The Southeast

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The Southeast


Cherokees. Native Americans in the Southeast may have had contact with Europeans, or at least the microbes they brought to the New World, as early as 1526. In that year the Spanish conquistador Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón led a slave-raiding party from the Caribbean to the Carolina and Georgia coasts. In 1540 Hernando de Soto and his troops marched through Cherokee country, and in 15661567 Capt. Juan Pardo explored Cherokee territory. For nearly a century after that, the Cherokees were free of European interference. In 1654 Cherokees attacked the English colony of Virginia for reasons that are not clear, forcing the settlers to negotiate a peace treaty. Thereafter the Cherokees appeared frequently in the British and Spanish colonial records. Prior to European influences the Cherokees were surrounded by other powerful native groups and were often at war with them. The Cherokees spoke a language classified as part of the Iroquoian family. They developed three dialects, each associated with one of the three geographical regions into which they divided themselves. The Lower Towns were located in South Carolina and northeast Georgia. The Middle Towns and Valley Towns were clustered along the Tuckasegee River and the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River. The third group of settlements was known as the Western, Upper, or Overhill Towns, found in eastern Tennessee. The introduction of firearms made ancient enmities, which spawned the Tuscarora and Yamasee wars, more bloody. War with the Creeks, which arose out of the Yamasee conflict of 17151722, persisted for several generations. In 1749 the Upper Creeks and the Cherokees reached an accord, but the Lower Creeks pressed on, intent on acquiring new hunting lands. The Creeks attacked the Cherokees while their supplies were low and conquered several towns. In a treaty at Coweta in April 1754 the Cherokees acknowledged their weakened position by giving up lands between the Little River (in North Carolina) and Broad River (in Georgia).

Creeks. The Muskogee-speaking or Muscogulge peoples inhabited the interior Southeast. English settlers in Carolina called them Creeks because they lived on the tributaries of the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers in central

Georgia. The Creeks were highly diverse, encompassing many distinct peoples united loosely by language and broad cultural and political patterns. From the late seventeenth century through the early nineteenth century the Creeks adapted to the coming of Europeans, using their central geographical position to play European powers against each other. Initially they reacted to conflicts with the Spanish to the South by relocating and trading with the British in the Carolinas. After the Yamasee War that nearly destroyed the British, Creek leaders retreated westward to a zone equidistant from the French, the Spanish, and the British. From the 1720s until well after the Revolutionary War they struggled to protect their territory, adapting culturally to the presence of European neighbors and their trade goods.

Founding of Georgia. In 1732 a London-based society of Christian missionaries and philanthropists established the colony of Georgia. Intended in part as a second chance for debtors, Georgias founding had three profound effects on native peoples of the Southeast. First, Georgia represented a new trading partner and additional access to superior British goods. Second, immigration to Georgia created population pressure on the Creeks, just at the same time when the Creeks began to fall into debt to the traders. The result was repeated cessions of land. Third, the colony was a pathway for escaping African American laborers to reach safety and freedom in Florida. The growing population of free people


The Seminole people developed a separate identity in the eighteenth century, at a time when many other tribal bands withered away, either through loss of population or absorption into a larger group. The name Seminole is a variant of the Spanish cimmarony, meaning wanderer or runaway. It was applied to groups of Native Americans from the Oconee River area of Georgia who took up temporary residence in Florida, beginning perhaps as early as the 1500s. Permanent, continuous settlements were well established by the early to mid 1700s. The Seminóles of Florida, like many native groups in the conglomeration that the British considered to be Creeks, were friendly to newcomers.

In the aftermath of the Yamasee War of 17151722, a Creek leader named Brims relocated his Carolina towns to Georgia and developed a policy of neutrality with the French, Spanish, and English colonists. Another chief named Secoffee was friendly with the Spanish and began making regular visits into Florida. He was probably among the Creek delegations that visited Cuba and Mexico from time to time. His hunting camp, on the banks of Lake Miccosukee near present-day Tallahassee, began to coalesce into a permanent settlement over time, developing into one of two early Seminole locations; the second site was near present-day Gainesville. In the early 1740s a Creek named Ahaya (the Cowkeeper) founded a settlement known as Cuscowilla. Unlike the other settlements, Ahayas village consisted of warriors opposed to the Spanish and friendly with the English. Their location, just inland from Saint Augustine, tended to hem the Spanish along the coast during much of the eighteenth century. Both Cuscowilla and the Lake Miccosukee towns were adjacent to wetlands where fish were plentiful and near woods where wild game abounded. In addition both were relatively remote from European settlements.

Throughout the eighteenth century escaping slaves from Carolina found their way into Indian country in Florida. After Georgia permitted slavery in 1755 slaves from this colony likewise slipped across the border into Spanish territory. The Seminoles treated African Americans neither as slaves nor exactly as equals. The refugee slaves lived in separate communities that raised their own crops, hunted with firearms, and apparently participated in the ceremonial life of Seminoles. The black Seminoles may have been required to pay an annual tribute in corn or other goods. But they clearly preferred such a second-class citizenship to no citizenship at all as slaves.

Source: James W. Covington, The Seminoles of Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993).

of color lived among the emerging Seminoles, who gradually developed a separate identity from their Creek relatives during the early eighteenth century.

Choctaws. The Choctaws were a large group who lived in present-day central and southern Mississippi, near the mouth of the Mississippi River and along the Gulf Coast. They were known for their prowess in agriculture. Raising more than enough maize to support both a large population and a sizable herd of cattle, they regularly had a surplus of corn to trade. They depended on hunting for only a small part of their diet and therefore were less mobile than hunter-gatherer societies. Their settlements were large and permanent, with residences made of logs and stucco. Choctaw territory was divided into southern, northwestern, and northeastern districts. They built towns on the boundaries of districts to repel intruders. Within the districts, settlements were sparse. The men of each district elected a mingo as the leader, based on military prowess, administrative skills, and ancestral connections. Large council meetings included all three mingos, the war chiefs, and the captains and subcaptains, who would assemble in the town square of the host mingo. After an initial wariness the Choctaws responded to French overtures of friendship. French settlers were more interested in the fur trade than in taking Choctaw lands and treated native peoples roughly as equals, sharing knowledge of hunting and farming and encouraging intermarriage. The alliance with the French generally benefited the Choctaws, despite involving them intermittently in war with the Chickasaws and the pro-British faction of the Creeks.

Chickasaws. The Chickasaws lived in present-day northwestern Mississippi, along the banks of the river. They spoke a language in the Muskogee group but distinct from that of the Creeks. Small in numbers compared to their neighbors, the Chickasaws maintained their culture partly by developing a reputation for ferocity. By the late 1600s the British had established their settlement in Carolina and traveled overland to Chickasaw territory, establishing an alliance that endured throughout the eighteenth century. A small group of Chickasaws, led by the Squirrel King, settled in South Carolina early in the 1700s to facilitate trade. From 1720 until the mid 1730s the Chickasaws were frequently at war with the French and their allies, the Choctaws. They defeated two French-Choctaw armies separately before they could link up. In the late 1730s a French army of three thousand was unable to attack because of poor weather. Finally, in the 1750s the Chickasaws defeated the French for the last time, and they remained undefeated until the American Revolution.


Kathryn E. Holland Braund, Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 16851815 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993);

Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier 16701732, revised edition (New York: Norton, 1981);

Tom Hatley, The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);

Richard White, Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

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The Southeast

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