Yes, the indigenous peoples of the Southeastern USA did grow a variety of sweet potato before Columbus!

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

The Creek, Taino, Southern Arawak and alternate Panoan (Peru) word for sweet potato is aho. The Creek and Panoan word for yaupon tea is ase’. Asebo (Ossabaw) Island, Georgia means “Place of the Yaupon Holly” in Panoan. The Eastern Creek and Panoan word for chicken is totolose. The Creek province of Totolose in SE Georgia specialized in the breeding of chickens. “Swift Creek” pottery was being made in Satipo Province, Peru for a couple of centuries, before it first appeared in Georgia. Are we seeing a pattern here?

A century ago, the South’s landscape were dotted with sweet potato barns. They were specially designed wooden structures that kept sweet potatoes dry, but somewhat insulated from the cold during the winter months. That was important, because sweet potatoes were a mainstay of Southern diets – of all economic classes. They were far more important than white potatoes, because they were more nutritious, plus much less inclined to mold or become toxic. Meanwhile, the American sweet potato continues to be a major source of nutrition in South America, eastern Asia, Polynesia and Africa. African children are encouraged to eat sweet potatoes, because they are an excellent source of vitamins A and C.

This must be a Creek or Uchee tradition. I remember distinctly seeing sweet potato teepees on my mother’s relatives farms near the Savannah River in northeast Georgia. They were literally teepees, made of tree saplings, spaced close enough together so that critters could not squeeze through. The teepees didn’t have hide skins, but rather the narrow gaps between saplings were sheaved with river canes. As a result the teepees shed rainwater, but allowed ventilation of the potatoes.

The modern multi-tuber commercial sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is a selectively cultivated morning glory, native to the tropical regions in the Americas. Of the approximately 50 genera and more than 1,000 species of Convolvulaceae, I. batatas is believed to be the only crop plant of major importance— but in truth, few botanists have gone out into the boonies of South America or Polynesia to take DNA samples of sweet potatoes. The genus Ipomoea that contains the sweet potato also includes many types of morning glories. Some cultivars of Ipomoea batatas are grown as ornamental plants under the name tuberous and “bush” morning glories, used in a horticultural context. This is important information to back up the focus of this article in later sections.

The fallen queen of Southern cuisine

Times have changed. I seem to be the only person in the world left, who frequently eats whole baked sweet potatoes. A sweet potato is extremely easy to bake in a microwave and is certainly much better for you that processed foods.

I have noticed that the sweet potato bins in supermarkets and Walmart have steadily shrunk in recent years to a space about 18″ wide and 32″ long, while white potatoes are still provided about the same space. Meanwhile, a supermarket’s inventory of frozen toast and sweetbreads will be in a cooler 7 feet tall and 20 feet long. Hint . . . you will live a heckuva lot longer on sweet potatoes than you will on frozen Texas toast and cinnamon swirls, made from bleached white wheat flour. Adults could survive a long, long time on nothing, but sweet potatoes.

Generations of students have been taught that the sweet potato was introduced to the Southeast in the 1700s by South Carolina planters, looking for a cheap food to provide their slaves. University anthropology professors, would state with great confidence that they knew for a fact that the Southeastern Indians had no knowledge of either the sweet potato or the white potato until taught by Europeans how to cultivate them in the late 1700s. Native American elders shook their heads in disagreement, but no one in academia was listening

About 10 years ago, that date of “first contact with sweet potatoes” was changed to the 1680s. Most recently, the date and locale have been changed to 1648 and Virginia. However, the large scale cultivation of sweet potatoes is still assigned to South Carolina, because Virginia planters found that tropical sweet potatoes would only thrive very close to the Chesapeake Bay or the ocean. The website of the United States Sweet Potato Council (based in Columbia, SC) states:

“Sweet potatoes have been grown in the United States since 1648, when they were first planted in Virginia. Their significant production began in South Carolina in the 1680s, when they were grown to feed Native American and African slaves. The damp, semi-tropical climate of the Carolina Low Country was far better suited for the tropical tubers, which were initially planted.  They were grown by the American Indians in the 18th century and were introduced to New England in 1764. Today, sweet potatoes are commonly grown and eaten in the American South, but the Irish potato remains more popular in the North.”

