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Who were the Water People?

Linguistic evidence points to peoples arriving by water from Mesoamerica, South America and Western Europe. Relevant to histories of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Virginia.

In the mid-1800s after most of the indigenous peoples of the Southeast had either become extinct or else driven to the Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi, the new profession of ethnology arose. Scholars sought to classify the ethnic groups, whom their ancestors came close to exterminating. The typical approach was to start with an Anglicized name of one of the federally recognized tribes or peoples, suppressed by the Spanish then cluster all the other names on old maps with those names into language groups. In many situations, particularly in South Carolina and Florida, the ethnologists had no clue what language an extinct tribe spoke. Alternatively, only a few their words survived in the Spanish, French or English form.

Irene Mounds Site

A Ceremonial Complex on the Savannah River known today as the Irene Mounds Site was apparently developed by the Water People

As POOF researchers scrutinize the surviving Colonial archives, it becomes increasingly clear that the ethnic origins of the Southeast’s indigenous peoples were extremely complex. The languages spoken today by the Southeastern “civilized” tribes represent a potpourri of linguistic influences and past immigrations into the region. Many languages that were spoken in 1500 AD have been completely lost. Cultural memories have been partially erased by 500 years of oppression, mass deaths, forced migrations and assimilation into the newcomers’ culture.

One of the mysteries that appear in early European archives is the Water People. Those words appear in several forms in several indigenous languages. Very few Caucasian anthropologists seem to be aware that these words are associated with water. We will take a look into what is known, but really do not have a full explanation.

Words linked to Ancient Events

There is something really strange about the Muskogee-Creek language. It was spoken by relatively few people in west-central Georgia and east-central Alabama until the 1700s when it became the diplomatic language of the new Creek Confederacy. Sandwiched between Alabama, Chickasaw, Itsate (Hitchiti) and Apalachee speakers, one would think that it would be fairly similar to Alabama or Chickasaw. It is not. It is the most aberrant of Muskogean languages, even though, those same 19th century ethnologists named the language group after the Muskogee. Some Muskogee words just don’t have any relation to any other Southeastern language.

One of those aberrant words is the one for water. In Muskogee, water is “oewv, owa or oue. All other Muskogean languages use oka for water.

I didn’t think much about this aberrance until running across the same word for “Water People” among one of the several ethnic groups, living on the Georgia coast, that the Spanish and 20th century anthropologists grouped together to call the “Guale” (pronounced Wahale.) The 16th century French used their real name Ouete . . . Water People. Actually, René de Laudonnière used the word Ouede, because most Europeans wrote a Muskogean “t” sound as a “d.” Why would the Muskogee word for water pop up on the Georgia coast, when, in between for about 200 miles, everyone else used the word “oka” for water? Many of the other Ouete words don’t look like Muskogee.

It gets stranger. The Muskogee word for water is unlike any indigenous language in North America, but is the exact same word used by the Celtic peoples of France and perhaps, Iberia. The word was used for “water” by a Gallic tribe on the coast of France and Iberia, who built huge sea-going sailing ships until massacred by Julius Caesar. The French word for water today, eau, is derived from that word. Ouwa or oue was also used in some areas of Western Ireland and Scotland until the early Middle Ages. Perhaps they picked it up from the Gallic merchant ships. I have no explanation other than “direct contact.”

It is not that simple, though. Academicians have not been able to ethnologically dissect the so-called “Guale and Timucua Indians” because their words and village names come from several languages. Just down the Savannah River, 16 miles from the Irene Mounds Site, is Tybee Island. At the time of European Contact, it was a major salt production center. Its name is the Anglicization of the Maya word for salt, Taube. Farther south on the Georgia coast were villages whose names included the Tupi-Guarani word for ocean. The Tupi-Guarani were from South America. To the north were provinces around Port Royal Sound, who worshiped the South American sun god, Toyah. All along the South Atlantic Coast, the high kings held the title of Paracusa. That is from the Paracusa people of Moche Culture Peru, who are best remembered for their strange, extra-terrestrial style, elongated skulls and even stranger, Nazca Lines.

On the other hand, early 16th century Spanish explorers encountered a province of Caucasians living like American Indians on the coast of South Carolina. Their province was named Duhare, which is the Early Medieval Gaelic word for “Irish.” The people of Duhare had Irish names and made cheese from dairy deer like several Gaelic tribes in Ireland. Giant tent-shaped timber structures were observed by Spanish explorers on the lower South Carolina and upper Georgia coast. They were identical to structures erected in Early Medieval Scotland and Ireland as barracks for soldiers.

