The Sun Priestesses of the Okefenokee Swamp
Part Four of Southeast Georgia and the World of Pernell Roberts
Several of the larger mounds in the Okefenokee Swamp contain seven feet tall skeletons!
It sounds like the name of a long forgotten, Hollywood fantasy from the 1950s, but actually is a fact of the Southeast’s extraordinary past. At the time of first contact with French and Spanish explorers, the Okefenokee Swamp was a shallow lake about 50 miles across with several islands in it. On the largest island, called Sarrope, was an indigenous capital town containing several temples and shrines, dedicated to the invisible sun goddess, Amana. According to traditions of the Creek People, a team of beautiful priestesses served Amana here. The islands of “Lake Sarrope” were also remembered as the birthplace of the Oconee branch of the Creek Confederacy. Think of Amana being a female version of the Hebrew’s YHWH. There was very little difference of how their monotheistic worshipers conceived these deities, other than gender.
Okefenokee is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek words, Oka Fenoki, which mean “Water Shaking.” It does NOT mean “Land of the Trembling Earth.”
Descriptions of the Native American history of the Okefenokee Swamp, which are available to the public, are very brief and leave out much information that was known to the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office and US Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologists in the late 20th century. At the behest of the federal government, about 50 years ago, a team of archaeologists surveyed dry land in and around the swamp then dug test pits and ditches at sites, which appeared to be man-made mounds. However, there has NEVER been a comprehensive archaeological study of the swamp’s vast expanse of peat. There is no telling what that peat contains.
This information apparently never made it into the syllabuses of anthropology classes in Georgia and Florida. What one sees today in references is a brief, simplistic and not fully accurate description of the past. The articles, written by Georgia academicians, carefully sidestep the known names of indigenous tribes in Southeast Georgia during the 1500s, so as to avoid betraying any myths created by their anthropological brethren in Florida. Several decades ago, the Florida anthropologists placed those tribes in Florida to justify Fort Caroline’s fake location in Jacksonville . . . then suddenly had them disappear from history after the Spanish established St. Augustine. They didn’t disappear, but eventually became part of the Creek Confederacy! Immediately below is a section of the article on the “Okefenokee Swamp’s Human History” in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
“Indians occupied the Okefenokee during the late Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods of Georgia prehistory. The major occupations were during the Weeden Island and Savannah periods, around A.D. 500 and 1200. Sand mounds were constructed in the swamp during this period. Spanish records between 1602 and 1768 refer to Okefenokee as Laguna de Oconi (Lake Oconi). At least two Timucuan villages and Spanish missions were located in or near the swamp between 1620 and 1656.” The article goes on to say that Seminoles occupied the Okefenokee Swamp in the 1700s, but left the region shortly after the American Revolution. The article goes on to belittle a paragraph written by William Bartram about “Sun Temples” being in the swamp.
Native Americans did not build the 76+ mounds in the Okefenokee Swamp out of sand. Archaeological reports, commissioned by the State of Georgia in 1968 and 1972, plus one commissioned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1974, described all of the mounds as being constructed with “earthen dirt.”
The only significant deposit of sand one sees in the 438,000 acre swamp is on the eastern edge, where there is an ancient, 70 mile long sand bar, dating from when the ocean was much farther inland. One does see an extremely thin coating of gray grit on old roads or paths, where the organic content has leached out. Nevertheless, we quote the US Geological Survey within a report by the National Wildlife Federation.
“Water in the Okefenokee Swamp varies between 30 and 5 feet deep. Peat deposits as thick as 15 feet cover the Okefenokee’s sand bottom. Approximately 30 feet of gray Pleistocene sands and Tertiary rocks underlay the peat deposits.” In order for the mound-builders to access a sufficient quantity of sand to build a mound, they would have had to dig down at least 15 feet below the water table. This is highly unlikely. The mounds were built out of peat, but through the centuries the organic content of the peat has generally decomposed and leached out. We can assume that the mounds were originally much larger than today. As you will learn, there is much information that was left out of this article or refute it.