When discovered in 1955, Mandeville (GA) became the oldest town and platform mound in North America. It is now known that Poverty Point, LA was much older . . . but didn’t have sophisticated pottery, agricultural tools and copper art, like sites in Georgia. Mandeville thrived for about 950 years, while Cahokia’s “Mississippian” settlement lasted about 250 years.

Before “Clovis First” there was the “Cahokia First” Orthodoxy

When I was in college, we were taught that the first permanent Native American town in what is now the United States was Cahokia. Cahokia was also the first location where corn, beans and squash were first cultivated and the first location, where ceremonial platform mounds were first constructed. Agriculture spread southward from Cahokia to new emerging villages along the Mississippi River and later in the Southeast.

Dr. Lewis Larson, co-archaeologist for Etowah Mounds, taught us that the cultivation of the Three Sister Crops were totally associated with the development of advanced indigenous cultures. This is the reason why the Southeastern Ceremonial Mound Culture is commonly to this day labeled “The Mississippian Culture.” However, his partner at Etowah Mounds, Dr. Arthur Kelly, by that time had very different ideas . . . which have turned out to be correct. In fact, by far, the oldest permanent towns were in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

Exactly, a year before I was taking the Introductory Anthropology course with Dr. Larson, I was standing in the offices of the Department of Anthropology at Georgia State University, rendezvousing with Dr. Arthur Kelly of the University of Georgia. I was there to interview for a small drafting job . . . the site plan of an ancient Indian village on the Chattahoochee River named 9FU14.

9FU14 thrived on the Chattahoochee River near Six Flags Over Georgia, from around 200 BC to 540 AD then was reoccupied several times between 1000 AD – c. 1700 AD.

At that very same time, Dr. Kelly and the profs at Georgia State University were embroiled in a bruhaha with fellow archaeologists around the country about both the Mandeville Site on the Lower Chattahoochee River and the 9FU14 site on the Middle Chattahoochee in Metro Atlanta. Kelly had led the excavation of the Mandeville Site in 1959 and 1960. It was a permanent town that lasted for almost 1,000 years complete with platform mounds and sophisticated pottery. The earliest examples of Swift Creek Pottery are found there (and in Peru) but that’s my little secret. Enlightened northern missionaries from Cahokia couldn’t have possibly founded the town.

Kelly could find no evidence for the largescale cultivation of corn and beans at Mandeville and 9FU14, but he did find agricultural implements, such as stone hoes, at Mandeville. The archaeologists did find lots of indigenous type seeds at both locations and some squash seeds. However, during that era, forensic botanists did not have the technology to determine if an indigenous seed had been domesticated. Nevertheless, Kelly postulated that these towns relied on the cultivation of indigenous crops. The cultivation of corn was not a prerequisite for building large mounds. Most of his peers were outraged and openly attacked him in professional conferences and papers.

Chattahoochee Sweet Potato

Four species of feral sweet potato grow in the bottomlands of the Middle Chattahoochee River. Virtually all laymen assume that these are standard varieties of morning glories, but they are not. Their tubers can weigh up to five pounds. Three are bushy like sweet potatoes. One has a roaming vine like morning glories, but produces a large edible tuber. Southeastern sweet potatoes were different than their South American cousins. They had one large tuber. Those in the Andes foothills had many small tubers. I strongly suspect that the modern large sweet potato is a hybrid between the small South American sweet potato and the large, but single tuber, Creek Sweet Potato.

Their seeds, when eaten or made into a tea, produce psychotropic effects similar to “Magic Mushrooms” and LSD. The Georgia State students, working on the site, began having wild potato seed parties on weekends, while camping out at the archaeological site. That eventually got them in big trouble with the owner of the site, the Great Southwest Corporation.

