The Lower Cherokees . . . Who were they really? – Part One
Even today there are three Cherokee dialects. Once there were at least 14 languages and dialects spoken in the Cherokee Tribe. Some of the languages were mutually unintelligible.
The Lower Cherokees originally were an alliance of eight small villages located along the tributaries of the Savannah River in extreme northwestern South Carolina. It is very difficult to find factual information on them in immediately accessible sources, because late 20th century and 21st century pseudo-historians greatly altered the words and interpretation of events so they would be compatible with the “New Cherokee History”. . . the religious belief that the Cherokee People had lived in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, northern South Carolina and northern Georgia for “10,000 years.”
Indeed, many maps available on the web show the Cherokees traditionally occupying all of northern South Carolina since the Ice Age . . . most of which was the location of the Catawba Alliance. Needless to say, the Catawba Nation, which is South Carolina’s only federally recognized Native American tribe, is quite upset about this distortion of Catawba History. Catawba scholars are one of the few sources within South Carolina, where one can obtain untainted eyewitness historical accounts.
It is really odd how articles about the Lower Cherokees totally dominate any discussion of the Native American history of South Carolina. Their lands covered about 3% of the state and all archaeological studies in that territory identified the burning of large towns with mounds in the late 1600s up to 1700 . . . followed by occupants with cultural characteristics, typical of the Cherokees. The territories of the Cusabo and Creek tribes vastly exceeded those of the Cherokees, yet they are rarely mentioned. The Catawbas hardly get any more coverage even though they are the only federally-recognized tribe in the state. There were many advanced indigenous tribes throughout South Carolina associated with important archaeological sites, who are not even mentioned.
Until I was retained to do a small research job for the lady in Greenville, SC, I had never given much thought to the Lower Cherokees, since attending a conference on Early Cherokee History in 2006. As an Architect-Planner, my main focus has always been the study of the physical manifestations of indigenous culture at a macro-scale. I got into linguistics 14 years ago, because it was the only way that I could research the stark contrasts from what my research was revealing and that, which are taught by anthropology professors as orthodox facts.
What triggered this interest in linguistics was my realization that the houses at Etowah Mounds during the first phase of occupation were identical to traditional Totonac houses in the northern part of Vera Cruz State, Mexico. When I looked up the word for house in a Totonac dictionary, I was shocked to learn that the word for house in Totonac and Itza Maya was the same exact word, used for house by the Itsate Creeks, Florida Creeks and the Miccosukee . . . chiki. The Muskogee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Alabama word for house, choko, is the Itza Maya word for “warm.” I eventually was able to link most of the Itsate and Miccosukee words associated with agriculture, architecture, town planning, political offices, trade and writing to the Itza Maya language.
If, in the past, a million+ anthropologists, historians, linguists and even Creek Historic Preservation officials had missed this important connection to Mesoamerica, what else had they missed?
So . . . if your Native American ancestors moved from South Carolina to Georgia or Alabama, as you can see in the map above, the chances are very high that they were originally Creeks, Cusabos or Siouans. The Sokee joined the Cusabo Alliance and the Cusabo eventually moved to the Lower Chattahoochee River to join the Creek Confederacy, Actually, Catawba immigrants formed a tribal town in the Creek Confederacy that settled on the Chattahoochee River, also. So did the Savano (Southern Shawnee) and the Westo. South Carolina planters hated the Creeks because they gave sanctuary to runaway Native American and African slaves. Thus, there are many examples of Creeks and Cusabos calling themselves Cherokee to avoid persecution in South Carolina.
South Carolina anthropologists have committed some boo-boos, though. Pee Dee is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek word, vehete, which means “archers.” The capital of the Vehete was named Ilape. Both Vehete and Ilape are mentioned in the chronicles of the Captain Juan Pardo Expedition. The word, Ilape, evolved both into the current names of the Hillabee Creeks and the Alapaha River. Also, Santee is a Panoan word, not Siouan, and is used interchangeably with Sati. The Santee originated in Satipo Province, Peru.
