Asé . . . The Sacred Tea of Georgia’s Golden Isles

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

The Black Drink or Yaupon Tea is made from the roasted leaves of the indigenous Yaupon Holly, who scientific name is Ilex vomitoria. It is a member of the Holly Family, which also includes the Asia shrubs, from which Asian tea is made.   Yaupon’s scientific name really needs to be changed to something more appealing, if the beverage is to have a commercial future.  We suggest ilex ase or ilex Ossabaw.  You will learn why in this article.

The Yaupon Holly is the only known indigenous plant in North America that contains caffeine. The original version of the Yaupon can grow 15-28 feet (5-9 meters) tall.  It generally occurs in coastal areas in well-drained sandy soils, and can be found on the upper edges of brackish and salt marshes, sandy hammocks, coastal sand dunes, inner-dune depressions, sandhills, maritime forests, nontidal forested wetlands, well-drained forests and pine flatwoods. 

Nowadays, a hybrid dwarf version of the Yaupon Holly is frequently used for landscaping in its native range, plus and extended range in the Southern Piedmont. This is made possible by hybridization.

There is also an isolated population of Yaupon in the Highlands of Chiapas State, Mexico.  This is highly significant because tests by the University of Minnesota in 2012 revealed that most of the Maya Blue stucco in Palenque, Chiapas was made with attapulgite from the Coastal Plain of Southwest Georgia.

Florida Française (aka as Georgia and South Carolina) – 1566

In early November 1566, Captain Dominigue de Gourgues, commander of a clandestine French expedition bent on revenge for the massacre of Fort Caroline in September 1565, met with the kings of Native American provinces on the Georgia coast at a Native town about 15 French leagues or 32 miles north of the site of Fort Caroline.1   The Frenchmen had already built a fort near their secret anchorage on the Ogeechee River, about 22.5 French leagues or 45 miles north of the site of Fort Caroline. The Frenchmen were invited along with his officers, to party on nearby Asebo Island.  Asebo was at the mouth of the Ogeechee.   We know it today as Ossabaw Island. 

The 1735 map of Savannah showed a new fort on the Ogeechee River and the ruins of an old fort . . . very likely the De Gourgues fort from 1566 or perhaps a later pirate base..

De Gourgues specific description of latitudes, longitudes, distances and physical appearance in the region are absolute proof that Fort Caroline was on the South Fork of the Altamaha River in Georgia, not in Florida.  Whereas the mouths of the Altamaha, Ogeechee and Satilla Rivers abound in 16th century French and Spanish artifacts, none have been found in the vicinity of an inaccurate 1/12th scale reproduction of Fort Caroline, built by the National Park Service in 1961 on the St. Johns River near Jacksonville.

De Gourgues stated that all of Asebo Island was devoted to the cultivation of a shrub from which a beverage was brewed, which was very stimulating. 2 This assessment was made over 50 years before the introduction of coffee and tea into Europe and marks the first mention of Yaupon Holly Tea in European archives.  Large amounts of dried leaves from this island were exported to other regions of North America. De Gourgues wrote that this trade made the local Native quite wealthy, at least by their standards.

Vsse (Asé) is the Creek word for Yaupon Tea and the Yaupon Holly, but there is something that apparently no academician has discerned in the past. 3 Asebo is a Panoan word from Peru and means “Mate’ – Place of.”3 That’s right.  Asé is pretty much the same beverage as yerba mate’ (Ilex paraguariensis), the beloved drink of southern South America.  The Asé Holly of eastern Peru is not exactly the same species of Holly as the Yaupon, but very, very closely related.   The alternative words for their version of Yaupon Tea mean “Sacred Black Drink.”  The English translation of the alternative name of Yaupon Tea in the Creek language is also “Sacred Black Drink.”

Vsse (Asé) is the Creek word for Yaupon Tea and the Yaupon Holly, but there is something that apparently no academician has discerned in the past. 3 Asebo is a Panoan word from Peru and means “Mate’ – Place of.”3 That’s right.  Asé is pretty much the same beverage as yerba mate’ (Ilex paraguariensis), the beloved drink of southern South America.  The Asé Holly of eastern Peru is not exactly the same species of Holly as the Yaupon, but very, very closely related.   The alternative words for their version of Yaupon Tea mean “Sacred Black Drink.”  The English translation of the alternative name of Yaupon Tea in the Creek language is also “Sacred Black Drink.”

