Origin of the Cherokee - Part 2 of 5

  • Monday, September 15, 2014
  • Chuck Hamilton

Cherokee Country at Spanish contact

There were no Cherokee in “Cherokee Country” at Spanish contact, of course, since there were no Cherokee anywhere at the time because they did not exist as a people.  The area in which they later lived, the Appalachian Summit and the contiguous areas in the Carolina Piedmont and the Ridge and Valley region of East Tennessee, was inhabited mostly by Muskogean-speaking and some Eastern Siouan-speaking people who were demonstrably not Cherokee.

Like all Mississippians, the dominant political structure of the Muskogeans was the chiefdom, governed by an “orata” from the mound center, with satellite hamlets and individual homesteads.  In many cases, these chiefdoms, in turn, paid homage to a paramount chiefdom, whose ruler was a mico.  This was the typical structure of the Late Mississippian period.  De Soto, De Luna, and Pardo encountered ten chiefdoms ruled by micos in our target area: Guale, Mocama, Orista, Escamacu, Cofitachequi, Guatari, Joara, Chiaha, Coosa, and Tascaluza.

Hernando de Soto ventured through the Carolinas, East Tennessee, North Georgia, and Northeast Alabama in 1540.  Tristan de Luna’s party visited North Georgia then Southeast Tennessee (specifically the Chattanooga area) from their colony on the Alabama River in 1560.  Juan Pardo’s troops traveled through the Carolinas and East Tennessee in 1567 and1568 from the then capital of La Florida at Santa Elena on Parris Island, South Carolina.

The following is a brief sketch of the lay of the land as the Spanish encountered it in their entradas of the sixteenth century.  Information from the chroniclers of the various entradas plus brief sketches of archaeology, demonstrates that there was simply no room for the Cherokee in Cherokee Country in the sixteenth century.  The Spanish chroniclers mention numerous towns, or tribes, whom their leaders encountered.  More inland, in areas the Spanish brushed without entering, lay towns whose record is mostly archaeological.

One of the terms I’ll be using is “phase”, as in “Dallas Phase”.  An archaeological “phase” is the physical cultural complex within a defined region between two given points during a certain time period.  It does not necessarily correspond to ethnic group or language.

The central feature of these, like all Mississippian phases, were seats of central power with large platform mounds, of which thirty-three existed in the Dallas Phase region and fifty in the Middle Cumberland Basin.  Not all were simultaneous, of course, many of those close together were sequentially and some sites were inhabited, abandoned, and reinhabited,

Coastal Plain at Spanish contact

Leaving Santa Elena, the Coastal Plain north of the Savannah River was dominated by two paramount chiefdoms: Orista (Edisto) and Escamacu.  The towns subject to them included Ahoya, Witcheough, Wimbe, Toupa, Mayon, Stalame, Combahee, Kussah, and Ashepo.  All of these are collectively referred to as the Cusabo, and they may have spoken forms of the Arawak languages of the Caribbean.

Across the Savannah, the Coastal Plain between the Savannah and the Timucua peoples in northern Florida fell under the paramount chiefdoms of Guale and Mocama, north and south of the Altamaha River respectively.

Carolina Piedmont at Spanish contact

Moving inland, you would first encounter Cofitachequi in the vicinity of modern Camden, South Carolina.  Pardo knew the town as Canos; its people later became the Cusseta, or Kasihta, of the Creek Confederacy.  At the time of De Soto’s expedition in 1540, Cofitachequi’s authority spread across most of South Carolina and a large part of North Carolina, held by a woman.  In archaeological parlance, Cofitachequi and its people and environs make up the Mulberry Phase.  Being that the Cofitachequians became the Cussetas, it’s safe to assume that most if not all within the Mulberry Phase spoke Eastern Muskogean languages.

Thirty miles due west of the western outskirts of Cofitachequi’s territory across the uninhabited stretch of the Savannah River Valley from its mid-course to its mouth lay the people whom De Soto encountered along the Oconee River known as Ocute before his entrada into Cofitachequi in 1540.  Ocute and its environs made up what archaeologists call the Dyar Phase.  Its descendants and successors were the Hitchiti, who spoke a Southern Muskogean language.

To the immediate north of Cofitachequi in the Piedmont region of North Carolina was the “province” of Chalaque, or Xalaque.  In the Mobilian trade language which was the lingua franca of the Southeast, “Chalaque” signified speakers of a different language.  De Soto’s recorders do not mention the name of the town here, but Pardo’s chroniclers called it Otari, while maps as late as the early eighteenth century refer to it by the first appellation. 

