Native Heritage

Was the Okefenokee Swamp once a Native American Venice?

village

An artist’s rendering of how some areas may have looked contributed by Richard Thornton

Few people are aware that the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Georgia contains at least 74 Indian mounds.

Only a few mounds on the swamp’s edge have been briefly excavated by professional archaeologists, but the evidence suggests that the Okefenokee once was home to thousands of Native Americans and an advanced indigenous culture. The swamp covers over 438,000 acres.


According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 400,000 visitors a year come to this exotic region in the southeastern tip of the State of Georgia. That is probably conservative. On the fringes of this boggy landscape that are outside federal property boundaries, there are farmsteads and hamlets, where residents have hunted and fished in the swamp for many generations. Most of the swamp was purchased by the Roosevelt Administration in 1936 to prevent extinction of its wildlife and remaining stands of virgin Bald Cypress trees.

Tourists come from around the world to see the swamp’s famous alligators, snakes, aquatic birds, cypress trees, giant long leaf pines and Jurassic Period terrain. The visitor’s center does have some exhibits related to the Native American occupation of the region, but presents an incomplete story. Tourists do not see any evidence of Native American culture in the swamp as it appears today. They assume that its ancient inhabitants were few in number and left the region as soon as Europeans arrived on the scene.

Geologists believe that the swamp was formed at least 6-8,000 years ago when a sandy barrier island trapped water in a bay, as the South Atlantic coastline retreated eastward. Probably, for much of its existence, the swamp looked something like Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. Over time, vegetation created islands in the shallow lake, upon which groves of trees could thrive; particular Bald Cypress. Even today, some of the vegetative islands are so thin that they vibrate when walked on.

Origin of the swamp’s name

Most books, magazine articles, TV documentaries, and even the official USFWS web site define the meaning of the Okefenokee Swamp as being a Creek Indian word meaning, “The Land of the Trembling Earth.” That is not correct. The Creek Indian words for trembling and earth are entirely different.

Patricia Affable and Beeler Madison of the Smithsonian Institute wrote a book on Indian place names in 1995 that got closer to accuracy than anybody else. They stated that the word was Miccosukee-Seminole and was derived from okifanô:ki, meaning “bubbling water” or alternatively “trembling earth.” Their book also states that the original name for the swamp was Lake Oconee, named after an extinct branch of the Arawak-speaking Timucua Indians. This part of the interpretation was entirely wrong.

Okefenokee is actually derived from a Hitchiti word. Hitchiti was the language spoken by most of the Creek Indians in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. The original word was oka-fenoke in Itsa-ti (Hitchiti,) which means “water-shaking.” The Hitchiti word for “bubbling” is “mole.” The Oconi (actually Okani – now Okonee) Indians were one of the most important branches of the Creek Indian Confederacy. They originally spoke Hitchiti and were major players in the mound-building business. Their name means born of water.”

The Okonee Creeks have an origin myth that they arose out from a watery Garden of Eden to the south of their later mound-studded centers in northeast Georgia. Unlike most Southeastern mound builders, most of the Okonee’s lived in dispersed farmsteads and hamlets. The elite lived in small, palisaded compounds, containing several large mounds and public buildings.

Research by Gary Daniels, who developed the LostWorlds.org website, suggests that the culture of Okonee’s first flourished in the watery terrain of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida – perhaps even southern Florida. The Okefenokee Swamp could certainly be viewed as a watery Garden of Eden from a Native American perspective. The mounds on the swamp’s larger islands probably are vestiges of ceremonial centers or the compounds occupied by the Okonee elite. Farmsteads were probably scattered among smaller islands and the edges of the swamp. The swamp’s environment would have been an ideal location to adapt varieties of tropical crops such as maize, yucca, Calusa squash and tobacco to a temperate climate.

Like their contemporaries around Lake Okeechobee, FLorida, the Okonee could well have had most cultural traits associated with the “Mississippian” mound-builders by 750 AD. Their language contains many Maya Indian words. In their own language, Hitchiti is written as Itsa-ti, which means “Itza (Maya) People.”

Daniels theorizes that when Arawak invaders struck the Florida peninsula around 1150 AD, the Okonee were pushed northward. The majority settled on what is now the Oconee River in northeast Georgia. However, apparently one branch stayed in the relative security of the Okefenokee Swamp as much of the land to the south, east and west was occupied by the Timucua Arawaks.

