Perhaps, over a million Native Americans in the Southeast perished during a relatively short period of time in the late 1500s. Suspects in this crime include European diseases introduced by Spanish Conquistadors or Jewish Sephardic colonists; exotic plagues introduced by escaped Moslem galley slaves; a hemorrhagic fever that only infected indigenous peoples living in mountainous areas; and a fratricidal war between the three main divisions of the Creek Indians.
Part Fourteen of the Native American history of the Southern Appalachians
In the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s there was a flurry of archaeological studies in southeastern Tennessee, northeastern Alabama and northern Georgia that radically changed the understanding of the Southeast’s past. Several of the archaeologists involved later became department heads or senior professors at major Southeastern Universities. A few became nationally recognized authors. Numerous Native American town sites were excavated along the Savannah, Tugaloo, Tennessee, Little Tennessee, Coosa, Coosawattee and Etowah Rivers. Researchers found evidence of a catastrophic population drop in the Southern Appalachians during the period between 1585 and 1600. The Native American towns with the largest temple mounds were completely abandoned. Most of the other towns and villages were either abandoned or only retained residual populations.
Three, soon to be famous, archaeologists from the University of Georgia, Arthur Kelley, Lewis Larsen and Joseph Caldwell, excavated Etowah Mounds near Cartersville, GA in the mid-1950s. Radiocarbon dating was in its infancy then but the last occupation of the large town ended somewhere between 1585 and 1600. The team did relatively little excavation outside the locations of the major mounds and therefore found no clues that might explain the large town’s demise.
The abandonment was thought to be permanent for four decades, but in 2006 ground radar found the footprints of structures on the Great Plaza near the surface that appear to date from the late 1600s or early 1700s. These houses were probably part a small village built by the Conchakee Creeks (Apalachicola) who occupied northwestern Georgia between 1645 and 1763. Most of their villages (such as Oothlooga) moved back to the Apalachicola River Basin and Pensacola Bay after the British took possession of Florida.
Dr. Joseph Caldwell next led the excavation of the Tugaloo Town site on an island destined for flooding by Lake Hartwell on the Georgia-South Carolina border. The site is at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a very large town with at least eight mounds that was occupied for at least 900 years. Until then Caldwell believed that the Cherokees built both Tugaloo and Etowah Mounds. To his shock, radiocarbon dating proved that the a people that created sophisticated pottery and architecture, typical of the Creek Indians and Etowah Mounds, thrived in Tugaloo until around 1700 to 1710. At that time the town was burned to the ground. A short time later, a small part of the site was re-occupied by a people, who built crude, round huts and made simplified imitations of the Creek’s Lamar Style pottery. It is not understood why a large town on a river leading straight to the coast continued to thrive, while all the other large towns with multiple mounds in the Southern Highlands were abandoned during the late 1500s.
Caldwell assumed that the newcomers were Cherokees. Nevertheless, a few years later, the State of Georgia put up several historical markers stating that Tugaloo’s mounds were built by the Cherokees around 1450 AD. That is what local tourist brochures and amateur “Cherokee History” web sites state today.
The region around Tugaloo Island was the powerful province of Ustanali, when visited by a French trade representative from Fort Caroline in 1565. It had apparently not experienced any major plagues and controlled the flow of mountain commodities down the Savannah River.
The word, Tugaloo, is the Anglicization of the Cherokee-nization of the Creek word, Tokahle, which means “Freckled People.” Arawak speakers called them the Tok-koa (Toccoa) while the Spanish labeled them the Tokee.
The Tokahle originally occupied the high plateau where Highlands, NC is now located. They became members of the Chorake (Lower Cherokee) Alliance in which they were called the Tokwa. Apparently, around 1700 AD they conquered the Ustanali capital and drove the survivors westward, where they established a new town at the confluence of the Oostanaula and Coosawattee Rivers in NW Georgia. The Ustanali remained there until 1794, when their land was given to the Cherokees. The site became the capital of the Cherokee Nation, New Echota.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Dr. Jefferson Chapman led teams of University of Tennessee archeologists, who excavated numerous Native American town sites in the Little Tennessee and Tellico River Basins that were scheduled to be flooded by Lake Tellico. The Tennessee archaeologists discovered that all of these towns had either been abandoned or significantly shrank in population in the late 1500s. Small populations continued their artistic traditions at such sites as Itsate (Chote), Bussell Island and Hiwassee Island, but by the 1720s they had changed to the cultural characteristics of the Cherokees.
Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, John Pennington, was the first person to draw the lines between the dots and tell the public about a catastrophic drop in the indigenous population of the Southeast. This catastrophe occurred almost a century before South Carolina was settled by the British. For two decades he had produced popular articles on the discoveries of archaeologists in Georgia. Beginning in 1973, while writing from his new home on Cumberland Island, GA, Pennington saw the “big picture.” The Native American population of the Southeast, encountered by English colonists, was but a shadow of its original size.