We can glean the identity of these “speakers of a foreign language” from the name of their dominant town, Xualla, which Pardo’s records call Joara.  Except for the “l” versus the “r”, the pronunciation is identical; one would surmise that De Soto’s informants were Muskogean-speaking while Pardo’s were Siouan-speaking.  The people at this town were the same later known to the English as the Siouan-speaking Sara or Cheraw.  Most Siouan-speaking groups in the area later coalesced as the Catawba.  In De Soto’s time, “Xualla” was subject to Cofitachequi but in Pardo’s time “Joara” was independent and a paramount chiefdom.  Joara was the center of what to archaeologists is the Burke Phase.

By Pardo’s later time, the eastern region north of Cofitachequi also formed a separate paramount chiefdom under the town of Guatari, whose mico in his time was a woman.  This name is even more clearly that of a Siouan-speaking people, those later known to the English as the Wateree, which held on to the most of its Mississippian culture as late as 1670.  Guatari dominated what archaeologists have named the Caraway Phase.

Remember that although so far every archaeological phase I have named has coincided with a mico’s territory that the two are not equivalent.  One is a cultural region, the other is a political entity, and sometimes the boundaries of the two overlap, as we shall see.

The lesser towns of the Carolina Piedmont, north and south, included Guiomae, Ylasi, Sanapa, Unuguaqua, Vora, Ysaa, Catapa (Catawba), Vehidi, Otari, Uraca, Achini, Ayo, Canosca, Tagaya Major, Tagaya Minor, Suhere, Suya, Uniaca, Ohebere, Aracuchi, Chiquini (a subject town of Guatari whose orata was a woman), Quinahaqui, Uchiri, Guaqiri, Tocae, Uastique, Enuque, Enxuete, Xeneca, Atuqui, Sarati, Ohebere, Guaqiri, Autqui, Osuguen, Aubesan, Pundahaque, Guanbuca, Ustehuque, Ansuhet, Guararuquet, Enxuete, Jueca, Qunaha, Vastu, and Dudca.

Having gone further north before turning west, De Soto and Pardo both missed the Tugalo Phase at the uppermost reaches of the Savannah River, which in the sixteenth century included the Chauga, Tugalo, and Estatoe sites.

Further directly west of the Tugalo Phase, on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River sat the Nacoochee Phase, its two main sites being Nacoochee and Eastwood.  Beyond there to the west was deserted until the outskirts of the paramount chiefdom of Coosa.

Appalachian Summit at Spanish contact

On the opposite side of Xualla/Joara to the west sat the town of Cauchi, the most important in its immediate area though still in the orbit of its eastern neighbor.  Different historians have tried to equate it with either of two towns down the line, but neither really stands.  Cauchi was at the time the most important town in what to archaeologists is the Middle Qualla Phase.  This was in the eastern Appalachian Summit area of western North Carolina.

What is most interesting is the names of several towns whose oratas came to meet with Pardo here, later used by the Cherokee after their arrival and coalescence: Neguase (Nequasse), Estate (Estatoe), Tacoru (Tugaloo), Utaca (Watauga), and Quetua (Kituwa).  None of these can be translated into any of the three dialects of Cherokee, not unusual for Cherokee towns, such as Chickamauga, Chatanuga, Tellico, Chatuga, Echota, Tanase, Chilhowee, Citico, Tuskegee, and Hiwassee.  The opposite case, towns having names deriving from Cherokee, was the exception rather than the rule.

In the mountains of northwestern North Carolina, past the concentric spheres of influence of Cauchi and Joara, lived the Chisca, as named by De Soto’s guides, whom Pardo’s chroniclers called the Uchee.  Obviously, these are those who still call themselves Yuchi.  Their territory spread into Upper East Tennessee and Southwestern Virginia, and was roughly coextensive with the Late Pisgah Phase.  As for their language, the Yuchi are a linguistic isolate.

The towns of the Chisca/Uchee Pardo visited were Guasili and Canasoga in Upper East Tennessee (probably on the upper Nolichucky River).  Two others were Guapere on the Watauga River, probably the same site as the later Watauga Old Fields, and Maniateque near Saltville, Virginia, both of which were destroyed by Spanish soldiers under Hernando Moyano in 1567.  The latter has been demonstrated fairly conclusively by archaeology and by examination of historical record by Jim Glanville.

Ridge and Valley at Spanish first contact

Geographically, the first two locations in this section belong to the Appalachian Summit, but politically in the sixteenth century formed part of a Ridge and Valley based polity.

A fifth  town of the Yuchi people was the only one subject to outside control: Tanasqui, at the confluence of the French Broad and Pigeon Rivers.  Tanasqui at the time seemed to be subject to the chiefdom on its immediate south.

At Zimmerman’s Island near the modern Dandridge, Tennessee, on the French Broad lay the major town of Chiaha, then the dominant chiefdom in East Tennessee.  The town was also called Olamico, and now lies beneath Douglas Lake.  The people were later called the Chehaw.  The people of Chiaha spoke a Southern Muskogean language mutually intelligible with Hitchiti and Oconee. 

