Unraveling the real history of the Rickohocken and Westo Peoples

At the time of the founding of the first Roanoke Colony in 1585, the Rickohocken were on the coast of North Carolina, not on Lake Erie as references tell you. Clearly, we are missing something. Most references also do not tell you that the last surviving Rickohocken ended up on the Chattahoochee River as members of the Creek Confederacy.

The Origins of the Chickasaw and Creek Peoples – Part 15

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Map Above: This is John Speed’s published map that is based on a hand-drawn map of the Provinces of Virginia and Carolina by Johann Lederer. Between 1669 and 1670, Lederer led three exhibitions into the Blue Ridge Mountains. He reached as far south as the Keowee River, possibly the Chattooga River. He definitely visited Suale (Saluda River, SC) in South Carolina, but articles authored by North Carolina academicians, say he visited the future location of Charlotte instead. North Carolina articles on Lederer also state that he met with the Cherokees in North Carolina, but Lederer’s published journal makes no mention of the Cherokees or any similar word.

Several references, including Wikipedia, tell readers that the Rickohocken (or Rickohockan) Tribe was a branch of the Erie Indians, who migrated from northern Ohio to the headwaters of the James River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in 1656. For the past two centuries, the official history of the Commonwealth of Virginia goes a step further and tells Virginia students that Rickohocken was the original name of the Cherokee Indians in Virginia. Tennessee students are told that the Chiska and the “Yuchi” of Tennessee were the same people and were related to the Rickohockens.

Like many times before, when I fact-checked these statements, I found that they originated with the poorly researched speculations of some 19th or early 20th century professor, who were operating in a linguistic fog . . . which had been quoted so often to be assumed facts. You see there is a problem. The first Colonial Period contact with the Rickohocken occurred in the 1500s at their fortified port on the coast of what is now NORTH CAROLINA! A band of Rickohocken warriors assisted the Powhatan Confederacy in its sudden attack on the Virginia colonists in 1622. The Rickohockans actually reached the palisades of Jamestown, but then withdrew due to lack of arrows and food.

The Rikehokens lived close to an old fort at the head of the estuary.

The name of Governor William Berkeley was vaguely familiar to me, while living in Virginia, because there was a county and town (Berkeley Springs) in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, named after him.  However, I didn’t encounter the name Rickohocken or Rickohockan sufficiently to be stored in my memory banks, until I was already trapped in Georgia.  

Do you remember in the Shenandoah Chronicles  Cindy, the 20-year-old Virginia Tech cheerleader, who spontaneously pounced on me and kissed me in the unfinished master bedroom, as I was explaining the restoration work on my 275-year-old home?   Years later, when we both were “single again” and I was stuck in Georgia, we re-connected.  She became my first lady friend after becoming “legal.”  My last project in Virginia . . . just before my architectural license expired . . . was the restoration of a mid-17th century warehouse on the farm of Cindy’s uncle and aunt in the upper James River Valley.

In doing the research prior to preparing construction drawings, I learned that it was one of the few buildings, spared by the Rickohocken Indians in their devastating raid down the James River Valley.  It had been spared by these Indians because it belonged to the Royal Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. They spared all of the buildings on his plantation, but they massacred all the regular folks in the James River Valley then burned their buildings.  Through the years since then, most of the other structures on Berkeley Plantation had been lost, but this one was built out of stone masonry and had survived.

Who were the Rickohocken Indians and why would they spare the buildings of the leader of a colony, which they were at war with?  Something was left out of the history books.  Cindy and her mother had substantial Saponi Indian heritage so her mother helped me with the research.  The ultimate result was an article in a Virginia magazine, which still can be accessed online.  Berkeley first became a favorite of the Court of Charles I, shortly after graduation from Oxford, when he wrote a play, performed before the king.  He was Royal Governor of Virginia in the periods (1641–1652, 1660–1677). He was removed from office by the English Commonwealth in 1652 then reinstated by King Charles II in 1660.  If interested in learning more, go to Berkeley the Butcher.

The article is not completely accurate, because only in recent years, have I become sufficiently skilled in linguistics to interpret Anglicized Native American words with a great deal of success.  However, the article does provide a comprehensive explanation of William Berkeley’s relationship to the Rickohocken and how he established institutionalized slavery in North America.

It was also later than this article when I first became aware that the Roanoke Colony had contacts with the Rickohocken in the 1580s, when they lived on the coast of what is now North Carolina.  You can see their fortified port and capital town on John White’s famous map of Virginia (1585).

How the Rickohocken became Virginia’s slave raiders

From 1610 onward, it became standard procedure for the British colonies of Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina to enslave the women and children of Indian tribes that were defeated in battle and put them on large farms or plantations.  The captured males of military age were typically killed or sometimes sold to sugar plantations in the Caribbean Islands.

