What did our ancestors believe and how did they worship?
Celebrating this year the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Creek Confederacy
From the moment that the first Spanish Conquistador set foot in the Americas, most Europeans, with the singular exception of French Protestants, presumed all indigenous American religions to be primitive, barbaric and heretical. Some enlightened Spanish Roman Catholic clerics did describe the Native religions of Mexico and Peru, prior to supervising their total suppression. However, for the most part, the detailed beliefs of the more advanced American societies have been erased. Indeed, we would know virtually nothing about the beliefs and practices of the Creek’s ancestors, were it not for two French Huguenots, Captain René de Laudonnière, Commander of Fort Caroline and the Reverend Charles de Rochefort, chaplain to the French, Scottish, Dutch and English Protestants in the Caribbean Basin.
Those readers, who are Muskogeans or descendants of Muskogeans know that we are a very spiritual people. It is very much part of our lives and our heritage. We talk about Sixth Sense and the fact that many Muskogeans can communicate telepathically . . . or at least know when a Native brother or sister needs help. Many of us have had experiences with the Grandmother or Grandfather Spirit . . . essentially a Native American guardian angel. It is a generally accepted part of our lives. However, you would never know any of this from reading the books and professional papers, written by the “experts” on us.
Google “Creek Indian religion” and you get virtually no articles listed by Google. Read a book about the Creeks, written by a Southeastern anthropology or history professor, and the chapter on religion, if there is one, mentions the Green Corn Festival and retells some of those Creek children’s bedtime stories that became Joel Chandler Harris’s Tales of Uncle Remus. Very little is said, if anything about what the Creeks believed in. One gets the impression that the Muskogean Peoples were agnostics or borderline atheists, who substituted seasonal festivals for religious faith.
There is a reason. The vast majority of anthropologists in the Southeast are agnostics, atheists or occultists. That is why they define our culture in terms of small inanimate objects, such as potsherds. Actually, the same thing can be said of most academicians these days. How can they describe something that they have not personally experienced and don’t believe in?
Before going much further back into time, People of One Fire in Part One will fill in the gaps left in anthropology books to describe Creek beliefs at the dawn of intimate contact between Anglo-Americans and the Creek Confederacy. The current Creek Confederacy was founded in 1717 at what is now Ocmulgee National Monument. This dramatic event was in the aftermath of the disastrous Yamasee War. An accurate discussion of Creek beliefs at that point is time is only possible today because of the discovery in 2015 of the lost documents on the Creek People, written by Georgia’s first colonial secretary, Thomas Christie, between 1733 and 1737.
European attitudes toward indigenous American religions
Spain: It was the official policies of the Kingdom Spain to convert any indigenous peoples in its path to Roman Catholicism. However, from Columbus’s second voyage onward large numbers of native peoples were enslaved or exterminated. In practice, conversion of indigenous peoples by Spanish clerics and friars was the primary means of subjugating them to a serf status . . . a situation that has continued to this day in many parts of Latin America. All Native peoples were presumed to be pagans or animists. Forced conversion to slavery/serfdom and Catholicism was justified in order to “save their souls.”
The chronicles of the Hernando de Soto Expedition do provide us with one surprising tidbit about a very different type of religion being practiced in what is now the State of Georgia. Once they entered the homeland of what was to become the Creek Indians, the Spaniards noticed that the plazas near temples contained a multitude of stone, ceramic and wood statues. The people in Florida, who the Spanish called Apalache, worshiped the statues of several male and female deities. A curious Spaniard asked a town leader on the Ocmulgee River, if all these statues all represented different deities that they worshiped. He responded, “No, we worship one invisible God. The statues portray famous ancestors.”
France: French use of religion for cultural imperialism was far less brutal in Canada. This was mainly because there were so few Catholic colonists, willing to move to Canada. Missionaries were based at First Nations villages near French towns, but most of the Christian Indians were killed off by smallpox . . . because of the close contact with missionaries and government officials. In Louisiana, the French colonists almost immediately began forcing native peoples into servitude that varied from being serfs to being permanent slaves. The development of New Orleans was made possible by the use of large numbers of Chitimacha slaves . . . most of whom died as a result of their labors in the swamps around their former villages.
In Alabama, the relatively small garrisons at Fort Condé (Mobile) and Fort Toulouse was far less imperialistic, mainly because they were dependent on Native allies to avoid destruction by the British. Many of the French Marines, stationed at the fort married Alabamu or Creek women. Very few French colonists established plantations in what is now Alabama.
Great Britain: Since the founding of the Jamestown Colony in 1607, the British government and hierarchy of the Church of England had generally been indifferent to the religious beliefs of indigenous Americans. The English were primarily interested in moving the Indians out of their way so farms, plantations and towns could be established then obtaining great profits from trading European goods to the Indians in return for commodities such as sassafras roots, precious stones, furs and skins.