 Most archaeologists and historians consider Chiaha’s subject town of Tanasqui the northernmost limits of the paramount chiefdom of Coosa.  I completely disagree with that idea, however, given that the chief of Chiaha was a mico in his own right according to all the annalists.

Both De Soto and Pardo stayed at Chiaha.  De Soto’s chroniclers mention no other towns in the vicinity, but Pardo met oratas from Cansoga, Utahaque, Anduque, Enjuete, Guannguaca, Tucahe, Guaruruquete, and Anxuete there.  Five leagues due west of there, he met the oratas of Otape, Jasire, and Fumica at his camp in the open.

At Chiaha, we begin the Dallas Phase, to which archaeologists have assigned almost all of East and Southeastern Tennessee, at least up to now.  Here the Spanish saw their first palisaded towns due to hostilities with Chisca.  Other archaeological townsites besides Zimmerman’s Island on the French Broad known to exist in the sixteenth century were Henderson 1, Fain Island, and Brakebill at its confluence with the Holston River.  McMahan and Henderson 2 in the Forks-of-the-Pigeon district in the vicinity.  Halfway between Brakebill and Coste on Bussell’s Island is another on Post Oak Island.

South of Chiaha in the Holston Valley, De Soto found the town of Coste (Coushatta) on Bussell’s Island at the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, later home to the Overhill Towns of the Cherokee.  Its people spoke a Western Muskogean language closely related to Alabama, Choctaw, and Chickasaw.

From Coste, De Soto traveled upriver and encamped his expedition on the riverbank across from the town of Tali on McKee Island which formed part of the Toqua site just south of where the Great Indian Warpath between Mobile and Newfoundland forded the Little Tennessee. 

Nearly thirty years later, Pardo came down the Little Tennessee from Chiaha through a rough pass through the mountains through Chalahume (Chilhowee) headed toward Coste, stopping for the night at Satapo (Citico).  Another sixteenth century town site lay upriver from Chalahume at Talasee, through or past which Pardo had to traverse but never mentioned.  Pardo turned went back to Chiaha via a much less arduous route to avoid an ambush.

De Soto, on the other hand, turned south at Tali headed toward Coosa along the Warriors Path, which bisected the Great Indian Warpath at Vonore, Tennessee, going north to the Ohio River and southwest to the Coosa Valley.

The next town De Soto and his troops encountered after their turn south was Tasqui, which from the accounts can only have been the Late Mississippian site at Great Tellico near modern Tellico Plains.  Here the the Trading Path (aka Unicoi Turnpike) branched off toward the mountains in the east and the piedmont beyond.

From Tasqui, the next stop was Tasquiqui, whose people become known to the English and French as the Tuskegee.  The Tuskegee spoke a Western Muskogean language, so it is not unlikely that the other villages along the whole route from Coste to there did also.  The town of Tasquiqui can only have been at the later Great Hiwassee, now the site of Savannah Farm near Delano, Tennessee.

Tasquiqui was the last town of the Dallas Phase on the road De Soto’s road to Coosa.  De Soto’s chroniclers did not name it nor Tasqui, rather when Pardo stayed in Satapo contemplating the later aborted journey to Coosa, his informants named them.

Leaving Tasquiqui, De Soto arrived in Coosa two days later after staying the night at an unnamed village or town which was probably in the vicinity of Ellijay. Coosa was the most powerful town of its day, dominating the entire Coosawattee Valley, the upper Coosa Valley, and parts of Southeast Tennessee.  Though it was at its northeast extremity, Coosa was the center of the culture archaeologists call the Barnett Phase, lying at what they call the Little Egypt site at Coosawattee, now under Carters Lake in northern Murray County, Georgia.

The rest of the towns of the Barnett Phase from northeast to southwest the large abandoned townsite of Talimuchasi at the Etowah Indian Mounds; Itaba (Itawa), at the Leak site; Ulibahali (Hotliwahali), at the Coosa Country Club site in Rome, Georgia; Apica (Abihka), at the King site; Onachiqui; Tuasi (Tawasa); and, finally, Talisi (Tallassee), near modern Childersburg, Alabama, on the border with the paramount chiefdom of Tazcaluza. 

The towns in Coosa’s realm spoke dialects of Eastern Muskogean languages.  The last two towns tenuously under Coosa (Tuasi and Talisi) belonged to what archaeologists call the Kymulga Phase, while that of Tazcalusa covered roughly the same area as the Moundville III Phase.

Returning back to Coste at the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, had De Soto headed west and travelled down the Tennessee River instead of turning south, he would have encountered once sizable towns on Huffin Island, then at De Armond below it, perhaps also at Thief’s Neck peninsula below there.

