Tuesday, August 1, 2017

History Rewritten - 6

Native American culture has been a great interest in my life for as long as I can recall.  Here in the shadows of the Smokies for the past forty years, I’ve tried to learn about the Cherokee in particular.  But now, it is becoming clear that I have a lot of un-learning to do.

Myths of the (Ancient) Cherokees

Living in this area, we often hear something to the effect that any and all native people of the Southern Appalachians were “Cherokee” and that the Cherokees have been here “since time immemorial.”

Within a hundred miles of here, thousands of non-Cherokee native people must be rolling in their graves at the notion that this is and ALWAYS WAS the land of the Cherokee.  Fortunately, a new generation of scholars is telling a more complete story about the early inhabitants of the Southern Appalachians.  But it will take a long time to overcome a century of sloppy storytelling and outright falsehoods.

The new insights on old times aren’t easy to sort out.  Romanticized myths about the Cherokee past will be exposed.   In some cases, perplexing questions must replace easy answers. And it will make a lot of people uncomfortable.

But I hope I’m around long enough to see the changes.  The emerging story is a lot more interesting than the ossified old tales that have entertained tourists for decades now.  In prior posts, I took a few stabs at debunking some of the tired, flawed chestnuts, such as the Tsali legend.  That’s mild, though, compared to where I could go with this.

A Red/White Crime Syndicate

Without too much effort, any good “googler” could dig up a United Nations study discussing one scourge of modern life: the three-pronged global network of crime involving human trafficking, drug distribution and the sale of weapons.  Going back three or four hundred years, that same evil triumvirate was central to the interactions between Native Americans and the new arrivals from Europe.  The more I’ve tried to nail down the origins of the “tribe,” the closer I am to asserting that “The Cherokees” came into existence as a joint venture between native people and white colonists - essentially a crime syndicate.  A mutually beneficial red-white partnership facilitated the movement of slaves, whiskey and rifles.  

Although I’m dangling that possibility out there, it will take much more than a blog post or two to make the case for it.  But strong evidence continues to mount for what I’m proposing and it is considerably more plausible than the stories folks have swallowed without question for the past century. 

Mistaken Identity in a Crucial Document

To keep things manageable this post will focus on one, and just one, of the most crucial documents in (so-called) Cherokee history and how it has been misappropriated to support a false rendition of events in the Southern Appalachians.   

A Virginia trader’s 1674 letter has been excerpted and reprinted in dozens, if not hundreds, of books and articles.  Quite often, it is described as an account of his attempt to establish trade with the Cherokees living west of the Blue Ridge.  One year earlier, the merchant and politician Abraham Wood had sent James Needham and Gabriel Arthur westward to explore the mysterious backcountry beyond the mountains.

Here’s the first problem: nowhere in the long letter do we find the term “Cherokee.”  As a matter of fact, if ANYONE was talking about “the Cherokees” in 1674, there’s no written record of it.  The letter does go into considerable detail about Needham and Arthur’s adventures with the Tomahittans.  About a hundred years ago, one scholar jumped to the conclusion that “Tomahittan” was simply another name for “Cherokee.” The association stuck. 

But Tennessee archaeologists Kneberg and Lewis build a strong case for identifying the Tomahittans as Yuchi Indians, rather than Cherokees.  Indeed, in 1727, a delegation of Cherokee visiting Charleston referred to the Tomahittans as old enemies of their allies, the Yamasee.

Nevertheless, many writers have found it convenient to equate the Tomahittans with the Cherokees.  It fills in a missing piece of the Cherokee puzzle, and satisfies the hunger to know more about their earliest history.  But that assumption obscures the more likely scenarios underway in the 17th century.   

Perspective is everything in understanding Abraham Wood’s letter.  Too often, it is presented as the first account of English traders visiting a trans-Appalachian “Cherokee” town.  Viewed in a broader context, the letter yields greater meaning.  Complex interactions were in play between English traders, planters, colonial leaders and investors in London.  Carolina and Virginia were vying for power and influence.  Spanish missions in La Florida, from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast affected things throughout the Southeast, and to a lesser extent, French influence to the Northwest was a factor.  Conflicts in the north were causing the migration of various tribes to the south, and as the Indian slave trade expanded, some native groups exploited the opportunity while others became targets of red and white slave catchers. 

