Tamahiti, Tionatateca & Tionatate
Native American Heritage Month
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
In the video on the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia, the evidence for Mesoamerican colonists in the Georgia Mountains was discussed. Hundreds of stone box sepulchers have been plowed up by farmers in the valley. In fact, the Nacoochee Mound itself was built atop a stone sepulcher cemetery. There was no doubt that many Itza Mayas came to the region. The largest Native American town in the valley was named Itsate, which means in Maya, Itza People!
However, there is something very peculiar in the strata of burials and houses from around 900-1100 AD . . . artifacts associated with Central Mexico. In particular, there is a stone box sepulcher at the base of the Nacoochee Mound contains an unusual style of sacrificial knife that was utilized by a mysterious people, who built the Tenayuca Pyramid in the Valley of Mexico, prior to the arrival of the Mexica (Aztecs).
I have subsequently wondered, if a people from Central Mexico also colonized Southeastern North America. To date there is no other evidence in Georgia that we know of, but to the north . . . in western Virginia and West Virginia, stark linguistic and archaeological evidence does exist. In fact, this mysterious people were known for growing a tropical variety of “sweet” tobacco, which apparently was not cultivated by any other Southeastern tribe.
Readers of my online book, The Shenandoah Chronicles, may recall that while in Virginia, I developed a friendship with Washington attorney, Jay Monahan. Throughout my time in Virginia, Jay, his friends from Washington and I studied dozens of Civil War battlefields and historic farms. Jay and I both were ultimately appointed to the Citizens Advisory Council of the National Park Service. At the kickoff program for the American Battlefield Protection Program at Arlington National Cemetery, Jay insisted that we sit in the bleachers next to the new National Park Service Director, Roger Kennedy, and his charming wife, Frances.
I remembered meeting Roger and Frances at Christmas Party in December 1990, when Roger was director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute. At the Arlington ceremony, Roger vaguely remembered me as the maker of the goat cheese served at the party, but remembered in embarrassingly vivid detail, the beautiful young French actress, who had become enthralled with me at the party. That reconnection, due to Jay’s suggestion, would save my hide about 17 years later. In 2010 and in 2011, until his death on 9/30/2011, Roger sent me checks to support my tent-based field research in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Thirty-one years after that Christmas party, the French actress is a subscriber to The Americas Revealed. Yes, it became one enchanted evening.
Painted pottery, metates and slate tortilla griddles
There was something I didn’t mention in the book. Had it not been for Jay Monahan, I probably would not be writing this article. You see . . . Jay and his spunky new bride, Katie (Couric) were my first architecture clients in Virginia. That survey work led to commissions for full restoration of a series of Colonial and Federal Period farms in the Seven Bends of the Shenandoah River. Several of the clients were nationally known figures. At every farm, I made archaeological discoveries . . . some so important that I would bring in the famous archaeologist Bill Gardner of Thunderbird Associates as a consultant.
The first commission came about because the realtor for the purchase of our farm sold a 1792 house to Jay and Katie. They needed a historic preservation architect to survey the structure to determine what repairs were needed and what details were authentic to the Federal Period.
In the process, I noted brightly colored pieces of pottery (potsherds) in the garden area. Closer examination revealed that they were painted . . . something very uncommon in the eastern United States. They looked exactly like the potsherds, produced by the common folk . . . found on the peripheries of archaeological sites in Central Mexico. I initially assumed that a resident of that house had merely brought back souvenirs from serving in the Mexican-American War.
Throughout my time in Virginia, I found more and more artifacts around houses in the Seven Bends Area that seemed to belong in Central or Northern Mexico. Then in 1992, while working on the comprehensive restoration and adaptive re-use of the farm purchased by political consultants, James Carville and Mary Matalin, just before they married, we unearthed an abundance of Mesoamerican-type artifacts that I could not explain.
The Ditch Witch tractor, digging the ditches for the septic field unearthed numerous stone box sepulchers, containing Native American skeletons with artifacts, plus stone metates, typical of Mexico, plus tortilla griddles made of slate or soapstone. The contractor for installing the septic tank and septic field said that many of the houses in the Seven Bends had metates on their front porch or in the back yard, which were traditionally used for holding flower pots in the Shenandoah Valley.
State law and the new NAGPRA regulations from Congress, required that I notify the county coroner and professional archaeologists, when Native American skeletons were encountered. The county coroner complained that it was commonplace for Indian skeletons to be turned up by plows in the flood plain of the Shenandoah River. He obviously did not want to come out to retrieve the bones and didn’t.