So why would there be a Panoan place name on the Georgia Coast?   The answer is the same as why most of the provinces and political titles on the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, mentioned by the commander of Fort Caroline, René Laudonnière, in his memoir, are also Panoan words. In 1565, there was a Satipo Province in Peru and a Satipo Province in Southeast Georgia.  The one in Georgia was in the Satilla River Basin, whose name is derived from Satile, which means “Colonists Kingdom.”  Obviously, Panoan immigrants traveled from eastern Peru to the Lower Southeast. 

References

1.“Ce fut un catholique qui s’en chargea” », J.B.A. Ferland, Cours d’histoire du Canada. Première partie 1534-1663, Québec, N.S. Hardy, 1882, pp. 55-56.

2. De Estalenx, J. Fr. (1935) Dominique de Gourgues: Conquêt et Reprise de la Floride, Mont-de-Marson, France: Èditions Jean de Lacoste. 

3.  Martin, Jack B. and Mauldin, Margaret McKane (2000) Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, Lincoln, Nebraska:  University of Nebraska Press; p.143.

4. Wise, Mary Ruth (1993) Diccionario Shipibo-Castellano, Lima: Insitutio Linguistico de Verrano, Ministerio de Educacion.

The secret history of Yaupon Tea

Those who took a Southeastern Anthropology course in college or perhaps have visited a museum at a Native American mound site may recall the name of a beverage called by anthropologists either the Sacred Black Drink or Yaupon Tea.  It is not a word that would be on the tip of the tongue among contemporary Americans, but actually was a very common beverage during the earlier days of our nation. However, what students are taught in most state history and anthropology textbooks is that Creek Indians intentionally drank this beverage in ceremonies in order to vomit. 

Sounds like something vile.  Why would anybody, unless they had a bulimic neurosis, WANT TO VOMIT?

Actually, that “historical fact,” taught to generations of students, is only partially true.  Prior to going to war, a special version of Yaupon Tea was brewed by the Creek Yvhola (Yahola) or Head of the Town Council, which did contain herbs such as snakeroot.  The men had already been fasting, but the herbal tea caused the participants to both vomit and purge their intestines.  The men would then drink an especially strong brew of Yaupon Tea, which would have a similar impact on an “empty stomach” to snorting cocaine. 

Most books state that Yaupon Tea could only be consumed by men.  That is probably not true, since Creek men and women were equal in all things.  More likely, the purging ceremonies were probably only attended by male warriors.  Capitan Dominique de Gourgues specifically stated that the young women, who traveled from other provinces to participate in the caffeine-charged parties, feasts and dances on Ossabaw Island, were some of the most beautiful women in the Americas.  That certainly does not sound like they were forbidden to drink Yaupon Tea.  We also know from Creek tradition that more diluted forms of Ase’ were often mixed with mint or other indigenous flavorings, such as fruits.

Dr. Lewis Larson, co-archaeologist of the famous 1955-57 dig at Etowah Mounds, was professor of an introductory course in Anthropology at Georgia Tech.  He taught us that Yaupon Tea was never drunk by white colonists because of the obvious reason that it would make one throw up. That is not true at all. 

The documents compiled by Georgia’s first Colonial Secretary, Thomas Christie, repeatedly mentioned the drinking of the “Sacred Black Drink” as the opening activity of diplomatic meetings between British officials and Creek leaders.  For example, Tamachichi (Tomochichi in English) sat down to drink Ase’ with Supervising Trustee James Edward Oglethorpe prior to showing him the land that he had bought for the development of Savannah. 

Despite what you read in most anthropology books, the Spanish were quite aware of Yaupon Tea and in the Southeast, consumed large quantities of it. As stated earlier, Europeans were exposed to Yaupon Tea several decades before they were aware of either coffee or Asian tea. Furthermore, it was much more accessible, since it grew naturally in both Spanish and English colonies.

There is no Spaniard or Indian in La Florida, who does not drink it every day in the morning and evening. It is more of a vice than chocolate in New Spain.  Any day that a Spaniard does not drink it, he feels that he is going to die,” wrote Father Francisco Ximenez in a 1615 text.  He was quoting Francisco Hernández de Toledo, a court physician ordered by King Philip II of Spain to study medicinal plants of the New World.