Dr. Kelly theorized to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the ancestors of the Creek Indians independently domesticated an indigenous morning glory. I tasted a cooked wild potato from the 9FU14 archaeological site. It tasted something like a cooked plantain (cooking banana) . . . slightly sweet with lots of fibers in it. The sweet potatoes eaten today lacks those fibers, but when I was a child, cooks had to use a “Mix Master” to whip out the fibers of sweet potatoes, before they could be used in Sweet Potato pies and Sweet Potato soufflé.

In the same interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, John S. Pennington, Dr. Kelly happened to mention that he had found several artifacts along the Chattahoochee River which appeared to either have come from Mexico or been copies of artifacts from Mexico. That was more than his colleagues at the University of Georgia could handle. They began publicly calling him “mentally unbalanced.” After unsuccessfully trying to frame him for a crime, he didn’t commit, they were able to force him into retirement by December 1969. Kelly’s discovery of feral sweet potatoes in the Chattahoochee Bottomlands and his theory about sweet potatoes being indigenous were forgotten about just about everyone, but me. Fortunately, I somehow was able to keep clippings from John Pennington’s articles in a forgotten cardboard box, along with the archaeological report for Etowah Mounds.

Indios in the Amazon Basin, harvesting a patch of primitive sweet potatoes

Sweet potato farmers in the South Carolina Low Country

The De Soto Chronicles briefly mentioned a people in South Carolina, which were called either the Chilique or Chalique in Spanish. They wore animal skins and supposedly obtained their primary sustenance by digging up roots with sticks. Those roots may or may not have been sweet potatoes, but they Chilique were definitely not ethnic Cherokee as all Cherokee history books state. Chiliki is the Totonac, Itza Maya and Eastern Creek word for a hunter & gatherer . . . aka a barbarian. French and Dutch maps place the Charaque in Quebec (1649), southern West Virginia (1700) and northeastern Tennessee (1717).

Ajo was the Castilian spelling of a village in the South Carolina Low Country visited by Juan Pardo. It was described as being devoted to the cultivation of sweet potatoes.  In Spanish phonetics, Ajo is pronounced Ä : hō.  Aho is the Creek, Taino, Southern Arawak (Peru and alternate Panoan (Peru) word for sweet potato.  

Juan de la Bandera, who wrote the chronicles of the Juan Pardo Expedition, said very little about this village other than it was devoted to cultivating sweet potatoes. He passed through the village, a couple of days before arriving back a Santa Elena on the South Carolina Coast after being in Blue Ridge Mountains.  Therefore, the location was probably either in Barnwell or Allendale Counties, SC.

Thus, we have an eyewitness account that at the time of first contact between the ancestors of the Creeks Indians and the Spanish, a village SPECIALIZED in the growing of sweet potatoes. The name of this village was the same word that was used both by the Creeks and several major South American tribes for Sweet Potato. Case closed.

6 Comments

  1. You know Richard I read quite a bit of info on sweet potatoes when you wrote about them before. Along with other food plants that have become feral. It was explaining how the sweet potatoes left South America out through the Pacific to islands. Then they crisscrossed back. I knew I should have written it down. I would want it again.

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  2. Plus Ajo is on many of very early maps by French and Spanish. I have looked at many, many different ones trying to figure out my neck of the woods and heritage. I’ve seen wild blue saliva blooming in early December along the banks of the Watauga River near Sycamore Shoals.

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    1. That is probably feral salvia from the days with the Chiaha province cultivated it in abundance. Feral copal still grows along stream beds in the region of the Georgia Mountains where there were once terrace complexes. The old time mountaineers, used it to treat severe headaches, but academicians seem to be unaware of its existence.

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  3. When I think about it now I remember that the sweet potatoes that were around when I was young (50s) were what I called stringy. That’s why I wasn’t to fond of them. Seemed like my mom was always having baked sweet taters. I liked eating the skins better than the inside. Funny what you remember from the long ago and far away.

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