Cherokee history that you rarely hear
One of my first clients after receiving a Masters degree in urban planning was the Qualla Housing Authority on the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation. At the time, tourists visiting the reservation were given brochures, which stated that the Cherokees arrived in the North Carolina Mountains only a short time before Europeans. “They found the region almost uninhabited and the mounds abandoned. Their first village was where the Qualla Reservation is today and the Cherokees have lived there ever since. Cherokees did not build any of the mounds, but built their townhouses upon them.” There was no mention of there being multiple Cherokee languages or multiple Cherokee traditions.
Of course, I now know that even this version of Cherokee history is more accurate than the official version today, but is still off base. According to “The History of the Cherokee People” by Principal Chief Charles Hicks , the Cherokees arrived at the edge of the North Carolina Mountains about the same time that the English arrived in the Southeast. Their first town was Big Tellico at the confluence of what is now called the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers. Cherokee scouts discovered that the “mound builders” living in the North Carolina Mountains had been greatly weakened by plagues. One by one the Cherokees attacked these towns. They either killed or drove off the “mound builders” then burned their temples on top of the mounds. Cherokee townhouses were then placed on top of the mounds.
Charles R. Hicks was the 1/4th or 1/8th Cherokee son of a Scottish trader at Tamatli, in the Andrews Valley northeast of present day Murphy. He owned one of the largest personal libraries in the United States! He was a brilliant man, yet even he did not know that Tamatli was a division of the Creek Confederacy, based in southeast Georgia. Actually, it is a pure Northern Chontal Maya word meaning “Trade – Place of.” Yes, that is the same “tli” suffix that you see at the end of many Aztec words.
A big surprise from the University of Tennessee
Just before attending this conference, I had been elevated from vice president to acting-president of the Georgia Trail of Tears Association, because the president had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Only a few months before, he had replaced the previous TOTA president, William Rogers (a citizen of the Cherokee Nation) who had died in a strange one car accident in downtown Riverdale, GA. The police conjectured that he had become unconscious after sneezing in 20 mph traffic. At the time, I knew less than 5% of what I know now about Southeastern Native American history. Guess, that made me “safe” because I was still somewhat an ignoramus.
The most interesting presentation was by a team of professors in anthropology, history and linguistics from the University of Tennessee. They stated that until the mid-1720s, what was to become the Cherokee Tribe were numerous tribes in a loose alliance that stretched across the Southern Highlands. They spoke several different languages and dialects even within Tennessee. The archaeologist stated that he had found significant evidence that the main body of “Cherokees” in northeastern Tennessee were originally entirely different ethnic groups in the 1600s. He found that the pottery and art that they created did not become similar until around 1700. His team could find no direct connection, artistically, between the Mississippian (Muskogean) peoples on the Little Tennessee River and the historic period Cherokees.
Colonel George Chicken’s visit to the Cherokees in 1725 encouraged them to strengthen central authority over the individual bands and towns. Sir Alexander Cuming’s visit in 1730 persuaded the Cherokees to recognize an “emperor” or principal chief for a single tribe. He met with delegates from most or all of the divisions of the Cherokees at Noquasee to create a real tribe. Several interpreters were required so that the delegates could understand each other. (The word Nikwasi was never used in 18th century documents.)
A history professor quoted the research of archaeologist John Worth, who had formerly worked for the Coosawattee Foundation in Northwest Georgia. Worth had investigated the Native American slave trade and discovered that the bands of the future Cherokees were the ”major players in the Native American slave trade” from around 1690 onward. Throughout the first half of the 18th century, the colonies of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina issued distinct branding irons for marking their slaves to 14 separate divisions of the Cherokees, so that they could get proper payment at coastal slave markets. This suggests that these 14 divisions were considered separate tribal and economic units.
The other history professor then stated that she strongly suspected that the original reason for these small tribes forming an alliance was as a defense against slave raids by the Iroquois and Rickohockens down into the Southeast or perhaps the chaos created by many small tribes constantly raiding each other to obtain slaves to sell to British slave traders.
