It is one of those many secrets of American history that have been kept out of news articles, textbooks and Wikipedia. Coretta Scott, the future wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was more Creek Indian than anything else. Typical of many families in the Southeast, her ancestors came from three races, Native American, African and European. Perry County, Alabama, where she grew up, contains many Creek families, who were in the past forced into a “Colored” label by the South’s segregation laws.
Coretta’s physical features were almost entirely Muskogean. If she had worn a ribbon dress, while participating in a Stomp Dance in Okmulgee, OK, no one would have batted an eye.
Apparently, because her husband was so closely associated with the efforts to bring African-Americans political equality and economic justice, Mrs. King didn’t advertise her Native American heritage. However, she never denied that the Scott family was primarily of Creek ancestry, if directly questioned.
Among many things, the laws defining race in the South once stated that if a person was 1/64th African, they were classified legally as Colored, a “polite” term for Negro, and a guarantee of serf status . . . even after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed slaves everywhere.
It was much the same for the Yuchi people along the Savannah River, who somehow survived living on the margins of Southern society for over 250 years. Those who did not move progressively westward with their allies, the Creek Indians, soon afterward either became landless serfs in their homeland or after 1832, enslaved. The blood quantum laws associated with slavery were used by county sheriffs to seize mixed-heritage Yuchi and Creek Indian farms. The families were marched in chains to the Georgia state line or sometimes allowed to be landless sharecroppers. Sheriffs and county politicians pocketed the profits.
The Children of the Sun
The Yuchi Indians are considered to be one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Southeast. They are also known as the Euchee or Uchee. They call themselves the Tsoyaha, which means “Children of the Sun.”
According to their traditions the Yuchi crossed the ocean to reach North America. Their language is unlike any other in the Americas. At the time of European contact, the only regions where they maintained their own provinces with capital towns were along the Ogechee River in Georgia, plus the Southern Appalachians and Cumberland Plateau. However, there were clusters of isolated Yuchi towns and villages throughout the Southeast.
Most Yuchi houses were round until they started living in log cabins. Most of their towns were also round. English settlers often called them the “Round Town People.”
Until the early 1700s the Yuchi’s were consummate merchants and usually, politically neutral. Beginning in the 1720s the Yuchi’s were forced into a political alliance with the Creek Confederacy, because the Cherokees were attacking their towns in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Until that time, many Yuchi towns had been scattered across the Southeast in a regional trade network, often within provinces of other ethnic groups.
When neighboring provinces were at war, the Yuchi’s neutrality insured that trade goods could still cross belligerent tribes. The constant pressure of English frontier settlement and the attacks by both the Iroquois and Cherokees pushed these scattered Yuchi towns into the Lower Southeast, and traditional Creek territory. The transplanted Yuchi’s then strengthened their political alliances with Creek provinces for mutual protection. However, those Yuchi living on the Ogechee and Savannah Rivers in the Coastal Plain never formally joined the Creek Confederacy.
Impact of slavery
Possibly as early as 1500 AD, Spanish raiders began attacking the coastal regions of Southeastern North America to obtain Native American slaves for Caribbean mines and plantations. The institutionalization of slavery by the Colony of Virginia in 1662 unleashed a holocaust on the Southeast. Entire provinces disappeared as Native American raiders, contracted by the Colony of Virginia, swept through regions carrying firearms. Much of the 95% drop in Native American population in the Southeast can be attributed to the slave raids.
Native American slaves, unless captured very young, tended to run away from plantations at the earliest chance. Therefore, most indigenous captives were shipped to Caribbean islands, where they endured short, brutal lives working on sugar plantations. The life expectancy of a Native American slave in the Caribbean was less than two years.
African slaves initially had no place to run and were also able to better survive the sub-tropical summers of coastal plantations. However, the Africans suffered terribly in the winters of the Upper South’s interior. Plantation owners began intentionally breeding Native American and African slaves in expectation that their offspring could tolerate the cold temperatures of winter. Also, it was not uncommon for a free Native American to become so fond of an African slave that he or she purchased the freedom of the slave in order to marry him or her.
King George I of Great Britain freed all Native American slaves in 1752. However, the Carolinas and Virginia passed laws which stated that any person with 1/64th African ancestry was legally an African and therefore would remain a slave. Slaves with substantial Native ancestry were still often able to escape and gain asylum in Creek and Yuchi villages outside of South Carolina. Later, Creek and Yuchi towns in southern Georgia helped slaves escape to Spanish Florida. This was the source of much of the hatred of the white planters toward the Yuchi and Creeks. It was no accident that the Treaty of Fort Jackson, dictated by General Andrew Jackson, a planter himself, stripped away all of the lands of the Pro-American Hitchiti Creeks and Yuchi in southern Georgia. Many of the displaced families had sent fathers and sons to fight in Jackson's army.
Throughout the 1800s small communities of Native Americans and mixed-heritage “People of Color” formed in the river bottomlands of South Carolina and Georgia that were too swampy for cotton cultivation. Most of the Creeks were descended from Itsate (Hitchiti) Creeks, who had formerly been enemies of the Muskogee Creeks. They did not want to be part of the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy.