Frontier Traders and Indian Slaves

Colonel Abraham Wood (1610-1682) was an English fur trader in colonial Virginia, based at the frontier outpost Fort Henry on the Appomattox River in present-day Petersburg (south of Richmond).  Fort Henry was a checkpoint, the only point in Virginia where Indians and whites were permitted (by law) to cross over to each other’s territory.  Wood enjoyed a near-monopoly in the Indian-trade, buying and selling with the nearby Appomattocs and other native people living beyond the bounds of the colony.

The year Wood wrote his letter, 1674, was the birth year of John Lawson and William Byrd II, authors of A New Voyage to Carolina (1709) and The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728, respectively.  

That these two books are counted among the most significant early accounts of life in the Carolina backcountry, underscores the value of the Wood letter, coming a generation or two before the works by Lawson and Byrd.  The changes during that span of time were momentous.

From 1680 to 1730, in addition to the commerce in deer hides, furs, and rum, the Indian slave trade was a mainstay in the economy of proliferating Carolina settlements.  During that period, countless thousands of men, women, and children of dozens of Indian nations were enslaved by the English colonists, seized by them in raids or purchased for the slave markets from Indians who had captured them from other tribes, usually at the instigation of the English.  At first, the slave traders pretended humanitarian goals, explaining that buying Indians prisoners saved them from the worse fate of being tortured by their captors.  But the traders soon dropped all pretense and, deliberately pitting one tribe against another with offers of guns, powder, and cheap English textiles and manufactured goods, encouraged Indian slave-catching raids against weaker tribal rivals and intertribal wars waged mostly for captives to sell to the whites.  On top of the waves of epidemics that swept through the Indian villages, the destructive impact of the slave trade disoriented numerous nations and engulfed the Indian world from the Southern Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi river to dislocation and turmoil.  (500 Nations, by Alvin Josephy, p. 223)

One scholar estimates that by 1715, Carolina had exported more slaves than it had imported.

Trade  Routes to the West

In the 1650s and 1660s, Wood himself had explored headwaters of the Roanoke and James Rivers, and had even crossed the Blue Ridge to find streams flowing toward the Ohio River.  When Needham and Arthur left Fort Henry in May 1673, Wood hoped they could find an outlet to the Pacific Ocean.

Five weeks after leaving Fort Henry, Needham and Arthur crossed paths with a roaming band of Tomahittans, who agreed to escort them back to their town far to the southwest.  After a short stay at the village of the Occhonechee Indians (now submerged by the Kerr Reservoir near the NC border), they proceeded along the Indian Trading Path (the route later used for Interstate 85 through North Carolina) crossing the Eno and the Yadkin Rivers before turning west and reaching a foothill village, Sittaree, that may have been close to present-day Morganton. 

Located in south-central Virginia, the Occhonechee had operated as middlemen in Abraham Wood’s Indian trade, a position that was threatened by Needham and Arthur’s effort to establish direct contact with native people to the west.  Several months later, near the Yadkin River, an Occhonechee hired for the expedition murdered James Needham, to the dismay and horror of several Tomahittans in the party.

Due to the eventual loss of Needham, Abraham Woods relied on the testimony of Gabriel Arthur for most of the events described in his letter.  Arthur was probably an indentured servant.  He would spend almost a full year among the Tomahittans. But sadly, much that he reported to Woods was left out of the letter.  Curious as I am about these times, it is almost agonizing to read this sentence from Wood:

And as brief as I can, give a touch upon the heads of the material matter my man's memory could retain, for he cannot write the greater pity, for should I insert all the particulars it would swell to too great a volume and perhaps seem too tedious to the courteous and charitable Reader, so I beg pardon for ignorant errors…

If only Colonel Wood had tested our patience with a great volume of such tedium!!!

