Sir William Berkeley and the Ethnic Cleansing of the Southeast
Article published in Virginia Magazine – 8/27/2007
The association of the name, William Berkeley, with the Native American history of the Lower Southeast came as a complete surprise to me. While living in Northwestern Virginia, I had become vaguely aware of a Royal Governor named Berkeley, who was involved in some ancient event known as “Bacon’s Rebellion,” but the focus of my professional practice was Northwestern Virginia’s architectural legacy dating between 1740 and the Civil War. The 17th Century history of Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge, seemed irrelevant.
In late 2006, I was just wrapping up 3 years of research into the indigenous peoples of the Southern Highlands. In addition to the standard book and internet exploration, I had visited dozens of archaeological sites and hiked literally hundreds of miles on vestiges of the aboriginal trails. There were still some unanswered questions remaining. One of these was, “Who were the Westo Indians?” Further investigation led to Virginia and the name, William Berkeley. The more I learned about Berkeley, the more obvious it became that his activities as a twice-appointed royal governor, and also as, a planter-entrepreneur, had an enormous influence on the Southeastern United States up to this day
The Westo Indians
During the later half of the 16th Century, the indigenous population of the Lower Southeast declined by about 90-95% – primarily due to Spanish-borne diseases, but in some cases, Spanish weapons. The survivors ceased to build mounds, became more egalitarian societies, and generally moved farther away from the Spanish garrisons and missions in Coastal Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. By the mid-17th Century indigenous populations were rebounding, primarily due to the greater per capita availability of animal protein and fertile bottomland fields.
Then catastrophe struck in 1660. Out of nowhere, Algonquian-speaking raiders, armed with British muskets, attacked the Muskogean farmers in South Carolina and Georgia. The adult Muskogean males and infants were killed or tortured outright. Young women and children old enough to walk, were shackled, and marched back to Virginia to be sold at slave markets. After English settlers arrived in the Carolinas a decade later, the Native American slaves were also sold in coastal Carolina slave markets. Between 1684 when the Cherokees first make their appearance into documented history, and 1720, Native American slaves were their primary source of trade income. Native American slavery declined after 1720. The English colonies even issued special brands to each Cherokee band so that authorities could make proper payment for branded Native American slaves after their delivery to coastal marketplaces. No contemporary ethnologist has ever ascertained to which ethnic group the Westo raiders belonged, although most textbooks now vaguely remark that they were a tribe from Virginia.
The English had institutionalized and greatly expanded the intermittent enslavement of natives begun by the Spanish. It has been recently estimated that over 600,000 Southeastern Native Americans were enslaved between 1521 and 1776. Adult Native American slaves would often escape Virginia plantations unless their toes were cut off. After African slaves became more readily available in the late 1600s, the Native slaves were primarily traded on the docks for African slaves; thereafter shipped to Caribbean plantations, where they endured short, brutal lives. The Native slaves retained by planters in Virginia and the Carolinas came to be primarily used for either breeding winter tolerance into Africans, or as house servants and concubines.
William Berkeley, the Governor
Sir William Berkeley was born in Hanworth Manor, Middlesex in 1605 and died in London in 1677. In 1642 he was appointed Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia by King Charles I. In 1644 he returned to England to fight on the side of the Cavaliers in the English Civil War. He sailed back to Virginia the next year to lead the force fighting the Openchoncanough Indian Uprising. In 1652 a naval force, loyal to Oliver Cromwell, deposed Berkeley from office, but he continued to live in Virginia and concentrated his energies on building up his wealth. Charles II reappointed Berkeley to be governor in 1660 in gratitude for the cavalier’s service to his beheaded farther. Berkeley was generally a successful governor until around 1675 when tensions between the coastal planters and mountain frontiersmen worsened. Berkeley’s slow response to Indian massacres along the frontier led to a revolt by frontiersmen, led by Nathanial Bacon. The Baconites were initially successful, but arms from England enabled Berkeley’s followers to eventually get the upper hand. Berkeley’s mass executions and brutal handling of captured rebels resulted in his impeachment from office and return to England in 1676.
Berkeley’s aristocratic political leanings are best evidenced by this statement made in 1671:
I thank God, there are no free schools, nor printing; and I hope we shall not have these for a hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.
William Berkeley, the Indian Trader and Entrepreneur In 1634, 200 Rickohocken warriors left their “capital” near the Peaks of the Otter in southwestern Virginia and participated in the Powhatan War on the side of the Powhatans. The principal Rickohocken village was named “Ottari” which means “high place” in a Cherokee dialect. The Virginians knew nothing about them, but were terrified by their military skills. In 1656 the Rickohockens sent a much larger force that ravaged many of the farmsteads of the James River Valley all the way to the coast. They were eventually defeated because of depleted food supplies and the superiority of the English firearms over arrows.
Governor Samuel Mathews sent a delegation to Ottari, which probably included former Governor William Berkeley, or one of his employees. Berkeley had a plantation on the James River and had grown wealthy from the Indian slaves, fur & deerskin trade. The delegation determined that the Rickohocken were part of an Algonquian tribe that had formerly lived farther north and had been pushed southward by the Iroquois. Other branches of the tribe lived in the Allegheny Mountains of what is now West Virginia and Kentucky. That is the same area from which Berkeley obtained his furs, slaves & deer skins.
