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Who were the Yamasee?

Who exactly were the Yamasee?

This article includes a glossary of Native American words and the ethnic groups in the Yamasee Alliance.

There is a great amount of confusion among historians and anthropologists concerning the ethnic identity of the Yamasee People. The writings of Dr. John E. Worth provide extensive details on the Yamasee from a Spanish perspective, but Worth’s Yamasee research seldom makes it into the mainstream references. Most readers get the impression that the Yamasee were merely a branch of the Creek Indians, who became extinct after losing a war with Great Britain. Their history was much more complex than that.

The root of this confusion is the same old problem . . . use of pre-European pottery styles or contemporary tribal labels to define Colonial Period ethnicity and a lack of research into primary, eyewitness sources. In the case of the Yamasees, those primary sources are indigenous language dictionaries, plus the writings of René de Laudonnière, Charles de Rochefort and Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville.

The word Yamasee first appeared on European maps in the last quarter of the 17th century. In 1675, a Spanish officer named Lieutenant Pedro de Arcos, listed some Yamasee mission villages. After Carolina was initially settled in 1671, the word was applied by English colonists to an alliance of tribal towns in the Coastal Plain of Georgia and the southern tip of what is now, South Carolina. There is no evidence that the Yamasee originally called themselves by that name, but rather, it was the ethnic label applied to that alliance by Creek-speakers. These allied provinces were not composed of one ethnic group, but several. The member provinces were not closely related to the Creek Indians, but rather traditional adversaries of the Creeks’ ancestors.

According Charles de Rochefort, the southern boundary of the “kingdom” of Apalache (Original Creek Confederacy) was always about 20 leagues south of the confluence of the Oconee and Ocmulgee River on the upper Altamaha River. During the period when Rochefort wrote, there was a massive, shallow lake just north of this confluence called Lake Tama. Its vestige is the Little Ocmulgee River Swamp. South of this lake were peoples that Rochefort described as originating in the Caribbean Basin or South America. These non-Creek peoples became the core of the Yamasee, but apparently they took in refugees fleeing the Native American slave raids that began in 1661, when Virginia institutionalized slavery. Later on, the Yamasee also took part in slave raids in order to settle debts with Carolina traders.

In 1715 the Yamasee Alliance killed some prominent South Carolina officials at a diplomatic conference then launched a sudden attack on the plantations and villages of South Carolina. This was done in collaboration with the major Native tribes in the Southeast. Within a few days, most of the South Carolina based Indian traders in the Southeast were dead. Virginia-based traders were generally not harmed.

More so than any other time in American history, Native tribes came close to completely wiping out a British colony. In the second phase of the war, the allied towns at the headwaters of the Savannah River, murdered all the Mountain Apalache, Koweta and Kusa leaders at a diplomatic conference in Tugaoloo then changed sides. The Yamasee were eventually devastated by a Carolina counterattack.

At the close of the Yamasee War in 1717, a new name appeared in the Colonial archives, Charakee. Many of the surviving Yamasee fled to Florida. The area around the confluence of the Altamaha and Ohoopee River was still labeled “Yamasees” until the mid-18th century. The word “Creek Indians” would not appear on the maps until the late 1730s.

One thing is very odd about this war. The Yamasee War was prosecuted by the Native America tribes exactly as spelled out in a written war plan prepared by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville in 1702 while he was collaborating with Spanish military officials in Pensacola. At the time, the Queen Annes War was being fought between Great Britain and an alliance that included Spain and France.

The stated objective of this war plan was to eradicate the Colony of South Carolina, which France claimed as Florida François. After the allied towns on the headwaters of the Savannah River changed sides, d’Iberville’s war plan fell apart. Nevertheless, no histories of the Yamasee War ever mention French manipulations behind the scenes.

