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Who were the Suala Indians?

Who in the heck were the Suala Indians?

A reader says that she was totally confused by several articles in Wikipedia!

Can you tell me something about the Suala Indians in North Carolina? I saw them on an old map. I looked them up in Wikipedia and it said that they were the same as the Joara Indians and lived near Morganton, North Carolina. However, a few websites said that Suala was just north of Greenville, SC and made no mention of Joara. That location is pretty close to where I live. One internet article on the Joara Indians said that they were Cherokees. Another article said that they were Catawba Indians. I can’t find either the Suala or Joara listed now as a tribe. After reading all the articles on the internet, I am totally confused. Where exactly did the Suala live? Who were they really? C. Mundy – Weaverville, NC.

In the late spring of 1540 the Hernando de Soto Expedition was traveling northwestward in South Carolina in order to reach the large town of Kusa (Coça in Spanish.) According to chroniclers, who wrote about his expedition afterward, the Spaniards stopped at a village named Xuala or Xuale for a couple of days. When the De Soto Chronicles were translated into English the name was changed to Suala, but is actually pronounced like Shu- :ä :lë. It means Buzzard in several Southeastern indigenous languages.

De Soto’s chroniclers tell us very little about this village. We know that it was not particularly large or culturally advanced. It was at the foot of some high mountains, probably the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The most likely location of this village was on the Saluda River in South Carolina or at the location of present Saluda, NC. That’s 245 miles southwest of Morganton, NC. The reason is explained below.

The word, Xuala or Xuale, continued to appear on European maps of North America for at least another 150 years, but no other explorer mentioned visiting a village by that name. Captain Juan Pardo explored extensive areas of South Carolina and western North Carolina, but didn’t mention a word similar to Suala. In 1670 explorer Johann Lederer explored the entire length of the Blue Ridge Foothills to the edge of the Jocasee River, but made no mention of Suala. John Lawson explored the Foothills and Blue Ridge Escarpment of South Carolina in 1700 and also made no mention of Suala.

Etymology of Xuala and Saluda

The pronunciation of the Spanish language changed radically in the century after the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon merged into being the kingdom of Spain in the early 1500s. There were originally at least 15 languages in Spain. That is the reason that the authors of the several versions of the de Soto Chronicles used different spellings for indigenous words. The medieval pronunciation of the letter “X” in Spain varied across the Iberian Peninsula, but most commonly was something like the “sh” sound used by indigenous Americans for the word Shu-a-le (Xuale or Suale.)

Saluda is probably the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek word, Suale-te, which means Buzzard People. Itsate was the predominant language spoken in the Piedmont and western Coastal Plain of South Carolina. All of the names of the original “Lower Cherokee towns” in South Carolina are actually Itsate Creek words. Europeans generally wrote a Muskogean “te” sound as a “da.” The Muskogee “t” sound is roughly halfway between an English “t” and “d”. Itsate Creeks had three “t” sounds.

Local histories in the region claim that it Saluda is derived from the Cherokee word for “Place of the green corn,” Tsaludi-yi. The facts are not even close and the location is outside the region where the Cherokees occupied villages. The Cherokee words for green corn – place are “i’-tse-yu’-s-di-yi.

It is quite possible that the Xuale People were descendants of the Hopewell Culture and a division of the Shawnee. The buzzard was considered especially sacred to the participants in the Hopewell Culture. It is believed by some anthropologists that the “Hopewell” fed their deceased love ones to semi-domesticated buzzards. This macabre tradition is still practiced by some Tibetan Buddhists. If true, it certainly would explain why the buzzards return each year to Hinckley, Ohio!

Misinterpreted Native words are a common problem in the Southern Highlands. Even in North Carolina, the vast majority of Native American place names are Creek words, not Cherokee. In the past, local historians or newspaper reporters started with Anglicized words, grossly inaccurate understandings of early Native American history and not a clue how Native American words are pronounced. They then thumbed through inaccurate Cherokee dictionaries to find a word that if pronounced like English was similar to their town name. Once the inaccurate interpretations were printed, the myths became facts. As will be seen below, the problem is even more intractable when college professors create myths.

The Xuala Indians were a West Virginia Tribe

There actually was a large, culturally advanced tribe, living along the Kanawha River in northern West Virginia, named variously the Xuale, Xuala or Xualae. Many anthropologists in the Lower Southeast seem to be totally unaware of their existence. They were devastated by an enemy tribe in the late 1600s, at about the same time that the indigenous people of the Shenandoah Valley were exterminated by slave raiders. The two peoples may have been the same or culturally related.