Beyond that collection of towns lay the group of settlements in the Hiwassee Valley and its vicinity known as the Mouse Creek Phase, which were abandoned shortly before or shortly after De Soto’s entrada.  Ledford Island in the Hiwassee River was the largest, and there were also towns on North Mouse Creek, South Mouse Creek, the Rymer site on the south bank at Charleston Landing, the Ocoee site on Ocoee River just above its confluence with the Hiwassee, the Sale Creek site on the Tennessee, and the Upper Hampton site just north of Euchee Old Fields at Rhea Springs.

The Great Indian Warpath forded the Hiwassee at Charleston, Tennessee, near the Rymer site, intersecting the Black Fox Trail, between Black Fox Springs (Murfreesboro) and the southwest tip of North Carolina, at the Calhoun, Tennessee.

The next group of towns in the Tennessee Valley we learn about from both archaeology and from the chronicles of De Luna’s 1560 expedition north from the newly-established colony of Santa Cruz on the Alabama River to the town of Coosa in Northwest Georgia.  While he was there to secure food and supplies and more firmly establish the Coosa-Spain alliance, the mico of Coosa requested he and his men take part in an expedition to put down a revolt by one of his subject peoples.

From descriptions of the terrain of these people, the Napochi, and the route to get to them there is little doubt of their geographic area: Southeast Tennessee.  In this part of the sixteenth century, there were five towns Dallas Phase towns in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area.  From southeast to northwest, these were at the “Little Owl Village” at Audobon Acres; the David Davis site at Vulcan Recreation; the Citico site at the mouth of Citico Creek (not to be mistaken for the other Citico site on Little Tennessee River); the Hampton Place site on Moccasin Point; and the Talimico site on Williams Island.

The joint Coosa-New Spain force attacked the town at Audobon Acres, only to find it deserted, so they burned it to the ground.  They then followed the trail of the refugees to the Citico site on the Tennessee River.  Here had been an important town during most of the Hiwassee Phase and in the Early Dallas Phase before being abandoned around 1300.  In its heyday, it was the most important town in East Tennessee.  After being deserted for a century and a half, people returned, building a much smaller mound opposite the older, much bigger mound.

The two groups of refugees fled across the river, probably at Ross Shoals just above the head of Maclellan Island.  After some back and forth, the “rebels” agreed to pay tribute in food and goods three times a year.  Then the invaders returned to Coosa in triumph.  From Pardo’s informants we learn that the name of this town that was burned was Olitifar, a corruption of the Muskogee name Opelika.

Several miles downstream from the Napochi towns, at the head of yet another Long Island, this one straddling the Tennessee-Alabama stateline, was the southwesternmost Dallas Phase town, one of the multi-mound variety. 

The Great Indian Warpath crossed the river at the foot of the island, then passed along the left bank until merging with the Cisca and St. Augustine Trail (between Nashville and Augusta and St. Augustine) until passing over the foot of Lookout Mountain in the east.  A branch of the Cisca and St. Augustine known as the Nickajack Trail split off at the mouth of Murphy’s Hollow, passing up it to Lookout Valley then over Lookout Mountain, rejoining its parent among the ridges of North Georgia.

Below Long Island, the Crow Creek Phase stretched down to the river’s westward bend at Guntersville, Alabama, with major townsites at Sauty at the mouth of North Sauty Creek, Crow Creek Island, and the Cox site four miles north of the latter and the most important of the three.

North and west of this lay the Vacant Quarter, comprised of the Middle Cumberland region, uninhabited since 1400, and the American Bottom, uninhabited since a century before that.

Central Mississippi Valley at Spanish contact

Though my main purpose with the foregoing discussion has been to demonstrate how full of other peoples the later Cherokee Country was in the sixteenth century, I need to include encounters from the other end of Tennessee because some of them will enter the picture in subsequent discussion.

After travelling through northern and central Alabama, a journey which included the Battle of Mauvilla, De Soto encountered the Chicaza and the Alibamu in eastern central Mississippi before traveling northwest to come out at the Mississippi River at the Chucalissa site, known to De Soto’s chroniclers as Quizquiz and to archaeologists as the Walls Phase, which straddled the big river.

On the far side of the big river, the Spaniards encountered Pacaha, or the Parkin Phase, and Casqui, or the Nodena Phase, who at the time were waging intensive war against each other.  The latter enter our target region later.  The next major “province” down the Mississippi was Quigualtam, to archaeologists the Wasp Lake Phase, the chiefdom of which was based at the Winterville site.  Ethnologists and archaeologist surmise that these three peoples spoke dialects of Tunican languages.

South of there was an unnamed chiefdom, undoubtedly the precursor to the contact period Natchez then based at the Emerald Mound site, center of the Emerald Phase.  The Natchez, of course, spoke the Natchez language.

Chuck Hamilton <natty4bumpo@gmail.com>

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