Hollywood loves to portray the clash of cultures in battle. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, movie-goers were repeatedly titillated and saddened by scenes from the late 19th century. Dashing white soldiers clad in dark blue, charged across a Western prairie to attack teepees occupied by noble savages. The slaughters at such infamous places as Sand Creek, the Washita and Wounded Knee were subtly explained as the inevitable price of American civilization reaching its destiny.
Earlier in that century, though, was one of the most disgraceful and gory acts ever committed by the United States military. This atrocity was not in combat against an enemy, but against the women, children and elderly of a civilized ally. It was known as the Chehaw Massacre.
Aficionados of early American history probably recall the word, Chiaha. It was the province in the Great Smoky Mountains, where the De Soto Expedition lingered for a couple of weeks in late spring of 1540 to fatten their horses and their own bellies. Its t’ulamāko or capital was on a long island in the Little Tennessee River just below where it was joined by the Tuckasegee, Oconaluftee and Nantahala Rivers. The lush mountain valley is one of the most picturesque in the Southern Highlands. The ethnic name survives today in the region as the Cheoah River and Cheoah Mountain.
Twenty-seven years later a band of better-behaved conquistadors, led by Captain Juan Pardo, stayed here twice while attempting to reach the capital of the province of Kusa. Pardo’s chronicler, Juan de la Bandera, commented that the province of Chiaha was the only place Spaniards had visited in North America where stingless honey bees were raised and honey consumed. He also mentioned that massive fields of cultivated salvia grew along the sides of the crystal clear mountain river. Readers of the Spanish chronicles were confused because some towns in the province were called Chiaha, while one was recorded as Ychiaha. This is important historical evidence that scholars missed for the following 440 years.
You see, Chiaha is an Itza Maya word. It means Salvia River. The Eurasian honey bee that is raised today is not native to the Western Hemisphere. The Mayas selectively developed a stingless bee into a domestic honey bee. They were the only indigenous people in the Americas who produced honey. The prefix “ē” is also Itza Maya. It signifies that a town was an important one. Tula was the real name of the great city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. For several hundred years the Itza Mayas were vassals of Teotihuacan, and therefore took its name for the word for town. Mako is the Itza Maya word for king.
Around 1585 a catastrophic plague swept through the Southern Highlands that almost wiped out its indigenous population. Mound-building stopped. Many large towns were abandoned. Survivors banded together in smaller villages and went back to a more “Woodland” lifestyle.
In the 1600s the surviving Chiaha were apparently on good terms with their neighbors. To the west were the Taskeke (Tuskegee) and Talasee. To the east along the Little Tennessee River were the vassal Shawnee villages of Koneste and Konasawake – which means “Spotted Skunk People” and “Hognose Skunk People” in two Creek languages. These Shawnee eventually joined the Cherokee Alliance. Along the Oconaluftee River were the Oconee Creeks, who lived where the Cherokee Reservation is located now. Oconaluftee means “Oconee People, cut off” in the Muskogee-Creek language. There is also substantial evidence that Spanish Sephardic Jews took refuge in the region and mined the silver ore discovered in Nantahala Gorge by Juan Pardo.
The territory of the new Cherokees Alliance began expanding rapidly in the early 1700s after they became business partners with the British. Most of the Tuskegee moved to Alabama. The Talasee moved to the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia. Most of the Chiaha and Oconee moved to the Lower Chattahoochee River in SW Georgia and joined the Creek Confederacy. The Chiaha soon developed strong trading relations with the British. After Savannah was founded in 1733, the Chiaha became staunch allies of the Colony of Georgia. Chiaha soldiers repeatedly helped defend the young colony from Spanish and French invaders. Most of the people of Chiaha stayed neutral during the American Revolution.
After the Revolution, relations with European settlers were healthy and mutually beneficial. White frontiersmen, often called Georgia Crackers, called them the Chehaw. The Chiaha men shifted to being herdsmen on horses, essentially cowboys. The women increased their production of vegetables to feed the growing number of Anglo-American towns and plantations in Georgia. Several Chiaha communities moved to the Flint River in order to be closer to their markets. Because they had always been master farmers, the Chiaha became more affluent than many of their white neighbors. Creek-American towns were little different that Anglo-American ones, except they were better planned; with grid iron street patterns, plazas, sports fields, drainage ditches and log or frame houses.