I also contacted archaeologist Bill Gardner. He said that the state NAGPRA commission for handling human remains had not been set up yet and no federally-recognized Indian tribe had jurisdiction in the Shenandoah Valley. He also said that he was not qualified to examine “Mississippian” sites and officially, there were none in Virginia, anyway. He suggested that I contact the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which was about 110 miles to the southeast.
The secretary at the anthropology department was friendly enough. She repeated my message to an archaeology professor, who was walking past the desk. As soon as he heard the word “Mexico” he started laughing and told her to tell the nut on the other end of the phone to go see a shrink. Instead she told me that there were no professors available to help me with my concern.
There was nothing else I could do. Gene Stuart was dying of cancer, so I didn’t want to bother her or George. (Her husband and my friend, George Stuart, was by then Director of Archaeology at the National Geographical Society.)
Two decades later, I purchased a reprint of A History of The Valley of Virginia [1833, 1901]by Samuel Kercheval. I wanted to learn more about the place, where I planned to spend the rest of my life, but only spent seven years. I was astonished to read in the first chapter that the artifacts we had unearthed in the new septic field, were constantly unearthed by plows during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Kercheval also interpreted them as being made by Mexican Indians. Now . . . an archaeology professor at the University of Virginia AND my friend Bill Gardner, a professor at American Catholic University, should have read Kercheval’s book . . . but they hadn’t. All the bones and artifacts were gone within a few days of their discovery.
Kercheval mentioned that virtually every farm in the valley, both in the bottom lands and in the rolling sections, originally had mounds and/or Indian village sites on it. National Park Service archaeologists had found an Adena village, a Hopewell village and an Adena burial mound on my farm. By the time of the first edition (1833) most of the burial mounds in the Shenandoah Valley had been used as fertilizer for vegetable gardens. The stone box sepulchers were a nuisance to farmers plowing their fields for many generations. Some are still encountered in the 21st century.
The editor of the 1901 edition stated that the much larger pyramidal mounds were converted into Confederate artillery forts during the Civil War. Most of these had been used for fill dirt during the completion of the Manassas Gap-Shenandoah Railroad or for road construction during the latter half of the 19th century. Three large mounds were still standing in 1901, but only one is barely visible today.
Due to the turmoil in my life caused by having few of my personal and professional possessions for three years after being trapped in Georgia, I have lost most of the construction photos taken while practicing architecture there . . . including almost all photos of the artifacts at the sites in the Seven Bends of the Shenandoah River. (See The Shenandoah Chronicles, Chapter 18 – The Last Days in Virginia)
The metates in the Shenandoah bottomlands looked very similar to the one at the top of the article, except I remember the stone grinding tablet to be thicker. They were made out of some volcanic stone. Most seemed to be either greenstone or basalt. Those volcanic rocks are not found in the Shenandoah Valley or the mountains that form it, but are plentiful in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the higher elevations. The nearest such deposits are about 15 miles east of the Carville-Matalin Farm.
The Tamahiti (aka Tomahitans)
Most references will tell you that the Mississippian Culture did not reach as far north as Virginia. Virginia’s archaeologists do not even have Mississippian Culture category for archaeological sites in their state, so Mississippian Period mounds are officially labeled “Late Woodland and Early Historic Period” even though they contain typical Mississippian artifacts such as chunky discs. Even the authors of Virginia-based references apparently have not read Samuel Kercheval’s book. Their articles and maps will not mention the hundreds of mounds, including Virginia’s largest mounds, being located in the Shenandoah Valley.
However, if you dig deep enough on the internet, you will learn of several Mississippian Period mounds near the Potomac River and in the extreme western tip of the state near the line with Kentucky. There are probably quite a few more mounds in southwestern Virginia, but the Virginia archaeologists are not looking for them.
Tamahiti: In recent decades, the builders of Mississippian Period Mounds in Virginia have been labeled as being unknown or else probably the Tomahitans. There is great confusion about the identity of the Tomahitans because Virginia anthropologists have never really studied their name or presence elsewhere in the Southeast. No academician seems to know that the Tamahiti were Creeks from southeast Georgia. They returned to Georgia, when the Creek-Cherokee War broke out in 1716.
The article on the “Tomahitans” in Wikipedia is typical of the confused mass of speculations of varying accuracy that typifies much of the ethnological work in the Southeastern United States. It is not worth regurgitating.
