Persons, who have family traditions of Creek Indian ancestry often become confused when they trace their probable Creek ancestors to either South Carolina or North Carolina. Many references and all official U.S. Department of Interior maps show South Carolina as only being occupied by the Cherokee and Catawba tribes, while North Carolina is shown to be occupied by the Cherokee, Tuscarora and Lumbee tribes. The genealogical researchers inevitably decide that their ancestors were members of one of these five tribes, not Creek.
The picture painted by early Colonial archives is quite different than modern government maps. There were many ethnic changes in the Carolinas between 1521 when Spanish explorers first entered the coastal lands and 1783, when the United States won its independence from Great Britain. The Carolinas were originally an ethnic patchwork quilt that included many provinces and tribes that either became extinct or merged with larger tribes.
Several Muskogean provinces dominated what is now South Carolina and western North Carolina in the 1500s, but by the time of the American Revolution, they no longer were mentioned on maps. However, descendants of these Muskogean ethnic groups continue to live in South Carolina. They were assimilated into the general population of the state, but reformed state-recognized tribes in the late 20th century.
In the century between the French and Indian War and the American Civil War Southeastern Native Americans were frequently on the move. At the end of the French & Indian War many tribes that had been allied with the French were expelled from their lands, while Great Britain’s Native allies were moved from territories near English settlers to the lands once owned by French allies. This why the Cherokees moved to northwestern Georgia and the Creeks of eastern Georgia and the Carolina’s moved to Alabama. Small Creek and Yuchi villages sometimes remained in South Carolina, especially if most of their citizens were racially mixed. Also, individual households of mixed-blood Creeks settled on farm lands that they owned. They soon began to assimilate and intermarry with their non-Indian neighbors. However, in some counties, politically powerful planters would use their control of law enforcement to illegally evict Creek families, thus forcing them to move westward.
Original locations of the Muskogean populations
The Native American words recorded by the de Soto Expedition, while it explored the Carolinas in 1541 can all be easily translated by either Itsati (Hitchiti) Mvskoke (Muskogee) or Koasati dictionaries. This fact does not mean that the region was totally Muskogean, but that at least in 1541, it was politically dominated by Muskogean towns. Captain Juan Pardo more thoroughly explored what is now South Carolina in 1567. His chronicler, Juan de la Bandera recorded numerous villages with non-Muskogean names. However, all but one of the political titles were Muskogean words. This suggests that the provincial leaders were Muskogean, even if the provinces contained polyglot populations.
Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina
The region of the North Carolina Mountains south of Asheville and east of Franklin, NC was originally occupied by Creek, Yuchi and Shawnee villages. The principal Creek tribes were the Keowah (Keowee,) Etalwa, Kowete and Tamasee. Some villages became part of the Cherokee alliance, while others (closer to Hendersonville, NC) apparently remained autonomous. However, all tribal lands were abolished in 1763. Some individual mixed-blood Creek families evidently tried to remain in the region until problems with new white settlers forced them to either move into the Cherokee or Creek Nations to the west. Perhaps some families composed of Caucasian husbands and Creek wives remained. It is likely that their descendants remember their heritage as Cherokee. Creek descendants in northern Georgia and Alabama frequently can trace their ancestry to Creeks from this area, but are confused by the location. Contemporary North Carolinians assume that the Blue Ridge Mountains were occupied by the Cherokees.
Western North Carolina
When Hernando de Soto passed through the region in the early summer of 1541 this mountainous region was dominated by Muskogean towns with Itsati (Hitchiti) names. One important town was written down in Castilian as Guaxule or Guaxale. In English phonetics, the town’s name would be spelled Wa-haw-le, which happens to be the Itsati word for “Southerners” and spelled Wahvle in the Creek languages. Wahvle was a term used for Muskogeans from Florida or the Mayas.
After a French expedition into the heart of the North Carolina and Georgia Mountains in 1662, European maps showed the upper Hiwassee River Basin of those two states occupied by the Apalachee Indians. The Southern Highlands were renamed the Appalachian Mountains as a result. Several coastal Muskogean provinces had established colonies in the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina. Early French maps also show Shawnee and Yuchi villages in the Carolina mountains.
An official map of the “Cherokee Nation” commissioned in 1725 by the Colony of South Carolina was the first English map to use the word “Cherokee.” It showed the Cherokees occupying all of western North Carolina, north and east of the Hiwassee River. Downstream from the Hiwassee was still Muskogean and Yuchi until the late 1730s. However, almost all the major Cherokee towns in eastern Tennessee had Creek or Koasati names.
By the end of the 1700s, the majority of Cherokees were living in northwestern Georgia, while all but the extreme western tip of the North Carolina Mountains was occupied by white settlers. However, during the turmoil of the early 1800s, over 3000 Upper Creeks took refuge among the Cherokees. These families were not on the “pick up” list for the Cherokee Removal. Only about 800 were captured by Federal soldiers and sent west with the Cherokees. The remainder hid out in the mountains of northern Georgia western North Carolina or somewhere in Tennessee.
There are pockets of families with Creek ancestry in Murray, Gilmer, Fannin and Union Counties, Georgia. During the 1800s and 1900s some members of these mixed-blood Creek families moved across the state line and now reside in North Carolina. Most in North Carolina call themselves Cherokees, but are visibly different in appearance than the mixed blood Cherokee families.