An unknown ancient past
It is impossible to make any definitive statements about the early human occupation of the Okefenokee Swamp. Those handful of archaeological surveys focused on a few of the mounds. There were no studies of village or town sites or deep excavations that analyzed the human history of the swamp. This automatically biased the interpretation of archaeological data. Twenty-first century writers on the Okefenokee Swamp have jumped to the conclusion that the swamp was only occupied when the very few excavated mounds were constructed. It is quite possible that its largest populations lived on timber pile villages or were NOT mound builders. It is also almost certain that the oldest mounds are not visible on the surface and may only be found by remote sensing techniques such as infrared imagery and ground radar.
Geologists have determined that the top later of sand under the peat dates from the Late Pleistocene Era (c. 20,000-9,700 BC). The earliest radiocarbon date for peat under the swamp is 6,500 years BP or about 4,500 BC. No one has determined exactly when the original lake formed. When the lake was 30 to 50 feet deep, no peat would have formed. However, those dates leave open the possibility of the earliest humans in the Americas living on or around the lake then continuing to live on islands in the swamps for thousands of years. It would have been an ideal habitat for hunter-gatherer bands. YET . . . one of the few archaeological papers, which mentions early occupation of the swamp states that “humans could not have lived there until around 2,500 BC, since the basin was dry until that time.” Huh-h-h? . . . 2,500 is not the same number as 4,500 and why can’t humans live on dry land?
Past archaeological studies of the Okefenokee Swamp ignored the region’s geological history. According to botanist and explorer, William Bartram, until the late 1700s, the swamp was basically a shallow lake. It tripled in size in the late winter and early spring, when the snow melted on the peaks of the Georgia Mountains. Most of Southeast Georgia would be covered in water during March and April. During that era, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico often collided with cold air over these mountains in the winter, resulting in very heavy snow packs. Weather patterns changed drastically in the early 1800s. Until the 1700s, the South Satilla River drained the southeastern corner of the Okefenokee, while the North Satilla River was an alternative outlet to the sea for the Altamaha River. Thus, what these archaeologists labeled “mounds on the edge of the swamp” was actually man-made islands in the lake during much of the year.
In 539 AD, a massive tsunami struck the Georgia Coast and penetrated deeply into Southeast Georgia. It was caused by an asteroid or comet striking laterally about 100-150 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. On the northern Florida and Georgia coasts, the tsunami was definite population extinction event. Even today, the debris ridge of this tsunami is 85 feet tall near Darien, GA. There is little doubt that lethal walls of water would have swept up the St. Marys and Satilla Rivers into the southern and eastern portions of the lake . . . wiping out most human life in their paths. There would have been a 100% death rate at least 25 miles inland.
During the early and mid-20th century, many mounds in and around the Okefenokee Swamp were pilfered by amateur artifact collectors. Archaeologists became aware of Native American archaeological sites in the swamp during the 1960s. Most of the professional studies of the mounds occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s . . . then again briefly in the early 1990s. In the mounds examined, Swift Creek (100 AD – 500 AD), Weeden Island (350 – 750 AD) and Complicated Stamp Pottery (1000 AD – 1600 AD) predominated. The pottery generally resembled pottery produced on the Georgia Coast.
The full archaeological reports for mound sites, where archaeologist found 7 feet tall skeletons, are not readily available to the public. They mysteriously disappeared from the University of Georgia, after Dr. Arthur Kelly was forced to resign. This is unfortunate, because it was these mounds that the most sophisticated artifacts were found. Fortunately, these reports are summarized and included in a 1973 report by the Georgia Historic Preservation Office to the National Park Service. Otherwise, I would had never known about a culture that state officials described as “an advanced race of seven feet tall people.” Later test excavations found artifacts, in particular, pottery, which was typical of the Georgia Coast. Some of those reports are available to the public. No effort was made to radiocarbon date the artifacts in the mounds.
