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The Secret History of Florida’s Timucua “Tribe” . . . it never existed!

The Secret History of Florida’s Timucua “Tribe” . . . it never existed!

 

Until a very few years ago, references told readers that the Timucua Indians canoed to Northeastern Florida around 1000 to 1050 AD from somewhere in the Caribbean Basin.  Now Florida anthropologists are calling  Archaic and Woodland Period sites in that region, ” Timucuan.” Journalists in that part of Florida are now ascribing to the Tumucuans all the magical and master race qualities that journalists in North Carolina ascribe to the Cherokees.  Next thing you know, the Timucuans will be credited for inventing corn, beans, squash, pottery, transistors, Britney Spears and NASA space shuttles.

The museum at the National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological and Historical Reserve near Jacksonville, Florida forgets to tell you a critical bit of information.   Although the museum is filled with exhibits about the culture and history of the Timucua or Timucuan Tribe of Northeast Florida, there was never any tribe, anywhere that called itself by that name.  It was a word, coined by the Spanish in the late 1500s or early 1600s to describe a group of independent tribes in Northeast Florida and extreme Southeast Georgia, who to them, seemed to share similar cultural traits. 

Want a bigger shock?  All those 16th drawings and water colors that you see in the Timucuan Museum, such as the one above, portray Native peoples on the Georgia coast, who were the arch-enemies of the tribes in northeast Florida.  The remnants of these Georgia tribes either moved to the Chattahoochee River and became the Eufaula Creeks, or to Northeast Georgia.  Most of their descendants from both refuge areas eventually moved to Florida in the late 1700s and became some of the Seminoles!

The so-called Timucuan language was probably a trade jargon, used by these tribes, or else the language of one of the tribes, which the Spanish chose to label Timucuan.  If you look at the names of these tribes individually, they can be tied to various contemporary bands of Arawaks living in Venezuela or Guyana.  Each of these bands speak distinct dialects of Middle Arawak that are not necessarily mutually intelligible.

Below is everything that you ever wanted to know about the Timucua and Tama People, but were afraid to ask: 

Tamakoa

Native American tribe in Southeast Georgia

(Also see Sati, Timucua, Tamatli, Captain René de Laudonnière and Fort Caroline explorations)

 

Etymology:  Tamakoa is a hybrid word that combined the Totonac and Itza Maya word for trade, tama, with the Arawak word for people or tribe, koa.   It appears to be a generic term for people, who arrived on the South Atlantic Coast by sea and then later settled in the region.

Alternative spellings:  Thamagoa, Thamagona, Tamakoa, Timucua, Thamacoggin

Description:  For main discussion see Thamagoa and Timucua.

 Thamagoa

Native American tribe in Southeast Georgia

(Also see Sati, Tamakoa, Timucua, Tamatli, René de Laudonnière and Fort Caroline explorations)

 Etymology:  Thamagoa is a hybrid word that combined the Totonac and Itza Maya word for trade, tama, with the Arawak word for people or tribe, koaTama was pronounced as thama by the Sati (Panoan) peoples living on the coast of Georgia. Apparently, the indigenous peoples in Florida pronounced the word Tamakoa.   The French perceived the somewhat guttural “k” of the Panoans as a “g.”  The word, Thamagoa, may be the name of another people, given to them by the Sati.  One passage by Captain René de Laudonnière, commander of Fort Caroline, stated that the Sati people used Thamagoa as a word for “enemy”.  This suggests that it was a generic label for peoples, who spoke a different language than them.

Alternative spellings:  Thamagoa, Thamagona, Tamakoa, Timucua, Thamacoggin

Description:  The memoir of René de Laudonnière stated that there was a village of the Thamagoa about 21 miles up the May River, in a northwest direction from Fort Caroline.  They were arch-enemies of the Sati (Satouria in French) people at the mouth of the May River.

