Trade Girls . . . dating, intimacy, marriage and divorce among the Southeastern tribes

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

The welfare of the little children always came first among Native American societies. It was the dream of every Creek teenage girl to win the annual beauty contest, which would embark them on a glamorous career, unthinkable by European women until the late 20th century.

Eighteenth century explorers, John Lawson and Henry Timberlake, published journals, which provide surprisingly candid descriptions of the relations between women and men among the indigenous peoples of what is now the Southeastern United States.  Lawson’s book, A New Voyage to Carolina (1709) is the most useful because he befriended all the major ethnic groups in the region, including the Lower Cherokee, before they were called Cherokee.

John Lawson explores the frontier

John Lawson (1674-1711) was a self-financed English explorer, who traveled over 1000 miles through the Province of Carolina, prior to it becoming the Royal colonies of North Carolina and South Carolina.  Little is known about his background in England, but he was obviously well-educated and from an affluent family.  More importantly, he had an intellectual curiosity and cultural open-mindedness that was unusual for Europeans of his day.  He described the cultural traditions of various Native villages that he visited, without being judgmental. He was able to quickly develop a rapport with whatever tribe he was staying with . . . plus was obviously liked by the Native women. Perhaps because he was neither a soldier nor a trader, tribal leaders quickly trusted him . . . and their trust was justified.  The most amusing part of his journal betrays the fact that he was young, single man on his first journey.  The description of almost every village begins with an evaluation of the available “single gals” there.  At times, his journal sounds more like he is cruising night clubs in the entertainment district of some large city.

In 1700, a London botanist and pharmacist, James Petiver, published a notice seeking someone to collect American specimens for him, and Lawson volunteered to do this without charge. Lawson arrived in Charleston on August 15, 1700.  His small expedition party started up the Santee River on December 28, 1700.  They paddled to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains then walked southwestward to the headwaters of the Savannah River.  Initially, they were hosted by French Huguenot families, but soon they reached the frontier, where virtually the only humans were Native Americans.  Four years before, these villages had been devastated by smallpox epidemic, but they had never been at war with the British and so there was no hostility carried for past bloodshed. He then made a second journey, which explored the Piedmont of what is now North Carolina.  Lawson went on to become an expert surveyor, Assistant surveyor for the Province of Carolina and ultimately, Surveyor General of North Carolina.

Ironically, despite his warm relations with most Native American tribes, his brutal, untimely death came at the hands of Native Americans.  In 1711, Lawson and his friend Baron Christoph von Graffenried were exploring the Neuse River in search of wild grapes that might be developed into wine grapes.  They were captured by the Tuscarora and tried three times in separate villages for “crimes against the Tuscarora People.”   Two of the villages found them guilty, but Von Graffenried (who had actually committed the crimes) was released, while Lawson was slowly tortured to death.  

Children: For every tribe in South Carolina, except the Creeks, the death rate among babies and children was horrendous. The Creeks had two or three children, who had a much better chance of survival. No matter the tribe, however, the children were considered precious . . . the welfare of their tribe in the future. Many tribes forbade the striking of a child. The Creeks considered it a serious crime. If a parent or a stranger hit a child, he or she would be beaten by the child’s clan uncles.

Ethnicity: Santee is a Panoan word from Peru, which means “colonists.” It was interchangeable with another Panoan word, sate. Thus, the Satilla River in Georgia has the same South American root as Santee.  This is important linguistic information, which would radically change the practice by anthropologists of associating vast swaths of the Carolinas with the ethnic label of modern, federally-recognized tribes.

Lawson stated that virtually every village he visited along the Santee River spoke a language, which was mutually unintelligible from its neighbors.  This was also the general pattern for villages throughout the Carolina Piedmont and Highlands.  I have used dictionaries to translate most of their names. The initial villages were Panoans, Southern Arawaks, Middle Arawaks and Ciboney from South America and the Caribbean. Farther inland were Siouans, Creeks, Uchee and a Taino region. The actual Katapa (Catawba) were Creeks from the Georgia Piedmont with an Itza Maya name.* They were the elite of a confederacy that included several Issa (true Siouan) tribes. Shawnee and Creeks occupied the Blue Ridge foothills. 

*Look at the 1755 John Mitchell Map of North America.  Just north of where Atlanta is today, you will see Kataapa.

By the end of the 18th century, the Catawba Confederacy’s population had declined to a little over 200 people.  The survivors were Siouan-speakers. That was not the case in 1701, however.  They were then a militarily powerful alliance, which would soon take on the Iroquois and the Cherokee. In describing cultural traditions, Lawson basically used two categories, Creek and non-Creeks.  The Creek tribes were distinctly different in many ways.