Beyond the Blue Ridge

The actual course of the expedition once it crossed the Blue Ridge is impossible to trace with even an approximate degree of confidence.  What is indisputable, though, is that the Tomahittans routinely travelled hundreds of miles away from their trans-Appalachian home base. Recreating the route is complicated by Arthur’s inability to take notes and by the passage of many months before he shared his recollections with Abraham Wood.

Sitteree was described as “the last town of inhabitance and not any path further until they came within two days’ journey of the Tomahittans.”  After leaving Sitteree, Needham and Arthur took four days to reach the top of the Blue Ridge.  Upon descending the western slope, they travelled another ten days, crossing five rivers, while seeing “great store of game all along, as turkeys, deer, elk, bear, wolf, and other vermin very tame.”

Finally, they reached the Tomahittans’ riverside town.  The actual location is a matter of debate.  Perhaps it was on the French Broad.  Or the Little Tennessee. Or the Hiwassee, or the Coosa (near Rome, GA), or the Chattahootchee (near Gainesville, GA):

This town is seated on the river side, having the cliffs of the river on the one side being very high for its defence, the other three sides trees of two foot over, pitched on end, twelve feet high, and on the tops scaffolds placed with parapets to defend the walls and offend their enemies which men stand on to fight. Many nations of Indians inhabit down this river, which runs west upon the salts which they are at war with and to that end keep one hundred and fifty canoes under the command of their fort. The least of them will carry twenty men, and made sharp at both ends like a wherry for swiftness. This fort is four square, 300 paces over, and the houses set in streets…

Raiding a Spanish Town

The Tomahittans had some knowledge of Spaniards living downstream from their palisaded village:

Eight days' journey down this river lives a white people who have long beards and whiskers and wear clothing, and on some of the other rivers live a hairy people.

One Tomahittan had been taken captive (and then escaped) on a trip to sell beaver pelts to the white men in the west.  He travelled to Fort Henry a few months later, where Abraham Wood was able to elicit some details about Tomahittan contact with the Spaniards:

The Tomahittans have about sixty guns. Not such locks as ours be, the steels are long and channelled where the flints strike. The prisoner relates that the white people have a bell which is six foot over which they ring morning and evening, and at that time a great number of people congregate together and talk he knows not what. They have many blacks among them, oysters and many other shellfish, many swine, and cattle. Their building is brick. The Tomahittans have among them many brass pots and kettles from three gallons to thirty. They have two mullato women. All the white and black people they take they put to death…

This Spanish town alluded to here, and the Spanish town that Gabriel Arthur would visit with a band of Tomahittan marauders, might have been located anywhere from Saint Augustine on the Atlantic to Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

After his arrival at the Tomahittan village, Arthur expected to spend a few weeks learning their language.  He probably had no idea that he would be travelling great distances with them throughout the Southeast:

…they made preparation for to manage the war, for that is the course of their living to forage, rob, and spoil other nations. And the king commands Gabriel Arthur to go along with a party that went to rob the Spaniards, promising him that in the next spring he himself would carry him home to his master. Gabriel must now be obedient to their commands. In the deplorable condition he was in was put in arms, gun, tomahawk, and target, and so marched away with the company, being about fifty.

They travelled eight days west and by south as he guessed and came to a town of Negroes, spacious and great, but all wooden buildings. Here, they could not take anything without being seen. The next day they marched along by the side of a great cart path, and about five or six miles as he judged came within sight of the Spanish town, walled about with brick and all brick buildings within. There he saw the steeple wherein hung the bell which Mr. Needham gives relation of and heard it ring in the evening.

Here they did not stay but drew off and the next morning layed an ambush in a convenient place near the cart path before mentioned and there lay almost seven days to steal for their sustenance. The 7th day a Spaniard in a genteel habit, accoutered with gun, sword, and pistol. One of the Tomahittans, spying him at a distance, crept up to the path side and shot him to death. In his pocket were two pieces of gold and a small gold chain, which the Tomahittans gave to Gabriel, but he unfortunately lost it in his venturing as you shall hear by the sequel.

