Historical references provide many conflicting descriptions of a Native American tribe in the Southeast that disappeared from the maps about 250 years ago. Their main claim to fame was almost driving the colonists of South Carolina into the sea. The surviving colonists were hovering behind the flimsy wooden palisades of Charleston, expecting to die at any moment, when the tide of war changed.
Seldom read documents written by three Frenchmen in the late 16th century, late 17th century and early 18th century provide valuable clues about the origins and identity of the Yamasee. Their names were René de Laudonnière, Charles de Rochefort and Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville.
The word Yamasee first appeared on European maps in the last quarter of the 17th century. In 1675, a Spanish officer named Lieutenant Pedro de Arcos, listed some Yamasee mission villages on the South Atlantic Coast. The word was applied by English colonists to an alliance of tribal towns in the Coastal Plain of Georgia and the southern tip of what is now, South Carolina. These allied provinces were not composed of one ethnic group, but several.
In 1715 the Yamasee Alliance killed some prominent South Carolina officials at a diplomatic conference then launched a sudden attack on the plantations and villages of South Carolina. This was done in collaboration with the major Native tribes in the Southeast. Within a few days, most of the South Carolina based Indian traders in the Southeast were dead. Virginia-based traders were generally not harmed.
More so than any other time in American history, Native American tribes came close to completely wiping out a British colony. However, in the second phase of the war, the allied Native American towns at the headwaters of the Savannah River, murdered all the Mountain Apalache, Koweta and Kusa leaders at a diplomatic conference in Tugaoloo then changed sides. The Yamasee were eventually devastated by a Carolina counterattack. In 1717 those allied Native American towns on the Savannah River headwaters that literally saved Great Britain’s scalp, were given a name . . . Charakee.
One thing is very odd about this war. The Yamasee War was prosecuted by the Native America tribes exactly as spelled out in a written war plan prepared in 1702 by the great French explorer and military leader, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. At the time he was collaborating with Spanish military officials in Pensacola. At the time, the Queen Annes War was being fought between Great Britain and an alliance that included Spain and France.
The stated objective of this war plan was to eradicate the Colony of South Carolina, which France claimed as Florida François. After the allied towns on the headwaters of the Savannah River changed sides, d’Iberville’s war plan fell apart. Nevertheless, no histories of the Yamasee War ever mention French manipulations behind the scenes.
1. Yama – Word used by several peoples on the Gulf Coast of Mexico (including the Totonacs) for an agricultural clearing in the forest, i.e. slash and burn agriculture. The equivalent word in Yucatec Maya is milpa.
2. Yama – The indigenous province on the Mobile, Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, north of the coastal province known as Am Ixchel. Yama could well be the actual name of the large town at Moundville National Historic Landmark in Alabama.
3. Yama - The Muskogee-Creek word for the Mobilian Trade Jargon. In colonial time, the Mobilian trade jargon was derived from the language spoken by the Mapile People of the Mobile River basin. Mapa-le means “Merchant People” in the language formerly spoken in Tamaulipas State, Mexico.
4. Yamasi – The Itsate and Muskogee Creek word meaning “Offspring of Yama.” This means that the peoples labeled “Yamasi” by the Creeks were originally from the Mobile-Tombigbee River region or that they used the Mobilian Trade Jargon in contacts with neighboring provinces. The Creek label may also be somewhat pejorative and refer to a cryptic alliance between the French colonists on the Mobile River and the Native provinces in southeastern Georgia.
4. Toa – An Arawak province in north-central Puerto Rico and also on the Lower Ocmulgee River in Georgia. Hernando de Soto visited Toa in early spring of 1540.
5. Toasi – Creek word meaning “offspring or satellite town of Toa. The Anglicization of this word is Towasee. Towasee resettled in central Alabama during the 1700s. By then, they spoke a language that mixed Arawak and Muskogee. Some Toasi may have remained and been part of the Yamasee Alliance.
6. Tamakoa (Thamagua in de Laudonnière’s book) – This is a hybrid Totonac-Arawak word meaning “Trade People.” The same word in Itstate Creek and Itza Maya would be Tama-tli, Tama-te or Tama-le. Tamakoa is probably the Arawak name for the Tamatli. René de Laudonnière stated that they lived about 100 miles up the May (Altamaha) River and were arch-enemies of the provinces on the coast of present day Georgia and northwestern Florida.
