went to Alape (Ilape in Castilian) the great capital of the Vehete (Vehidi in Castilian and English) where he met with its leaders. The men he met were oratv (orata) who were actually middle-level appointed functionaries, but Pardo called them caciques or tribal kings. He was promised some food then returned to the Watari People, where he built a fort.
The origin of the the town name, Ilape or Halape is not certain. Hvlapa or Alvpa was a word for alligator in Itstate. The archaic Mvskoke (Muskogee) word for alligator was Hvlpa or Vlpa. If the name of the capital town of the Vehete meant “alligator,” it strongly suggests that the original home of the Vehete was in southern Georgia or Florida.
Vehete meant “people who have bows and arrows” in Itsate. In contemporary Oklahoma Muskogee, it is a little used adjective meaning “armed.” Vehete is the origin of the word, “Pee Dee.” English colonists in South Carolina wrote down an Itsate “v” as a “p” and an Itstate “p” as a “b”. Muskogeans pronounce their “t” halfway between a “t” and a “d.” Most early Spanish and English explorers wrote down a Muskogean “t” as a “d.” Thus on the frontier, Vehete, became Pehedee and eventually Pee Dee. The “te” suffix is Itza Maya and means “people” or “ethnic group.”
The name, Vehete, suggests that they were an aggressive ethnic group of hybrid Muskogean-Maya origin with superior weapons that pushed northward into the headwaters of the Pee Dee River and its tributaries. This region was probably occupied by Siouans at the time. The Town Creek Mound site was heavily fortified and may represent the northern extent of Muskogean territorial acquisition.
Some bands of Vehete began migrating southwestward into present day Georgia in response to Spanish diseases and abuse. This movement continued into the 1660s & 1670s, when Rickohocken raiders, armed with arqubuses staged repeated slave raids. An alternative explanation is that the Vehete originated in Georgia and that the settlements along the Pee Dee River in North Carolina and South Carolina were actually colonies. Whatever the case, by the late 1600s British traders called the Muskogeans in northern South Carolina, the Pee Dees, and a branch of the new Creek Confederacy in northern Georgia, the Hillabee , while Vehete in southern Georgia were called the Alapa.
The Alapaha River in southwest Georgia gets its name from the hybrid Itstate-Itza Maya word, Alapa-ha, which means, “Alapa River.” The Muskogee-Creek Dictionary tells us that Alapa was the old name for the Hillabee Creeks in Georgia. “Ha” is the Itza Maya word for water or river. The authors of the Wikipedia articles on the Hillabee Creeks and the Alapaha River tell us that the origins of the words are unknown.
There is another excavated archaeological site in North Carolina that was probably also occupied by the Vehete. It shares many cultural and architectural traits with the larger Town Creek site. It is a small village known as the Berry Site with a single three feet high mound, located in Burke County, NC (Upper Piedmont.) North Carolina archaeologists and Wikipedia calls this small site the location of the great city of Joara (pronounced Wara) also visited by Juan Pardo. Retired Georgia archaeology professor, Charles Hudson, assumed that the Berry Site was also the village of Suala, visited by de Soto in the spring of 1540. This assumption was based on the assumption that a two foot high Woodland Period mound on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville was the site of the “Cherokee” town of Guaxale (Guaxule, Guasile, etc.) In contrast, the great ethnologist, John Swanton, wrote that the region around the Berry Site was Yuchi until occupied by white settlers in the mid-1700s.
The real Joara was the only community in South Carolina that de la Bandera labeled a city (pueblo.) It was described as having many large temples, wide plazas and broad streets. It was at the foot of a stone-walled canyon where two rivers gushed out of high mountains. There is absolutely nothing about the Berry Site that is similar to this description.
The Pee Dees and Hillabees Today
In 1814, the Treaty of Fort Jackson seized all of the Creek lands in southern Georgia, even though the Itsate (Hitchiti) speaking Creeks there were allies of the United States in the War of 1812. The reason was that the faction led by William McIntosh was composed of Muskogees, who traded off Itstate lands to preserve Muskogee lands (for a few years) in west-central Georgia. The majority of Alapa Creeks in southern Georgia, either migrated to Florida and became associated with the Seminole Alliance or they assimilated into dominant culture in Georgia.