It should be emphasized that the paucity of archaeological studies and the fact that they were limited to highly visible mounds, eliminates the reliability of generalizing interpretation to the entire swamp basin. This is exactly what 21st century authors and journalists have done. In order minimize work time, they merely replicated brief statements from the 20th century about the Okefenokee’s human history, without doing a thorough search of the professional literature.
The Colonial Period
Sarrope: There was once an advanced indigenous civilization on the islands of what was then called Lake Sarrope, but is now called the Okefenokee Swamp. It was visited by an exploration team, led by Captain René de Laudonnière and his resident artist-cartographer, Jacques Le Moyne, in 1564. From then on, it appeared on European maps along with its outlets, the St. Marys, Satilla and Suwanee Rivers. De Laudonnière stated that the mouth of the (Satilla) river, which his barque navigated to reach Lake Serope, was about 35 miles south of Fort Caroline. It would be impossible for Fort Caroline to be south of the Satilla River and still be on the St. Johns River in Florida. This is just one of many facts that make the current “official” location of Fort Caroline in Jacksonville, absolutely impossible.
De Laudonnière stated that the people living on the islands of Lake Sarrope and its basin were a different ethnic group and spoke a very different language than those near Fort Caroline or their arch-enemies, who lived to the south in what is now the State of Florida. They seemed to be descended from a sophisticated civilization elsewhere. Their sophistication extended to the skills of warfare. The provinces on the Georgia Coast thought it wise to stay on good terms with the Sarrope, while those in present day Florida typically remained enemies at distance.
Spanish Missions: The Spanish called the Natives living in and around the Okefenokee Swamp the Oconi. That is a Muskogean word, meaning “Water-Born In”. Of course, it is also the name of a major branch of the Creek Confederacy that gave the Oconee River in Northeast Georgia it’s name. The Oconee considered the Okefenokee to be their birthplace and through the centuries established a line of towns due north of the swamp all the way to the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, North Carolina. Oconaluftee is a Creek word, meaning “Oconee People – massacred.” For unknown reasons, when Florida academicians labeled the Oconi a “Timucuan” tribe, Georgia academicians stayed silent . . . as always. Nowadays, a legion of references label the Oconee as Timucuans (Florida academicians) or Cherokees (Carolina academicians)!
British and Spanish colonization: The first detailed map of South Carolina, produced by Colonel William Barnwell in 1721, did not mention the Okefenokee Swamp, but extended southward into northern Florida. The 1754 Map of Georgia by Emmanuel Bowen does not specifically label the swamp, but does note that this particular region contains “Indians, who are in amenity with the English.” The 1755 Map of North America by John Mitchell placed several unnamed lakes in Southeast Georgia, and stated, “many lakes said to have no outlet.”
Although almost all Spanish maps had shown the Okefenokee Swamp (Lago de Oconi) for over 150 years, the first British map to delineate and label the swamp was not published until 1763 by John Gibson. The swamp was shown to be much larger . . . which we now know to be factual . . . and labeled “The Great Swamp of Owaquaphenogaw.” In current English phonetics that word would be written, Owaka-fenokaw . . . which means Large water or lake (Peruvian Arawak) – Shaking (Muskogean).
Sun Priestesses: Botanist and explorer, William Bartram, visited the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in 1776. He included this long paragraph in his famous book about his travels in the Southern Colonies.