William Berkeley began working Native American slaves on his Green Spring Plantation as soon as it was founded in 1644.  Perhaps as early as 1646, he began purchasing Native American slaves from the Rickohockens.  This developed into a lively trade relationship with this tribe in which they became the middle men for trade with other tribes in the hinterland.

There was a severe manpower shortage in Virginia during the period of the English Commonwealth (1650-1660) because the courts in England ceased sentencing large numbers of prisoners to being bond servants in the British North American colonies. England stole the Dutch colony New Netherland in 1664.  England was at war with the Netherlands 1665-1667.  Thus, from 1664 onward, much fewer Dutch ships, selling African slaves, docked at Jamestown. Native American slaves once again became a necessary alternative to African slaves.

Once reinstated as governor, Berkeley began preparing a series of laws to be passed by the House of Burgesses, which for the first time in English history, institutionalized slavery.  Up to that time African and Native Americans were considered bond servants in perpetuity, but their children were not theoretically bond servants.   After these laws were passed, children of white bond servants were born free.  Children of Africans and Native American servants were born slaves.  It was also during this time that planters began cross-breeding American Indians and Africans to produce offspring, which were physically superior to their parents.  First generation African servants had a high death rate during the winter, whereas Native American slaves were more inclined to escape or commit suicide rather than continue life as a servant.

The Dominion of Virginia signed a treaty with the Rickohocken tribe in which Virginia would furnish them with firearms, gunpowder, lead balls, knives and hatchets, plus offer to purchase with trade goods all Native American slaves that the Rickohocken warriors captured. 

The Rickohocken were first used to depopulate the indigenous peoples of the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  They next were dispatched against the most densely populated and most culturally advanced indigenous people in the Middle Atlantic Region, the Shenandoah Valley mound-builders.  In a very short time, the Rickohocken depopulated the Shenandoah Valley. 

In 1663,  Governor William Berkeley and his brother, Lord John Berkeley were appointed by King Charles II  to be two of the eight proprietors, who would supervise the development of the Colony of Carolina.  Their domain theoretically included all of what is now the Southeastern United States, south of Virginia, but Spain and France claimed all of that territory also. Both Spain and France lacked the potential colonists to actualize their claims.  However, the indigenous inhabitants were another matter. The proprietors were well aware that what would become the colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, were densely populated with town-dwelling agriculturalists. 

Once the hinterlands of Virginia (which then included West Virginia and Kentucky) were ethnically cleansed the Rickohockens were directed southward.  It is no accident that the founding of Charlestown in 1670 coincided with the massacre by the Rickohockens of the Province of Potofa, which is now metropolitan Augusta, GA.  Apparently, the bulk of the Rickohocken population relocated to this captured province, where there was much more land suitable for agriculture than in the mountains around Bedford, VA, where their former capital stood. 

Virginians became increasingly aware that Governor Berkeley was doing very little to discourage the massacres of yeomen farmers in the Virginia Piedmont by hostile American Indian tribes.  Because there were very few survivors from these raids, it was not clear which tribes were attacking, but the fact that Berkeley’s properties were never attacked substantially incriminated his pet Indians, the Rickohocken as being at least one of the guilty parties.

A member of the Colonial Council, Nathaniel Bacon, raised a small army to attack the hostile tribes, but instead massacred a friendly tribe in the Tidewater region then marched on Jamestown and attacked the colonial government.  This time of sedition is known today and Bacon’s Rebellion.  The rebellion ended in 1677 after Bacon died of natural causes. Berkeley was recalled to England, shortly thereafter, by King Charles II.  He soon died of natural causes.

The Rickohocken lost their patron and lucrative slave trade contract. At this point in time, the mentions of the word, Rickohocken, in the records of the Virginia House of Burgesses steadily declined then ceased after 1680. 

The Weste (Westo in South Carolina English dialect)

South Carolina did not become a separate colony until 1721. The Creek and Panoan-speaking tribes in the future states of Georgia and South Carolina called the Rickohocken intruders the Weste and their province Westebo,  which Carolinians wrote as Westobou.  Between 1670 and 1680, the Carolinians called the Savannah River, the Westobou River.  Twentieth century South Carolina academicians decided that “bou” meant “river”.  It did not.  Both in the Panoan languages of the South Atlantic Coast and South America, plus the Scandinavian languages of Europe,  the suffix, bo, means “living place of.”  

Today in modern Muskogee-Creek, weste means “long, scraggly hair.”   (See Etymologies.)  This suggests that the Weste wore their hair long and that the surviving Rickohockens in southwest Virginia became the Longhair Clan of the Cherokee.

