State Government erased the Creeks, Shawnee, Koasati and Yuchi
How a state government erased the Creeks, Shawnee, Koasati and Yuchi from history
Early in my career, while serving as the first director of the Downtown Asheville Revitalization Commission, and later, as the first director of the Asheville-Buncombe County Historic Resources Commission I was eyewitness to callous fabrications of history whose impacts affect several Native American tribes and the archaeology profession to this day. Yes, I am proud to know that the beautiful Asheville you see today is the one I designed as a young man, but I also carry the knowledge that some of what students have been taught as the truth since then is unmitigated caca de toro. The disfranchisement of the Chickasaw, Shawnee, Koasati and Yuchi from the NAGPRA process and the diminished funding support for the Creek tribes were a direct result of those events.
This article is part of a 20-part series on the Native American history of the Southern Appalachians in my Native American history column in the Examiner. Many of you have complained about the viral advertising currently cluttering the Examiner, so I am making this particularly one available directly.
There is something very unusual about North Carolina geography that contemporary historians seem not to appreciate. Native American place names are endemic in the United States. In such states as Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Florida there are very few river names that don’t have a Native American origin.
If one looks at a map of North Carolina, a cluster of Native American place names appear on the coast in the vicinity of the Outer Banks and in the extreme western tip of the state, about 300 miles from the state capital at Raleigh. In between is the majority of the state’s land area that is virtually devoid of Native American place names or detailed Native American history.
There is a reason. Much of North Carolina landscape was swept of Native settlements before many settlers arrived. During the late 1600s, the northern mountain and Piedmont regions of the state were virtually depopulated by Rickohocken Indian slave raiders from southwestern Virginia. After the Tuscarora War ended in 1715 there were few direct contacts between British settlers and indigenous peoples outside the extreme western mountains. In 1763 the Yuchi, Shawnee and Creek Indian communities in the state were evicted, while the Cherokees were pushed to North Carolina extreme western tip, where Cherokee and Graham Counties are now located. North Carolina had no extended contact period in which the newcomers learned the diverse cultures, languages and histories of the state’s many aboriginal tribes.
As a result, for North Carolinians, the word “Cherokee” has become almost synonymous with “Indian.” Many North Carolina county histories began with the statement, “Once the home of the Cherokee Indians . . . “ – when in fact the Cherokees never lived there. The Cherokee’s villages in North Carolina were concentrated in a narrow band that roughly paralleled the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers.
For example, official state and local histories of McDowell County, NC say that the county was originally occupied by Cherokee Indians. In the book, The Indian Tribes of North America, highly respected, Smithsonian Institute ethnologist, John W. Swanton, specifically described several large Yuchi Indian towns in present day McDowell County and said that the Yuchi’s occupied the region until white settlers arrived. Between the Yuchi’s and the Cherokee territory of the 1700s, was a broad swath of mountains occupied by Shawnees and Creeks until 1763. Henderson County, NC (south of Asheville) still states in its official history that Creek Indians were its original inhabitants, despite this being a violation of the state’s official policy.
In search of a history
By the late 20th century North Carolina academicians desperately wanted their state to have a Native American history. In 1955, prodigious author, Wilma Dykeman (later Stokely) wrote her first book, The French Broad River. She had grown up in the Beaverdam Community, north of Asheville, and was very familiar with the frontier tales passed down through the generations of mountain families. All assumed that the Cherokees had been the aboriginal inhabitants of the region. In her later years, I befriended Wilma while living in Asheville. She was a frequent customer of our goat cheese creamery!
Dykeman was unable to find any archival proof of a Cherokee presence in the Asheville area. The only recorded Indian village in the Asheville area was a Shawnee village located on the Swannanoa River, where the Biltmore Village shopping district is now situated. The 213 mile length of the French Broad River only contains two Native American place names, both of them Creek Indian in origin. There is the town of Etowah, near Hendersonville, NC and the Swannanoa River (Shawnee River in Muskogee-Creek) near Asheville.
There were NO Native American place names in the mountains north of Asheville and all those due south of Asheville were Creek words. Surprisingly, about 80% of the relatively few Native American place names in all of the North Carolina Mountains are Creek or Maya words that have no meaning in Cherokee, other than being proper nouns. That includes the main river through the Cherokee Reservation, the Oconaluftee. That comes from the Itsate-Creek words Okvne lufte, which mean “Oconee People, cut off.”