During the late 1600s another town mentioned by the 16th century Spanish, Katapa (Katvpa in Itsate) formed an alliance of the remnant Native peoples living along the Wataree and Pee Dee Rivers that included the Siouan speaking, Issa. Katvpa is an Itsate Creek – Itza Maya word, meaning “Place of the Crown.” Some Pee Dee towns also joined this alliance. Catapa has no meaning in the aberrant Siouan language spoken by the contemporary Catawba Indians. We know from the journal of English explorer, John Lawson, in 1700 that the Santee-Wataree River system was occupied by many ethnic groups, speaking many mutually unintelligible languages. At that time, the Pee Dee, Catawba and the Issa were three distinct ethnic groups, speaking different languages. There was another large Katapa (Catawba) province north of present day Atlanta, GA until after the American Revolution. Georgia historians and anthropologists ignore their presence, but check the maps, if you don’t believe me. Those Katapa were Creek language speakers and members of the Creek Confederacy, who then moved downstream on the Chattahoochee River after the Revolution.
Non-stop wars with the Iroquois and the Cherokees, plus numerous horrific plagues caused the once powerful, South Carolina Katapa Alliance to decline to about 400 persons by 1775 [John Swanton: The Indian Tribes of North America.] After a 99% decline in population the language of the Katapa alliance could have easily evolved to the predominant language of its few survivors, which was a mixture of several tongues.
Most Pee Dee Creeks eventually migrated to Georgia and became associated of the Creek Confederacy. Here they were called Hillabee Creeks. Most were forced on the Trail of Tears, but some descendants remain in Georgia and Alabama. The Hillabee Tribal Town in Oklahoma is a member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. In the past, it has petitioned to be recognized as a separate tribe by the federal government.
The Pee Dee Creeks who stayed in South Carolina were mixed-bloods, who soon lost almost all of their original cultural traditions. For many generations they were aware of their Native American ancestry, but were forced to keep a low cultural profile in order to survive in a society dominated by planters and slave-owners.
In the late 20th century, some South Carolina Pee Dees formed localized tribes and received state recognition. There are currently four recognized Pee Dee tribes, and some non-recognized ones in North Carolina. South Carolina anthropologists told them that they were Siouans. This is still stated on the official webpage of Sciway.
Something very sad resulted from the misinformation provided by the anthropology professors. Not realizing that Southern Siouans and Northern Plains Siouans were entirely different cultures, some South Carolina Pee Dees began wearing Lakota Sioux war bonnets or (if female) Plains Indian dresses.They gave themselves Lakota names and sincerely began learning Lakota dances and beliefs.
North Carolina anthropologists originally described Town Creek Mound as being occupied by Muskogeans invading from the north. The archaeological site’s museum and literature stated that the village was built by a branch of Creek Indians until the late 1990s. Because of political pressure from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the current exhibits and museum literature at Town Creek Mound State Historic Site are vague about the ethnicity of the Pee Dee Culture.
The Newspeak version of Native American history now adopted in North Carolina states that the Pee Dee Culture was part of the Appalachian Culture, and therefore, by inference, Proto-Cherokee. This label ignores the obvious cultural ties with the Muskogeans along the Pee Dee, just across the state line in South Carolina. Well, South Carolina anthropologists now label the Pee Dee as Siouans, but an artificial state boundary still defines the “scientific” interpretation of historical evidence.
Several years ago, I attended a Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Charlotte, NC. It was my first and last visit to this august body. All Saturday morning, the North Carolina archaeologists argued that Cofitachequi, the Berry Site and Town Creek Mound were Cherokee, while the South Carolina archaeologists argued back passionately that the same sites were Catawba! Cofitachequi is Castilian for the Itstate Creek words, Kofita Chiki, meaning “Royal House of the Mixed People.” As stated earlier, Catawba is the Anglicized form of the hybrid Itstate-Itza Maya words, “Place of the Crown.”
Fortunately, a lovely anthropologist from Cartagena, Colombia sat down beside me. She was as outraged by the butchering of Spanish pronunciations from a room full of Gringo Ph. D’s as I was, their gross ignorance of Muskogean language and culture. We both walked out together and spent the rest of the weekend visiting the Smoky Mountains and McClung Museum in Knoxville. Unfortunately, she turned out to be engaged and was on a final fling before getting married to a member of a wealthy family in Colombia. A feller jest can’t get no respect!
The times are a-changing
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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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