The Secret History of the Chehaw Massacre

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Hollywood loves to portray the clash of cultures in battle. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, movie-goers were repeatedly titillated and saddened by scenes from the late 19th century. Dashing white soldiers clad in dark blue, charged across a Western prairie to attack teepees occupied by noble savages.  The slaughters at such infamous places as Sand Creek, the Washita and Wounded Knee were subtly explained as the inevitable price of American civilization reaching its destiny.

Earlier in that century, though, was one of the most disgraceful and gory acts ever committed by the United States military.  This atrocity was not in combat against an enemy, but against the women, children and elderly of a civilized ally.  It was known as the Chehaw Massacre.

Aficionados of early American history probably recall the word, Chiaha. It was the province in the Great Smoky Mountains, where the De Soto Expedition lingered for a couple of weeks in late spring of 1540 to fatten their horses and their own bellies. 

Lake Santeetlah Campsite on May 8, 2010. That’s a kiln on the right.

Ten years ago, I was homeless and living in a campsite on Lake Santeetlah, NC, but well-fed because former National Park Service Director (and Director of the National Museum of American History) Roger Kennedy, was sending me monthly checks to subsidize my search for the real routes taken by the Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo Expeditions through the North Carolina Mountains. I had first met Roger at the kickoff ceremony for the American Battlefields Protection Program at Arlington Cemetery in April 1993, but we had a mutual friend, George E. Stuart, Chief Archaeologist and Senior Editor at National Geographic.

I first met George, when he came out in the early 1980’s to our farm in the Reems Creek Valley, north of Asheville, to photograph it for a National Geo book on the Appalachian Mountains. George grew up in nearby Barnardsville, NC and had a vacation home there. George, and now his son David, was considered one of the leading experts on the Mayas, but most of our conversations, when he would drop by my farm on vacations, was about Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo. At the time, a group of Dixie anthropology professors were getting a great deal of publicity in their search for the actual routes taken by the Spaniards in 1540 and again in 1567.

It was this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that first drew National Geo’s attention. George Stuart showed up about two months later.

Both of us felt that the professors were way off course in their announced routes through North Carolina and South Carolina. I told George that the professors had come to my office in Asheville City Hall, armed with state highway maps, where the routes were charted with masking tape. That confirmed George’s belief that Professor Charles Hudson didn’t know diddlysquat about the geography of Western North Carolina. Then I told George that the professors had received large checks from the Biltmore House and Asheville Chamber of Commerce in return for zig-zagging the routes through Downtown Asheville and the Biltmore Estate. That clinched George’s disdain for the book that the professors published.

After the TVA lowered the waters of Fontana Lake, I finally determined that Chiaha’s t’ulamāko or capital was on a long island in the Little Tennessee River just below where it was joined by the Tuckasegee, Oconaluftee and Nantahala Rivers.  The lush mountain valley is one of the most picturesque in the Southern Highlands. The ethnic name survives today in the region as the Cheoah River and Cheoah Mountain.

With satellite imagery, I was able to determine that the mounds at Chiaha were very similar in shape and arrangement to those at the great town of Kusa (Coosa) in Northwest Georgia. Chiaha was an older town, so I suspect that the elite of Kusa came from Chiaha.

Twenty-seven years later a band of better-behaved conquistadors, led by Captain Juan Pardo, stayed here twice while attempting to reach the capital of the province of Kusa. Pardo’s chronicler, Juan de la Bandera, commented that the province of Chiaha was the only place Spaniards had visited in North America where stingless honey bees were raised and honey consumed.  He also mentioned that massive fields of cultivated salvia grew along the sides of the crystal clear mountain river. Readers of the Spanish chronicles were confused because some towns in the province were called Chiaha, while one was recorded as Ychiaha. These tidbits from the past are important historical evidence that scholars missed for the following 440 years.

You see, Chiaha is an Itza Maya word. It means Salvia River.  The Eurasian honey bee that is raised today is not native to the Western Hemisphere.  The Mayas selectively developed a stingless bee into a domestic honey bee. They were the only indigenous people in the Americas who produced honey.  The prefix “ē” is also Itza Maya. It signifies that a town was an important one.  Tula was the real name of the great city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico.  For several hundred years the Itza Mayas were vassals of Teotihuacan, and therefore took its name for the word for town.  Mako is the Itza Maya word for king.