Enslavement of Indians began in Virginia and Massachusetts very early in the development of these colonies. War captives and their families were typically enslaved by victorious colonial militias. Virginia became desperate for manual laborers. A series of laws, passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses between 1660 and 1665, institutionalized the slavery of Native Americans. The Rickohockens were armed by the Commonwealth of Virginia and dispatched to obtain as many indigenous slaves as possible . . . no questions asked.
Within four decades, hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were permanently swept from the landscape of the Southeast. It was ethnic cleansing on a massive scale that generally has been left out of the classroom history texts. By 1715, 20% of the population of South Carolina was composed of Native American slaves. African slaves represented another 40%. What remained free were regional alliances, which continued to combine until evolving into the Indian tribes of the 19th century.
In the late 17th century, the deer skin and fur trade became increasingly important as the tribal alliances gained immunity from slavery by becoming allies of Great Britain. However, the mass slaughter of animals, caused by this trade, made it impossible for the Southeastern Native Americans to meet their protein needs by hunting. This scarcity of protein accelerated warfare between competing alliances.
Throughout this horrific period of chronic warfare, there is very little mention of Native religious beliefs and cultural practices in the official British Colonial government papers. Southern Indians were viewed as either ignorant beasts running wild in the forests or sub-human slaves . . . basically obstacles to civilization. That was to change with the founding of the Province of Georgia in 1733.
Descendants of an ancient civilization
The Province of Georgia was created as a barrier to Spanish military operations and an opportunity to carry out socio-economic experiments. Initially, the colony’s trustees planned to transport people freed from debtor’s prisons to the New World, but relatively few actually came. They announced that members of all Protestant denominations in Europe AND Jews were welcome. They also announced intent to start over with a new approach to relations with the Natives in order to prevent the catastrophes that South Carolina had experienced. The settlement of the colony was partially financed by The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which planned to establish missions among the Southeastern Indians from its Georgia base. That never happened.
Shortly after arriving in the New World, Supervising Trustee James Edward Oglethorpe walked the land that he had just purchased for the town of Savannah with the representative of its Seller, Tamachichi (Itinerate Merchant in Itza Maya). Oglethorpe was astonished to learn that Savannah was formerly the site of a great town that in ancient times had been the first capital of the true Apalache (Proto-Creeks). Tamachichi pointed to a mound where perhaps 2,000 years before, their first emperor was buried.
Tamachichi’s people had a migrated across the Great Water to the south much later than the Apalache. They had first lived next to a large lake in southern Florida then moved northward to a swampy area with many reeds then migrated to Savannah. Tamachichi’s ancestors were buried in two mounds by the waterfront, where now the Savannah Hilton Garden Inn Hotel is now located.
Tamachichi’s people remembered fondly when French visitors from Fort Caroline had paddled up the Savannah River to visit this town. However, only a couple of decades later they had been forced to abandon the original capital because of attacks and diseases of the Spanish.
Soon thereafter Oglethorpe excitedly dispatched a letter to King George II. It stated, “The Creek Indians are unlike any Native people that the British have encountered in North America. They are obviously the descendants of an ancient civilization. They are as intelligent as Englishmen, perhaps more so. They should be treated as equals in all matters.”
On June 7, 1735, the newly elected leader of the Creek Confederacy, Chikili, gave a speech to the leaders of Savannah. It began, “I Chikili, Juani of the West Town . . . “ Juani is the Eastern Peruvian word for a principal priest. Chikili thought it more important to say that he was a religious leader than the president of the Creek Confederacy.
Chikili’s speech ended with these words . . . “Of course, I am aware there is One who has made us all. Some have more knowledge and others are great and strong, but eventually, all of us must become dirt alike.”
Chikili’s closing statement acknowledged an invisible universal Master of Life (God). This was no primitive, tribal religion.
Chikili presented James Oglethorpe with a bison calf velum, on which was painted in the Apalache writing system the story of the Kausheta’s migration from the Orizaba Volcano in western Vera Cruz to Southeastern North America. Chikili’s reading of the velum was translated by Mary Musgrove and written down by Colonial Secretary Thomas Christie. Realizing that the existence of a complete writing system in North America was something extraordinary, Oglethorpe directed Christie to dispatch the velum and translation to the Georgia Trustees on the next available ship, headed to London.
Thomas Christie’s observations
William Wake, the archbishop of Canterbury, was intrigued about the information on the Creek Indians coming from South Carolina and Georgia. Unlike previous heads of the Church of England, Wake wanted to establish enlightened missionaries among the more advanced tribes of the Southern colonies to both insure Britain’s political alliances and improve the lives of these peoples.
Wake directed Thomas Christie to assemble as much information as he could on the Creek Indians. Much of what Colonial Secretary Thomas Christies wrote down concerned political organization, migration legends and cultural practices, but he did talk with Creek religious leaders to learn some information about their religious beliefs. He also gathered information from Creek elders on medicinal herbs and medical procedures.
The Creeks believed that there was one Master of Life (God) for all peoples of the world. The Master of Life created the universe and communicated directly with righteous people to guide their lives. All humans had souls that would live for eternity. Humans would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife according to how they conducted their lives, but the Creeks had no concept of a Hell, where souls were roasted in flames. Instead they believed that the souls of especially evil people would be cut off from their loved ones and forced to walk the Earth forever in sorrow and loneliness.