“The river St. Mary has its source from a vast lake, or marsh, called Ouaquaphenogaw* [Okefenokee], which lines between Flint and Oakmulge [Ocmulgee}rivers, and occupies a space of near 300 miles in circuit. This vast accumulation of waters in the wet season appears as a lake, and contains some large islands or knolls of rich highland, one of which the present generation of the Creeks represent to be a most blissful spot of the earth; they say it is inhabited by a peculiar race of Indians, whose women are incomparably beautiful; they also tell you that this terrestrial paradise has been seen by some of their enterprising hunters, when in pursuit of game, who being lost in inextricable swamps and bogs, and on the point of perishing, were unexpectedly relieved by a company of beautiful women, whom they call daughters of the sun, who kindly gave them such provisions as they had with them, which were chiefly fruits, oranges, dates, etc., and some corn cakes, and then enjoined them to fly for safety to their own country; for that their husbands were fierce men, and cruel to strangers; they further say that these hunters had a view of their settlements, situated on the elevated banks of the island, or promontory, in a beautiful lake; but that in their endeavors to approach it they were involved in perpetual labyrinths, and, like enchanted land, still as they imagined they had just gained it, it seemed to fly before them ,alternately appearing and disappearing. They resolved, at length, to leave the delusive pursuit and to return; which after a number of inexpressible difficulties, they effected. When they reported their adventures to their countrymen, their young warriors were inflamed with an irresistible desire to invade, and make a conquest of, so charming a country but all their attempts have proven abortive, never having been able to again find that enchanting spot, nor even any road or pathway to it; yet they say that they frequently meet with certain signs of it being inhabited, as the building of canoes, footsteps of men, etc.“
Bartram’s description of the Sun Priestesses is entirely compatible with Creek Tradition, which described a large, sophisticated population living on the islands and edges of the Okefenokee Swamp, plus one of their most important religious centers on a large island – probably Billy’s Island. The temples in this religious center were dedicated to the Sun Goddess, later de-gendered to being the Creator. The temples were staffed by beautiful priestesses, selected for their intelligence and personal character from throughout the Creek provinces.
1795 Rochambeau Map of Georgia:- This map labels the swamp, the Akenfonogo, and shows the region to be occupied by the Tallassee Creeks, not the Seminoles. All contemporary references and academic papers state that the Seminoles were the last Native occupants of the swamp, but no contemporary document ever states this. The Tallassee were the direct descendants of the great town of Etula, which today is known as Etowah Mounds. They carried substantial Maya DNA.
1796 Scoles Map of Georgia: The map is more accurate in its placement of the Okefenokee Swamp and labels it the Eokenfenoke Swamp.
1818 Surges Map of Georgia: This map is even more accurate in its description of the swamp’s boundaries. It is labeled the Okefenokau Swamp. The map states that all claims of the Creeks to southern Georgia were extinguished in the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814, but we know for a fact that the Tallassee Creeks continued to live within the swamp for many more decades, because no one else wanted to live there.
1838 Creek Indian War: Never heard of this war? That’s because it was fought by Oconee and Tallassee Creeks living west of the Okefenokee Swamp . . . long after they were supposed to be gone. They were Itsate Creeks, who had not signed any land treaties and who did not feel obligated to treaties signed by Muskogee Creeks. Actually, the Creeks near the Okefenokee Swamp had been given the option of taking state citizenship, since they were “Friendly Creeks,” but few whites even knew that was an option. The Hostile Creek survivors either moved to Florida and joined the Seminoles or joined “Friendly Creek” bands in the Okefenokee Swamp, who were still on good terms with their white neighbors. Friendly Creeks and Uchees, living along the length of the nearby Altamaha River, were not so fortunate. Even though they were officially citizens of the State of Georgia, they were rounded up by US Army soldiers and marched in chains to Fort
This is a situation in which local historians are of great value. The History of Ware County states that their Billy Bowlegs was an Oconee Creek, who grew up in the Okefenokee Swamp and was generally on good terms with his white neighbors. He was NOT killed in battle by federal troops, but lived to a ripe old age on Billy’s Island in the Okefenokee Swamp. He made a good living by growing gourmet vegetables and tropical fruits then marketing them on the streets of Waresboro, which was the former name of Waycross. The local history book cited several prominent white citizens, who were friends of Billy and even visited his band’s village in the swamp on several occasions.
Later name changes: The 1838 official map of Georgia continued to label it the Okefenokau Swamp. The name did not change on official maps to “Okefenoke Swamp” until the 1855 Official Map of Georgia.