Regional planner in Waycross uncovers lost history

While historic preservation planner for the Southeast Georgia Regional Development Commission in Waycross, Michael Jacobs poured through the forgotten archives of the region. Hailing from North Carolina, Michael has substantial Lumbee and Catawba Indian ancestry. He was particularly interested in uncovering the region’s forgotten Native American history. Michael’s discoveries of old Spanish maps, yellowed newspaper articles and forgotten archaeological studies electrified Native American scholars, but the information never made its way to Caucasian anthropologists and federal agencies.

Michael found a long forgotten file folder produced by professional archaeologists, who surveyed the newly acquired Okefenokee Swamp for the federal government. At the time, little was known about the advanced Southeastern Native Americans. The cursory information in the files about numerous mounds have far more significance today, than when they were typed. Back then, no one new that the first pottery in the Western Hemisphere was made in southeastern Georgia, or that there are dozens of pyramidal temple mounds in Georgia that are 1000 to 150 years older than any mounds at Cahokia, Illinois.

early missississippian

Older Map of Okefenokee with Se GA & Ne FL

The regional planner discovered an old Spanish map, which clearly described the construction of a road along the edge of the swamp that culminated at the Forks of the Altamaha River, where it is joined by the Ohoopee River. Small missions and forts were spaced along the road, while a major mission, Santa Isabel de Utinahica, was planned. None of the missions lasted very long, because repeated attacks by the Creek Indians to the north, who were bitter enemies of the Spanish.

Jacobs also found much evidence that the Creek Indians returned to southeast Georgia in the 1700s and lived there far beyond when official histories say they left. Official English and American maps show the Okefenokee Swamp and its environs occupied by the Tallassee Creeks, who were originally from the North Carolina Mountains, but were driven out by the Cherokees in the mid-1700s. The last military action of the U. S. Army against Native Americans in Georgia occurred in 1843 along the eastern edge of the Okefenokee and the Altamaha River. Peaceful Creek Indians, who had given considerable assistance to the United States during the War of 1812 were attacked without warning, and marched at bayonet point to Fort Mitchell in Alabama. From there, they were deported to Oklahoma.

Perhaps the most surprising of Jacobs’ discoveries were newspaper clippings from a Waycross newspaper in the 1860s. The articles complained that the “Ware County Indians” were moving out of the Okefenokee Swamp and establishing farmsteads on land claimed by nobody. The last article describes raids by vigilante groups, which attacked the Creek Indian farmsteads and burned their buildings.

Official Georgia history is silent on the presence of Creek Indians in the southeastern section of the state after 1867. However, they continued to live in the Okefenokee Swamp and along the Altamaha River until the mid-20th century, when most families immigrated to urban areas with more economic opportunities. In the skin-color based caste system of Georgia prior to the 1970s, Creek Indians in southeast Georgia typically worked as foremen or supervisors over African-American laborers in the turpentine and pulpwood industries. Their intermediary status in society was justified by the fact that their skin tones were roughly halfway between Caucasians and Africans.

As a teenager, Bobby “Bearheart” Johns, Principal Chief of the Perdido Bay Muscogee-Creek Tribe was taken into the Okefenokee Swamp by his uncles, where he was taught the tribe’s traditions and survival techniques. Johns was born in a log cabin near the Ocmulgee River, which is a tributary of the Altamaha River.. His family later moved to the Macon, GA area. His uncles worked as foremen and mill supervisors in the turpentine industry. See the Perdido Bay tribe’s web site at www.perdidobaytribe.org.

Until a comprehensive archaeological study is carried out on the majority of Native American archaeological sites in the Okefenokee Swamp, much of its Native American history must remain in the realm of speculation. However, with so many mounds being located on the islands within the swamp, it is clear that at some time in the past, this was a major center of indigenous culture.

In the period between 100 BC and 1000 AD, the island communities of the Okefenokee Swamp probably served as cultural crucibles that adapted tropical plants and traditions to the temperate mainland.

written by Richard Thornton

Richard Thornton is member of the Creek nation and an architect and city planner living currently in the north Georgia mountains. Richard brings with his knowledge a very broad range of professional experiences. He was born in Waycross, GA and spent his early childhood exploring the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.