The Spanish immediately initiated occupation of the southern South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida Atlantic coast, immediately after the destruction of Fort Caroline.  Their primary motivation seems to have been to keep the French from returning, because the Province of La Florida was always an economic drain on the Spanish treasury.  Nevertheless, no Spanish maps or surviving archives mention the ethnic name, Thamagoa.  Timucua is the Hispanicization of Thamagoa, but no tribe in Florida ever called itself the Thamagoa or Timucua.  (See Timucua.)

Timucua

Spanish name for a group of indigenous provinces in NE Florida and SE Georgia

(Also see Tamakoa, Thamagoa, Tamatli, Captain René de Laudonnière and Fort Caroline explorations)

 Etymology:   Timucua is the Hispanicization of the Frenchification of the indigenous word, Tamakoa. Tamakoa is a hybrid word that combined the Totonac and Itza Maya word for trade, tama, with the Arawak word for people or tribe, koa.   It appears to be a generic term for people, who arrived on the South Atlantic Coast by sea and then later settled in the region.

Alternative spellings:  Timucua, Thamagoa, Thamagona, Tamakoa, Thamacoggin

Description:  No tribe or province in either Florida or Georgia ever called itself the Timucua.  The word is merely a Spanish version of the hybrid word Tamakoa, which means “Trade People.”   The only tribe that called itself Tamakoa lived on the Altamaha River in Georgia during the 1560s then moved northwestward into the interior of present day Georgia.  The word may have been a generic term for the non-Panoan peoples in northeast Florida and southeast Georgia, but this cannot be said for certain.

While the indigenous peoples of northeastern Florida did seem to have similar cultures in the late 1500s, when they made contact with the Spanish, that was not the case in pre-Columbian times.  Some regions were major players in the mound-building business, while others only produced small piles of sand.

A word similar to Timucua did not appear on any European or American maps until 1721, when Colonel John Barnwell prepared a map of South Carolina, while supervising the construction of Fort King George on the Altamaha River.  He placed the label in the region immediately west of the St. Johns River.   The note stated:

Province of Timooquas

Wholly laid waste, being destroyed by Carolinians 1706

 The first use of a word similar to Timucua in the Spanish archives occurred in the early 1600s. However, missions were named after specific villages and ethnic groups, not Timucua.  John Mitchell’s 1755 map of North America also mentioned a former Timucua province in northeast Florida.  After the American Revolution, the term disappeared from the maps.

 

Lake Tama

Large lake mentioned by René de Laudonnière, commander of Fort Caroline, in his memoir.

(Also see Tamatli, Tama, Altamaha River, Ocmulgee River, Oconee River, Fort Caroline)

 Etymology: Tama means “trade” in Totonac, Itza Maya and Itsate Creek.

Alternative names for this lake:  Lacus Aquidulcis, Lacus Dulcis, Lago Magnus, Lac Grand, Lake Tama, Lake Thama, Lake Theomi, Lake May, Lake Altamaha, Little Ocmulgee Swamp

Description:  The memoir of Captain René de Laudonnière, commander of Fort Caroline (1564-1565)  stated  that Lake Tama was a shallow, fresh water lake on the May River, about 120 miles upstream from the ocean.  Small expeditions sent out from Fort Caroline to explorer the hinterland of Georgia all the way to the mountains, stated that one could not see the farthest shore. Maps produced after the survivors of Fort Caroline returned to France placed Lake Tama at the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers, where the Altamaha River forms. Lake Tama or a lake at the same location with a different name was shown on all European maps until around 1701.

English explorer, Richard Briggstock, told ethnologist Charles de Rochefort in 1653 that the Apalache People (true Apalache in northern Georgia) originally lived around the shores of Lake Tama.  Their capital had gradually moved northward through the centuries, but they considered Lake Tama to be their motherland.

When explorers and Indian traders from the South Carolina coast reached the headwaters of Altamaha River in 1674, they only observed a large swamp at the confluence of the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers.  It is now known as the Little Ocmulgee River Swamp. The swamp has continuously shrunk during the past three centuries. 