From 1670 to 1680, the Weste (Westo) provided the new colony of South Carolina with Native American slaves.  The Westo typically killed or tortured to death all adult males and middle-aged+ females. If children were not old enough to walk to one of the slave markets on the Carolina coast . . . or at least to a plantation wanting slaves . . . they were also killed.  In the process, most of the indigenous peoples of east central Georgia and the Upcountry of South Carolina were erased. 

The Weste alienated Carolina planters because they increasingly dispatched raids on plantations to steal livestock and slaves. In 1680, the colonial government secretly cut a deal with Savano Indians living along the upper Savannah River.  Munitions to the Weste were terminated and instead went to the Savano.  The Savano staged a surprise attack on Westebo.  Even though the Westebo were still officially allies of the Colony of Carolina, all those who were not killed or escaped were sold into slavery at the slave market in Charleston. 

At this point, standard academician-produced articles state such things as “the fate of the surviving of Westos is unknown” or “Surviving Westos possibly joined with the Cowetas.”  Well, no, there is no mystery to the fate of the surviving Westos. In 1670 the Apalache Confederacy was still functioning and the word Coweta does not appear on maps.  The capital of the Apalache Confederacy in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia is shown on English and Spanish maps.

It is obvious that the Weste (Westo) joined the Creek Confederacy.

In 1715, English maps began to show more details about the interior of the Southeast. From then until 1796, the Weste are shown on maps to be living on the east side of the lower Chattahoochee River in what is now Stewart County, GA.  Comments by Federal Indian Agent, Benjamin Hawkins, describe them as living in that same location until the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814,  when their land was forcible ceded to the United States government. Apparently, they dispersed among Creek bands, which moved to Alabama or fled southward to join the Seminoles.

Etymologies of surviving Rickohoken names

Most academician-authored articles speculate that the Rickohocken were a northern Algonquian tribe that moved down from the Great Lakes region into western Virginia in the 1650s.  That is not possible, if they were located on the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina in the 1500s and participated in the 1622 attack on Jamestown. 

Keep in mind that the names given to the Rickohockens came from early English explorers, who spoke Elizabethan or later, Jacobean English.  The first English dictionary was published by Samuel Johnson in 1604.  It took at least a century or more for this dictionary to create a standardized impact for the spelling and pronunciation of English words by well-educated English speakers and two centuries to significantly affect the illiterate majority.  In 1800, about 40% of the men and women in Great Britain were literate.  This percentage dropped to about 20% by 1870.

Weste (Westo) could possibly be interpreted as a Muskogee Creek word.   If so,  it would have been Ue-este, which means “Water People.”   That makes sense, if the Rickohockens arrived in the New World by boat or if they were associated with canoes for traveling or trading along the oceans edge or along the coast.  However, Muskogee-Creek cannot translate the other versions of the Rickohocken place names.

There is one language, however, that translates all of these words . . . Early Medieval Scandinavian.  Until around 1250 AD,  the people of the Scandinavian countries, plus their colonies in Greenland, Iceland, Ireland and Scotland spoke minor dialects of the same languages.  It is well-known that the Greenland Colonies were abandoned between 1350 and 1500 AD.  However, there are other possibilities.

The original A History of Georgia: From Its First Discovery . . . [1847] by William Bacon Stevens states in its opening chapter that around 1160-1180 AD, the Scandinavian and Gaelic Christians in Ireland and Scotland were persecuted for their “Early Christian Church” beliefs. They were given a choice of either converting to Roman Catholicism, death or fleeing.  Stevens cited monastic journals from monasteries in France and Ireland. They stated that the religious refugees fled to Witmannsland across the Atlantic in the ocean-going sailing ships of the Scandinavians.  The Gaels settled near the mouth of the Savannah River, while the Scandinavians settled farther north.

Bacon further stated that when the first settlers arrived on the coast of southern South Carolina and Georgia, they encountered tribes of Indians with somewhat lighter complexions, who spoke a predominantly Gaelic language, but their lifestyles were little different than other Indians and they were associated with the Creek Indians.  No professional archaeologist has sought to prove or disprove Bacon’s statements.

So, if we assume that the Rickohockens were descendants of Scandinavians, who intermarried with indigenous Americans for several centuries, here is our interpretation of Rickohocken place names.

  • Rikehoken [White-1585] = Rickohocken [Lederer-1670] =  Rikehögken – which means “King’s mound or Kingdom-high.”
  • Richerren/Richerron = Rikherren  – which means “Noblemen or Nobility.”
  • Richipo = Rikebo – which means “Living Place or Palace of the king.”
  • Westibo = Westebo – which means “West-living place.”
  • Winyah Bay, SC = Vinju (pronounced Win-yü) – which means “meadow, grassy area or pasture.”  This might refer to the grass-covered tidal marshes in Winya Bay.
  • Vinland = Vinland -Which means “grass –  land of.”

The Truth Is Out There Somewhere!

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