Only one group of Native people in North America, who we call the Cherokee, ever created a written language. This unfortunately came late in their history as a people. No written accounts of their history were ever produced by the Native people of North America. This forces researchers and scholars studying those cultures into a narrow range of source material. Some of that material is (1) archaeology, (2) the oral histories of Native people, (3) the written accounts of explorers, traders, Indian agents and missionaries and (4) documented interviews with Native people who survived “Indian Removal.” Scholars attempting to classify various groups of Native people into what is commonly referred to as tribes, do so on a linguistic basis. In other words, certain groups of Native people shared linguistic patterns and similarities. Scholars have determined this could indicate they also shared a common and cohesive culture over long periods of time. The study of linguistic patterns and similarities is a complicated field of endeavor. The fine details are best left to the highly trained. The language family approach continues to be one of the most popular methods of grouping Native people.
The geographic area we refer to today as southwest Georgia was an ancient home for Native people long before Georgia or The United States of America were concepts. Most agree, Native people of one description or another inhabited the southern portion of Georgia for thousands of years prior to, for instance, the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida. By the year 1500 A.D. there had been several probes by European explorers into what are now the states of Florida and Georgia.
Before moving ahead, there is one important thing to remember regarding the Native people of the southern United States. It is not conclusive to say a certain group of Native people was from a specific place. These people were by nature “hunters and gatherers.” For them life could easily be a moveable feast. Just as importantly, increasing White population led to dramatic events resulting in the major relocation of some groups of Native people. The desire to have better access to European trade goods also caused many Native people to relocate on a regular basis.
Around the year 1500 A.D., there were two major Native language families represented in what is now the state of Georgia. They were Iroquois and Muskogee. The Cherokee may rightfully be referred to as the southern most branch of the Iroquois people. Their language family is better known and more often associated with the eastern Great Lakes and upper State New York. The Muskogee people, as opposed to the Cherokee, were a very widely dispersed population consisting of several independent branches. In this article those independent branches will be referred to as tribes. Muskogee tribes were spread across the southeastern United States as follows: the Chickasaw in Arkansas, west Tennessee and northern Mississippi, the Choctaw in Mississippi and western Alabama, and other groups who were spread across Georgia and into lower part of South Carolina who would later be collectively referred to as Creeks. In spite of their large population and geographic dispersion, these Muskogee people were connected by a common language family.
Hernando DeSoto’s expedition of 1539 was the first to interact forcefully and significantly over an extended period of time with the Native people of the southeastern United States. His travels and experiences are considered one of the most well documented explorations of the period. Landing in the vicinity of Tampa Bay he worked his way north through central Florida, made a western turn near present-day Lake City, Florida and then continued west to just beyond today’s Aucilla River. The Native people he encountered west of the Aucilla River were the Apalachee. At the time they inhabited the area between the Aucilla and Ochlocknee Rivers. When leaving the Apalachee territory he turned north-northeast into Georgia.
Upon entering Georgia, DeSoto’s expedition encountered Muskogee tribes. A few of them spoke the dialect of Hitchiti which he had experienced with the Apalachee. The vast majority however spoke what many scholars refer to as Muskogee Proper. The tribes he met in Georgia were located at various points near the Chattahoochee, Flint, Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers. The names he recorded for some of them were Kawita (now known as Coweta), Cofitachique (now known as Kasitah), Toa (now known as Tamali), Ochisi (now known as Ohceesees) and Altamaha.
During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries England, Spain and France competed desperately to win and maintain favor with the Native people of North America. This was of course a matter of self interest related to trade and territorial expansion. Those efforts in the present-day states of Georgia and Florida mainly involved England and Spain. The English worked out of Charleston, Savannah and the “back country” of Georgia and South Carolina. Spain worked out of their port cities of St. Augustine and St. Marks. England eventually gained the upper hand in trade with Native people in the southeastern United States. They were able to hold and maintain that control until the war with their American colonies. The newly formed American government took a generally harder line with Native people than had England or Spain. Some bad blood with various Native groups had come out of the Revolutionary War, particularly in “back country” areas. Just as significant was the insatiable thirst for land by citizens of the newly formed United States of America.
By the time of the War of 1812, all the Native people of southwest Georgia were generally referred to by the White population as Creeks. These were Muskogee language family speakers who were spread up and down both sides of the Chattahoochee River and also irregularly across what is today central and southwest Georgia. Independent as well as government sanctioned traders more often than not referred to the Native people with whom they worked by the names those people called themselves. For the average man on the street and most politicians however, the Native people of southwest Georgia were Creeks. One exception was a group of mixed tribes in Florida whom the Whites referred to collectively as Seminoles.
Due to their support of Great Britain during the War of 1812, a large part of the remaining tribal land of the Creek people in Georgia and Alabama was stripped from them in 1814 by the Treaty of Fort Jackson. These forfeited tribal lands were used to create what is today southwest Georgia. In 1818 the State of Georgia surveyed and laid out three counties from land ceded by the Creek nation. Those counties were Appling, Early and Irwin. These three counties were later subdivided to form Decatur from Early in 1823, Thomas from Decatur and Early in 1824, Ware from Appling in 1824 and Lowndes from Irwin in 1825.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the President of the United States to negotiate with Native people in the southern States for their removal to territory west of the Mississippi River. Disagreement and resentment over this Act among the Creeks, and more particularly the Seminoles, resulted in the Seminole Wars of 1818 to 1842. Those conflicts sealed the fate of the Creek and Seminole people of Georgia and Florida and resulted in their eventual removal from the area. Some remnant bands of Seminoles were able to retreat so deeply into the Everglades, the hope of finding and securing them was eventually abandoned. They were predominantly of the “Miccosukee Band.” Descendants of this “Band” still live in the Everglades area of south Florida. Their language remains one of the best examples of what was the Hitchiti dialect of Muskogee language family.
The Native people removed from Georgia and Florida were transferred to U.S. territory we know today as the State of Oklahoma. Tribes who had maintained an identifiable population under a specific name were allocated tracts of land on that basis. That included the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. Those allocations of land exist today as Indian Reservations within the State of Oklahoma.
The writer recommends the following sources for those wishing to extend their knowledge of Native American culture in southwest Georgia.
Early History of The Creek Indians & Their Neighbors, John R. Swanton, University Press of Florida, Gainesville et al, copyright 1923 Board of Regents of the State of Florida, Originally 1922 by the Smithsonian Institution
Creek Country, The Creek Indians and Their World, Robbie Ethridge, 2003, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press
Indian Removal, The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians, Grant Foreman, 1972 Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, with a foreword by Angie Debo
Please note: These articles are based on research conducted by the writer/author utilizing a variety of reliable source material. Those wishing to learn more regarding source material utilized or those who may have any other questions, should contact the writer/author via South Georgia Today. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without express written permission from the author.