An overview of early Cherokee history
A word similar to Cherokee was recorded by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in the early spring of 1541 as it was passing through what is now the northern South Carolina Piedmont. The ethnic name was “chaloque” which would be pronounced “chalokee” in English. It was ascribed to a small, primitive tribe of hunters and gatherers.
Without consulting dictionaries of the Muskogean family of Native American languages, some mid-20th century scholars decided that chalokee meant “foreign speaker” in the “Creek” language. (Actually there are several Creek languages.) The Chalokees were assumed to be the Cherokees, even though the Cherokees were never known to occupy north central South Carolina. Chalokee actually means “Trout People or Clan” in the Muskogee-Creek Language, and had no meaning in the Hitchiti-Creek language. The word for “foreign speaker” in the Muskogee-Creek languages is “ciliya.” Even though there are at least two million Americans of Muskogean descent – perhaps thrice that number – a consistent trait of Caucasian scholars studying Southeastern colonial history has been to ignore the languages and ancient cultural heritage of the mound-builders’ descendants.
An ethnic name similar to Cherokee first appears in British colonial records in 1684. It is Chorakee. The ethnic name was applied to a cluster of towns around the tributaries of the Savannah River in what is now extreme, northwestern South Carolina and extreme northeastern Georgia. Since Chorakee sounded something like Chalokee, 20th century scholars assumed they were the same word with the same meaning. One will often find Cherokee history web sites that state that Chorakee means “foreign speaker.” It does not. Chorakee means “splinter group” in Muskogee-Creek. It is a term applied to villages that have moved away from the territory of the mother town.
Splinter groups were in fact, what the Chorakees were. They were Muskogean and Siouan towns that had moved from the coastal and piedmont regions to get away from the Spanish colonies on the South Atlantic Coast. Early 18th century maps show the Chorakees being allies of another, un-named ethnic group (or groups) in the North Carolina Mountains. None of the Chorakee towns had Cherokee (Algonquian-Iroquoian) names. They obviously did not speak a language similar to contemporary Cherokee, but by the mid-18th century were labeled “the Lower Cherokees.” Thus, the Muskogee name for a cluster of Muskogean and Siouan towns in South Carolina was extended by the British to apply to the allies of the Chorakees to the north and west.
The year 1684 was also the last year that the name of the Rickohocken Tribe was mentioned in British Colonial records. The Rickohockens were the dominant tribe of southwestern Virginia up until 1684. In 1660 they contracted with the Colony of Virginia to provide Native American slaves for planters by raiding Native agricultural societies in the Carolinas. However, they had been heavily involved with the Native American slave trade from 1620 onward. A British map produced in 1690 shows all of the territories formerly occupied or claimed by the Rickohockens as now being “Charokees.”
A mysterious tribe known as the “Westo” were initially the favorite slave raiders for the Charleston Colony from 1674 to 1684. However, the Westo proved to be too indiscriminate in their raids, and were driven west of the Savannah into the region that would later become the Colony of Georgia. The Carolinians and Virginians then contracted with the fourteen tribes of people in the mountains, which they now called Cherokees to be their primary slave raiders. The colonial governments of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina issued distinct branding irons to each of the 14 bands, so they could be properly compensated for Native American slaves sold at coastal markets. The South Carolina colonial government also contracted with the Apalachicola and the Yamasee (ancestral divisions of the Creek Indians) to raid the Spanish province of Florida to obtain Christian Native American slaves.
Until around 1715, Native American slaves was the primary source of trade income for the Cherokees – whoever the Cherokees were at this time. The Cherokee Alliance did not like the slave trade, but it was forced on them. Their own people could easily become slaves, if attacked by allies of the French or Spanish. In 1705 Cherokee leaders had sent a letter to Governor Moore of South Carolina demanding that he cease the Native American slave trade and return to trading for furs and skins. It would take awhile for the message to sink in.
During this period, there was then no such thing as a Cherokee tribe. There is also little evidence that the predominant language of the Cherokee Alliance at that time was even something like the Cherokee language today. Most recorded town names are modern day Muskogean words. Their first council town, Talako – means “bean” in Muskogee and Hitchiti. Their second council town, Kituwa, means “sacred fire” in the Alabama (Muskogean) language. Their third council town, Chota, means “frog” in Hitchiti and Muskogee. The name “e-chota” is a Muskogean language way of denoting a name that is a town.
Chota was originally a Muskogean town on the Little Tennessee River that welcomed immigrants from all other tribes. It apparently had lost much of its population to plagues and evolved an egalitarian government. It is documented that several large parties of Virginia Indians with European names migrated there to escape serfdom in Virginia tobacco plantations.
Thus, in the early 1700s the so-called Cherokees was a political alliance of at least 14 tribes speaking several languages, who were usually on good terms with British Colonial authorities. The wealth from the slave trade enabled the members of the “Cherokee Alliance” to purchase fire arms, which gave them an immense advantage in territorial wars with their neighbors.
In 1714 the Cherokee Alliance, newly armed with muskets obtained in trade for Florida Indian slaves, drove all of the Kusa (Creek), Apalachee and Yuchi out of extreme western North Carolina. However, Okonee (Creek) towns located in the Smoky Mountains and Koweta (Creek) towns located south of what is now Asheville seem to have either maintained peaceful relations with the Cherokee Alliance, or else held their own militarily. The Cherokee name for the Smoky Mountains is translated as “Enemy Mountains.” The name of the main river running through the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation today, the Oconaluftee, is derived from a Hitchiti-Creek place name meaning “Okonee People Town.”
In 1715 an alliance of Muskogean provinces in South Carolina, and what is now Georgia and Alabama, nearly wiped out the Colony of South Carolina. The primary cause of this war was the Native American slave trade. European settlers were cowering behind the palisades of Charleston, waiting for the final onslaught. There was no such thing as the “Creek Indian Tribe” at that time. The Cherokee Alliance invited leaders of the victorious Yamasee Alliance to a diplomatic conference in the neutral Yuchi town of Tugaloo on the upper Savannah River. The Cherokees then murdered all of the Muskogean chiefs in their sleep and attacked their armies from the rear – thus saving the South Carolina colony.
The Cherokee treachery endeared the Cherokees to the British Crown, but triggered a bloody war that lasted for over 50 years. Muskogeans in Georgia and South Carolina soon again became allies of the British and ceased hostilities with the Cherokees, but those in what is now Alabama along with the Chickasaw in Tennessee, became allies of the French. The British and French colonial governments manipulated the Native American tribes to fight their wars for them. Thousands upon thousands of Cherokees died in this drawn out bloodshed.
In the next article of this series, we will see how a series of apocalyptic plagues and lost wars drastically reduced the population of the Cherokees and changed their ethnic character. They ultimately lost all of their lands in South Carolina and all but the extreme western tip of North Carolina. These horrific changes set the stage for the remnants of the allied 14 bands migrating into northwestern Georgia and assimilating into one nation.