It is worthwhile to mention that some scholars, who have looked at their words did conclude that they were Hitchiti Creeks. Hitchiti is the Anglicization of Itsate, which means Itza (Maya) People. We will get down to the meat.
Tomahitan is the Anglicization of the Algonquian pronunciation of the plural of Tamahiti . . . Tamahiten.
Tamahi is a word in Totonac, Itza Maya and Itzate Creek, which means “trader or merchant.”
Tamahiti is a word in Itza Maya and Itzate Creek, which means “Trader People.”
It is pronounced, Täw : mă : hē : tē .
As the reader may have already perceived, the name may have been applied to a tribe of Mesoamerican traders or to any Muskogean/Mesoamerican village, that was focused on regional trade.
Mounds in Loudon and Falquier Counties, VA
There are several mounds, little known to the public, along Hwy. 15 in Loudon and Fauquier Counties in close proximity to the Potomac River. This ancient Native American trade route is immediately east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but was probably part of a culture also occupying the Shenandoah Valley. Loudon and Clarke Counties are adjacent. Only a few of these mounds have been professionally excavated. Those excavated were platform mounds, not burial mounds, which are typical of coastal Virginia.
Goose Creek Mounds are located near the confluence of Goose Creek and the Potomac River. They have been dated to what is called Late Woodland in Virginia, 1160 AD – 1450 AD. This, of course, corresponds to Middle and Late Mississippian in the Lower Southeast. State archaeologist Howard McCord excavated the largest mound at Goose Creek during the early 1970s. He found no human remains, but did not investigate the bottom center of the mound, where an elite grave was likely to be situated. He did not have funds to fully excavate the village site. Therefore, the site plan or full size of the village is not known. The occupants of the Goose Creek site farmed on a large scale and traded with other regions.
The Goose Creek Site was investigated more thoroughly in 1994 by the Alexandria, VA firm of John Milner Associates Inc., which determined it was an Indian hamlet of the Woodland and Late Woodland Periods. The firm , which dated its occupation from about A.D. 500 to the early 1600s. During the time of its occupation, Native Americans replaced atlatls with bows & arrows. Beginning around 1100 AD the occupants planted corn and beans. Their villages of wood and thatched huts were used until soil wore thin or they were threatened by predator Indians. The carbon-14 dating of charred nut and shell fragments from the Goose Creek site dated them to 1160 to 1400, with a margin of error of 70 years.
Virginia archaeologists have never recognized the cluster of “Mississippian Period” platform mounds in Loudon and Fauquier Counties as a distinct, advanced culture. These large villages with mounds do not appear to be related to the transient Siouans (Manahoacs) who occupied the region in the early 1600s.
Mounds in Lee and Buchanan Counties, VA
Lee is on the extreme southwestern end of Virginia. It is not part of the Shenandoah Valley, but was adjacent to the heavily traveled trade route, which connected the Shenandoah to eastern Tennessee. Virginia Indian Mound 44LE0012 (or the Ely Mound) is the best preserved Native American earthwork in the Commonwealth. It is part of a cluster of at least three mounds in a mountain valley. A historical marker on the rural road near Rose Hill, VA states that the mounds may be part of a “city.”
Part of the mound was excavated in 1877 by Lucien Carr, assistant curator at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. This work was in a time when archaeology was in its infancy. Carr was able to prove that the mound was built by American Indians, but the artifacts he found are apparently scattered among many private and public collections.
In the summer of 2007, Maureen Myers, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Anthropology directed an excavation of a house site near the Ely Mound. She determined that the Ely Mound site was a “Mississippian” town site. She also identified mounds and village sites farther north in Buchanan County, which seemed to have all the credentials of Mississippian sites. Myers’ archaeological report was presented in Kentucky, where there are many designated Mississippian sites, but barely noticed by the academicians in Virginia.
The Tiononatateca or Tionontate (Tobacco Indians)
The name of this tribe is seen in two different forms from the 1600s to the present. The root words, Tiononta equate to the Nahuatl words Teo nonta (or nonte). They mean, “the god became mute.” The “teca” suffix is Nahuatl and means “people or tribe.” The “te” suffix is Itza Maya and Itzate Creek and means “people or tribe.”
In the Colony of Virginia, this tribe was called the Petun or Tobacco Indians. Petun is a Tupi word for tobacco from northern South America, which was adopted by the French in Canada, plus Dutch and Portuguese traders.