Portions of the Wikipedia article on the Xualae should be ignored. It states that the Cherokees, who (the article says) controlled the southern half of West Virginia, conquered the northern half between 1671 and 1685. European maps did not mention a word similar to Cherokee until 1717. Maps between 1671 and 1685 show several tribes occupying West Virginia, but not the Cherokees. Southwestern Virginia was occupied by the Tamahiti Creeks, the Shawnee and the Rickohockens during that era.

The word, Xuala, disappeared from the maps . . . both in present day South Carolina and West Virginia . . . after 1700 AD, but that does not mean that the ethnic group was completely extinct. Large numbers of Shawnee Indians continued to live in the vicinity of Saluda and Asheville, NC until evicted by the British government in 1764. Those Shawnee could have been descendants of the people met by de Soto.

How Xuala became mixed up with Joara

The “fact” that the small village visited by de Soto named Xuale in 1540 had grown to become the only Native American community labeled a city by Juan Pardo in 1567 has an interesting history. In the mid-1980s, a group of professors from the Universities of North Carolina and Georgia traveled to Asheville, NC to promote their interpretation of the route taken by Hernando de Soto. At an Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast they announced that de Soto had traveled through Asheville and stayed for several days at the principal Cherokee town of Guaxule at the site of a mound on the Biltmore Estate.

After the breakfast meeting, the good professors were grilled by local and state cultural preservation officials and told that the three feet high mound at the Biltmore Estate was probably a Woodland Period mound, over 1000 years older than de Soto. No 16th century Spanish artifacts have been found in the French Broad River Valley that flows through the Asheville Region. There were no occupied Mississippian Culture towns in the French Broad River Valley during the period when de Soto and Pardo were exploring. A very large Shawnee town stood, where Biltmore Village now was located, until 1763.

Nevertheless, the professors gave a press conference that afternoon at the Biltmore Estate and repeated their statements from the breakfast meeting. Soon a historical marker was placed near Biltmore Village that exaggerated what the professors said: “Asheville was the location of the original capital of the Cherokee Nation.” For the next 15 years the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce launched marketing campaigns that promoted Asheville as “The Ancient Heart of the Cherokee Nation.”

The “Desoto Slept Here” historical marker and tourism marketing campaign were removed after Appalachian State University archaeologists excavated the Biltmore Mound and found it to actually be the ruins of a round communal building, dating from about 250 AD to 500 AD. Unfortunately, by the time the Biltmore Mound was excavated in 2002, several prominent archaeologists in the Southeast had published books that took both the de Soto and Pardo Expeditions through Asheville.

The mythological Asheville route would have added about 400 miles to de Soto’s journey to reach the great town of . Those miles cannot be accounted for in his chronology. Nevertheless, faces and careers had to be saved. The solution was to locate Suala in the North Carolina Piedmont 254 mile northeast of its probable location. In contrast, the real location was on a direct line between Kofitachiki and Kusa. However, the Morganton location gave a reason for de Soto to “change his mind” and then start heading westward back toward northwest Georgia through present day Asheville. Followers of these professors make sure that their myths permeate open access internet references, such as Wikipedia, so that the myths can be replicated across a legion of history references. That still does not make the myths factual.

To paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur’s famous speech to the West Point cadets, “Old anthropological myths don’t die. They just fade away.”

Don Green Provided the Following

The Xuala were indeed a portion of the Shawnee/Algonquians and some of the last of the people that lived sort of in the Hopewell mode being at the far outreaches in the southeast, I suppose the culture shift got to them later than some of the people that lived more centrally

They certainly lived on until after the formation of the Cherokee because it is one of the bragging points of the Cherokee that they followed the New river to nearly the Ohio River to destroy that last village of the Xuala

It seems to me that the Xuala were first mentioned as being below the Blue Ridge Mountains which would put them down near the current NC-SC line

They did team up with the Spanish to go up into the mountains to attack some of their enemies that lived there, so likely some people that were not Algonquians

As more whites and other dislocated peoples arrived in their area they simply moved northward, going to the west side of the Blue Ridge until they came to the head of the New River and then followed it up into the Kanawha valley of WV.

My guess is that their old enemies from the 1500’s were later a part of the group named Cherokee by the whites.

Of course nearly all the attacks, murders, massacres and killings perpetrated by the new Cherokee group in the later 1600s and early 1700’s all had economic origins, they were either on slave raids or simply over-running some dissident group that would not agree with the Cherokee trade arrangement with the whites in Charleston SC.

The fact that the Cherokee took on a mission to defeat, reduce, wipe out the Xuala sort of shows how important they had once been in the southeast.

As we see so often in history, it simply became a survival method to not announce yourself or claim to be Xuala by any name, sort of keep your eyes to the ground and your lips zipped, it you didn’t want to end up dead or a slave.