Northwest South Carolina
When Captain Juan Pardo traveled through this region in 1567, all of the leaders and most of the villages had Muskogean names. When John Lawson traveled through the region in 1701 it was occupied by the Muskogean Keowah (Keowee) and Koweta Creeks. Lawson’s description of the Keowah Creeks is almost identical to the de Soto Chronicles’ description of the Okonee Creeks in northeast Georgia. The South Carolina county where the last documented Keowee town was located was named Oconee County. Apparently, the Keowah were an eastern branch of the Okonee that joined the Cherokee Alliance. Until the mid-1720s the Indians of the South Carolina Upper Piedmont were called Keowee’s. After then they were known as Lower Cherokees or Foothills Cherokees.
The 1725 map of the Cherokee Nation shows the Cherokees occupying only the northwestern corner of South Carolina, but most of these towns also had Creek names. Immediately south of the Cherokee towns were small villages occupied by remnant Creek, Shawnee (Savano) or Siouan populations. During the middle and late 1700s, mixed-blood Creek families moved away from the Anglo-French Huguenot plantation culture of coastal South Carolina and settled in the Upper Piedmont of northwestern South Carolina and northeastern Georgia. They were utilized as a Native American militia during the Cherokee-Anglo War and the American Revolution to protect white settlers from Cherokee raids. Still today, families with significant Creek heritage can be found in the vicinity of Oconee, Anderson, Abbeville, McCormick, and Greenwood Counties.
Southwest South Carolina
All of western South Carolina was originally Creek territory. Most of these Creek provinces maintained peaceful relations with white settlers, even as their populations and territory shrank. Conservative villages emigrated from this region to Georgia and Alabama, while other factions assimilated into the main population. The most important Creek branches in this region are the Okonee, Sawakee, Edisto, Keowah, and Kusapa (Cusabo.) Several communities, such as Hardeeville, SC contain substantial mixed-blood Creek populations to this day. There are also several tribal organizations that are state recognized.
Ashley and Cooper River Basins
As the British and French Huguenot population of South Carolina increased, the colonial government “awarded” reserves to Muskogeans living in the Ashley and Cooper River Basins north of Charleston. Charleston Bay northward to the Santee River was originally occupied by the Etawa and Kusa Creeks. These Creeks never officially departed the region where the reserves were located, but the delineation of the reserves disappeared after the American Revolution. It is likely that their descendants still live in the region, but have become predominantly Caucasian because of generations of intermarriage.
Santee River Basin
When visited by the de Soto Expedition in 1541 and the Pardo Expedition in 1567, the towns in this region had Muskogean names and their leaders, Muskogean titles. When English settlers arrived in the 1670s, this area was occupied by Sewee and Santee Indians. No aboriginal words survive from these two peoples. Most were enslaved at the end of the Yamasee War and sent to Caribbean sugar plantations. There is currently a small state-recognized Santee tribe on the upper Santee River. The modern Santee lost all of their aboriginal traditions between the early 1700s and the late 1900s. They were told by anthropologists that they were Siouan, and therefore have learned Siouan traditions. They may not even be the same ethnic group that occupied the towns in the 1500s.
Pee Dee River Basin
The Ilape and Vehiti (Pee Dee) Creeks dominated this region until the early 1700s. It included territory than extended into central North Carolina up to the Town Creek Mounds site. In response to catastrophic slave raids the survivors formed an alliance centered on the Catawba. After the Catawba became embroiled in a war of attrition with the Iroquois Confederacy, apparently, many Muskogeans pulled away from the Catawbas and resettled in northern Georgia to join the Creek Confederacy. There they became known as the Hillabee Creeks. They eventually emigrated to Alabama and at the time of removal relocated again to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma.)
Apparently, some Pee Dee’s emigrated to the Creek Confederacy, while others remained in the home territory and mimicked the lifestyles of European settlers. Mixed blood Pee Dee and Sawakee Creeks formed the Raccoon Regiment that fought on behalf of the Patriots in the American Revolution. “Sawa” means “raccoon” in Itsati-Creek and Georgia Muskogee-Creek. Creek veterans of the American Revolution were eligible for land grants in Georgia. Many are known to have settled in northeast Georgia after 1784. Northeast Georgia was always Creek territory before then, but a minor Cherokee chief gave the region to the State of Georgia when surrendering to the Georgia and South Carolina Patriots. Georgia refused to give the land back to the Creeks after the Revolution, but did allow Creek veterans to own large tracts fee simple.
Native American Slaves
Twenty percent of the population of the Colony of Charlestown in 1710 was Native American. At the end of the bloody Yamasee War in 1717, the percentage probably temporarily increased since tribes that allied themselves with the Yamassee were subject to slave raids. Native Americans made unreliable slaves in South Carolina, however, because unless they were maimed, they would repeatedly attempt to escape. The percentage of African slaves steadily increased after 1720.
In 1752, King George II freed all Native American slaves in North America. The proclamation was irregularly enforced. Most colonies refused freedom to any slave that has as much as 1/64 African blood. Nevertheless, those that looked either full-blooded American Indian or mixed Indian and Caucasian usually found a way to obtain freedom.
If one has a known Native American ancestor with a Christian first name, who emigrated from Virginia, Maryland or the Carolina coastal regions to Creek territories in South Carolina or Georgia in the 1750s, the ancestor was probably a former Creek slave. Former slaves often had some Caucasian DNA from past use of young Indian women by white plantation owners. They also usually had fluent command of English, which gave them an advantage in economic survival within a world increasingly dominated by Europeans.