Who were the Cherokees in 1715?
In 1827 Interim Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Charles Hicks wrote eight letters to newly elected Principal Chief John Ross, which described the history of the Cherokee People. Article one in this series mentioned that Hicks was the guiding force in the construction of New Echota. In one of the letters he stated that the ancestors of the Cherokees traveled down the west side of the Enemy Mountains and entered North Carolina at the Little Tennessee River Gorge. Many towns with mounds were already abandoned. He said that they did encounter remnant settlements of peoples, who had built mounds. The Cherokees killed or drove off the mound-builders, burned their temples, and then built round council houses on top of the mounds.
Apparently, after the Chorokees signed several treaties with the British in Charleston in the 1690s, the territory of the Cherokee Alliance grew. Before 1720, French maps do not show any Cherokee villages in the heart of western North Carolina, where their reservation is now located. Only Koasati (Creek), Apike (Creek). Shawnee, Tuskegee (Creek) and Yuchi settlements were visited by French explorers in this region. The Cherokees in these early maps are located at the headwaters of the Savannah River and along the Holston River in northeastern Tennessee. Early English maps only show Chorakee villages on the headwaters of the Savannah.
It is quite likely that the “Cherokees” of northeastern Tennessee were Rickohockens who were allied with the Chorakees of the Savannah River headwaters. As pointed out in an earlier article in this series, around 1690 English maps suddenly labeled traditional Rickohocken territory as Charakee, and later, Cherokee. Possibly, some Rickohockens had settled with the Chorakee villagers in South Carolina, and taken leadership roles. Northeastern Tennessee is adjacent to traditional Rickohocken territory, so this would have been a logical place for them to relocate to get away from Virginia settlers.
The Rickohockens did speak a language related Lenape (Delaware) and according to their traditions, they were once part of the Lenape and lived in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Several Rickohocken town names are quite similar to those of the historical Cherokees. The principal town of the Rickohockens, Otari, was on a plateau near Bedford, VA. The word means “high place” in some Cherokee dialects. Otari is also the name of a town visited by Captain Juan Pardo in 1567 or 1568.
There is evidence of schisms occurring within the Muskogean towns of western North Carolina. The Taskeke (Tuskegee in English ~Tasqui in the chronicles of the de Soto and Pardo Expeditions) were important members of both the Creek Confederacy and the Cherokee Alliance. They were known as the Taskegi to the Cherokees and were considered the intelligentsia of the Cherokees since they had a writing system and powerful memories. The word means “Woodpecker People” in Muskogee. Tuskeegee, NC is located near Fontana Lake. Tuskegee, AL is in the central part of that state. Several other Creek place names can be found in both the Carolinas and Alabama.
During the Colonial Era, Native American villages, bands and families were constantly relocating in hopes of avoiding conflicts with European settlers and enemy tribes, or perhaps, finding a better place to farm and hunt. Very possibly, after the remaining indigenous ethnic groups of western North Carolina joined the Cherokee Alliance, bands and villages of Rickohocken Cherokees from northeastern Tennessee filtered into the region. Over time the Muskogean and Shawnee agricultural villages in the “Cherokee Heartland” blended their cultural traditions with the warlike Rickohockens.
It is clear that the Cherokee Alliance had no central government during the Early Colonial Era. British officials were constantly frustrated with the fact that one band or several bands would sign a treaty with the British, while other bands and towns would ignore it. The British appointed a “king of the Cherokees,” Attakullakulla, in order to solve this problem, but he never was a true “king” of all the bands, and only influenced towns and bands other than his own, by persuasion.
Who were the Cherokees in 1715? They were not a true tribe, but an artificial polity created originally by British colonial authorities to further the territorial and economic ambitions of Great Britain. The early Cherokees were also bound together by a commitment to a democratic, egalitarian society in which there was no traditional elite and the council house was the most important structure.
Cherokee tradition recalls a time when they were ruled by an aristocratic, hereditary priesthood named the Kitani in a town called Kituwa. After the Cherokee men became fed up with the arrogance of the priesthood and the liberties, it took with their women, the entire ani-Kitani clan was either killed are driven away. Afterward the Cherokees became an egalitarian society.
Because contemporary Cherokee researchers tend to be ethnocentric, they are not aware that kitani and kituwa are modern Muskogean words. Kitani was the title of the priest, who maintained the Sacred Fire in the temple. It now means “sorcerer” in the Alabama language. Kituwa was the Sacred Fire that burned in Alabama temples. The ani-kitani tradition probably recalls a time when the Muskogean towns in western North Carolina rebelled against their aristocracies. There is no evidence that the Algonquian-Iroquoian core group of the Cherokees ever had a Muskogean aristocracy while living in their homeland in western Virginia. Nevertheless, contemporary Creek and Alabama Indians chuckle when they hear of the Sons of Kituwa Society among the Cherokees. The Cherokees are merely confirming that they are descended from the Creeks and Alabamas.
Perhaps the most astonishing evidence of the multi-ethnic origins of the Cherokees can be seen among the Snowbird Cherokees of extreme western North Carolina. They have lived in the same location since 1763. Their lands are about 45 miles west of the main reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. In the main reservation, the people have mixed with each other and with their Caucasian neighbors since 1838. In contrast, many Snowbird Cherokees preserve the appearance and cultural traditions of the Cherokees in the mid-1700s.
The core group among the Snowbird Cherokees is descended from Soque refugees who left the South Carolina Low Country. However, one can also see pure Siouan, Algonquian and Yuchi features among some of their families. In the 1500s, the Soque were one of the most powerful ethnic groups in the Carolinas, but were severely depleted by plagues and English-sponsored slave raids. The Soque’s physical features are identical to those famous giant basalt heads and exquisite jade figurines carved by the Olmecs 3200 years ago. There is a good reason . . . the Olmec’s name for themselves was Zoque!
The Cherokees in 1715 were many ethnic groups, speaking several languages. In the many bands and villages that composed the alliance were Rickohockens (Lenape-Algonquian) – Tamatli (Hitchiti-Maya,) Yuchi, Shawnee (Algonquian) – Taskekee (Muskogee/Creek), Soque (Maya-Zoque) – Kowete (Hitchiti/Creek) – Alabama (Muskogean) – Koasati (Muskogean) Saponi (Siouan) – Tokahkee (Siouan) – Tuscarora (Iroquoian) – Edisto (Hitichit/Creek) – Erie (Algonquian) – and probably many more ethnic groups that have been forgotten.
In the next article, we will examine how fifty years of warfare and plagues changed the ethnic character of the Cherokee Alliance and made it into a true Native American tribe.