I hope I answered or gave you a clue to who these folks were.

Don Spirit Wolf

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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.



    I think that the Cherokee did not massacre the Xualan (or Kanawhan) Indians. The Shawnee said that they wiped them out, too. And another tribe, whom I can’t recall, also claimed to have wiped them out after crossing the Ohio River or perhaps it was the Mississippi. Anyway, the myth that one or another tribe wiped out the Native Americans of WV is very common. The problem is that there is no evidence to support this massacre. There are no mass graves with wounded giants or otherwise indicating a massacre. Only the mounds exist with large numbers of dead. There is however a persistent tradition of a paler race of Native Americans who lived in the highlands of WV and strictly controlled the hunting seasons in a place considered Heaven, a sacred hunting ground, in the mountains of WV and western Virginia. The Cherokee have a bunch of nursery stories or fairy tales about them, and in one fairy tale these fairy people rescue some of the Cherokee tribe and take them to their caves in the mountains. The caves are described as being open to the sky.

    Strangely enough. I grew up there. I grew up in the county with the highest average altitude in the US. It was once accessed through tunnels, or required a mountain climb, and was not found on any maps until about the civil war. It was not until this century that the county seat was moved to the correct place on the maps–it had been placed site unseen in the middle of the county in the 1830s and was not moved to reflect its actual position until this century.

    Our courthouse has one of the Cherokee fairy tales emblazoned on its sides with Grecian or Roman style carvings in granite except that the images were derived from actual portrait paintings from the early 1800s and thereafter. It depicts a line of Native Americans starting with a very tall Indian and a Nicotinic Indian bowing (from the Shenandoah Valley), Shawnee, Powhatan/first Virginian, corn woman, a carpenter, another Indian (perhaps Iroquois), a Cherokee, an Englishman and a German followed by images depicting modern activity. In the middle over each entrance is a pledge that Justice is the Right of the People or that All People have a Right to Justice.

    The corn woman was a literate English woman who fell in love with the Heaven and her people. She found a place, that was supposed to be empty, full of people without homes. Her husband, one of the carpenters, was a Christian Priest (Episcopal and then Methodist). She is credited with making him build everyone houses, but the first thing she did was make him build a boarding house. As her children grew, she volunteered as the first teacher telling everyone that she would teach any child who joined hers during the day. A town grew up around her, because no one wanted to be parted from their children, and as her children grew older, her preschool became a school and then a college to train more teachers. Her children were sent to college elsewhere, and returned to teach others to be teachers. She is given credit for instructing her husband to build houses for the People and to teach them how to build houses. My dad complains that he did all the work and she got the credit, but she decided to stay. A handful of others came with them on the ship from Europe, and together the men acquired land which they distributed among their neighbors so that the neighbors did not have to purchase land. The People had her name everything (so we live with Grecian named places, roads named after colors, and Biblical names and places). They transliterated everything into a form of English (a langua franca) that has a strange syntax.

    The Xualans paid a price, however, as the last free mountain buffalo was murdered in the 1830s. The elk also were slaughtered. Both had survived long after they had been murdered in the east, but the burden of taking in all of the diverse groups of people taxed the landscape and wild beasts which the Xualans loved, and for which, they were responsible as holders of the wilderness. By the 1980s, even the deer were almost gone. Fortunately, that trend ended with the building of roads and introduction of large groceries during the 1980s. The bear and deer have recouped and Elk are rumored to be on their way back. Even the extinct mountain lion shows up on game cameras, and signs of predation are evident. Of course, this is all BS because no one lived in WV after 1600 regardless of the Court House relief. At least that is what everyone, coal companies, and other absentee landowners insists.


        For more information about southern WV’s connection to indigenous America, you may wish to review the Ethnographic Overview and Assessment New River Gorge National River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, Northeast Region Ethnography Program, National Park Service, Boston, MA (September 2007). Just cut and paste the title and the first result was the reference. It contains a federal land management investigation and analysis of local land use practices.

        The length of river along the New River Gorge would’ve been a boundary between the Xualan (or One People) and the historic tribes such as Iroquois to the north and Algonquin tribes to the east (Shawnee and displaced Powhatan among many others; although the Shawnee were supposed to be to the West in Ohio, there were always tribes present in the southern part of WV). The areas east and north of the New River had more colonial influence, while South of the New River was purely Wild. The physical territory of Mercer County WV did not actually appear on a map until the civil war with only the outer boundaries of the county and trails along rivers being on the map. (For most of history, the two biggest outer mountains ringing the county were combined as one mountain with the bits in between–where everyone and everything are–not being on the map.) But I digress. Check out the reference. I discovered it by accident. I shall return now to my community wilderness or was that wilderness community?


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