Origin of the Cherokee - Part 1 of 5

Sunday, September 7, 2014 - by Chuck Hamilton

The Cherokee ain’t from around here.  Well, the Iroquoian part of them aren’t, anyway. 

Until the twentieth century, this was a given, as was the truth that the Cherokee did not exist as “the Cherokee”, a defined people under that name, until the English colonial period.  Historians, ethnologists, anthropologists, and missionaries among them from the late eighteenth thru the end of the nineteenth centuries all noted this historical fact and remarked on the mixed origins of the Cherokee languages.  It wasn’t until after the turn into the twentieth century that anyone of note seriously claimed that the Cherokee nation as such originated in the South and as a people were of ancient origin.

 The Six Civilized Nations of the Old Southwest

 The Five Civilized Nations of the (former) Indian Territory are the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole ethnically-cleansed from the Old Southwest (the modern American Southeast) to the west of the Mississippi River in the nineteenth century.  They are so called because in the early decades of that century, they had adopted many features of white society and were therefore considered “civilized”.

 As Booker T. Washington commented on American treatment of indigenous people, “No white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.”  The group which went the furthest in that regard were the Cherokee, who not only invented their own system of writing but adopted a formal written constitution and two-house legislature in a three-branch government.

 Back in the home in the Old Southwest itself, there were actually Six “Civilized Nations”, the sixth being the Catawba.  The Catawba assimilated the most, took individual plots rather than remove, and thus were robbed of their lands by unscrupulous speculators and developers and all but extinguished as a distinct people by the early eighteenth century.  Such was their situation that Andy Jackson cited their example as the reason for striking out a clause from the Treaty of New Echota allowing Cherokee to follow the same course.

 Of these Six Civilized Tribes, the only one which existed in any form remotely resembling its structure at the time of English contact was the Chickasaw.  The Spanish first encountered the Chickasaw on the De Soto expedition, dwelling in modern east central Mississippi just south of the Alabama, who subsequently lived around the head of the river named for them at the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.  As they moved northwest to their traditional home, the Chickasaw very likely absorbed the Quizquiz and other smaller groups.

 The Choctaw sprang from a federation of three different peoples, two closely related (Eastern and Western divisions) and a third from elsewhere (Six Towns division) which originally spoke  a much different language. 

 The Creek (or Muskogee) Confederacy began as a defensive alliance of towns descending from the old chiefdoms of the Mississippian era (900-1600 CE).  It was founded by its four “mother towns”:  Abihka, Coosa, Coweta, and Tuckabatchee.  Abihka and Coosa were in the Upper Towns on the Coosa River.  Tuckabatchee, the main settlement of the Middle Towns on the Tallapoosa River, was the seat of the Confederacy, but was originally made of “foreign-speaking” people from the north.  Coweta was the chief settlement of the Lower Towns on the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers.  The Coosa, from the Coosawattee site in northern Murray County, Georgia, and frequent players in 16th century Spanish chronicles, later dwindled such that they merged with Abhika.  The Lower Town of Cusseta (Kasihta) then stepped into its place as one of the mother towns.

 The Seminole previously made up part of the Creek Confederacy but migrated to what was then East Florida after the French and Indian War when it became British territory.  Though several tribes and bands contributed to its makeup, the two primary were the Oconee and the Chiaha.

 The Catawba, as the English of the colonial period knew them, coalesced from the different Siouan-speaking tribes of the Carolinas.  Although one of the major nations at the time of the Revolutionary War, their numbers greatly dropped due to disease and intermarriage and they were not removed as were the others, so they are not usually included as one of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”.

 The Cherokee did not exist as a people until after the mid-seventeenth century.  In fact, none of the other Iroquoian-speaking groups familiar to English colonists (Tuscarora, Meherrin, Nottoway) lived in the Southeast until the seventeenth century.

 Indian confederacies

 As complex as that may sound, it is, in fact, rather simplistic compared to the true situation, as some groups which became part of these confederations or coalitions retained their individual identity, as some do even today, like the Natchez and the Yuchi, both of which are represented among both the Cherokee and the Muscogee (Creek) Nations.