Unable to find any historical records about a Cherokee presence in Asheville, Dykeman pulled the names of two Shawnee villages with Creek names that are mentioned in the De Soto Chronicles. The 1725 map of western North Carolina shows them as being on the Little Tennessee River between present day Franklin, NC and Bryson City, NC. In English they were called Conestee and Conasaugua. Their real names were Koneste and Konosawagi. Wilma placed them vaguely on the French Broad River near Asheville.
In the years since then, I have run across numerous books and archaeological reports that quote Wilma Dykeman’s book as an authoritative reference on Native American history in the Appalachians. She was a brilliant woman, but the truth was that her first book was much more of a novel then people realize.
Cherokee History Project
In 1975 a team of historians and anthropologists at the University of North Carolina were given a grant by the state to prove that the Cherokees had been in North Carolina for at least 1000 years. There was to be no mention of the Creeks, Shawnee, Koasati and Yuchi living in North Carolina. That approach may work for government departmental administrators, but to first design a state’s history then instruct researchers to provide proof of it, is not exactly considered scientific methodology.
Explorers Johann Lederer and John Lawson, who explored the Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains in 1669 and 1700 respectively, made no mention of the Cherokees. No European maps show the word Cherokee or Charaqui until 1717. All French maps before that time showed western North Carolina occupied by several branches of the Creek Indians, the Shawnee, the Koasati and the Yuchi. France claimed the region until 1763, hence the name, French Broad River.
By the time I got to Asheville, the Cherokee History Project had been adopted literally as the law by the North Carolina General Assembly. Those of us on the planning staff immediately recognized the stark conflicts between what the professors in Chapel Hill wrote and what was on our colonial era maps and archaeological site files.
After official adoption of the Cherokee History Project in 1976, North Carolina students, including Cherokees and anthropology majors, were taught that the Cherokees had occupied all of the North Carolina Mountains and Upper Piedmont for at least 1000 years in the past, perhaps 10,000 years.
In the four decades since this study, this inaccurate version of history has permeated literature because historians and anthropologists typically cite each other as references rather than going back to primary historical evidence, such as colonial maps. To confront North Carolina scholars with the facts of how their current Native American history came about is to them an act of heresy. It is like telling medieval clergymen that the world is round.
Anthropologists at the University of North Carolina and archaeologist Roy Dickens of Georgia soon labeled the first proto-Cherokees to occupy the North Carolina Mountains, the Conestee Culture. The good professors really should have borrowed someone’s Creek dictionary before making that profound decision. Conestee means “Skunk People” in the Itsate-Creek language. The word has no meaning in Cherokee. It still causes Creek Indians in Georgia to roll in the floor laughing.
One of the more interesting 21st century impacts of the Cherokee History Project is the change in the exhibits and literature at Town Creek Mounds in south-central North Carolina. It is the only Native American village site owned by the state. The heavily fortified village was abandoned around 1400 AD.
For decades, the inhabitants of this Mississippian village were described as Creek Indians, who pushed up the Pee Dee River from South Carolina into Siouan territory. Now the archaeological site is presented as an eastward extension of the “Appalachian Mississippian Culture” even though its architecture, pottery and art are clearly related to proto-Creek provinces to the south. The implication now is that Town Creek was built by the Cherokees. Probably, within a decade that statement will be released to the press as a new discovery.
De Soto slept here
Into this intellectual terra incognito, freshly varnished with bureaucratic authenticity, crept a team of professors from the Universities of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. They were going to find the definitive route for Hernando de Soto’s journey through the Southeast in the early 1540s. One evening in the 1980s the academic group roared into Asheville; spent the night then made a presentation to a breakfast meeting of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. They described their newly confirmed route of de Soto through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.
My immediate impression was that these professors didn’t have a clue about the actual topography of the North Carolina Mountains or the time spans of known archaeological sites. They obviously had made their conclusions based on the study of highway maps in academic offices. This was confirmed when some of them came to my office so I could show them our inventory of colonial maps and site files. None were aware that Shawnees, Creeks, Koasati and Yuchi had occupied Western North Carolina in the 1700s.