7. Thamagua – The original name of Commerce, GA in Northeast Georgia, 18 miles north of Athens – after a Native American town by that name. It is on a source of the Oconee River, which is a major tributary of the Altamaha River. René de Laudonnière planned to build the capital of New France on the Oconee River, approximately where the University of Georgia is now located.
8. Palachicola – This was a non-Creek ethnic group in southeast Georgia that controlled the land between the Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers and along an extensive territory in southern South Carolina. They apparently were at one time members of Yamasee Alliance, but did not flee southward to Florida, after the Yamasee were defeated. “Cola” is the Gulf Coastal dialect word for “people or ethnic group.” Today, the word means, Biloxi People, in Muskogee. The Biloxi actually called themselves the Palache. The tiny village whose French pronunciation gave Biloxi, MS its name was just an isolated trading post far to the west of the main body of Palache.
The Palachicola considered themselves kin to the Apalache in northern Georgia, who originally occupied a province from the south face of the Blue Ridge down to Athens and Atlanta. Neither the Palache or the Apalache were mound builders, but in northern Georgia used field stones extensively in their construction.
The capital of the Palachicola was named Chikoli. It was visited by trade representatives from Fort Caroline. It appears on French maps throughout the 1600s and early 1700s. By 1732 the Palache had joined the Creek Confederacy. The Palache war chief, Chikole, presented the famous “Migration legend of the Creek People” on a buffalo calf vellum to General James Oglethorpe. The writing system on the vellum consisted of abstract red and black characters, not pictures.
9. Okasi (Ogeechee) – The Ogeechee River Basin may well be the Motherland of the Yuchi Indians. The Okasi were Yuchees, who by the 1700s spoke a language that included many Muskogean and Maya words. They were known to the French as consummate traders, who supplied salt to the interior. Their capital was a three mound town on the Ogeechee River in present day Talliaferro County, GA but apparently, It is possibly the town named Kofita that was visited by de Soto.
Okasi means Offspring of Water in Creek. They were probably the origin of the Yuchi Water Clan. Yuchi tradition holds that their ancestors came across the sea from the land of the sun to settle in North America.
The Okasi were apparently members of the Yamassee Alliance. They were devastated by the Yamasee War. The survivors maintained their Yuchi identity, but associated with the emerging Creek Confederacy.
10. Alekmani – The Alekmani were a people of South American origin, who dominated the Lower Altamaha River. Their recorded words are all Tupi-Guarani or Quechua. They were described as being friendly next door neighbors to Fort Caroline. Alekmani means “Medicine People.” They cultivated chichona trees then traded the bark containing quinine to provinces in the mountains for greenstone, gold and crystals. They moved inland after the Spanish began establishing missions on the coast.
The Alekmain were apparently core members of the Yamasee Alliance. Their name disappeared from the maps after the Yamasee War, except for a Creek town on the Altamaha River named Alek Talula (Doctor Town.) By the 1700, alek was the Creek word for a medical doctor.
11. Utina - This powerful province was frequently mentioned by de Laudonnière. It controlled trade on the Middle Altamaha River Basin. Its capital, Utinahica (“Utina-place of” in Arawak) was located six miles up the Ohoopee River from its confluence with the Altamaha. The location is now a designated archaeological zone with multiple mounds. The Utina apparently did not speak the same language as any of the provinces south of the Altamaha, but were allied with the towns that the Spanish would soon call the Guale.
In 1565 Pierre Gambié happened to be on a trade mission to the Apalache in the Georgia Mountains, when Fort Caroline was massacred. He remained in Utinahica and married the king’s daughter. He later became king himself. While king he at least temporarily expanded the Utina Kingdom to include much of the territory that a century later would be called the Yamasee.
The mission of Santa Isbela de Utinahica was founded at or near Utinahica in 1610. The confluence of the Altamaha and Ohoopee was the original location called “the Forks of the Altamaha.”
One of the great ironies of the early 1700s was that the Yamasee Alliance played a major role in destroying what was left of the Spanish mission system in Florida. However, when defeated decisively by the British colonists, many Yamasee fled to the exact same region where they had once captured Christian Native American slaves.