 Confederacies of Indian nations and tribes were not unique to the South.  Nearly all of what we think of today as the nations and tribes at the time of contact were really amalgamations or confederations of different peoples, such as the Huron, or Wendat.  None were as explicitly organized as the League of the Iroquois, however. 

 Speaking of which, and this is totally off subject, I just recently learned that there is another Iroquois confederacy, the Seven Confederate Nations in Canada made up of former Iroquois League towns and allies who supported France during the French and Indian War.  These Seven Confederate Nations are the Mohawk of Akwesasne, the Mohawk of Kahnawake, the Mohawk and Anishinaabeg (Nipissing and Algonkin) of Kanestake, the Abenaki of Odanak, the Abenaki of Wolinak, the Huron of Wendake, and the Onondaga of Oswegatchie.

 It’s tempting to write these federations, confederacies, and alliances off as being provoked by wars over trade with Europeans, but in the North, they had already been at war for nearly a century before first contact.  The League of the Iroquois dates back to the 16th century, and they were still getting some of the kinks worked out in the next century.  The Powhatan Confederacy had only formed a generation or two before the English established Jamestown.  The changing climate at the beginning of the Little Ice Age was undoubtedly a contributing factor.

 Languages in the Southeast

 In the South, there was some warfare, but not nearly as much, certainly not on the scale of that in the Great Lakes-St. Laurence Valley region.  At least not in the 16th century; however, the wide diversity of languages in towns in proximity to each other as well as the broad dispersal of groups with linguistic similarity argue that the sort of warfare and displacement the French saw in the north may have already taken place earlier in the south.

 In the interior of the Old Southwest, the dominant (though not exclusive) group of languages was the Muskogean.  Muskogean languages divide into three main families: Northern, the Muskogee language itself and closely related dialects; Southern, the Hitchiti language and its variants; and Western, languages similar to Choctaw.

 Cultural anthropology of the pre- and proto-historic era

I’m going to be throwing around some terms that may not be familiar to some readers, so I’m providing this quick and very simplistic guide.

 Paleolithic era

 In North America, this covered the period from 18,000-8000 BCE.

 Archaic era

 In North America, this covered the period from 8000-1000 BCE.

 Woodland era

 The Woodland era is divided into three periods:  Early Woodland (1000 BCE-1 CE), Middle Woodland (1-500 CE), and Late Woodland (500-1000).

 Mound complexes during the Woodland period served strictly ceremonial purposes and were almost never inhabited.  They were central to groups of hamlets and homesteads.  Hunting, gathering, and small-scale horticulture fed inhabitants. 

 The greatest site of the entire Woodland era is the Pinson Mounds site in Madison County of West Tennessee.  Dating from the Middle Woodland period (1-500 CE), the site was purely ceremonial, without permanent habitation.  There are seventeen mounds and an earthen enclosure.  Saul’s Mound, the central feature of the entire complex, appears to have been a platform mound more for ceremonial purposes than burial.  It is the second highest aboriginal mound or pyramid in North America. 

 Mississippi era

 Anthropologists divide this Mississippi era (700-1730) into three periods:  Early Mississippian (900-1200), Classic Mississippian (1150-1450), and Late Mississippian (1450-1600), the latter including first contact with the Spanish conquistadors of La Florida.  These dates are general; the Middle Mississippian Culture began around 700 CE, while the Plaquemine Mississippian Culture survived in classic form until 1730.

 During the Mississippi era, the population grew exponentially largely due to advances in agriculture, especially the introduction of maize.  Social structures became more complex and stratified.  Villages became towns which were palisaded.

 In the Early Mississippian period, burial mounds still existed but were less important.  The newer, larger platform mounds, or pyramids, replaced them in importance and dominated each of the towns.  At this stage, there was never more than one large platform mound per town.  Burials were still done outside the bounds of the village.

 In the Classic Mississippian period, platform mounds grew and housed not just a religious building but houses for the elite.  Burials of the elite occurred within the large mounds or around the central plaza, and commoners were buried elsewhere in the village.  Ceremonies and ritual objects became more elaborate, the powers of the priesthood grew.

