by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
In 1917, teacher J. E. Lazelle came out of the Florida Everglades with an astonishing story.
Today, the Soque River of Habersham County, Georgia is known primarily as one of the most pristine mountain trout streams in the Southeastern United States. However, hidden in the rugged, densely forested, terrain that sends water to this stream are the vestiges of many peoples, who lived there before. Some of these ruins and petroglyphs may date back 4,000 years or more, but the descendants of the last indigenous civilization to occupy this region, the Soque, are alive today. Their ancestors migrated to Northeast Georgia from Tabasco State, Mexico about 800-1,000 years ago and gave their name to the river.
Although their name is written as Zoque in Spanish, the pronunciation is the same in both Spanish and English, Sō:kē. Their name means “Civilized People” in their language. The Mayas of Chiapas called them the Saute, which became the name of a creek and community in the Nacoochee Valley. The Mayas of Tabasco called them the Chote, which was the original name of Helen, GA! The original name of the Broad River in Northeast Georgia was the Sautehatchee River, which in the Itsate Creek language means “Sokee – shallow river.”
The Soque . . . a forgotten people
When Charleston, South Carolina was founded in 1670, the British colonists were told about a sophisticated and powerful tribe of Indians somewhere in the mountains, whose name was recorded as Soque, Sokee, Saukee or Sautee. Dr. Henry Woodward made contact with them in 1674. He described the Soque as being the most advanced and militarily powerful Indians in Carolina. At that time, all of the Southeast between Virginia and Florida was called Carolina. Woodward stated that they wore clothing like the most advanced native peoples in Mexico, flattened their foreheads like the Mayas and had a writing system, which was engraved on gold foil.
The Soque were already being weakened by periodic epidemics of European diseases. Then in the late 1670s, they were attacked by Rickohocken Indians, who were slave raiders from Virginia. The Rickohockens were furnished firearms by the Colony of Virginia. They almost wiped out the population of the Soque along the present-day Broad River. Then in 1696, a terrible smallpox epidemic struck North Georgia. Many of the Soque villages were abandoned at that time.
When their lands were given by the United States to the Cherokee Tribe in 1784, most of the Soque fled southwestward to West Georgia or southward to Florida. When white settlers from other parts of the United States arrived in Northeast Georgia in the 1820’s and 1830’s, they knew nothing about the Soque and so assumed that the ancient names of rivers, streams and mountains were Cherokee words, whose meanings had been forgotten.
The Soque in South Florida eventually absorbed bands of Maya refugees, who had arrived in the 1500’s and 1600’s. From then until the early 1950’s the South Florida Indians were called Mayas by the local white residents. Mikkosukee was the name of their capital town. It means “King of the Sokee.” That became their official name, when recognized by the federal government in 1955.
In 1906, schoolteacher J. E. Lazelle became the first white man to live among the South Florida Indians. He came out of the Everglades 10 years later with a detailed understanding of the history and culture of this indigenous people. He wrote a long article on his experiences in the March 1, 1917 issue of the Palm Beach Post newspaper. He described indigenous people in the Everglades, who still practiced Mesoamerican traditions and worshiped Mesoamerican gods. However, the gods were said to be living on top of an ancient volcano (Chimney Mountain) in Northeast Georgia.
Readers were stunned by his opening statement that all branches of the Creek Indians, include the Seminoles, had originated in Mexico, but that the Seminoles in South Florida were the last to arrive. The Miccosukee claimed to have been the founders of the first great civilization in Mexico, but that they also participated in the Maya Civilization. Academicians at the time thought that this claim was dubious. Twenty-five years later, the Olmec Civilization was discovered, but North American archaeologists erroneously gave it the name of the Olmecs, a Nahua people related to the Aztecs. It was actually the invasion of the Olmecs around 800-1000 years ago, which caused bands of Soque and Itza Mayas to flee to present-day Georgia.
In 1886, the chief archaeologist for the Smithsonian Institute, Cyrus Thomas, discovered over a hundred stone and earthen ruins in Habersham County. He marked their approximate locations on a map, but the public never knew about them. In 1939, archaeologist Robert Wauchope tried to find the archaeological sites, but by then, Soquee, GA had changed its name to Batesville and the Sautee Post Office had moved from Habersham County to its current location. Wauchope could not find most of the sites because of the map changes. At the present time, volunteers are using a variety of scientific methods to re-discover these ancient ruins.