Will the real Appalachian history please stand up
- March 27, 2013
- By: Richard Thornton
Native American history of the Southern Appalachians
Approximately 90% or more of the letters to this column are from readers with Native American ancestry in the Appalachian region, from Ohio and Pennsylvanian southward. Virtually all have the same dilemma. Their family’s heritage or their tribe’s history do not jive with the “official” Native American histories and maps adopted by the United States Department of the Interior. It is obvious that there is more confusion about the Native American history of the Southern Appalachians than any other part of North America.
Most common are the complaints of Shawnee, Chickasaw and Yuchi Indians. Branches of the Shawnee were once spread across the region from Ohio to Florida. There are Shawnee geographical place names in all the states there and between. The Chickasaws know that their territory once stretched from the Mississippi River to the Smokies, and also included towns in Georgia. The Yuchi’s were once scattered over most of the Southeastern United States. According to the official maps of the U.S. Department of Interior, however, the Shawnees, Chickasaws and Yuchi were never there and their homelands were always Cherokee.
For the next two months, this column will focus on the Native American history of the Southern Appalachians, from Pennsylvania to Alabama. We will be looking at all the known tribes of the region. Not just those that are today federally recognized. The series will generally be presented in a chronological order so that it can be saved for educational purposes. However, the first and second articles of the series will explain events in the 1700s and early 1800s that caused the region’s history to be so thoroughly distorted in our era.
A secret history
The Trail of Tears put many Southeastern Native Americans in a fog of cultural amnesia, but Cherokee society had been devastated long before then. There was a “Golden Period” in the 1720s, when the Cherokees were heroes in the eyes of South Carolina colonists for their role in saving the colony during the Yamasee War (1715-1717.) In that decade Cherokee territory and population expanded dramatically. However, during the period between 1734 and 1793, the Cherokee people probably lost at least ¾ of their population to plagues and wars. Things got worse as the 18th century progressed.
European maps in the late 1600s and early 1700s showed the Southern Highlands being occupied by several branches of the Creek Indians, the Shawnee, the Chickasaw, the Yuchi and the Apalachee. The words, Charaqui or Charakee, first appeared on European maps in 1717. They were placed on the territory formerly labeled “Rickohocken Indians” in Virginia and the northeastern tip of Tennessee, plus over the extreme northwestern tip of South Carolina. By 1732 a tribe labeled, the Cherokees, was shown occupying a 50-75 mile wide corridor, stretching from northeastern Tennessee to the northeastern tip of South Carolina.
In early 1754, the British Crown “gave” the Cherokees an enormous territory in eastern Tennessee that was occupied by the Chickasaws, Shawnees and Yuchi, who were allies of the French. This was done as payment for the Cherokees’ agreement to send 200 warriors to fight the Indian allies of the French in upstate New York. In fact, Cherokee villages never occupied any of this new territory until after the American Revolution, and then, only a small portion of it. That imaginary territory became the basis of all official Department of Interior maps that show the “traditional territory of the Cherokee Indians.”
The 1754 grant did not include any land in the present state of Georgia. The Creeks continued to occupy all lands west of Brasstown Bald Mountain and south of the Nacoochee Valley until 1785. A 1780 British Army map showed three small Cherokee hamlets in the northeastern tip of the province, containing an estimated 25 men of military age. During the French & Indian War Period, the area actually occupied by Cherokee villages shrank by over a third after the Koweta and Upper Creeks took back lands lost in the 1720s when the Cherokees were at the height of their military power.
The 40 year Creek-Cherokee War ended catastrophically for the Cherokees later in 1754. An army from a single Creek town, named Koweta (west-central Georgia) destroyed all Cherokee villages in the portions of North Carolina and northeast Georgia occupied by the Creeks prior to 1717. At least 32 Cherokee chiefs were summarily executed. A group of teenage girls from Koweta, who were following their boyfriends around North Carolina, as a lark, pretended to be a Koweta army about to attack the principal Cherokee town of Quanasee. The Cherokee garrison fled in terror without putting up a fight. The girls then occupied and burned Quanasee.
The Valley and Lower Cherokees were essentially exterminated by Koweta’s blitzkrieg-like military campaign. For years afterward, visitors to the Creek town of Koweta, near present day Carrollton, GA, were shown the place on the Chattahoochee River where the captured Cherokee chiefs were burned at the stake.
The humiliation caused by the army of the town of Koweta defeating the entire Cherokee Nation has left a psychological scar far deeper than outsiders can imagine. This catastrophe is left out of Cherokee history courses on the reservation, while an invasion by British Colonial forces four years later is lamented. Cherokee students are not told that the Coweta Creeks (Mountain Lion People) originated in the North Carolina Mountains. The Coweeta, Cowee and Nikasee Mounds are labeled by North Carolina archaeologists as being built and occupied by Cherokees.
As will be explained in Part Two, Cherokee leaders originally told their own people that they arrived in the Southern Highlands at about the same time that the British began colonizing South Carolina. This story changed when the primary legal grounds for the State of Georgia wanting them “evicted” was that the Cherokees were squatters, who were not indigenous to the Southeast.
A historical irony comes from the early 1830s, when Cherokees and white settlers were briefly in direct contact in northern Georgia. Cherokees fighting deportation from their new home in northwest Georgia told stories to white frontiersmen of great victories in 1754 in which the Cherokees conquered all of northern Georgia . . . of the Cherokees living for hundreds of years at locations such as Track Rock Gap and Etowah Mounds that they only tenuously occupied for a generation, if at all.
Georgia militiamen dutifully wrote down the yarns as they stole the Cherokee’s farms at bayonet point. These “tall stories” became official history that is now stated as fact on a dozen state historical markers around Georgia’s mountains and virtually all state history books. The truth of horrific events in 1754 can be seen on the famous 1755 map created by North Carolina cartographer, John Mitchell. The words, DESERTED CHERAKEE SETTLEMENTS, were boldly written across a broad swath of the Southern Highlands.
In Part Two of this series, the amazing achievements of a group of early 19th century Cherokee leaders will be discussed. The multiple tragedies of the Trail of Tears Period partially explain the distorted history of the Southern Appalachians today. Go to: http://www.examiner.com/native-american-history-in-national/richard-thornton for his columns