By Dr. Lee W. Formwalt; Albany State University

Our earliest documentation of the Chehaw Indians goes back four and half centuries to 1540 when southeastern Amerindians encountered Europeans and Africans for the first time. Hernando de Soto and his band of Spanish adventurers came across the Chehaw or Chiaha Indians on Zimmerman’s Island in the French Broad River in present-day Tennessee. By the early eighteenth century, however, the Chehaw had moved south to the Ocmulgee River where they had greater access to the British traders operating out of Charles Town, Carolina (now Charleston, S.C.). A number of Lower Creek Indians from the Chattahoochee River had also moved to the Ocmulgee establishing ten or more towns which became an important trading center for the Charles Town merchants.

Within a few years, however, a number of Native American tribes in the Southeast became concerned about their dependence on and exploitation by the British. As they became more dependent on European goods, particularly guns and ammunition, it became more difficult for the Native Americans to extricate themselves from their involvement in the European trade. More and more deer had to be slaughtered to meet the growing European demand for deerskins. Worse was the large scale Indian slave trade the developed. Joined by their Indian allies on the Ocmulgee River, the English led many slave-capturing expeditions into southwest Georgia and north Florida against Indians allied with the Spanish and French.

As Native American anger grew, several major tribes concluded that only a military solution would eliminate the English problem. In 1715, the Creeks joined the Yamasee, Choctaw, and some other smaller tribes in a major revolt against the Carolina settlers. The English, however, were successful in keeping the large and influential Cherokee tribe from joining the revolt and it failed. The trading post on the Ocmulgee was abandoned, its occupants probably killed, and the Lower Creeks, now including the Chehaw, retreated westward to the Chattahoochee River.

The Creeks were not a unified tribe or nation. In fact, the name “Creek” was an English name assigned to them by the colonists; their Creek name was “Muskogee.” Not all the Creeks were of the same linguistic origins; many were of the Muskhogean stock, but there were some who belonged to other linguistic stocks, such as the Yuchi and Shawnee. The “Creek Nation” was actually a very loose confederation of towns along the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers in present-day Alabama (Upper Creek) and the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers in Georgia (Lower Creek). The main towns of the Lower Creek were all on the Chattahoochee River and several of these had subsidiary villages on the Flint. By 1790, the Chehaw, who had moved to the Chattahoochee River after the Yamasee War, had at least two villages on or near the Flint River in present-day Lee County, Georgia. Au-muc-cul-le (pour on me) was located in Aumuculle Creek (today Muckalee Creek), nine miles above its junction with Kin-cha-foo-nee Creek. In 1799, it had sixty warriors. A second much smaller Chehaw town named O-tell-e-who-yau-nau (Hurricane Town), was on the west bank of the Flint river about six miles above Kinchafoonee Creek. This town, apparently occupied by both Chehaw and Ooseooche Creeks, had only twenty families in 1799.

The houses in Creek towns were arranged in clusters, each containing a minimum of two buildings, but usually more. Each cluster was occupied by a matrilineal extended family and consisted of a winter house, summer house, and additional buildings for storage of animal skins and other purposes. In additional to family housing, this important Creek towns had a plaza that contained a summer council house around a public square, a town house, and a chunky yard. Apparently the smaller villages in the Lee County region lacked these town buildings.

The Creeks practiced riverine agriculture in the rich bottom lands along rivers and streams. They grew three major crops – corn, beans, and squash. For centuries, corn had been the most important crop grown by southeastern Indians. Hominy, the hulled kernels of corn, was a staple of the Creek diet. The Indians’ use of corn in their diet was one of the most visible elements of their culture that southern whites and blacks absorbed into their own.

The southern affinity for corn was just a part of a two-way process of European-Native American acculturation that also involved the Indians’ adoption of Old World crops and farming techniques into their own agriculture. The Europeans introduced fruit trees, including peach, fig, and orange, into the southeast and the Lower Creeks in southwest Georgia planted a number of peach orchards. From Africa, the Lower Creeks borrowed another major Old World crop — rice. In 1799, it was reported that the Chehaw in Aumucullee raised “corn, rice and potatoes in plenty.”

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Lower Creeks began raising livestock, something they learned from white frontiersmen. Most of the Creek towns acquired cattle as a result of raids made during the American Revolution. The two Lee County Chehaw towns that Benjamin Hawkins described in 1799 had well fenced fields, necessary to keep the livestock out of the crops. Both Otellewhoyaunau and Aumucullee had herds of cattle, horses, and hogs.

At first the Chehaw and other Creeks were not enthusiastic about raising cattle; but as they ran out of wild game to hunt (due to over harvesting deer for the European market), they turned to livestock as a substitute. In 1799, the Creeks sent to market 1,000 cattle and 300 hogs. Encouraged by American Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins, many Lower Creeks relied less on hunting and put more of their energy into American style intensive agriculture. Many of the Upper Creeks, however, did not see this as an improvement, but as a step towards cultural annihilation.

Tensions between the Lower and Upper Creeks eventually let to civil war in 1813. American intervention on the side of the Lower Creeks complicated the struggle. Let by General Andrew Jackson, the Americans and their Lower Creek allies defeated the Upper Creeks and concluded the war with the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814). Jackson, arguing that the Creeks were responsible for the war, insisted that they cede 22,000,000 acres of land in central and south Alabama and in south Georgia. Much of this land belonged to the Lower Creeks and other friendly Creek towns. Jackson saw no problem in taking the land of Creek allies for he blamed the whole Creek nation for the war.

The new boundary between American and Creek land in Georgia ran from the Chattahoochee River to the eastern coastal counties along a line that included the present Lee-Dougherty County boundary. Everything south of the line belonged to the United States; north of the line remained Creek country. This put the Chehaw towns in Lee County very near to land now open for white settlement. As white frontiersmen moved in, the potential for conflict was great.

In 1817, the First Seminole War began and General Jackson was back in south Georgia to put an end to Indian depredations. In early 1818, as he traversed the region, Jackson stopped at Aumucullee, now referred to as simply “Chehaw.” At this time, the town “consisted of fifteen or twenty cabins with a large Council house in the Centre” flying a white flag of peace. The old chiefs welcomed the Americans and provided them with corn and other supplies that could be spared. The chiefs sent Jackson off to Spanish Florida with forty of their young warriors to fight their common enemy – the Seminoles, fugitive Upper Creeks, and renegade Lower Creeks.

While Jackson and his several thousand militia and Indian troops were in Florida, an Indian raid took place on the Georgia frontier. Governor William Rabun appointed Captain Obed Wright to lead a punitive expedition of 270 Georgia militiamen against the guilty parties. Wright heard that some Chehaw had been responsible for the raid and so he led his men to the major Chehaw town of Aumucullee or Chehaw. Unaware that most of the Chehaw warriors from the town were with Jackson in Florida and that the town was inhabited largely by women, children and old men, Wright ordered an attack which resulted in at least seven killed and forty to fifty wounded. When Jackson heard of the Chehaw Massacre, he was outraged; he excoriated the governor, ordered Wright’s arrest, and promised the Chehaw that they would be compensated for their destroyed property. Captain Wright was arrested, but he escaped to Florida and was never found. No one was ever punished for the slaughter at Chehaw. The federal government did live up to Andrew Jackson’s promise and the Chehaw were awarded $10,000 compensation for their losses. The money, however, was bittersweet for it did not really compensate for the loss of lives, land, and culture that the Chehaw had recently experienced. In little more than a decade, the same federal government would undertake the removal of the remaining Chehaw to the trans-Mississippi West, thus completing the great land grab begun by white colonists a century and a half earlier.