The article I wrote in the Examiner on the Duhare was ignored by American anthropologists, but taken seriously in Ireland. I was interviewed by several Irish TV and radio stations. Since then I have learned that 18th century British settlers in South Carolina and Georgia believed that Gaelic Christian refugees from Ireland had settled that region during the Early Medieval Period in order to escape persecution by the Roman Church and raids by the Vikings. A Danish professor named Raffen wrote down this legend in an early 19th century scholarly article named Antiguitates Americanas. He produced a map from Iceland that showed provinces named Hvitramannaland (White Mans Land) and Irland det Mikla (New Ireland) that was included in the Icelandic sagas of Thorfin and Eyrbyggja. The story was scoffed at by late 19th century and 20th century scholars because everyone knew that the Vikings never sailed their långbåtar (long ships) to North America.

Water Peoples around the Southeast

The first mention of a Southeastern indigenous word for “Water People” is found in the De Soto Chronicles. In March of 1540, de Soto visited the province in present day northeast Georgia called Okvte (Ocute in Spanish). That’s “Water People” in Itsate. The Okvte lived on the Upper Oconee River. The also went by the name of Okvni, which means “born from water.” They spoke a Creek language that included many Itza Maya and Totonac words. Linguistically, there is nothing about the Okvte to link them to Europe.

The French made friends with the Ouete when constructing Charlesfort in Port Royal Sound, SC. They renewed that friendship in 1564, when exploring the Georgia coast from Fort Caroline. Flowing through the heartland of the Ouete is the Ogeechee River. That word is the Anglicization of the Itsate word, Okvsi (pronounced Õ- : kä : shē), which means “Offspring of water” or “river merchant” in the local lingo. English speakers typically wrote a Muskogee “k” sound as a “g.” Hence Mvskoke became Muskogee.

Spanish explorers found a Native People living in the Okefenokee Swamp called the Okonee, just like the name of the Water People in northeast Georgia and Carolina High Country. Not knowing that Okonee is a Creek word, Florida anthropologists have called them Timucuans, because the Spanish grouped them into the Timucua Province. The Okonee farther north in Georgia believed that the Okefenokee Swamp was where their people began. These Okonee were obviously Muskogeans; at least originally.

Farther north in South Carolina, one finds an Itza Maya word for water, haw, attached to ethnic names. Also, some of the Siouans who composed part of the Catawba Alliance, were called the Siouan equivalent of Water People or River People.

The Oconaluftee River on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina also has a etymology related to the Water People. Oconaluftee has no meaning in Cherokee, but is the Anglicization of an Itsate Creek word, Okvne-lufte. It means Oconee People – isolated or cut-off.

There was also a large tribe in Virginia with a name linked to water. Their Anglicized name is the Oconaneechee. Ethnologists in Virginia long ago classified them as Southern Siouans but have no surviving words with which to make that call. They are supposedly extinct. However, when “modernizing” some 17th century Virginia archives, University of North Carolina scholars deleted the word Oconaneechee and substituted the word Cherokee, in order to prove that 17th century Virginians made contact with the Cherokees. They figured that if the Oconee lived where the Cherokees now have a reservation, the Oconee were obviously Cherokees. There was a large five sided Oconee mound on the Qualla Reservation in Birdtown until the late 1980s, when it was replaced by a sewage treatment plant.

Virginia text books will also tell you that the Tamahiti (Tomahitan in Anglicized Algonquin) were Algonquins, who became extinct in the early 1700s. Actually, the Tamahiti had an Itza Maya name meaning “merchant people” and they showed up in Southeast Georgia about the same time that they disappeared from Virginia maps.

Getting back to the Oconaneechi . . . Europeans always wrote a Muskogean “sh” sound as a “che” sound. Knowing that, the etymology of the word is easy. They called themselves, the Okonesi, pronounced Õ : kō : nē : shē. The word means “Offspring of the Okonee.”


With so many different languages associated with indigenous provinces named “Water People,” it is impossible to say where the Water People came from. It could well be that “Water People” was a generic term for any tribe that arrived on the South Atlantic Coast via boats.

A lot of mysteries to be solved!

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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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