 In the Late Mississippian period, platform mounds became shorter and the only building atop them was a community building used for secular as well as religious purposes.  Overall societal organization downshifted to a more (though not entirely) egalitarian mode.

 Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

 The hereditary elite came to dominate the commoners through a religion based largely on the agricultural cycle, centered around maize production.  The high celebration of the year was the Green Corn Ceremony, or the Busk, which became so much a part of the culture of the tribes of the Old Southwest that it survived well into the nineteenth century past the adoption of white culture and Christian religion.

 Besides the ceremonies and the mounds, a number of cult objects, statuary, decorative motifs, and jewelry such as gorgets were features of the cult.  Several motifs were shared across eastern North America, the three most prominent being the Birdman, Red Horn and his Sons, and the Great Serpent.  The latter, in many different forms throughout the region, bears some resemblance to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.   Some of these motifs, particularly the last, continued well into historical times.

 It was through this Southeastern Ceremonial Cult and trade that the Mississippian cultures influenced the peripheral regions around it.  The accounts of the earliest French colonials in the Lower Mississippi Valley (what became Lower Louisiana) provide the best picture we have of this religious ceremonial complex and the society which produced it and which it in turn supported and upheld.

 Culture regions of the Mississippian era

 The Middle Mississippian Culture rose along the middle course of the Mississippi River covering southern Illinois, southern Indiana, Iowa, eastern Arkansas, West Tennessee and the Cumberland Basin in Middle Tennessee.

 Cahokia with its numerous mounds site was the premier center of Mississippian culture.  Its central mound was over one hundred feet tall, and its central plaza alone spread across sixty-four acres.  Its core population was between ten and forty thousand, with numerous satellite towns and villages.  Besides its over eighty mounds, it contained two Woodhenges with astronomical accuracy equal to that of Stonehenge in England.

 Moundville near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was contemporary with Cahokia.

 Angel and Kinkaid were later centers, as were Parkin and Nodena, which were even later and west of the Mississippi.

 This culture region included the Middle Cumberland Basin and vicinity (sites like Mound Bottom, Castilian Springs, Old Town, Beasley Mounds, Boiling Springs, Averbuch, Noel Farm, Gordontown, etc., fifty in all), Chucalissa near Memphis, and the Shiloh Mounds, which almost rivaled Moundville in size.

 The Caddoan Mississippian Culture lay in eastern Oklahoma, western Arkansas, northeastern Texas, and northwest Louisiana.  Its premier center was the Spiro Mounds site.

 The Plaquemine Mississippian Culture covered southeastern Arkansas, eastern Louisiana, and southwestern Mississippi.  Its premier center was the Emerald Mound, the second tallest of the Misssissippian period.  Its people later moved to the Fatherland Mound site, where the French knew them as the Natchez.

 The Southern Appalachian Mississippian Culture spread across a broad area, taking in East Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, northern Florida, South Carolina, and central and western North Carolina.

 Some of the major sites in the region include Ocmulgee and Lamar, but the largest site was the town at Etowah Mounds, the central of which is the third highest platform mound at sixty-three feet.  It was occupied in three phases: 950-1200, 1250-1375, 1475-1539.

 Other major sites in the Southern Appalachian zone were Citico in Chattanooga, Hiwassee Island, Toqua on the Little Tennessee River, and Long-Island-on-the-Tennessee.

 In addition, the Mississippian culture as a whole influenced, primarily through trade, several other culture regions on the northern periphery.

 The Oneota Culture was in northern Illinois, western Michigan, and Wisconsin.

 The Fort Ancient Culture lay along the central Ohio River taking in the adjacent areas of northern and northeastern Kentucky, southern Ohio, southwestern West Virginia, and southeastern Indiana.

 The Monogahela Culture existed in southwestern Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, and a small area of eastern Ohio.

 The Western Basin Culture covered the White River Basin of southern Indiana, northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio, and southwest Michigan.

 The Appalachian Summit Culture was in Upper East Tennessee, western North Carolina, and Southwest Virginia.

 Rise and fall of Mississippian paramount chiefdoms

In the Middle Mississippian Culture zone, Mississippian culture emerged around 700 CE, a couple of centuries before spilling over its periphery.  Elsewhere, emergent cultures appeared from 900-1000 CE.