That description of the Rickohockens matches exactly the most common ethnological description on the origin of the Cherokee Indians. They are believed to be a branch of the Delaware Tribe, that probably formerly lived in the Northern Shenandoah Valley. Attacks by enemy tribes divided the Cherokees into three separated bands, which were driven southward and westward by the Iroquois to the point where they could no longer maintain communication with the Delaware, and often, not even with each other. At the time of first English contact with the Cherokees in North Carolina (c. 1684) they were divided into three bands speaking 14 dialects – many of which were mutually unintelligible.
In 1656 also, Oliver Cromwell died, and the English Commonwealth was overthrown by Royalists. As a reward for Berkeley’s past loyalties to his father, King Charles II subsequently named him one of eight Lord Proprietors of the Colony of Carolina, which consisted of what is now North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. It contained no English communities, but there were some Spanish missionaries and garrisons in the lower part of what is now Georgia, plus some transient Indian fur traders in the Carolinas. The Royal Proprietors planned to become unimaginably wealthy by subdividing and selling their eight “duchies” into feudal estates with titled nobility. The many Muskogean towns & farms could get in the way of their schemes.
After being reappointed governor, Berkeley stacked the new Royalist Assembly and Governor’s Council with wealthy planters. In 1660, he then pushed through laws, which officially recognized the institution of slavery and codified laws removing any legal rights from slaves. Up to that time, Native American and African slaves were theoretically bond-servants. Technically, just like the Anglo-Celtic bond servants, they could walk away from the plantation, free men and women after their fixed period of servitude had expired. The new laws treated these unfortunate humans as personal property that could held in perpetual slavery and traded like livestock. Their offspring were also automatically slaves until death. Slavery would continue to be legal in Virginia for over 200 more years.
In 1657, only one year after their destructive raids on the Lower James River, large bands of Rickohocken warriors were armed with firearms by Berkeley and sent southward to capture slaves for Virginia’s tobacco plantations. The raiders quickly grew wealthy (by Indian standards) from the slave trade. Now probably calling themselves the Westo Indians, they attacked the large Hitchiti-speaking towns within the interior of what is now Georgia in 1659. As yet there is still no “official” explanation as to how the “Westo” name was acquired. From bases in the Carolina Mountains they swept down into the Piedmont and Low Country – quickly depopulating the prime agricultural bottomlands. Within a few years, there were no large towns still occupied.
The following year, many Rickohockens returned to the region along with their families and some female Muskogean slaves. They set up villages along the middle Savannah River, from where they could probe even farther west, and sell their slaves directly to the English on the coast. After the Charlestowne Colony was finally settled in 1670, its aristocratic leaders initially collaborated with the Westos for twenty years in order to obtain slaves for their new rice, indigo and sugar plantations.
It is theorized that one of the primary reasons that Berkeley refused in 1675 to authorize large scale resistance to Indian raids on the Virginia frontier, was his long time business relationship with the three branches of the Rickohockens. Perhaps the Rickohockens were involved in these raids, or even encouraged to attack frontiersmen by Berkeley. By this time Berkeley had become extremely wealthy from the Native American slave trade. He really did not want Englishmen to settle in the region near his Indian trading partners, and thus was indifferent to their suffering. Nathanial Bacon’s perception of Berkeley’s callousness was accurate.
The Westo raids became increasingly disruptive to the expansion of the colony in the late 1670s. Around 1680 the South Carolina government cut a deal with the Savannah Indians (Shawnee) living at the lower end of the Savannah River. They armed and reinforced the Savannah’s, while cutting off the supply of munitions to the Westos. The Savannah’s destroyed the Westo villages and killed many of the Westo warriors.
There is no mention of the once large Rickohocken Tribe in Virginia’s colonial records after 1684. According to “Virginia Crossroads” published by the Virginia Department of Education, most ethnologists (and also Virginians in the 18th Century) considered the Rickohocken Tribe to be the same as the Cherokees – or perhaps one of the tribes that joined together to form the Cherokees. The official stance of the State of North Carolina is, however, that the Cherokees have been in North Carolina for at least 1000 years. About ten years after the Westo & Rickohocken names disappeared in the Southeast, diplomatic contact began between the colonial governments and tribal bands names similar to the word “Cherokee.” This gets confusing, though, because “Chorakee” and “Chilikee” are both Creek words.
In the late 20th century, some ethnologists equated the Westos with the Yuchi, who were known to have lived on the Hiawassee River in Northern Georgia, Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. However, we now know that the Yuchi’s have lived on the Hiawassee for a long time. The Yuchi were known to wander far and wide. They were middle men in the regional trade networks among several Indigenous ethnic groups. They were known to have made numerous attacks against the Spanish in Florida and taken captives in battle, but they hated the English slave traders and were themselves, the victims of Rickohocken slave raids. They were framed in order to cover up British slave trading agreements with the Cherokee. The British continued to buy Native American slaves from the Cherokee until around 1756.
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