Who were the Suala Indians?

December 29, 2013

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 the village of 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 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 Shū :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 Saluda

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 (th 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 and repeated their statements from the breakfast meeting. Soon a historical marker was placed near Biltmore Village that replicated 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 terminated after archaeologists excavated the Biltmore Mound and found it to 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, 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 Kusa that 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 the internet.

English: A map showing the de Soto expedition ...
English: A map showing the de Soto expedition route through the future U.S. states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tenesse, and Alabama. Based on the Charles M. Hudson map of 1997. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

Readers wishing to ask Richard Thornton questions concerning architecture, urban planning or Native American history may contact him at NativeQuestion@aol.com.

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