The Yuchi established communities near such Anglo-American towns as Sparta, GA, Hawkinsville, GA and Irwinton, GA, plus Walton County, FL, Screven County, GA and Allendale County, SC. Over time, those mixed blood Yuchi, who were lighter pigmented, tended to marry other light-skinned mixed heritage people. More pigmented mixed-heritage people tended to marry other darker skinned people. By the 20th century, many of their offspring were known solely as White or Colored, even though their physical features and cultural traditions remained very Native American.
Savannah River Band of Euchee Indians
This tribe is composed of the descendants of Euchee (Yuchi) Indians, who lived along the Ogeechee River in Georgia for thousands of years, then during the Colonial Period spread to both sides of the Lower Savannah River. The tribe was formed in 1980. Its headquarters is in Allendale County, SC.
The tribe was always a distingue community before actually calling itself a tribe. The tribe was strengthened by the leadership of their grand matriarch, Holafa Agaley. She lived past a hundred and was beloved by all in her community.
Typical of most of the small, non-Federally recognized tribes in the Southeast, tribal gatherings have the feeling of warm-spirited family reunions or church family night suppers. You don’t see the mean-spirited in-fighting over money and political power that unfortunately characterizes so many tribes in Oklahoma.
Among the Savannah River Euchee, women and men have always been equal. Both men and women hold leadership positions. However, the matriarchs function as the spiritual glue that ties the community together and maintain its harmony. This is another characteristic that sets the Savannah River Euchee apart from tribes that assimilated more into the mainstream society.
Micco Lonzado Langley
The current micco (chief) of the Savannah River Euchee is Lonzado Langley. He can trace his Native American lineage back to 1725. Lonzado was appointed chief in 2003 by his grandmother and approved by the tribal council.
One of the more interesting historical documents in the micco’s possession is a land deed issued by King George III in 1773 to his gggg-grandfather, Mar Davis Shick (aka Law-dar-ken-ne.) His ancestor was given this land tract because he was designated a “settlement Euchee Indian” who had converted to Christianity.
This is one aspect of history which the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Southeastern Indians, who were forcibly moved to Oklahoma, seem to not understand. The Creeks and Yuchi in South Carolina and eastern Georgia enjoyed excellent relations with the Colony of South Carolina after about 1725 and always with the younger Colony of Georgia. It was quite common for the Eastern Creeks and Yuchi to settle down to lands in the Savannah, Ogeechee and Oconee River Basins during the middle and late 1700s. Those that fought for the United States in the American Revolution also were granted reserves. These families were legitimate Native Americans. They merely did not want to live within the boundaries of the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy because they spoke a different language than Muskogee.
Langley was born in Allendale, SC in 1966. He served in the United States Navy and has a degree in Electronic Engineering from DeVry University. He has been a consultant to the Department of Defense for the past 17 years.
Since most readers would not understand what the Euchees mean by a matrilineal culture, Micco Langley provided some fascinating details about his life experiences and family heritage:
“Leadership among the Euchees was from the “older heads” of each community represented. Tribal councils were held by each family. Each clan had their own form of government with an annual meeting known as “Homecoming”. Each family served one another in a spirit of community whether it was looking after each other’s children, support during a crisis or tending the sick.”
“As a little boy, I would spend much time my grandmother and great-grand- Aunt Laura who live across street. Aunt Laura was born around 1871 and lived to be around 114. She was always teaching me family history and the story of Indian slavery. “Baby we maybe what they called black, but we ain’t never been from Africa” (as she would say). “We are from right here”.
“These stories made her weary and she would begin to chant softly repeating “pahayonu pahayonu” over and over. She would say to me “I have lived many moons. Don't ever forget who and what you are. Some will call you this and that, but they can never change your blood, this is home.”
“Later in life I would become the tribal historian. This includes visiting burial grounds and mounds of my ancestors. Little is ever told of Indian slavery or those who were sharecroppers on our own land. We farmed on one side of river near Briar Creek and on the other side in a Creek Plantation. My grandparents said they were moved back and forth according to the season. Most people don't even realize this. Many find it all hard to believe that we are in the same location today.”
“My Great-grand father Henry fought in the civil war was as an Indian Negro. His pension came from department of Indian Affairs. My ancestors on my maternal side established Asbury Colored Methodist Church, which later became Asbury AME. Many of the Tsoyaha (Yuchi-Euchee) traditions are maintained by the church congregation.”
“My Uchean Grandmother Ruby, whose tribal name is Holafa Agaley, (morning glory) was a deeply spiritual woman and the town seamstress for 68 years and she made clothes for our family. She kept us healthy with teas from roots and herbs such as Life Everlasting, tree moss, and bark.”
The Euchee People of the Lower Savannah River Basin seem to live in another time, but in their daily lives, they must also function in a 21st century United States in order to earn their leaving. Duality was always a way of life with the Euchee.
The website of the Savannah River Band of the Uchean Nation is: http://www.srbeucheetribalnation.org/
Personal Note: The year after the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, Rev. Andrew Young was the Associate Minister of the Wesley Foundation at Georgia Tech, which was the campus church for Methodist students. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my college life. Rev. Young was standing beneath Dr. King when the bullet was fired.
Just like these Yuchi along the lower Savannah River, my mother’s family, who were of Itsate Creek and Yuchi heritage, also held Homecomings each summer at the time of the Green Corn Festival. This custom ended when MY Grandmother Ruby’s generation died out.