Later that morning, officials of the Asheville-Buncombe Historic Resources Commission and the Western District Office of the state’s Historic Preservation Office informed the professors that there were no occupied Native American villages in the French Broad Valley during the period that de Soto and Pardo explored the Southeast. Our archaeologists believed that around 1500 the French Broad Valley had become a no-man’s land between two hostile Native American provinces.
The professors ignored the advice and that afternoon announced at a press conference on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate that de Soto had stayed in what is now Asheville on his journey. Dr. Charles Hudson stated that a lump in a pasture on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate was the site of Guaxule, the ancient capital of the Cherokees and that an island in the French Broad River downstream was the site of Chiaha.
Guaxule is the Castilian spelling of the Creek word Wvhvle, which means “southerners.” It was generally applied to the occupants of Florida or the Yucatan Peninsula, and is the source of the name of the Spanish province on the coast of Georgia, Guale. Chiaha was always located on an island in the Little Tennessee River until moving to southwest Georgia in the early 1700s to escape the Cherokees. There are no Cherokee words mentioned in the De Soto Chronicles.
In a matter of days, the Asheville Chamber initiated an ad campaign and new motto, “Asheville, Ancient Heart of the Great Cherokee Nation.” A historical marker was placed on Biltmore Avenue in Downtown Asheville which announced that “de Soto came through here.” To this day, many references, including Wikipedia, state that de Soto passed through Asheville, even though the De Soto Route team later changed their mind.
When finally published, Hudson’s book on de Soto had a different route which did not go through Asheville, but through the northwestern corner of North Carolina. This was done so that a two bit Native American village site in Burke County, NC with a tiny, three feet high mound, could be labeled the great city of Joara visited by Juan Pardo. Absolutely, nothing about the Berry Site in North Carolina matches the Spanish description of Joara. Joara is not mentioned by the de Soto Chronicles anyway. However, that Joara was located in Burke County permeates all references. That is what you will read in Wikipedia.
In 1990 the U. S. Department of the Interior created a map of traditional Native American tribal areas that in the Southeast was heavily influenced by the books by Roy Dickens and members of the De Soto Route Study Group. Because of political influence by North Carolina and the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the presence of Creeks, Shawnee, Koasati, Yuchi and Siouans in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee were erased from the history books. The bureaucrats labeled a massive seven state territory as being occupied by the Cherokees in the 1500s. The initial NAGPRA map showed all of Georgia to have been Cherokee at the time of European Contact. The revised map used today shows all of northern Georgia, including Etowah Mounds, to have been always occupied by the Cherokees. The last two tracts in western Georgia ceded by the Creek Nation is the only territory in Georgia that is shown as being traditionally Creek.
Federally recognized Alabama, Koasati, Chickasaw and Shawnee tribes have been completely disfranchised from NAGPRA review of their former town sites in the Southeast. The two federally recognized Creek tribes only have jurisdiction over a small fraction of their original territory. The size of territorial responsibility directly affects grants made by the Department of Interior to support Tribal Historic Preservation Offices. The Muscogee-Creek Nation has undoubtedly been short-changed well over a million dollars since the NAGPRA maps took effect.
In 2003 archaeologists from Appalachian State University excavated the Biltmore Mound site. It wasn’t much . . . an 18 inches high – 50 feet diameter bump. The professor-student team was initially excited about finding architectural proof of the Cherokee’s ancient civilization. What they found instead was that the mound was not even a mound. It was the ruins of a building. The organic residue from the structure was analyzed by equipment that measures the deterioration of Carbon 14 radioisotope absorbed by formerly living matter.
A large round structure had first been built there around 200 AD. Approximately every 50 years until around 450 AD, the structure was rebuilt. A brightly colored clay cap was applied to the remains of the previous structure. After five reconstructions the combined clay caps probably reached the grand height of three feet. Artifacts found in the round structure were typical of those produced in the Middle Woodland Period (0-600 AD.) There was no budget to examine the area around the council house to determine if there was a village.
The “De Soto Slept Here” historical marker was quietly removed from Downtown Asheville. Trying to save what face the city could from the public relations fiasco, a young reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times announced that the Biltmore Mound was the oldest known Cherokee architecture in the world. An Appalachian graduate student was quoted as saying that their excavations proved that the Cherokees were the Conestee People. It is unlikely that he knew that Conestee means “Skunk People.”
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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