Around 1585 a catastrophic plague swept through the Southern Highlands that almost wiped out its indigenous population. Mound-building stopped. Many large towns were abandoned. Survivors banded together in smaller villages and went back to a more “Woodland” lifestyle.

In the 1600s the surviving Chiaha were apparently on good terms with their neighbors. To the west were the Taskeke (Tuskegee) and Talasee. To the east along the Little Tennessee River were the vassal Shawnee villages of Koneste (Connestee) and Konasawake (Conasauga, Kennesaw) – which means “Spotted Skunk People” and “Hognose Skunk People” in two Creek languages. These Shawnee eventually joined the Cherokee Alliance. Along the Oconaluftee River were the Oconee Creeks, who lived where the Cherokee Reservation is located now.  Oconaluftee means “Oconee People, cut off” in the Muskogee-Creek language.  There is also substantial evidence that Spanish Sephardic Jews took refuge in the region and mined the silver ore discovered in the Nantahala Gorge by Juan Pardo.

The territory of the new Cherokee Alliance began expanding rapidly in the early 1700’s after they became business partners with the British. Most of the Tuskegee moved to Alabama. The Talasee moved to the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia.  Most of the Chiaha and Oconee moved to the Lower Chattahoochee River in SW Georgia and joined the Creek Confederacy. 

The Chiaha soon developed strong trading relations with the British.    After Savannah was founded in 1733, the Chiaha became staunch allies of the Colony of Georgia.  Chiaha soldiers repeatedly helped defend the young colony from Spanish and French invaders. Most of the people of Chiaha stayed neutral during the American Revolution. 

After the Revolution, relations of the province of Chiaha with European settlers were healthy and mutually beneficial. White frontiersmen, often called Georgia Crackers, called them the Chehaw. The Chiaha men shifted to being herdsmen on horses, essentially cowboys.  The women increased their production of vegetables to feed the growing number of Anglo-American towns and plantations in Georgia.  Several Chiaha communities moved to the Flint River in order to be closer to their markets.  Because they had always been master farmers, the Chiaha became more affluent than many of their white neighbors. Creek-American towns were little different that Anglo-American ones, except they were better planned; with grid iron street patterns, plazas, sports fields, drainage ditches and log or frame houses.

By the late 1700’s the Chiaha built log houses, but still had planned towns.

In 1812, the Chiaha agreed to become military allies of the United States and furnished troops to fight British Rangers in Florida.  When the Red Stick Rebellion broke out among conservative Creek Indians in Alabama, the Chiaha furnished troops to fight their Creek brethren. They also sold food supplies to the U. S. Army. They were promised that they could stay in Georgia forever because of their services.  

The massacre

In February of 1818, the Creek Nation ceded a large tract of land that ran from the mountains to southern Georgia. Some Chiaha villages were forced to move west at that time. The next month, prosperous Seminole farmers in northern Florida rebelled because of repeated raids by Georgia Crackers on their farms. The Chiaha again reluctantly furnished soldiers to fight with the United States Army.  Many of the Seminoles were actually their former Talasee and Oconee neighbors in the North Carolina Mountains. Most Seminoles are really Creek Indians, who moved to Florida. Again, the Chiaha were promised that they could stay in Georgia forever because of their services.

In late March of 1818, Chehaw, the largest Chiaha village in what is now Lee County, GA fed General Andrew Jackson’s army as it was marching south to fight the Seminoles. Several beef cows were slaughtered without compensation, to provide a treat for the soldiers. Its mikko (mayor) named “Howard” was made a brevet major in the United States Army.  Almost all the men of military age in the village marched south with Jackson. 

On April 23rd of 1818, two companies of US Army volunteer cavalry totaling about 400 men, under the command of Captain Obed Wright, attacked Chehaw without warning. The other company commander, Captain Bothwell, refused to take part in the campaign. Major Howard ran outside his house carrying a stick with a white flag.  He was immediately shot down and bayoneted. The rapacious cavalrymen shot or trampled any living thing on the village’s streets.  They then set fire to all the houses, where the women, children and elderly were hiding.  They laughed as the helpless civilians screamed in agony.