One of the several areas in which contemporary white academicians “just don’t have a clue” is the traditional division . . . downright hostility on occasions . . . between the Itsate-Creeks, Kusate Creeks and Muskogee Creeks. The Itsate and Kusate Provinces were the direct descendants of the people, who built the great towns and large mounds in Georgia, southeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and South Carolina. The Muskogee-speakers were originally from the section of the North Carolina Mountains near the Tuckasegee River, French Broad River and Sapphire Valley.
Thousands of Itsate Creeks and Uchee did not honor the treaties signed by Muskogee Creeks after the American Revolution and stayed put each time the boundary between Georgia and the Muskogee-Creek Nation was changed. Several years ago, Leslie Thomas of the Georgia Trail of Tears Association examined US Census records and determined that at least 20,000 Creeks stayed in Georgia after the Treaty of 1827. An additional 2,200 were living in the Cherokee Nation in 1838, but were not captured by federal troops and sent on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Where they went is anyone’s guess . . . but many probably moved to Louisiana and Texas.
Growing up, I didn’t even realize that the Muskogees were Creeks. All of our family lore described the Muskogees as ENEMIES of the Creeks, who during the late 1600s invaded eastern Georgia, once they had access to firearms. I did not know that Muskogees were also Creeks until I was around 24 years old! The Muskogees were fought to a bloody standstill, but in the process, the Creek Provinces were so weakened by war, plagues and slave raiders they were unable initially to stop the southward invasion of the Cherokees in the 1690s. The Creek Confederacy was formed from the surviving Muskogee Creeks, Apalachicola Creeks, Upper Creeks, Itsate Creeks, Chickasaw towns and Uchee provinces.
Ware County Indians: At the beginning of the Civil War, the Confederate States Congress recognized all Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole Indians as full citizens of the Confederate States of America. Creek families in Alabama, Georgia and Florida assumed that it was finally safe for them to come out of hiding . . . which had actually been a practice of keeping a low profile and “don’t ask – don’t tell.” Most were legally citizens of their states, but since 1836 had been treated like sub-human pariahs. Many Creek families, then known as the “Ware County Indians” moved out of the swamps after being made Confederate citizens and settled on unclaimed lands on the edge of the swamps.
No one apparently bothered the Ware County Indians, living outside the swamp, as long as their sons were needed by the Confederate Army. I know that all of my Native American gg-grandfathers in Northeast Georgia served in Cobb’s Legion . . . the unit made famous in the movie, “Gods and Generals.” The battle flag of Cobb’s Legion is now the state flag of Georgia.
In his fascinating autobiography, the Rev. Sam Jones described how depraved Southern men – particularly in the Lower South – became immediately after the Civil War. Alcoholism, wife-beatings, gambling, murders-while-intoxicated and sadism became endemic. Federal troops generally protected the newly liberated African-American citizens, but no one protected American Indians and other minorities.
At this time, there was no Waycross, just a handful of tiny hamlets in Ware County and very little government. White men basically could do anything they wanted to do, as long as they did not murder another white man. Sometimes they got away with that too. It was in this degenerate environment, that gangs of thugs, calling themselves vigilantes, began attacking Ware County Indian farmsteads on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. These Creeks were not bothering anyone and were on land that no one had claimed. However, there were a safe target for sadists. Some Ware County Indians were killed, many more were mauled and all of their farmsteads were burned. The survivors moved back into the swamps, where they became known as Swamp Rats.
When the new Washington to Florida railroad came through, many of the Indian men took jobs as foremen of Black work gangs or as laborers themselves. That work eventually took them down to Florida. Many did not return. In the 1890s, most of the remaining Ware County Indian families were forced out of the Okefenokee by big timber companies, who had bought the swamp from the State of Georgia in order to harvest its virgin cypress trees. These are little tidbits of history that have either been forgotten or erased.
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