Here they hastened to the Negro town where they had the advantage to meet with a lone Negro. After him ran one of the Tomahittans with a dart in his hand, made with a piece of the blade of Needham's sword, and threw it after the Negro, struck him through between his shoulders so he fell down dead. They took from him some toys, which hung in his ears, and bracelets about his neck, and so returned as expeditiously as they could to their own homes.

Down the Savannah River to Port Royal

The object of their next raid is one that we can pinpoint, north of the mouth of the Savannah River, inland from present-day Beaufort, SC.  What we now refer to as Yamasees may have occupied the area at that time.  As it would be with the Cherokees and many other native groups now familiar to us, the Yamasees did not have a long lineage as a “tribe” but were an amalgamation of remnants from earlier tribes and chiefdoms.    

The Savannah River fits the description of the waterway (“Port Royal river”) travelled by the Tomahittans on their way to Port Royal: 

They rested but a short time before another party was commanded out again and Gabriel Arthur was commanded out again, and this was to Port Royal. Here he refused to go, saying those were Englishmen and he would not fight against his own nation. He had rather be killed. The King told him they intended no harm to the Englishmen, for he had promised Needham at his first coming to him that he would never do violence against any English more but their business was to cut off a town of Indians which lived near the English. I but said Gabriel, what if any English be at that town, a trading? The King swore by the fire which they adore as their god they would not hurt them.
So they marched away over the mountains and came upon the head of Port Royal river in six days. 

There they made perriaugers [sic] of bark and so passed down the stream with much swiftness. Next, coming to a convenient place of landing, they went on shore and marched to the eastward of the south, one whole day and part of the night. At length, they brought him to the sight of an English house, and Gabriel with some of the Indians crept up to the house side and listening what they said, they being talking within the house, Gabriel heard one say, pox take such a master that will not allow a servant a bit of meat to eat upon Christmas day. By that means Gabriel knew what time of the year it was, so they drew off secretly and hastened to the Indian town, which was not above six miles thence.

About break of day stole upon the town. The first house Gabriel came to there was an Englishman. He heard him say Lord have mercy upon me. Gabriel said to him run for your life. Said he, which way shall I run? Gabriel replied, which way thou wilt they will not meddle with you. So he ran and the Tomahittans opened and let him pass clear. There they got the Englishman's knapsack with beads, knives, and other petty truck in it. They made a very great slaughter upon the Indians and about sunrise they heard many great guns fired off amongst the English. Then they hastened away with what speed they could and in less than fourteen days arrived at the Tomahittans with their plunder.

To the Heart of West Virginia

On his third long trip with the Tomahittans, Arthur almost lost his life.  The Monetons are known to have occupied the Kanawha valley in the 17th century.  Presumably, the “innumerable company of Indians” were along the Ohio, downriver from the Kanawha:

Now the king must go to give the Monetons a visit which were his friends, "mony" signifing water and "ton" great in their language. Gabriel must go along with him. They set forth with sixty men and travelled ten days due north and then arrived at the Moneton town situated upon a very great river, at which place the tide ebbs and flows. Gabriel swam in the river several times, being fresh water. This is a great town and a great number of Indians belong to it, and in the same river Mr. Batt and Fallam were upon the head of it as you read in one of my first journals. This river runs northwest and out of the westerly side of it goes another very great river about a day's journey lower where the inhabitants are an innumerable company of Indians, as the Monetons told my man, which is twenty day's journey from one end to the other of the inhabitance, and all these are at war with the Tomahittans. When they had taken their leave of the Monetons, they marched three days out of their way to give a clap to some of that great nation, where they fell on with great courage and were as couragously repulsed by their enemy.

And here Gabriel was shot with two arrows, one of them in his thigh, which stopped his running, and so was taken prisoner, for Indian valor consists most in their heels for he that can run best is accounted the best man. These Indians thought this Gabriel to be no Tomahittan by the length of his hair, for the Tomahittans keep their hair close cut to the end so an enemy may not take an advantage to lay hold of them by it. They took Gabriel and scoured his skin with water and ashes, and when they perceived his skin to be white they made very much of him and admired his knife, gun, and hatchet they took with him.