The most probable explanation of Lake Tama is that it was originally created by a log jam at a time in the past when the North Georgia Mountains received heavy snowfall in the winter. The Creek name for the Georgia Mountains is the “Snowy Mountains.”  Late 17th century or 18th century Native American settlers may have intentionally cut a hole in the natural dam in order to create a vast area of cultivatable bottom land, free of trees.  William Bartram commented in 1776 that when the snow on the Georgia Mountains melted in the spring that much of Southeastern Georgia became water-logged.  Temporary wetlands appeared almost everywhere and the Okefenokee Swamp tripled its size to cover most of Southeast Georgia, south of the Altamaha River.  This no longer happens.  The warming climate has caused a stark decline in snowfall in the Southern Highlands.

All English, French, Dutch and German maps during the colonial period labeled the Altamaha River as the May River.  Spanish and Italian maps labeled it the Rio Secco.  All maps that identified the location of Fort Caroline put it on the south side of the mouth of the Altamaha River.  A 1721 map even noted that the ruins were still visible.  Botanist and explorer William Bartram, visited those ruins in 1776, and stated that local residents described them as a fort built by the French or Spanish in the 1500s.

Utinahica

Native American town in Southeast Georgia

(Also see olata, orata, Altamaha River, Fort Caroline, Santa Isabel de Utinahica and the Altamaha River)

 Etymology:  Utina is a South American Arawak ethnic name.  Hika (hica) is a word in several dialects of South American Arawak that means “place of.”

Alternative spellings:  Utinahica, Outinaheca (French)

Description:  Utinahica was located in or near the provincial capital of the Northern Utina.   The most likely location is a mound complex on the Ohoopee River in Southeast Georgia, about six miles north of the confluence of the Ohoopee with the Altamaha River.  This confluence was the original location known as the “Forks of the Altamaha.”

The province of the Utina (Outina in French) played a major role in the activities of the garrison at Fort Caroline, which all European maps show was located on the southside of the mouth of the Altamaha River.  During 1564, the French played a peace-keeping role between the Sati People at the mouth of the May (Altamaha) River and their enemies in the interior.   Relations between the Utina and Fort Caroline were very friendly. 

The situation changed when the colony faced starvation by late spring of 1565.  A barque of French soldiers, commanded by Captain René de Laudonnière, paddled up the May River.  The soldiers were easily able to walk up to the Olata (orata ~ chief) of the Utina and capture him before the astonished eyes of his family and bodyguards.  The olata was held for ransom – a boat load of food.  Shortly after the Utinas deposited bags of grain and beans before the Frenchmen, a large party of Utina warriors attacked them.  The French lost most of the food and several of their men while escaping to the barque.

The remnants of the Utina probably joined the Yamasee Alliance in the late 1600s.  There are no maps dating from the 1700s, which show either the Utina living in southeast Georgia or a town named Utinahica.

 

Mission Santa Isabel de Utinahica

Spanish mission in Southeast Georgia

(Also see Fort Caroline, Santa Isabel de Utinahica and the Altamaha River)

 Etymology: Santa Isabel is the Spanish and Portuguese name of one of two Roman Catholic Church saints, Isabelle of France and Elizabeth of Portugal. Various places have been named for the latter of the two, both in the Americas and Europe. Utina is a South American Arawak ethnic name.  Hika (hica) is a word in several dialects of South American Arawak that means “place of.”

Description:  The mission of Santa Isabel de Utinahica was located in or near the provincial capital of the Northern Utina.   The most likely location is a mound complex on the Ohoopee River in Southeast Georgia, about six miles north of the confluence of the Ohoopee with the Altamaha River.  This confluence was the original location known as the “Forks of the Altamaha.”  

The mission was established in 1610 after a road was built from the Camino Real, which ran east to west in northern Florida, around the west side of the Okefenokee Swamp to the confluence of the Ohoopee with the Altamaha.  The mission may have been located on the west side of the Altamaha River, where the road terminated.  The parish was served by one friar.  For a period of time, the Altamaha River was named the Rio Santa Isabel in honor of the mission’s patron saint.  Santa Isabel de Utinahica was abandoned in 1640 due to the hostility of the Utina People toward Spanish imperialism.

 

 

 

 

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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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