Lawson never used the word, Cherokee, whether in South Carolina or North Carolina. He did visit with the Kiawee and Oconee in northwest South Carolina, who later were called Lower Cherokee.  However, both of their mother provinces were in the territory of the Creek Confederacy on the Oconee River in Georgia.  Their personal names were either English or Creek.  It is obvious that the Lower Cherokee were really Itsate Creeks, who preferred an alliance with the Cherokee rather than with the Muskogee Creeks in western Georgia.

Sexual morals: None of the tribes attached a “religious” tone to sexual mores. Propagation was considered a natural and pleasurable aspect of being human.  However, attitudes toward promiscuity, adultery and polygamy varied considerably. All the tribes were matrilineal.  Children belonged to the mother and there was no concept of “illegitimate birth” being a stigma or a barrier to political office.

Adultery was considered a far more serious matter among Creek tribes than the other tribes.  The first offence could mean a nose or ear being cut off of both partners. A second offense could result in fingers being cut of or major disfigurement of the body.  A third offense often got the death penalty.

Some tribes had no real concept of adultery.  They separated the responsibility of raising children and feeding a family from sexual activity.  The traditions of most tribes, though, were about halfway between those of the Creeks and the promiscuous tribes.  As you will learn from Lt. Henry Timberlake, the Cherokee developed a third option, serial marriages.

As in most matrilineal societies, rape was considered a serious crime.  Rape of a married woman could be punished by a death sentence, executed by the clan of the victim.  Alternatively, the clan of the rapist would be forced to make a hefty payment of goods to the clan of the victim.

Divorce: On the other hand, divorce was easy and quick among the Creek tribes.  Either partner could announce his or her intention to separate.  A heneha or circuit judge would come to the home and approve the arrangement for separation of property. The female always got possession of the house and the children. A town crier would then go through the village, announcing the divorce then instantly, the man and woman were free to seek other partners.  The process could take as little as a day. However, according to Lawson and other writers such as James Adair, most Creek marriages lasted for the lifetime of the partners.  It was because of mutual love, since there was no particular social pressure to do so.

Age of sexual activity:  Females in the “other tribes” were married soon after puberty to an older male, who had proven himself capable of providing food for a family.  The females began having children in rapid succession until they died in childbirth, died of a disease or were no longer fertile.  In many of the tribes, the majority of children died before reaching adulthood. The adults of the “other tribes” were noticeably shorter than the Creek adults.

The Creeks had developed herbal medicines which either functioned as birth control pills or as intentional abortions.  Most birth control medicines were extracted from the indigenous sweet potato, which contains a high level of estrogen.  The modern birth control pill was also originally made from wild Mexican sweet potatoes.

This radically changed sexual practices. Creek parents encouraged their children to be sexually active as teenagers so they would not have wanderlust when married. Virginity was considered unhealthy and unnatural. However, the early marriage customs of other tribes, were heavily frowned upon by Creek parents. They considered it immoral to bring a child into the world before the parents were able to take care of it.

Lawson said that it was also quite common for young married women to take birth control medicine.  Creek women often waited until their mid-twenties to have their first child.  It had been found that delayed pregnancy often resulted in a tall male first born, but whatever the case, both the male and female babies were larger and healthier.

Creek dating customs:  The Creeks were unique, perhaps among all of the Americas, in having a long period in which young men and women literally dated.  In was quite common for Creek women to have a series of boy friends for five to ten years before leaving their family to marry. Those who accidently had a baby might still wait that length of time before marriage.  There was no particular social condemnation for being a young single mother, BUT as is the case of today, a teenage mother was saddled with the responsibilities of motherhood, which left precious little time to go out and party.

Sock hops were held weekly as a means of single teenagers and adults to mix and mingle.  In good weather, they would be on the plaza.  In rainy or cold weather, they would be inside the chokopa or rotunda, which often could hold 500-800 dancers. This is why the Muskogean tribes have so many social dances in which men and women hold hands or even their waists in snake dances.  Lawson does not mention this, but other eyewitnesses noted that Creek dances often had a rapid, syncopated beat like Latin American music.  This was in contrast to the boom-boom-boom drumbeats that you hear in Plains Indian pow-wows.