Discoveries along the Coosawattee, Etowah and Coosa Rivers in northwest Georgia in the early 1970s made good reading for AJC subscribers, but also told a horrific tale. The towns of the region appeared to have been completely abandoned almost simultaneously. Some villages was discovered in which skeletons covered the ground. There had been no one to bury the dead. In one village near Rome, GA, the archaeologists found numerous bones that had been chopped up by steel weapons and boiled. Pennington found an old Spanish archive which provided a recipe for “Broth of Indian virgins” as a cure for malaria.
University of Georgia archaeology professor, David Halley, led a team in the emergency excavation of the “Little Egypt Site” which was scheduled to be flooded by Carters Lake. It turned out to be the probable location of the capital of Coosa, called Coça by the Spanish. It also had been completely abandoned by 1600. The survivors established a new Coosa 133 miles downstream on the Coosa River.
Halley postulated that European diseases spread by the de Soto Expedition had eventually wiped out the Native American population of the Southern Highlands. He presumed that northwest Georgia had remained uninhabited until the arrival of the Cherokees after the Revolution. In fact other Muskogean peoples had merely replaced the Coosa population in the 1600s. Later, other archaeologists speculated that European diseases had spread northward from Spanish missions on the Georgia coast. The impact of European diseases is the most common explanation today of the depopulation of the region.
The Native population of southern Alabama did collapse in the period after de Soto’s conquistadors came through. However, European diseases also could have spread northward from the Gulf Coast. The Native provinces in the mountains apparently thrived until at least 1585, when they were last contacted by Spanish traders from Santa Elena, SC. Santa Elena soon thereafter was abandoned. Most of the Spanish missions were not established until the early 1600s, when the Southern Mountains had already become a ghost zone.
African and Mediterranean diseases
In 1586 while raiding Spanish shipping and colonies in the West Indies and Florida, a fleet commanded by Sir Francis Drake captured a large number of Spanish galley slaves. These unfortunate men were prisoners of war captured by the Spanish in a series of naval victories against the Turkish Empire. The prisoners were from Turkey, the Balkans, Palestine/Lebanon, Egypt and Africa. Drake freed them on the Carolina coast and sailed on.
It has been theorized that the freed galley slaves made their way to the Southern Appalachians, where they intermarried with Native women. In the process they could have introduced microbes of some horrific diseases that were common in the eastern Mediterranean Basin and northern Africa. The preponderance of Turkish, Levantine, Egyptian and Sub-Saharan DNA among North Carolina Cherokees could be explained by the arrival of these freed prisoners of war.
Another theory is that these initial refugees in the mountains were joined soon by numerous Sephardic and Moreno (Moors) refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. Each band of newcomers brought their own set of pathogens. In this version, the indigenous population soon collapsed after being overwhelmed by a Pandora’s Box of lethal microbes.
Highland Hemorrhagic Fever
Several times during the 1500s a horrific plague with Ebola Fever-like symptoms swept through Mexico. It only affected indigenous peoples living in the temperate highlands. Europeans and American Indians living in coastal or tropical zones were not affected. Victims could be healthy at breakfast time and dead by sunset. Mortality rates approached 100% in many villages. In one epidemic 85% percent of the Native people living in the Central Highlands of Mexico were killed by the disease. It permanently altered the ethnic makeup of Mexico. Neither the pathogen nor its vector has ever been identified by biologists. Some pathologists suspect that a strain of the Hantavirus was to blame.
An alternative explanation of the Southern Highland Holocaust is that either birds or the Monarch butterfly which annually migrate from the mountains of Mexico to the mountains of the Southeast carried with them the hemorrhagic fever microbe. Since the microbe or its vector could only survive in certain climatic conditions, the disease could have selectively depopulated the indigenous population of the Southern Highlands, leaving only European and Middle Eastern immigrants, plus their mixed-heritage offspring.
The Great Muskogean War
There is a widespread tradition that in the era prior to English colonization in the Lower Southeast, territorial aggression by Kusa (Coosa) and the Muskogee Alliance against the mound-building Itsate provinces caused a period of fratricidal warfare. The Itsate provinces in the mountains eventually defeated the Kusa invaders at a bloody battle at a mountain pass. This probably explains the Legend of Blood Mountain* and might explain why all the Coosa people left northwest Georgia and set up shop over 100 miles to the southwest. The Itsate in the Piedmont fought the Muskogees to a standoff then created a confederacy with them. The depopulation of the mountains could have been caused by wars of extermination, made only more devastating by plagues.
*Legend of Blood Mountain, GA: Early white settlers supposedly found many skeletons and arrowheads on the slopes of Blood Mountain and Slaughter Gap, near the present day Appalachian Trail. A legend developed that the Cherokees won a great victory here in 1755 over the Creeks that resulted them in owning all of northern Georgia. There is a state historical marker on Blood Mountain that presents this legend as fact. In 1755 Southeastern Indians used muskets almost exclusively. In battles with the Creeks in 1754-55 the Cherokees lost about 1/4 of their territory and villages. If there was once a great battle at this location, it was not between the Creeks and the Cherokees.
Each of the alternative explanations of the Southeastern Holocaust has its merits. However, the evidence is not overwhelming to support any one explanation. The answer to the whodunit question may be “all of the above.”
Readers wishing to contact Richard Thornton with questions about architecture, urban planning or Native American history may reach him at: NativeQuestion@aol.com.