I stood up and told her that I had formerly lived in Virginia and been Chairman of our city’s historic preservation commission. The Virginia state history text for over two centuries has always said that the Rickohockens were the original Cherokees. According to Virginia historians, the Rickohockens changed their name to Cherokees, because they were so hated by whites on the Virginia frontier and had formed an alliance with some other tribes. She responded that she had never heard that before.
The questions from the audience then tended to dwell on the Native American slave trade. One professor, I believe from Kentucky, stated that it was well-documented that the Cherokees raided other tribes as far west as the Mississippi River, as far north as the Great Lakes and as far south as southern Florida. “Were these raids actually slave raids to obtain captives for slave markets in the Carolinas and Virginia?”
The professor added that most sources never explained why the Cherokees were going such long distances to wage war on small tribes. It seemed illogical that they were going to Lake Erie to hunt for deer skins.
The male history professor said, “Yes, these were obviously slave raids.” He added that other tribes in the Southeast are known to have conducted slave raids. The Lower Creeks and Yamasee had virtually destroyed the mission system of Florida. However, geographically and numbers-wise, the other tribes’ activities were not on the scale of the Cherokees.
One could see grimaces on the faces of the officials at the conference from the Eastern Band of Cherokees during the first part of this presentation. Discussions of the Cherokees not really being a single ethnic group smacked right at their new claim of being in North Carolina for 10,000 years. I sensed that they were thinking, “Well these SOB’s won’t ever get a penny of our casino money again!” Someone came up to the moderator and handed him a note. He then ended the first phase of the UT presentation with the claim that they were running short of time.
The linguistics professors then spoke about their project, being funded by some private foundation (whose name I have forgotten), Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Eastern Band of Cherokees. It was an academic effort to recreate the lost “Cherokee dialects” of the Valley Cherokees and Lower Cherokees. Until that conference, I did not realize that there are, even today, three Cherokee dialects. Even the Cherokee scholars admitted that there were once two other Cherokee languages, Valley Cherokee and Lower Cherokee, which are now considered extinct.
The two professors first described the differences in the three dialects of Cherokee. This was interesting to me, but probably the Cherokees and wannabe Cherokees in the audience already knew this information.
When they got around to what they had been paid to research, the two ladies began going around in circles . . . quoting history and past studies in detail, but never actually discussing what they had been paid to research . . . namely the Valley Cherokee and Lower Cherokee equivalents of contemporary Cherokee words.
In the final section of their presentation, the professors listed all the “Cherokee” town names and political titles recorded by the chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition, while the conquistadors were in South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. They then listed all of the ancient divisions of the Cherokee People, such as Etowah, Chiaha, Oconee, Chauga, Tuskegee, Tallulah, Tugaloo, Tanasi, Tamatly, Tamasee, Oconee, Nikwasee, Naguchee, Oconaluftee, etc. which they had been unable to translate.
“Geez! These are all Creek words . . . several were actual tribal towns of the Creek Confederacy.” I stood up and told the audience that. I asked the professors, why they just didn’t go out and spend $28 for a Creek dictionary?
You could have heard a pin drop. Grimaces were followed by “the cat who ate the bird” smiles. Who is this crazy person? Everyone knows that Chiaha and Tuskegee are ancient Cherokee words.
The startled professors didn’t respond directly to my question. They then took authoritative postures and recounted all their years of education that made them experts on the subject and that I was not qualified to comment on their research.
After that conference, things got really strange at TOTA. Three months in a row, black SUV’s and pickups with North Carolina tags tried to run me off the road, while I was driving to preside at TOTA meetings. Then the night before the September meeting in Cumming, someone, somehow fried the electrical system and motors in my Explorer, while it was parked in front of my house. It would have cost much more to replace the wiring and motors in the car than it was worth. I had to buy a new car. Bye-bye TOTA.
In Part Two, the People of One Fire will go systematically through the colonial archives, which describe the observations of Europeans, who passed through northwestern South Carolina. Some of these stories, you will be familiar with . . . but not the actual facts. During the past three decades, Southeastern academicians edited these accounts by redacting certain ethnic groups and substituting words. Other accounts have never made it into the majority of history texts. What they tell us conflicts with the orthodox history of the Southeast.
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