Rape was a serious crime in all the tribes.  The Creeks had a fascinating custom, apparently inherited from their ancestors in southern Mexico, to clearly define appropriate interactions between men and women on dates. If a gal had no makeup on their cheeks, it meant that all the guy should expect was holding hands at the dance and a goodnight hug.  One red circle on the lassie’s check meant she wanted to make-out after the dance, but nothing more.  Two red circles meant that she was very interested in exploring all possibilities. 

Lawson does not mention this, but I have noticed that female Tamulte dancers (Creek-Maya Indians) in Tabasco State, Mexico use the circle symbol on their dresses.  A circle covers the reproductive portion of their bodies. The color is different for married women, mature teenagers and little girls.  The language of the Tamulte is so close to Miccosukee Seminoles that they can carry on conversations.

Creek Trade Girls and Beloved Women

Lawson was fascinated with the Creek tradition of trade girls.  It was obvious that he had personally benefited from this institution in many a village.  Each year, Creek towns and larger villages would hold beauty pageants, very similar to the Miss America contest, because the contestants were also judged on their intelligence, speaking skills and talents.  The winner would be placed in a special education program in which they would be taught several languages, politics, history, public speaking, spying, advanced ceramics techniques, art, exotic dancing and how to keep business records.  It was the duty of the trainees, called trade girls, to provide “a full range of companionship” to visiting dignitaries and traders in their village.  They were also expected to use their foreign language skills, to obtain as much information from the visitor as possible.  She would immediately report back to the village chief as soon as the visitor left.

A graduate of the Trade Girl education program became a Beloved Woman. She would be relocated in the capital town and serve at the highest levels of government – being both a State Department career diplomat and a CIA officer.  Mary Musgrove was a Beloved Woman. 

Being about the most desirable woman in the world, the Beloved Woman would marry in her mid-20s to someone really important like a successful white trader, member of a noble family, a Native American king or a European government official.  The French commander of Fort Toulouse in Alabama, Jean-Baptist Marchand, married Sehoy, a sister of the High King of the Upper Creeks.  Mary Musgrove married a priest for the Church of England in Georgia.

Married Tamulte women have a crimson circle on their dress. The Creeks had the same dance, which involved dancing with platters of cornpones.

Henry Timberlake among the Cherokees

In 1762, Lt. Henry Timberlake traveled 250 miles southward from Virginia, by horse and canoe, to present the terms of a treaty between the Overhill Cherokees and Colony of Virginia. He was instructed by his superiors to learn the cultural traditions and personality traits of the Cherokee so war could be avoided in the future. The visit evolved into a close friendship with the people in Tamatli, one of the larger Overhill Cherokee towns. He used his own money to accompany its leaders to England so they could better understand the English.

Timberlake did not provide the juicy details of love life among the Cherokees, but did record some very interesting customs, which Lawson did not see in South Carolina. The traditional Cherokees in Tennessee were the ultimate lassez faire society.  He said that the Cherokee had no formal religion or standard laws. They vaguely believed in a Creator God or gods, but did not worship him/them.  Conjurers held great power by claiming to translate the messages of demons living in fires and springs, but the Cherokees did not consider such things a religion.   

A chief did not have the power to force an individual Cherokee to do anything.  If a man didn’t want to go to war or work on a construction project, he didn’t have to do it.   That is the reason that the Cherokee villages never built log palisade fortifications or mounds.   There were no plans for Cherokee villages.  Houses could go anywhere the builder wanted to put them. 

There were no wedding or burial rituals.  Most bodies were merely thrown into a nearby river without any ceremony.  They did not build burial mounds nor stack rocks over the burials of chiefs as many tourist brochures tell us today.  There were no particular traditions or legal procedures for a divorce.

Like most tribes, the Cherokee frowned on adultery and rape, but in their tolerant society, it was difficult to prove such things had occurred.  Men could have as many wives as they wanted.  It was common for Cherokee women to have husbands and female lovers.  Serial marriages were the norm. 

Timberlake stated that the Cherokee females started having children soon after puberty and it was typical for Cherokee men and women to go through 3-4 marriages a year.  The children and house always accompanied their mother into the new marriage, but many people did not have a clue who their real fathers were.  

This information calls into question the thousands of “Cherokee ancestry” family trees posted on the web.  Many were already questionable because they had their Cherokee ancestor being born to Cherokee royalty in the “Great Cherokee Metropolis of Chota” . . . 50 to 125 years before the village of 600 people even existed.   Now you know!


  1. Thank you!!

    On Thu, Jan 30, 2020, 10:46 AM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner > The welfare of the little children always came first among Native American > societies. It was the dream of every Creek teenage girl to win the annual > beauty contest, which would embark them on a gl” >

    Liked by 1 person

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