The Creeks also had a vague concept of a communal soul, something like a “civic spirit” that was shared by all those, who were kin to each other. For this reason, the bodies of especially evil people, such as traitors and the murderers of children were tossed into rivers, where they would be eaten by animals.
Christie packed all his notes on the Creek Indians along with the Migration Legend Velum and its translation in a wooden crate. The crate was placed on a ship headed to London on July 6, 1735. The members of Georgia Board of Trustees were astounded with the contents of the crate. The Kashita Migration Legend and the bison velum were heavily publicized in London newspapers.
Christie’s documents were forwarded to King George II. He subsequently forwarded them to Archbishop Wake with the suggestion that a Bible, printed in the Apalache writing system and Creek language, be published by the Church of England. How far this project went, we do not currently know.
What we do know is that Archbishop Wake appointed two young brothers, fresh out of theology school, to travel to Georgia to work with the Creek Indians. They had founded a “Holy Club” at Oxford along with George Whitefield. John Wesley was to be the missionary to the Creeks, while Charles Wesley was to be the colony’s Indian agent. Whitefield remained in England to lead the Holy Club.
Upon their arrival in Georgia, James Oglethorpe quickly realized that the brothers were too inexperienced and arrogant to be involved significantly with the Creeks. Instead Charles Wesley was sent to Fort Frederica to be the priest for its Scottish Highlander residents. That was a disaster because they were all either Presbyterians or Roman Catholics. There was no church so Charles preached under a live oak.
Charles Wesley was eventually returned to Savannah. His only known contact with Indians was a journey made to Tugaloo Island in extreme northeast Georgia. He came back with a very negative impression of the approximately 100 Uchee (Yuchi) Indians living there. He said, “These Uchees are the most lazy and slothful humans, I have ever known.” Wesley’s description of the town being Uchee, not Cherokee, confirmed what I had suspected all along. All descriptions of Tugaloo being an ancient and important Cherokee town seem to be 20th century poppycock. On maps the area, west of the Tugaloo was always labeled “Hogeloge,” but the Hogeloge were a highland band of the Uchee.
While bored from nothing to do in Savannah, Charles Wesley wrote the first group of hymns that were to make him famous. Best known from that collection was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” About 120 years later, “Jingle Bells” would be composed in the same neighborhood of Savannah where Charles Wesley lived.
Although Oglethorpe did not want the Wesley Brothers messing up things with the Creeks, he badly needed highly educated men such as them as his assistants. He particularly was fond of John Wesley.
John Wesley was assigned by Oglethorpe to be the minister for Georgia’s non-British residents. He was kept busy for many months serving their needs as they learned English and adapted to new cultural traditions. He in particular, developed a friendship with the Moravian and Saltzburger colonies. These were Protestants expelled by Catholic monarchs from Moravia and Saltzburg, Austria. Wesley administered the construction of a Moravian mission compound on Irene Island next to a Creek town, which existed up to the American Revolution. The combination chapel and school for Creek children were constructed on top of the famous Irene Mound.
The only recorded direct contact that John Wesley had with a Creek town was when he traveled about 45 miles up the Savannah River to preach in the open air to the Apalache Creeks and Uchee of Palachicola Town. The trip was a total failure from Wesley’s perspective. He assumed that he was speaking to heathen savages and apparently much of his sermon concerned the need for a church.
The people in Palachicola politely listened to Wesley’s sermon out of respect for his patron, James Oglethorpe. However, after the sermon, they said, “Why are you here? We believe the same thing that you do. Only we prefer to worship in the open air. Why do you say we must be in a building to be Christians?” From that day forward, John Wesley also had nothing good to say about the Creeks.
Charles has already left the colony. John Wesley could be very much a jerk while living in Georgia. He jilted the niece of a magistrate, one of the most prominent men in the colony. Wesley then for no logical reason, refused to serve her communion, when she married someone else.
A warrant was sworn out for Wesley’s arrest. He had to flee the colony at night in late 1737. He was immediately fired upon arrival in London. He was then replaced in Georgia by a fellow member of the Holy Club, George Whitefield. In 1738, both John and Charles Wesley experienced religious conversions, which both changed their personalities and their understanding of Christianity. Whitefield is considered one of the greatest evangelists of all time. The Wesley Brothers and George Whitefield went on to found the Methodist Society, which after their deaths became the Methodist Church.
Those few people, who have read about Wesley’s experience at Palachicola probably assumed that the Creeks were Native simpletons, who really didn’t understand what Wesley was saying in his sermon. No Creek Indians at that time could have been “Open Air Christians.” However, in Part Two you will learn that, in fact, there were Apalache Christians in Northeast Georgia as early as the 1570s. The conversion of many of the Apalache elite to Christianity caused the Apalache Kingdom to go flying apart. That might explain why many of the large towns in the Southern Highlands were abandoned between 1585 and 1600 AD.
Yep . . you won’t find that info in a American History textbook.
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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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