The high point of Mississippian culture and the peak of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex came during the Classic Mississippian period.  During the same period came the beginning of its decline, largely due to stress from an overtaxed environment combined with a disastrous drought and the beginning of the Little Ice Age.  The following are only the largest and more prominent examples, given to illustrate the waves of collapse.

In the early stage of the Mississippian era (1100-1200) in the southern Upper Tennessee Valley, the major centers politically and culturally were at Hiwassee Island, Sale Creek, Mouse Creek, and Upper Hampton in Rhea County, upstream from the mouth of the Hiwassee River.

In the Southern Appalachian Culture zone, Etowah’s first occupation collapsed completely in 1200, and the entire Etowah Valley remained vacant to fifty years.  The related centers in what is now the Chickamauga Basin collapsed too, though their entire region did not become vacant.

In the Caddoan Culture zone, the chiefdom at Spiro fell next, its population dispersing around 1250 into several smaller but nearby settlements which used its grounds as a ceremonial center.

The Early Mississippian period of the Middle Cumberland Basin dissipated at about the same time as Spiro (1250), giving way to the Classic Mississippian period, which saw the peak of the era in the local zone.

In the Middle Mississippi Culture zone, Moundville and Shiloh followed suit with Spiro in 1300, becoming uninhabited sites used for ceremonial and political purposes, much the same as ceremonial centers had been during the Woodland era.  In the southern Upper Tennessee Valley, the towns at the Hixon and Citico sites rose as the local powers, the latter probably becoming the most influential in all of East Tennessee.  Hiwassee Island was repopulated, Citico grew even bigger, and the former inhabitants of the Hixon site recrossed the Tennessee River to establish the Dallas site where the town of Harrison used to be.

Cahokia’s collapse came a bit later Spiro’s but also more suddenly and more completely.  It began about 1300 and the core site was deserted within a few years.  By 1350, the entire American Bottom lay vacant and remained so until the colonial period.  It was known as the Vacant Quarter.

Back in the Southern Appalachian zone, the reoccupied (in 1250) Etowah peaked in 1325 then entered a period of warfare ending in its destruction by fire in 1375.  After that, the site remained vacant for a century.  When reinhabited, it was far short of its former glory, never obtaining the same prestige or power, and by the time De Soto came through, the Itawa people had not been  living there for around two decades.  One of the main beneficiaries of its demise as a regional power was a town established in the Coosawattee Valley around 1400 called Coosa. 

Also around 1400, the Middle Cumberland Basin peoples abandoned that region as entirely at those of the American Bottom had done theirs previously, some heading east and southeast.  This mass exodus included the settlements along the Duck and Elk Rivers.  By 1450, their former lands joined the Vacant Quarter, remaining deserted until the Chillicothe and Kispokore bands of the Shawnee relocated there in the mid-1600’s.

Artifacts from the Middle Cumberland began to appear in the southern Upper Tennessee Valley at this time.  The major town at the Dallas site was burned to the ground, and it and its vicinity deserted until the eighteenth century.  At the same time, the towns of the Mouth Creek Phase (see below) first appeared in the lower Hiwassee Valley and vicinity.

The year 1450 marked the collapse, or at least final collapse, of some of the major chiefdoms and/or ceremonial sites in the overall Mississippian cultural region.  The Kincaid and the Angel sites in southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana collapsed about this time, which also witnessed the end of ceremonial use of the sites at Moundville, Shiloh, and Spiro.

By 1475, the chiefdom Coosa had asserted itself into a semblance of the position of power and influence held previously by Etowah, though in more decentralized form. 

For most of the Mississippian era, towns along the Savannah River dominated the region on either side.  At the beginning of the 1500’s, however, the peoples living on its middle and lower courses deserted to the regions on either side.  The main beneficiaries, or perhaps victims, of this dispersal were the Piedmont towns, primarily Cofitachequi in the east and Ocute in the west.

 With this, the polity and relationships of the towns and their people as the Spanish encountered in the sixteenth century had fallen into place.

Chuck Hamilton


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