Southern British colonists typically called the beverage, cassina.  Yaupon was exported to Europe under names such as Chocolate del Indio in Spain, South Sea Tea and Carolina Tea in England, and Apalachina in France, and its enjoyment lasted well into colonial times.  Apalachina does not refer to the Apalachee Indians in Florida, who never called themselves that name.  It refers to the real Apalache in Northeast Georgia. That is also the name the Creeks called themselves until the British told them that there name was Creek.  As to why the drinking of yaupon didn’t continue into the modern day, nobody is quite certain.

One theory, proposed by a South Carolina scholar, points to a conspiracy over its scientific name (Ilex vomitoria) given by William Aiton, the royal botanist to King George III. Some believe that Aiton gave yaupon this name because he was in the secret employ of the world’s first multinational corporation, the East India Company, which wanted to preserve its stranglehold over the world’s Asian tea trade.

Despite what my anthropology professor told me, consumption of Yaupon Tea was quite common in the Carolina and Georgia Coastal Plain during the Colonial Period, but consumption started declining when the East Indies Company began popularizing Asian tea around the world.  Indigenous tea consumption skyrocketed during the American Revolution, since the British East Indies Company did not have access to much of the population of the rebelling colonies.

Ignorance of the Yaupon Holly continued into the 20th century.  Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski note in Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1991) that “yaupon can be made into a mild tea, but if drunk in a concentrated brew can cause hallucinations and vomiting.”   The Oxford English Dictionary erroneously describe yaupon leaves as having emetic or purgative properties, keeping alive the myth that cassina makes you throw up.

Those statements are patently false. It is possible to make a “mild” Yaupon Tea, but more commonly, consumers liked their Yaupon black like coffee!  Too much caffeine CAN make your heart race, whether from coffee, Asian tea or Yaupon Tea.

Southerners had no choice but to drink cassina during the American Civil War, but quickly abandoned its consumption as the South’s economy improved in the late 1800s.  There were a few pockets of frequent cassina consumption in eastern North Carolina until after World War II, but even there it has mostly been forgotten. Yaupon tea was associated with being poor and culturally isolated.  The demise of the beverage apparently had nothing to do with its flavor, which is equal in quality to yerba mate’.   

The ASI Yaupon Company produces both tea leaves and bottled beverages.

Small-scale Yaupon Tea cultivation and processing operations have popped up all over the Lower Southeast.  Most are literally farm kitchen production facilities.  The largest scale cultivation and marketing efforts are occurring in and around Savannah, GA, which is very close to Ossabaw Island.  The ASI-Yaupon Wellness Co. is taking a vertically integrated approach to creating a new Yaupon industry in the United States. 

The strategy is very akin to what Jesse Jewell did to the poultry industry 225 miles to the northwest in Gainesville, GA.  The company plants, harvests, processes and packages various flavors of Yaupon tea.  It markets these teas nationally, but also now has a store in Downtown Savannah, which mixes the sales of Indigenous Southeastern art with its yaupon projects. It is named the Yaupon Teahouse and Apothcary. Lou Thomann, founder and owner of this company, told me on a telephone interview that he is seriously interested in getting into the cacao business!    Now that should be interesting.   As we learning in the previous article in The Americas Revealed, Cacao trees were once cultivated in the Savannah Area.  

Yaupon Teahouse and Apothecary – Savannah, GA

6 Comments

  1. Richard, Dhara’ means Earth in Sanskrit from India and that’s one more connection of the peoples that lived in the South (Duhare). That would indicate an ancient Indo-Euro tribe had lived in Ireland Before the arrival of the iron age Gaelic peoples of around 800 BC. Another Sanskrit word connection is “Seneca” “Other nations called the Onondo-Waga by the name ‘Seneca’ after their principal village of Osininka. Since “Osininka” sounds like Asinikaa(n), meaning “Those at the Place Full of Stones”, the name Seneca caught on.” Perhaps the “Inca” of Peru had some ancient connection with the Sanskrit speaking peoples making their way up the Eastern side of the U.S.

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    1. Duhare is the Hispanization of the Medieval Gaelic word Du Ei-re, which means “from/of Island Kingdom/Nation.” The “re” suffix is the same one that appears on many indigenous provinces in South Carolina and Georgia, but was often written as “le” by English speakers because the R was rolled so hard. What I find so intriguing is the similarity of key Gaelic words to Archaic Norse.

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  2. I’ll have to try the Savannah Yaupon Tea company’s yaupon I’m really enjoying YauponBrothers of Florida fire roasted Warrior blend .

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