Yamasee Glossary

  1. Yama – Word used by several peoples on the Gulf Coast of Mexico (including the Totonacs) for an agricultural clearing in the forest, i.e. slash and burn agriculture. The equivalent word in Yucatec Maya is milpa.
  2. Yama – The indigenous province on the Mobile, Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, north of the coastal province known as Am Ixchel. Yama could well be the actual name of the large town at Moundville National Historic Landmark in Alabama.
  3. Yama – The Muskogee-Creek word for the Mobilian Trade Jargon. In colonial time, the Mobilian trade jargon was derived from the language spoken by the Mapile People of the Mobile River basin. Mapa-le means “Merchant People” in the language formerly spoken in Tamaulipas State, Mexico.
  4. Yamasi – The Itsate and Muskogee Creek word meaning “Offspring of Yama.” This means that the peoples labeled “Yamasi” by the Creeks were originally from the Mobile-Tombigbee River region or that they used the Mobilian Trade Jargon in contacts with neighboring provinces. The Creek label may also be somewhat pejorative and refer to a cryptic alliance between the French colonists on the Mobile River and the Native provinces in southeastern Georgia.
  5. Toa – An Arawak province in north-central Puerto Rico and also on the Lower Ocmulgee River in Georgia. Hernando de Soto visited Toa in early spring of 1540.
  6. Toasi – Creek word meaning “offspring or satellite town of Toa. The Anglicization of this word is Towasee. Towasee resettled in central Alabama during the 1700s. By then, they spoke a language that mixed Arawak and Muskogee. Some Toasi may have remained and been part of the Yamasee Alliance.
  7. Tamakoa (Thamagua in de Laudonnière’s book) – This is a hybrid Totonac-Arawak word meaning “Trade People.” The same word in Itstate Creek and Itza Maya would be Tama-tli, Tama-te or Tama-le. Tamakoa is probably the Arawak name for the Tamatli. René de Laudonnière stated that they lived about 100 miles up the May (Altamaha) River and were arch-enemies of the provinces on the coast of present day Georgia and northwestern Florida.
  8. Thamagua – The original name of Commerce, GA in Northeast Georgia, 18 miles north of Athens – after a Native American town by that name. It is on a source of the Oconee River, which is a major tributary of the Altamaha River. René de Laudonnière planned to build the capital of New France on the Oconee River, approximately where the University of Georgia is now located.
  9. Palachicola – This was a non-Creek ethnic group in southeast Georgia that controlled the land between the Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers and along an extensive territory in southern South Carolina. They apparently were at one time members of Yamasee Alliance, but did not flee southward to Florida, after the Yamasee were defeated. “Cola” is the Gulf Coastal dialect word for “people or ethnic group.” Today, the word means, Biloxi People, in Muskogee. The Biloxi actually called themselves the Palache. The tiny village whose French pronunciation gave Biloxi, MS its name was just an isolated trading post far to the west of the main body of Palache.
    The Palachicola considered themselves kin to the Apalache in northern Georgia, who originally occupied a province from the south face of the Blue Ridge down to Athens and Atlanta. Neither the Palache or the Apalache were mound builders, but in northern Georgia used field stones extensively in their construction.
    The capital of the Palachicola was named Chikoli. It was visited by trade representatives from Fort Caroline. It appears on French maps throughout the 1600s and early 1700s. By 1732 the Palache had joined the Creek Confederacy. The Palache war chief, Chikole, presented the famous “Migration legend of the Creek People” on a buffalo calf vellum to General James Oglethorpe. The writing system on the vellum consisted of abstract red and black characters, not pictures.
  10. Okasi (Ogeechee) – The Ogeechee River Basin may well be the Motherland of the Yuchi Indians. The Okasi were Yuchees, who by the 1700s spoke a language that included many Muskogean and Maya words. They were known to the French as consummate traders, who supplied salt to the interior. Their capital was a three mound town on the Ogeechee River in present day Talliaferro County, GA but apparently, It is possibly the town named Kofita that was visited by de Soto.
    Okasi means Offspring of Water in Creek. They were probably the origin of the Yuchi Water Clan. Yuchi tradition holds that their ancestors came across the sea from the land of the sun to settle in North America.
    The Okasi were apparently members of the Yamassee Alliance. They were devastated by the Yamasee War. The survivors maintained their Yuchi identity, but associated with the emerging Creek Confederacy.
  11. Alekmani – The Alekmani were a people of South American origin, who dominated the Lower Altamaha River. Their recorded words are all Tupi-Guarani or Quechua. They were described as being friendly next door neighbors to Fort Caroline. Alekmani means “Medicine People.” They cultivated chichona trees then traded the bark containing quinine to provinces in the mountains for greenstone, gold and crystals. They moved inland after the Spanish began establishing missions on the coast.
    The Alekmain were apparently core members of the Yamasee Alliance. Their name disappeared from the maps after the Yamasee War, except for a Creek town on the Altamaha River named Alek Talula (Doctor Town.) By the 1700, alek was the Creek word for a medical doctor.

The Utina

The province of Utina probably played the same dominant role in forming the Yamasee Alliance that the Muskogee played in the formation of the Creek Confederacy. This powerful province was frequently mentioned by de Laudonnière. It controlled trade on the Middle Altamaha River Basin. Its capital, Utinahica (“Utina-place of” in Arawak) was located six miles up the Ohoopee River from its confluence with the Altamaha. The location is now a designated archaeological zone with multiple mounds.

The Utina words recorded by de Laudonnière are a mixture of Tupi-Guarani, Muskogean, Arawak and Maya. Their political titles were either Muskogean or Maya. The coastal tribes near the mouth of the Altamaha used Quechua political titles. One of those tribes actually cultivated the tree from which quinine is made. The Utina apparently did not speak the same language as any of the provinces south of the Altamaha, but were allied with the towns that the Spanish would soon call the Guale.

In 1565 Pierre Gambié happened to be on a trade mission to the Apalache in the Georgia Mountains, when Fort Caroline was massacred. He remained in Utinahica and married the king’s daughter. He later became king himself. While king he at least temporarily expanded the Utina Kingdom to include much of the territory that a century later would be called the Yamasee.

The mission of Santa Isbela de Utinahica was founded at or near Utinahica in 1610. The confluence of the Altamaha and Ohoopee was the original location called “the Forks of the Altamaha.” The mission’s actual location is downstream about 50 miles from where the Fernbank Museum fruitlessly searched for six years.

At about the same time that a mission was founded at Utinahica, the Spanish constructed a relatively straight road and a line of small mission along the northwestern edge of Lake Serape, now the Okefenokee Swamp, to the confluence of the Altamaha and Ohoopee Rivers. It was standard procedure for the Spanish in Florida to build roads then establish regularly spaced missions along them. The road still existed at the time of the Yamasee War, although the missions were gone.

One of the great ironies of the early 1700s was that the Yamasee Alliance played a major role in destroying what was left of the Spanish mission system in Florida. However, when defeated decisively by the British colonists, many Yamasee fled to the exact same region where they had once captured Christian Native American slaves.

And now you know!

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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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