The following is a loose transcript of some correspondence we had with Richard. He is kind enough to share his depth of knowledge and understanding of Pre-Columbian, Historical & Contemporary North American Native Cultures.

Richard can you tell me something about the Timucua people who inhabited this area when Europeans first arrived?

The Timucuans arrived some time after 1150 AD.  Up to that time, all of Florida was also Muskogean-Maya. Actually, there are a lot of Maya words in Hitchiti-Creek.  Most Georgia & South Carolina Creeks have some Maya DNA.  There are at least 74 mounds in the swamp that pre-date the Timucua. The Talassee Creeks moved down from the Smoky Mountains of NC to the swamp in the 1700s after the Timucua had died out. Did you know that there were still Creek hamlets in the swamp in the 1860s.  Michael Jacobs with the South Georgia Regional Development Commission found a newspaper article where some Creeks (which they called the Ware County Indians) established some farmsteads outside the swamp, but were burned out by vigilante groups in the 1860s. There were Creeks still living in the swamp in isolated houses until the feds bought it. Our principal chief went through his “coming of age” training inside the swamp after it was acquired by the feds, but not developed yet for public use.

Earlier this year some petroglyph specialists identified an Arawak type stone tablet that had been found near Six Flags Over Georgia near Atlanta. The Timucua were Arawaks, so evidently some of them settled much farther inland that we realized. Apparently, those in the highlands were absorbed by the Creek Confederacy.

Would you give us a little background on how you got into some of this?

Back in 2004 six members of the Muskogee-Creek National Council walked up to my booth at Ocmulgee National Monument and said, “Richard,  we would like you to put aside your research on Mexican Native Americans for awhile and help your own people.” The Creek Nation invested heavily in funding my research projects on our heritage, so they could have me around as guru on the subject. Therefore, I feel obligated to share that knowledge with others.

What about fire use and native cultures at Okefenokee?

Realize that the Creeks burned over the fringes of the Okefenokee Swamp every winter to provide grazing lands for deer and encourage the growth of long leaf pines? Much of the jungle like vegetation that is there now (and some of the burning) is a result of the White man’s arrival on the scene.

What is the Okefenokee connection to the amazing cultures that dominated Mexico and Central America?

The ancestors of the Creeks, Alabamas, Choctaws, Chickasaws, etc. came from the central highlands of Mexico.  We think that they left just as the first civilizations were getting started.  The Creek’s writing system is very similar to that of the early Olmecs, but once in the Southeast evolved to something more like a true alphabet.  During the period from 400 BC to 750 AD,  there were occasional contacts with Mesoamerica that brought in crops and the idea of building pyramids from the south.  There were large earthen pyramids under construction in NW and SW Georgia by 0 AD.

We are pretty sure that there were also slave raids by Chontal Maya slave raiders between 600 AD and 800 AD that caused the complete abandonment of Swift Creek towns in Georgia’s coastal plain.  Most Swift Creek towns continued to exist north of the Fall Line where the big Chontal Maya seacraft couldn’t sail.  (See the attached picture.)   The fact is that hundreds of pipes and clay figurines of Chontal Maya seacraft have been been found in the Creek homeland.

The Maya cities no longer needed millions of slaves after 800 AD and started to collapse.  By 900 AD the Maya cities were collapsing like flies. Famine and war were rampant.  Suddenly, at this time, you see large, planned towns appearing in Georgia along major rivers. The statues and figurines of Creek provinces began portraying people wearing turbans.   Turbans were the “uniforms” of the Maya commoners.

There are many Maya words and some Totonac words in the Hitchiti language that Georgia Creeks spoke.  Several Creek towns in the 1700s still had pure Maya names.  Most Georgia and South Carolina Creeks have been found to carry a little Maya DNA.  I am 3% Maya, even though I am almost 74% Scottish.

So, what we think happened was that escaped Maya slaves and fleeing Maya commoners came to the Southeast and set themselves up as the elite.  This sparked the rise of a Creek civilization.  However, through the centuries the Creeks were less and less like the Mayas, and more their own indigenous culture.

The Okefenokee Swamp’s archaeology is important, because we think that it was one of the places where the culture carried by Maya refugees evolved into Creek culture.

sailing ship

Yucatan Mayan seafaring vessel

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