On few days later, an army officer, who was buying beef cattle and food supplies from the Georgia Creeks stumbled upon the massacre scene. On April 30 Major General Thomas Glascock sent a report to General Jackson, which stated the basic facts, but claimed that only seven men, two women and one child had been killed.  Actually, the town’s population had been exterminated, except for a young man captured outside the village before the attack, who was herding cattle.

Apparently, the descendants of two ancient civilizations, who had been burned to death, were considered what is called today, “accidental collateral damage,” and therefore were not recorded as battle casualties.  Jackson was furious because he was dependent on his Creek soldiers to lead dangerous guerilla warfare attacks into the Florida swamps.  However, no charges were ever placed against Captain Wright.

Some Chiaha soldiers immediately changed sides to fight for the Seminoles. Continued raids and lynchings by nearby Georgia Crackers forced the surviving Chiaha to move southwestward out of harm’s way.  They lost some more of their land in southwest Georgia in the Treaty of Indian Springs in 1821.  A second Treaty of Indian Springs in 1825 ceded all Creek Indian land in Georgia to the United States.

The period between 1818 and 1827 scattered surviving Chiaha’s to the winds.  Some became associated with the Muskogee Creeks.  Others moved south and became core groups with the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes.  Because their numbers by then were small, the Chiaha were forced to adopt the languages of the majorities.  The hybrid Itza Maya – Muskogean language spoken by them became almost extinct, except for a few hundred Miccosukee and Seminole speakers in southern Florida. Apparently, it was the language spoken by my Creek ancestors, because the few animal and plant names that I remember from my childhood are all Miccosukee words, not Muskogee-Creek.

The Chehaw Monument near Leesburg, GA


There is one last dirty little secret.  The same professors that put de Soto vacationing in Asheville in return for a $25,000 check, soon rewrote Cherokee history to make it seem more appealing to tourists.  Their theme was that the Cherokees, who in reality were an assimilated creation of the British Crown, had occupied all of Western North Carolina for at least 1,000 years.  Now the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is saying, 12,000 years. 

Read any North Carolina tourist brochure or Cherokee History book today and it will proudly announce that the “Connestee People,” a Middle and Late Woodland Culture labeled by North Carolina archaeologists, were the First Cherokees!   I wonder if the folks in North Carolina know that Koneste is a Itsate Creek word and it means “Skunk People?”   Probably not. Your sins will find you out!


  1. When were you in Weaverville making goat cheese Richard? This is before you moved to VA. Correct? I was driving thru there in the mid 70s a lot when my friend and I worked at the amusement park Frontierland in Cherokee for a couple of seasons. I’m from the TN side of things.
    I also have noted on old maps the places changed positions and names, and there could be several different places with the same names. It is confusing and that’s where you come in Richard to make sense of all the subtle clues that have been left behind and dissect them and arrange them so the pieces come together and Make Sense. Always Thank You Richard for the Truth that Is Truely Out There.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We lived in Asheville then Weaverville from December 1977 to October 1987. I was the original director of the Asheville Revitalization Commission and prepared the Downtown Asheville Plan.


      1. That was a bit later then my Frontierland days during 74 & 75 seasons. I will tell you Richard that Johnson City, TN has been jealous of Asheville’s revitalization Ever since. They are just now trying to get their Sh— together and revitalize the downtown area now. It was an awesome downtown in the 50s when I was young. Then the mall was built and downtown dried up. It’s taken them All these years of being jealous of your work 😉 there to start their own downtown revitalization. If not for you in so many ways.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Howdy, Glad to see you back on line. Your knowledge of Ga history amazes me.


    On Sat, May 9, 2020 at 7:03 AM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner > Hollywood loves to portray the clash of cultures in battle. Throughout the > latter half of the 20th century, movie-goers were repeatedly titillated and > saddened by scenes from the late 19th century. ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A truly intriguing read. There is so much history that has come and gone and truly marvel how how you keep it all in mind and use your knowledge to scan over new and old things for new revelations. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and perspectives!

    Liked by 1 person

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