In 1812, the Chiaha agreed to become military allies of the United States and furnished troops to fight British Rangers in Florida. When the Red Stick Rebellion broke out among conservative Creek Indians in Alabama, the Chiaha furnished troops to fight their Creek brethren. They were promised that they could stay in Georgia forever because of these sacrifices.
In February of 1818, the Creek Nation ceded a large tract of land that ran from the mountains to southern Georgia. Some Chiaha villages were forced to move west at that time. The next month, prosperous Seminole farmers in northern Florida rebelled because of repeated raids by Georgia Crackers on their farms. The Chiaha again reluctantly furnished soldiers to fight with the United States Army. Many of the Seminoles were actually their former Talasee and Oconee neighbors in the North Carolina Mountains. Most Seminoles are really just Creek Indians, who moved to Florida. Again, the Chiaha were promised that they could stay in Georgia forever because of their services.
In late March of 1818, Chehaw, the largest Chiaha village in what is now Lee County, fed General Andrew Jackson’s army as it was marching south to fight the Seminoles. Several beef cows were slaughtered without compensation, to provide a treat for the soldiers. Its mikko (mayor) named “Howard” was made a brevet major in the United States Army. Almost all the men of military age in the village marched south with Jackson.
On April 23rd of 1818, two companies of US Army volunteer cavalry totaling about 400 men, under the command of Captain Obed Wright, attacked Chehaw without warning. The other company commander, Captain Bothwell, refused to take part in the campaign. Major Howard ran outside his house carrying a stick with a white flag. He was immediately shot down and bayoneted. The rapacious cavalrymen shot or trampled any living thing on the village’s streets. They then set fire to all the houses, where the women, children and elderly were hiding. They laughed as the helpless civilians screamed in agony.
On April 30 Major General Thomas Glascock sent a report to General Jackson, which stated the basic facts, but claimed that only seven men, two women and one child had been killed. Actually, the town’s population had been exterminated, except for a young man captured outside the village before the attack, who was herding cattle. Apparently, the descendants of two ancient civilizations, who had been burned to death, were considered what is called today, “accidental collateral damage,” and therefore were not recorded as battle casualties. Jackson was furious because he was dependent on his Creek soldiers to lead dangerous guerilla warfare attacks into the Florida swamps. However, no charges were ever placed against Captain Wright.
Some Chiaha soldiers immediately changed sides to fight for the Seminoles. Continued raids and lynchings by nearby Georgia Crackers forced the surviving Chiaha to move southwestward out of harm’s way. They lost some more of their land in southwest Georgia in the Treaty of Indian Springs in 1821. A second Treaty of Indian Springs in 1825 ceded all Creek Indian land in Georgia to the United States.
The period between 1818 and 1827 scattered surviving Chiaha’s to the winds. Some became associated with the Muskogee Creeks. Others moved south and became core groups with the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes. Because their numbers by then were small, the Chiaha were forced to adopt the languages of the majorities. The hybrid Itza Maya – Muskogean language spoken by them became extinct.
POSTSCRIPT: In the 1980s a team of Southern university professors came roaring through Asheville, NC in their announced quest of finding the true route of Hernando de Soto. I was the Director of the Asheville-Buncombe County Historic Resources Commission. Both North Carolina state archaeologists and I told the professors that there were no occupied Indian villages in the French Broad River Valley during the mid-1500s. No Spanish artifacts have ever been found in the French Broad Valley, but they are fairly common along the Little Tennessee River in extreme western North Carolina.
De Soto could not have come through the future location of Asheville. Nevertheless, the professors announced that afternoon at a press conference sponsored by the Biltmore Estate that a 3 feet high, 1800 year old mound on the Biltmore Estate was the site of the “ancient Cherokee capital of Guaxale.” Guaxale is a Creek Indian word meaning “Southerners.”
In order to make the “joke” about the little mound on the Biltmore Estate seem plausible, the professors added that Chiaha was definitely on Zimmerman Island, a long island in the French Broad River that in no way matches the geographical descriptions by the Spanish. I was aghast because both Cherokee and Creek Indian traditions place Chiaha immediately west of the Cherokee Reservation, where four rivers converge, as described by the Spanish. Nevertheless, the implausible location of the town of Chiaha on Zimmerman Island is what you will read in most “authoritative” sources. History is still being fabricated and concealed for mercenary purposes.
Readers wishing to contact Richard Thornton with questions concerning architecture, urban planning or Native American history may reach him at NativeQuestion@aol.com .