They gave those things to him again. He made signs to them the gun was the Tomahittans' which he had a desire to take with him, but the knife and hatchet he gave to the king. They not knowing the use of guns, the king received it with great shows of thankfulness for they had not any manner of iron instrument that he saw amongst them. While he was there they brought in a fat beaver which they had newly killed and went to swrynge [sic] it. Gabriel made signs to them that those skins were good amongst the white people toward the rising sun. They would know by signs how many such skins they would take for such a knife. He told them four and eight for such a hatchet and made signs that if they would let him return, he would bring many things amongst them. They seemed to rejoice at it and carried him to a path that carried to the Tomahittans. They gave him Rockahomony for his journey and so they departed, to be short.

Yet Another River Voyage

Details of the next expedition suggest that the Tomahittans lived on a river that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico:

When he came to the Tomahittans, the king had one short voyage more before he could bring in Gabriel and that was down the river they live upon, in perriaugers [sic], to kill hogs, bears, and sturgeon which they did incontinent by five days and nights. They went down the river and came to the mouth of the salts where they could not see land but the water was not above three feet deep hard sand. By this means we know this is not the river the Spaniards live upon as Mr. Needham thought. Here they killed many swine, sturgeon, and beavers and barbecued them, so returned, and were fifteen days running up against the stream but no mountainous land to be seen but all level.

Risky Return to Fort Henry

In May of 1674, Gabriel Arthur, the Tomahittan “king” and eighteen more of his people loaded up their goods for a return to Fort Henry.  Their journey was uneventful until the night they camped at the Sarrah (Uwharrie?) River and Arthur again had a scrape with death:

There were but four Occhonechee Indians there so that they did not adventure to attempt any violent action by day….When it grew pretty late in the night the Occhonechees began to work their plot and made an alarm by a hubbub, crying out the town was beset with innumerable company of strange Indians. This put the town people into a sudden fright, many being between sleeping and waking. 

Away run the Tomahittans and leave all behind them, and amongst the rest was Gabriel's two pieces of gold and chain in an Indian bag. Away slipped Gabriel and the Spanish Indian boy which he brought with him and hid themselves in the bushes.

After the Tomahittans were gone the four Occhonechees, for there came no more to disturb them, made diligent search for Gabriel. The moon shining bright Gabriel saw them, but he lying under cover of the bushes could not be seen by those Indians.

In the morning the Occhonechees, having missed of their acme, passed home and Gabriel came into the town again and four of the Tomahittan's packs hired four Sarrah Indians to carry them to Aeno. Here he met with my man I had sent out so long ago before to inquire for news desparately sick of the flux. Here he could not get any to go forth with his packs for fear of the Occhonechees, so he left them and adventured himself with the Spanish Indian boy.

The next day came before night in sight of the Occhonechee town undiscovered and there hid himself until it was dark, and then waded over onto the island where the Occhonechees are seated, strongly fortified by nature and that makes them so insolent for they are but a handful of people, besides what vagabonds repair to them it being a receptacle for rogues. Gabriel escaped clearly through them and so waded out on this side and ran for it all night. Their food was huckleberries, which the woods were full of at that time and on the 18th of June with the boy arrived at my house, praise be to God for it.

On the Threshold of Major Changes

And that is about the extent of Colonel Abraham Wood’s letter.  Drastic changes were soon to follow, all along the frontier and throughout the Southeast.  In the course of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the Occhonechees joined the colonists for an attack on the Susquehannock people farther to the north.  But after that battle, the colonists turned on the Occhonechees and decimated the tribe.  By 1678, the Susquehannocks exacted revenge against the Occohonechees, striking them at their island stronghold.  Never regaining the power they once held, the remaining Occhonechees retreated to a settlement on the Eno River near Hillsborough, NC.

The Tomahittans, if they were Yuchis, also faced severe pressures in the late 17th and early 18th century, even as they strove for power in the Indian slave trade.  Conflicts with neighboring tribes forced the Yuchis out of their territory west of the Appalachians and toward South Carolina and Georgia. 

And, they would have a deadly encounter with a new group emerging in the southern mountains, a coalition called the Cherokees.

But that's another story for another day...

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