The Tiononatateca in Nouvelle-France
Most of what is known about the Tionontateca comes from the French Colonial archives. Until 1650 maps show them living north of the St. Lawrence River, opposite the Iroquois Confederacy on the south side . . . with their vassals, the Charioqui, living to the west. Later maps show them living farther to the west and north of Lake Erie. However, after the French explored the southeastern North America, the Tiononatateca are shown in 1717, both north of Lake Erie and in what is now West Virginia (which France claimed). Several references claim that Tionatateca is a Iroquoian or Algonquin word, meaning “people of the hills or mountains,” but when the repeatedly replicated statement is fact-checked, it is obvious that someone speculated the statement without access to either a Iroquoian or Algonquian dictionary!
They were devastated by more Iroquois raids so the surviving Teonontateca either moved farther south and became part of the Cherokee Alliance or move northwestward to the main body north of Lake Erie. Afterward the Tionontateca joined with the surviving Huron and some other tribes to form the Wyandot. Some Wyandot are in Canada, while others are in several locations in the United States.
Academicians assume that the Canadian branch of this people spoke a dialect of Huron, but the language is extinct. The Tionontateca were either allies or vassals of the Huron. Such a relationship would make it mandatory that their leaders spoke Huron. Since our information on them comes primarily from Jesuit priest, it could well be that the Tionontateca leaders spoke Huron to the priests and traders, since the French didn’t know the Teonontateca language. It is also possible that longtime residence in eastern North America caused the original Mesoamerican language, spoken by the Teonontateca to absorb some words and grammar.
The Tionontateca in the British Colonies
Little is known about the Tionontateca or Tionanotate, who formerly lived in West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Archives of the Colony of Virginia say that the Petun or Tobbaco Indians lived for awhile in the northern tip of the Shenandoah River near present-day Charlestown, West Virginia.
Guillaume de L’Isle’s 1717 map of North America states that those in present day West Virginia lived in man-made caves. John Sennex’s 1721 map has a note that the Nation of the Petun (Tionontateca) have been destroyed by the Iroquois.
If mentioned at all in research papers or media articles by academicians in the United States, the author typically quotes the poorly researched, century old, speculations of ethnologist John Swanton. The Cherokee were vassals of the Tionontateca in Quebec and then in present-day West Virginia. This probably explains why northern Mexican DNA markers are being found in a significant percentage of Cherokee families. The Cherokee also have an oral tradition that one of their bands lived in Mexico before coming east.
Proof of their presence in Virginia
Fairly recent archaeological work in the South Fork of the Shenandoah Valley place the Tionontateca in Virginia much earlier than is mentioned in the references. This suggests that they were the “Mississippian” inhabitants of the much broader and fertile North Fork of the river, where I found potsherds, metates and stone box sepulchers. There has been no archaeological work at villages sites in the North Fork of the Shenandoah Valley.
Between 2003 and 2007 a village, protected by a timber palisade, was unearthed in Page County, VA on the Keyser Farm. The occupants of this village made shell-tempered pottery like Southeastern Indians. The occupation of the village began around 1400 AD and continued into the late 1600s. The newly identified Keyser Culture is now the shown to have occupied the northern Shenandoah Valley and the Upper Potomac Valley. The territory corresponds exactly to a Native people, who cultivated and exported tobacco during the early Colonial Period known as the Tionontateca or Tionontate. It is known that between 1665 and 1670 the densely populated North Fork was depopulated by an exceedingly brutal slave raid by a tribe to the south . . . probably the Rickohockens, who had been armed by the Colony of Virginia.
At the Keyser Farm site along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, archaeologists have found three major types of pottery wares: Shephard wares (crushed quartz–tempered), associated with the Montgomery Complex peoples; Page wares (limestone-tempered), associated with the Mason Island peoples, traditionally thought to have replaced the Montgomery Complex peoples; and Keyser wares (shell-tempered), associated with the Luray Complex peoples, who supposedly supplanted the Mason Island peoples. Also found were many ornamental items, normally associated with the Mississippian Culture.
Without scientific archaeological work in the North Fork of the Shenandoah Valley, we are forced to speculate about the occupants of the Seven Bends Area. Linguistics hints that in the Shenandoah Valley the Nahua-speaking Tianontateca mixed with the Itza Maya-speaking Tamahiti. That would explain why Tianontateca were also known as Tianontate . . . the Itza Maya suffix for people or tribe.
If we only had a time machine!